The Matrix is a great piece of eye candy. From our normal, everyday “reality,” the film travels back and forth into Wonderland, and changes the definition of which is which.
Keanu Reeves is Mr. Anderson, a cubicle-dweller in an unconvincing high-rise. His job, his life, and his caricatured boss are never explained, and so the movie starts out flat and amateurish. It’s disappointing, but we know this soon won’t matter, so we continue to watch.
"Morpheus" was the Greek god of sleep.
Alice in Wonderland (there are lots of references, both literal and subtle)
Did You Notice?
In his cube he receives a phone call that tells him to get out of the building; the suits at the elevator are coming for him. Sure enough, peering over his cube, he sees some men in black come his way. The voice on the phone directs him to a window in the high rise, from which he’s supposed to make a difficult jump to a scaffolding. Realizing he has nothing to hide and has no idea who the caller is, he wisely chucks the phone and turns himself in to the suits.
For the first 20 minutes of the film, the suited “establishment” and the vague “underground” fight for his attention and loyalty, warning him not to join the other side. Neither side explains who they are or what they want with him, but when the “underground” expose a bug planted in his gut by the other side, he agrees to trust the underground. He is taken to their leader, Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne).
The Matrix packs a lot of mythology into its story. Readers of Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative mythology, will recognize in “Neo’s” (Reeves’) story, the traditional hero’s journey — the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the spirit guide, the special human ability attained by those who open themselves to it....
So when Morpheus offers the choice of a red pill that leads to danger, adventure, and self-awakening; or a blue pill that leads a safe, comfortable return to the status quo; the age-old story has already chosen for him. Anderson (his computer name is Neo) eats the red pill and is reborn, both mythically and visually.
Through the looking-glass, Neo meets the half-dozen others who have gone before him. The small band comprises those who have awoken from their dream of reality, into reality itself, a dark cloudy world a century into “the future.” In this reality, humans and artificial intelligence are fighting for control of the planet, and for control of each other. Neo, the chosen one, is prophesied to be the first who can beat the computers on their own turf (that is, in the virtual reality that is the Matrix).
I suppose this nerdly premise is partly borrowed from such sources as Dark City and the Terminator movies. Still, the concept is sufficiently creepy to drive the plot, and the overlay of both Alice in Wonderland and timeless mythology adds a dash of legitimacy to the otherwise adolescent fantasy.
As I said, The Matrix is a great piece of eye candy, and credit should go to the visual effects supervisor John Gaeta and cinematographer Bill Pope. Although the unflavored modern world from the first scenes is uninspired, the later settings — the stark white void, the bleak future underground, and the computer-enhanced “reality” are convincing, interesting worlds.
The time-changing special effects are the next evolutionary step in cinematic gimmickry. Watch a few commercials from the last year and you’ll see what I mean — time stopping while the camera moves, or the speed of time changing instantly. Until now, these tricks have not been integrated in to a feature film. They’ve been used as tricks to catch your eye to sell products.
But the same way Terminator 2 commanded the morphing technologies of the day and actually did something with them, The Matrix commands these time-shifting film tricks and folds them into a story.
Does that mean the film automatically deserves praise? Not necessarily. But because it’s the first big film to use this technique as part of its story, it will be as important to film history, decades from now, as T2. (In the short term, it means that Hollywood is going to need a new bag of tricks.)
Pope (who has worked with the Wachowskis before, and with Sam Raimi) does deserve praise. His mastery of the texture of light — the highlights, shadows, and reflections — show such tight control that the film would look just as beautiful in black and white (a feat that’s harder than you might imagine).
So The Matrix must be an awesome movie, right?
Well... sort of. There are several things that keep The Matrix from being perfect.
The first that comes to mind is the film’s ending. Or rather, endings. The first ending is a false one, and the second one has a coda. It’s as though the Wachowski brothers knew they were on a roll and didn’t want to stop. Worst of all is the final scene of the movie where “love” comes into play from out of the blue.
Also lacking is the acting. Keanu is no Anthony Hopkins. It’s not that he spoils the movie — he doesn’t — it’s just a little hard to take him seriously. Hugo Weaving (of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) plays Agent Smith with a deliberately stylized persona. But even so, his speech and mannerisms are slow, awkward, and distracting.
As for the film’s message, there is an unhealthy moment (before we are aware of the film’s definition of “reality”) where Mr. Anderson is told that the world doesn’t apply to him, that the world “has been pulled over your eyes to hide the truth”.
In other words, the world and all its rules, mores, and authority figures are for everyone else, and not for him. In fact, the world is a lie that must be destroyed if the truth is to be revealed. This talk made me uneasy, particularly while the film was still in “our” reality. If Mr. Anderson had any sociopathic tendencies, this might have encouraged him to go postal. Watching, I knew the movie wouldn’t pursue that avenue, but the idea is disturbing enough, and The Matrix illustrates it just a little too well.
So The Matrix must be a terrible movie, right?
Well... no. In fact, I think it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. I liked it so much I hoped I could give it a very high rating. But with so many things not quite right, I think it’s only fair to point them out. But if you are undeterred and are want to see it anyway, I highly recommend it. See it on a big screen while you can.