1999 | Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski | Produced in the US
Unlike many critics, I did not walk into the theatre expecting The Matrix to be bad. Some of my favorite movies are action flicks, and though Keanu Reeves is generally a pretty poor actor I was impressed by his performance in Speed and knew that a more visceral, less talky role could work for him.
Nevertheless I was surprised at how much I liked it. It had been quite a few years since I had seen a science fiction action film that actually had some ideas and wasn't just a braindead vehicle for explosions and feel-good schlock. Some of the ideas in The Matrix are pretty stupid (e.g. humans as batteries for machines – uh, ever heard of conservation of energy, guys?), but most of them aren't.
I was particularly impressed by the exploration of virtual reality. Theoretically, the main characters can do anything they want in the Matrix because it is just a computer program that can be recoded by any knowledgeable hacker. This is how Trinity and Neo can leap improbable distances, create endless guns for themselves and learn every martial art within minutes or even seconds. So why can't they just make themselves invincible? Or eliminate every agent with a wave of their virtual hands?
Because, just as in the real world, they are limited by what they can imagine and believe in. Their conceptual world has been shaped from birth by the "rules" of the Matrix. To transcend these rules takes a special sort of mind and a fair amount of work. Even after he is liberated from the Matrix, Neo doesn't have enough conviction to believe he can virtually leap from one skyscraper to another, and he falls to what in the real world would be a grisly death. Morpheus has told him, "Free your mind," but it takes Neo the length of the movie to do so.
And Neo is the most exceptional mind Morpheus has found. The average person is not at all willing to question the status quo, let alone be unplugged from the Matrix. And some, once freed, would like to go back. "Ignorance is bliss," says Cypher, right before betraying his fellow rebels to the agents as part of a deal that will return him permanently to the dream world.
This is psychologically smart writing. And applied metaphorically to our own world it resonates powerfully with philosophical and spiritual questions. (See Buddhist enlightenment, gnosticism, Plato's allegory of the cave, and the "Meditations" of René Descartes for a start.)
Even better than the food for thought, though, is the visual beauty of the film. Each shot is composed carefully (the directors' appreciation of good comic book art is obvious) and the mise-en-scène is appealingly grungy and detailed. Two film color casts – green and blue – are used to differentiate the virtual from the real worlds in an almost subliminal way that fits perfectly with the psychological themes of the movie.
The acting, while not high art, is very enjoyable. Laurence Fishburne enunciates every word precisely in the plummy tones of a born orator; he obviously had fun with the role. That's even more true of Hugo Weaving as the nefarious Agent Smith, whose odd pauses and mannered speech may have been intended to make him sound robotic but have the pleasant effect of pushing him to the edge of camp. (There's a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring when Weaving as Elrond says, "The ring must be destroyed." When I saw the movie in the theatre I burst out laughing at the memory of Agent Smith's "Find them and destroy them!" There was no way I could take Elrond seriously after that.)
Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, is steely and convincing as Morpheus' most powerful lieutenant. And I was right about Keanu. In this first movie the role of Neo calls for an uneasy watchfulness as he learns about the new reality he's woken up to and where he will fit into it. Keanu plays it with a mixture of suspicion and humility that I thought very effective. But then I'm the type who would prefer a leader who actually listens to people and has some doubts versus a wise-cracking macho man. Call me crazy.
The romance between him and Trinity seemed like an afterthought to many viewers, but I liked how subtly it was done. There are hints throughout the movie that Trinity has feelings for him (presumably nursed through long hours of surveillance in the Matrix), but she's reluctant to articulate them because of what they might mean. The Oracle has told her that the man she loves will be the One. She's becoming more sure all the time that she is in love with Neo. But what if she or the Oracle is wrong? On first viewing it may not be obvious but watching again you can see the thoughts going through her head whenever she is with Neo.
Beyond all this, there is the trend-setting costuming, the intriguing special effects, the propulsive soundtrack and the beautifully choreographed fight scenes by Yuen Wo Ping. This movie is really a treasure trove of good stuff.
And here endeth the lesson.