Matrix, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's no sophomore jinx for the Wachowski Brothers. Andy and Larry, a pair of obviously talented film makers, have returned to theaters with The Matrix, a science fiction thriller that is every bit the match of their debut effort, Bound, for tension, excitement, and intelligence. In an era when movie scripts (especially those pigeonholed into the science fiction genre) are becoming increasingly more stupid and special effects reliant, the Wachowskis prove that style and substance do not have to be mutually exclusive.

I loved The Matrix, and only a few minor contrivances associated with the climax caused the film to miss a four-star rating. The movie is kinetic, atmospheric, visually stunning, and mind-bending. It toys with the boundaries between reality and fantasy in unique and interesting ways. In its approach and content, it reminded me of last year's vastly underrated Dark City. There's also a synergy with two movies due to be released within the next month: David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes. The Matrix is undeniably science fiction, but, unlike most pictures claiming that association, it never falls into the boring, expected patterns of space battles and laser gun shoot-outs. Instead, it ventures into territory that, while not virgin, is sufficiently interesting to provide an involving, invigorating backdrop.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is leading a double life. To most people, he's a hard-working computer programmer who holds down a nine-to-five job for a major software corporation. But, in the privacy of his home, he's a hacker named Neo who is "guilty of virtually every computer crime [there's] a law for." Neo is dissatisfied with his existence, and, while he's groping for a meaning to it, he is contacted by a mysterious computer presence known as Morpheus. "Wake up Neo," a printout on his monitor screen reads. "The Matrix has you. Follow the white rabbit." And so begins an amazing odyssey for both Neo and the audience.

It turns out that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the captain of a small space ship, and he believes that Neo is a messianic figure. When the two finally meet, Morpheus explains to Neo that all is not as it seems. The reality he is used to is a fabrication, the product of a sinister race of intelligent machines that use human beings as power supplies, to be discarded at will. Neo is dubious, and Morpheus sets out to show him the truth. Soon, he is learning how to manipulate the Matrix: a computer-generated dreamworld built by the machines to control human minds. But danger lurks ahead for Morpheus and his small band of followers. The goal of the machines is to eliminate all free humans, and their most powerful weapons, the Sentient Agents (who look like Men in Black), are closing in. Led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), their goal is to capture Morpheus and pry the secrets from his brain.

There's much more to The Matrix than this, but to explain further would be to reveal plot twists better discovered through viewing. Although the film frequently toys with the blurred line between grim reality and computer-generated fantasy, it rarely leaves the viewer completely confused (except, perhaps, at the very beginning). The Wachowskis have carefully structured the story in such a way that the audience is capable of following the action and understanding what's going on even when all of the secrets have not been revealed. Nevertheless, because The Matrix is intelligent, it will defeat those unwilling to invest some intellectual participation. The payoff is worth the effort.

Stylistically, The Matrix is much like Bound. Both films are visually stunning, with images painstakingly constructed and action sequences choreographed to excite the eye and quicken the pulse. The Wachowskis use a varied pallette that includes shadows, slow motion, quick cuts, and offbeat humor to paint a unique portrait. Like in Dark City, theirs is a grim world, where darkness and gloom seemingly always hold sway. Everything from the set design to the costumes (lots of black, lots of sunglasses) is intended to contribute to an overall look. When it comes to shoot-outs, the Wachowskis show that John Woo isn't the only director capable of doing interesting things with familiar devices. The shots of Keanu Reeves streaking down a hall with guns blazing all around him and the air thick with shattered bits of concrete is only one of many snapshots that lingers in the mind's eye long after they have vanished from the screen. The special effects, which are not as numerous as those in many science fiction pieces, are flawless.

Keanu Reeves is not generally regarded as a strong actor, but, given the right part - one that doesn't demand much subtlety or emoting - he can be effective. His role as Neo fits the criteria. The Matrix needs a leading man who can look good, act cool, and not stumble over his dialogue, and Reeves is three for three. It's easily his best work since Speed, where the same kinds of demands were made of him. For more nuanced performances, the Wachowskis rely on the rest of the cast: the always excellent Laurence Fishburne, brilliant character actor Joe Pantoliano (who appeared in Bound), and Carrie-Anne Moss, who looks great in black leather. Aussie Hugo Weaving (Proof) brings the perfect mix of dry wit and menace to his role as the head Man in Black.

The Matrix offers a little something for everyone. The die-hard science fiction fan will discover a plot that mixes and matches both new and old conventions of the genre in a compelling fashion. Action aficionados will find that there's no shortage of electric excitement, whether it's in the form of hand-to-hand kung fu-type fights or shoot-outs with seemingly limitless ammunition. There's also betrayal, a little romance, some humor, and a moral dilemma or two, all wrapped into a well-produced package. As I stated earlier, the way in which the Wachowskis choose to resolve everything seems slightly contrived, but, in the overall scheme of things, that's a small price to pay for one of the most enjoyable science fiction thrillers to reach the screen in months.

Matrix, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1999-03-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1