The Matrix (1999, Lana & Lilly Wachowski)
As popcorn movies go, The Matrix is efficient and effective. As silly as it obviously is — and despite its startling impact on our high and low cultural vernacular, it has become arguably all the more goofy (with the climax and finale further into “stupid” territory) in the years since its wide-eyed entrance into a more prosperous world — it’s worth championing to some extent in light of the movies it’s influenced. For example, it’s better and brighter than Inception in every conceivable way despite telling essentially a less cynical (read: less capitalist) version of the same basic story. Or take a gander at the Lord of the Rings movies released just a few years afterward, and you’ll observe the obvious superiority of the rubbery CG-heavy special effects in this film, which have aged unusually well. The production design is among the best for a major Hollywood picture of recent decades, as much as it owes to other films from Fincher to Gilliam to Cameron.
The movie works best in the first half-hour when the Wachowskis set up an enormously inventive, breezy and fun cyber-chase thriller with interesting characters and tremendous tension. It seems like sort of a turn-of-the-Y2K-century revision of hopelessly dated and wonderful computer movies like Tron and WarGames. Unfortunately it quickly loses interest in being a popcorn movie and attempts to go somewhere deeper, and the result is an uncomfortable hybrid of tech semi-counterculture (in the age of Apple, tech can no longer legitimately be considered a niche) with hippie pseudo-philosophy. They bog it down with all the sci-fi new age claptrap they can think of, and it’s so disappointing it renders the somewhat inoffensive body of the film slightly more annoying. How many substances had to be ingested to come up with this?: We think we’re living in this world, we think we’re free (man), but actually the whole fuckin’ universe is just a mind control experiment and we’re really sleeping in little cocoons and being harvested, and the Real World is sparse and bleak, not colorful and varied and commercial (which of course are all things that make it Shallow, says this film brought to you by AOL Time-Warner), and only Keanu Reeves can set us all free to build a better life where we are not pacified by all the oppressive restrictions placed on affluent young professionals dwelling in urban apartments.
The whole thing is like a joke, a non-sequitur spouted by Brad Pitt in Fight Club. (And honestly, I don’t understand why you’d want to escape the “dream” that is the Matrix if it’s so much more appealing than the Real World; oh, I know that’s materialistic and close-minded, but I like my food juicy.) To its credit (?), the plot of The Matrix has long since passed into co-opted internet mythology. It’s not a hugely inventive idea — that our reality is a fabrication, and a sort of latter-day Jesus figure must help us all escape an unconscious slavery — but it is presented with some imagination and certainly with a sense of the popular consciousness. It plays on a universal, dreamlike paranoia in the same way that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis once did, so for it to have become the first blockbuster of its era to enter the National Film Registry makes sense intellectually if not practically (does this film really need any help ensuring its preservation?). But only at one point — when Reeves’ beleaguered Chosen One, Neo, goes to meet the all-knowing Oracle, who’s a normal-looking lady in a small cluttered apartment — does the film’s actual sense of gravity match its painful self-seriousness.
That Deep Thoughts bent gives the movie an uncomfortable shade of didacticism, like listening to Deepak Chopra talk about the windows of the mind or something for two hours. This impression is justified by the film’s subsequent history, whereby it has been embraced with enthusiasm by fans who really have some level of trust in its one-dimensional philosophies about removing the blinders and seeing one’s surroundings for What They Really Are. Neo’s taking of “the red pill” — a bit of a Lewis Carroll allusion — has become universal slang for being ushered into a new consciousness about the world. Unfortunately, those who typically are most susceptible to ridiculous real-world applications of The Matrix are those that the Wachowskis probably wouldn’t want to associate with: 9/11 truthers, for instance, or people who say “sheeple” a lot, or Redditors participating in the ridiculous “NoFap” movement (unlike solid-as-rock Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, I don’t ask you to reveal the meaning of that to yourself if you don’t already know; you’re better off remaining ignorant!). It’s not really the movie’s fault, but empty spouting off like that seen in The Matrix really has the opposite of the intended effect: it lets people fall down rabbit holes of bullshit under the cover of faux-enlightenment, as garnered from a very Hollywood action picture.
Then there are the fight scenes, which are positively ridiculous and make the juxtaposition with the movie’s inflated aspirations that much more of a joke. It’s a tough call which scene in this adolescent movie is most a celebration of its own masculinity, something permitted unabashedly since it thinks it’s Smart (and for the record, Gene Ray of Time Cube fame agrees), but any way you slice it, there’s nothing that isn’t deplorable and amazingly pointless about the six-minute sequence which consists entirely of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss blasting a bunch of people in the lobby of an office building in extremely acrobatic and melodramatic fashion for pretty much no reason whatsoever (all with generic techno music cranked up in the background), the innocents (which the film elsewhere claims to care about so deeply) blasted indiscriminately and bloodlessly. One can’t help thinking that the high school murderers Harris and Klebold, who missed it by a few months, would’ve eaten it up.
The traditional issues that almost always exist with action films hold fast here — the characters are inconsistent, their camaraderie false, and the love story is meaninglessly silly. The performances are good enough; Reeves has never justified his move from one-dimensional comedic persona to one-dimensional dramatic actor in increasingly silly movies, but Carrie-Anne Moss is utilized well by the filmmakers as the secondary hero of the piece, Trinity, an extremely skilled fighter and hacker whose gender is only looked down upon in the sense that she’s forced to share a groan-worthy “connection” with Neo. It’s rare that action movies allow a woman to participate to such an extent, even if she is sidelined somewhat by Reeves and Fishburne, and they use her atypical sensuality well without making it the subject or a source of needless hovering. (Unfortunately, Moss’ career went just about nowhere after this despite a small part in Memento, which is depressing.) Even in a movie that centers around another white dude saving the world, the sense of at least attempted diversity is refreshing.
There are two sequels to this reasonably entertaining film. No one talks about them. No one even remembers them. They made a lot of money. The Matrix made more — and its place in our collective pop culture language is assured for a long time to come, and it deserves this more than Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or the Nolan Batman films. And more than Inception and Looper, if those still have cachet in another decade (I suspect the former will but not the latter). But the wanky badassery and tirelessly affected hip-ness is still inescapable, and if this is as close to an agreeable big-budget studio sci-fi movie as we can get in the modern age, I remain happy to take the bl– well, you know.
[Edited and expanded from a 2007 review. I was young then and talked about finding Carrie-Anne Moss unattractive, which now blows my mind — both that I felt that way and that I would bring it up in a movie review. Anyway, not that it’s relevant at all here, but she’s quite fetching and talented and her performance has much alluring strength, and I’m sorry for having once been a sexist scumbag anyway.]