Friday, April 6, 2012

Movie Review "The Matrix" by David Pretty

When I first saw The Matrix over ten years ago I was overjoyed that the sci-fi pantheon had finally received a new and particularly thrilling inductee.  Indeed, the film is still inordinately smart, action-packed and in many ways the high water mark of visual storytelling.

Then something interesting happened.  After a chance encounter many years later with what I now refer to as "alternative media" I actually experienced an epiphany not unlike what Neo goes though after swallowing the red pill and diving down the rabbit hole.  As a result, I've since come to view The Matrix as more then just a superficial, though admittedly well-done, sci-fi time-killer.  It has loads to say about the current state of the human condition and I firmly believe that it's one of the most important films made in the past twenty years.

For all of you under-rock dwellers out there, the story follows the awakening of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a respectable software developer who seeks answers to nagging questions under the hacker guise of "Neo".  Sensing that there's something seriously askew in the world, he seeks out the only custodian of the truth: a mysterious hacker prophet/cyber terrorist named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).

Just prior this fateful meeting, Anderson is menaced by men-in-black style federal agents, led by the cold and measured Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving).  In a particulalrly harrowing scene, Anderson is tortured by the agents who implant a bio-mechanical tracking bug in his body.  When he wakes up safe and sound in own bed sometime later, he's able to write off the whole experience as a particularly nightmarish dream.

But when Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) unexpectedly shows, Neo is quickly forced to come to grips witht he fact that electronic tracking is the least of his worries.  The scenes that follow between Neo and Morpheus really encapsulate the film's thematic parable and is well-represented by the following chilling exchange of dialogue:

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere.  It is all around us.  Even now, in this very room.  You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television.  You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes.  It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage.  Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch.  A prison for your mind...

I've since come to equate Neo's reawakening to my own experience.  Like Neo, I was convinced that there was something terribly wrong with the world but I just couldn't put my finger on it.  Suspecting that the mainstream, corporate-controlled media was concealing something from all of us, I began to do my own independent research and stumbled upon the world of alternative media.  It quickly became my own personal Morpheus, revealing the world for what is truly is.

When Neo is reborn into the real, physical world later on, we get the following rife-with-analogy exchange:

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: You've never used them before.

I could relate.  How often can you say that a film actually had a life-altering effect on you?  I feel churlish just giving it a star rating and urging folks to re-watch it with the rich subtext firmly in mind. 

And that's what makes The Matrix so brilliant.  It's a perfect parable for the world at face value and it invites the viewer to tear back the edifice and look at what's concealed just below the surface.  It reminds us that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered.  We just need to follow the White Rabbit to it's inevitable conclusion.

The Matrix is a visual treat and a truly cinematic experience.  In addition to pioneering the concept of "bullet time" (which has been blatantly cribbed by every movie and video game since 1999) the shot compositions are wildly inventive, highly stylized and reminiscent of a comic book.  The film's production design is also top notch.   The elaborate sets and machanical antagonists display Moebius-like levels of surface detail and really make for a convincing illusion.

The color palate of the machine is constantly on display.  The Wachowski's use this to great effect to drive home just how much technology has permeated our culture.  After all, we now live in a day and age when the latest techy toy is often characterized as "sexy".  Everything looks appropriately cold, antiseptic and dour.  Even the fabric tunics worn by the Nebuchadnezzar crew reminds the viewer of medieval chain mail.

Some people gripe about the workmanlike and robotic dialogue.  Frankly I think it was brilliant to have the protagonists speak like shut-ins.  I take it as an insightful commentary on how face-to-face interactions are swiftly being replaced by impersonal email and text messages and causing all of us to become more and more socially inept.

The performances have become so iconic that they're still the subject of parody and tribute.  Reeves, oft-maligned for being stilted, is perfectly at home in Neo's skin and convincingly completes his character arc.  Fishburne's Morpheus is everything you need a mentor to be: self-assured, Zen-calm and authoritative.  Carrie-Ann Moss makes for an unconventional love interest but I challenge anyone else to think of a more appropriate choice for the role of Trinity.  In fact, one of the exciting things about the Matrix universe is that a thirty year old, healthily proportioned woman with short, raven-black hair can be immortalized as a sex symbol.

Of course, the skin-tight leather outfit certainly helped.

The action set pieces are beautifully mounted and augmented by the rule-shattering milieu.  The lobby gunfight sequence rivals the best of John Woo's Hong Kong action films and the kung-fu/wire work never fails to impart a giddy thrill in the viewer.  The Wachowski's also managed to throw an original visual curve ball at us in the form of "bullet time".  I have to admit: the first time I saw Trinity suspend reality and punt a cop across the room or witness Neo perform a power-limbo while evading a hail of flying lead, my brain exploded and leaked out of my right ear.

The Matrix is a brilliant concept perfectly realized. You can enjoy the film on a completely visceral level but after all the spent shells and high-octane action I'd invite all of you to revisit it again with the state of our own world in mind.

You'll find that this slick sci-fi actioner has a lot to say about the state of human existence in a technology-soaked, invisibly regimented, completely apathetic modern age.


  1. The Matrix is indeed a great film. Too bad that fact is often obscured by the sequels.

  2. I plan on performing an autopsy on "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" just as soon as I can work myself up to it.

  3. I couldn't agree more! Thank you for writing it!