Bucket List Movie #435: The Matrix (1999)
I feel a little embarrassed about reviewing this. It took me 15 long years, a small lifetime, but I finally saw the 1999 film by the Wachowski siblings that forever altered the look and feel of cinema as we know it.
What can I say? I’m slow like that.
I also have no knowledge or interest in the sequels (I hear they’re dreadful, anyway), so I was figuratively blind when I finally saw The Matrix (well, as blind as 15 years worth of spoilers, parodies, and knock-offs allowed me to be).
But I can’t help but think, gosh, what can I say about this movie that hasn’t been said already? The Matrix is like this generation’s The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind: anything remotely clever or insightful that could be said has already been said. I’m not sure what I can contribute. Yet I did make it my goal to review movies on my list as I saw them, and, by God, that’s what I’m going to do. So I’ll just take a breath, pop that red pill, and give this the old college try.
So our hero (Keanu Reeves, surfer-dude accent still going strong 10 years after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is ostensibly nobody special: he’s respectable office drone Thomas Anderson by day, a computer hacker known as “Neo” by night. He lives in a fleabag apartment and, instead of dealing drugs, he deals hard drives. His drab life is upset by odd occurrences, from a random IM advising him to “follow the white rabbit”, to being terrorized by bureaucratic goons simply known as the Agents, led by monotone Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, having a grand old time). Eventually Neo meets badass fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and the sage and mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and he learns the truth about his current “reality”, the conspiracy behind it, how Morpheus and Trinity and a ragtag bunch of outcasts escaped it, and how they are able to manipulate “the Matrix”, which is the artificial world that threatens to take over ours, and....
Here’s where I get stuck. Am I spoiling anything by giving away the gloriously convoluted details of the plot? Or is it just a waste of time summarizing one of the most (if not the most) iconic film of the last two decades? It’s as if I were to consider myself cutting edge for summarizing Titanic as “Leo and Kate fall in love, the boat sinks, Celine Dion sings that damn song!” A film this beloved writes its own summary, don’t you agree?
I will, however, not shy away from applauding the film’s influential special effects. The “bullet time” special effect (where characters move in slow motion while everything else is at normal speed) is still extraordinary. The Matrix might not have been the first film to use 180 degree camera angle, but it perfected it in a way that no one else had. Once I got past the fact that the fight scenes have been parodied, referenced, and ripped off to death, I was still quite impressed, and it made me all the more bitter about the current onslaught of 3-D movies. The Wachowskis picked a deceptively simple way of changing the way we look at film, and no cheap gimmick like 3-D is needed to make the now classic scenes of Neo dodging bullets, or Morpheus teaching Neo kung-fu any better. I also must praise the use of the mostly black and gray palette of the cinematography, because it truly works for the narrative in The Matrix. After all, with the familiar trope of shady figures making you question your current surroundings and circumstances, it definitely feels like a nod to film noir and classic psychological thrillers, and the muted look enhances the shadowy suspense.
I am just as guilty as the next person of mocking Keanu Reeves, but after seeing The Matrix, I must say he is the much better leading man than the Wachowskis' original choice, Will Smith. Don’t get me wrong, I love Will Smith, but Smith would have been too charming, too confident, too debonair, too dynamic to pull off the unsuspecting “chosen one” role. Reeve’s soft-spoken voice (you’re already hearing him say “dude” in your head, admit it), and laconic, wobbly deer mannerisms make him a much better Alice to explore this warped Wonderland.
Joe Pantoliano (a Wachowski favorite) has fun as the shifty Cypher, bringing a cagey levity to a potentially humorless story. Fishburne is quietly commanding as Morpheus, and I especially enjoyed Moss’s Trinity, who is a rather unsung heroine in sci-fi when compared to Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. A woman who kicks ass and enjoys it while serving the greater good, I desperately wish that Trinity could have had her own movie.
The Matrix does have one problem that sticks in my craw, and that’s the tacked on romance between Neo and Trinity, even though they displayed little or no chemistry or interest to begin with. The sad part is, I know I’m not spoiling anything because we’ve all come to expect that sort of thing. Come on, Wachowskis, Men in Black proved that women and men could work and have adventures together without the potential of any nookie, so why couldn’t you have followed suit?
The Matrix is a fun, intelligent, incredibly well-made adventure that tells the traditional tale of the unlikely hero who rises to the occasion. It’s no wonder it’s shown in film classes, has been picked apart by contemporary philosophers, and is still relevant in pop culture even today. While the Wachowskis' other films have been a bit uneven critically and financially (V for Vendetta was popular enough, while no one can seem to agree on Cloud Atlas), one thing's for certain: The Matrix has secured their legacy in modern cinema.