I remember long as hell ago, that The Matrix became all the hype. I was well enough too young to watch an R-rated movie according to my parents, but everywhere I could go was that big question…
That one big hook that you still couldn’t avoid even though it was there to drag you to the top. Through that unknown factor, was how we introduced ourselves to one of the biggest icons of 90s film counter culture, rouding off the very end of the millennium, and all the highlights of cyberpunk – both visually and philosophically – wrapped in a nutshell…
… or more appropriately… a little red pill…
It’s been 15 years now since we first went into that rabbit hole and discovered that there was significantly more to the narrative than that one question. It is in fact what now brings me to returning to the world of the first film (the sequels got a significantly bad rap and, while I cannot defend them for the life of me – they were fucking terrible – I did have the same hatred. I loved how they brought the story full circle, as a wobbly and imperfect as that circle ended up.).
It was at a time exactly what type of movie I ate up as a child once I actually was able to finally watch it (partly out of how cool everything seemed to be and to fit in since all the kids at school I wanted to be friends with LOVED the movie)… around the time, the sequel came out was when my mom stopped caring about me seeing these movies.
It was one of my best friends’ favorite movie – probably dealing with both the Jesus allegory as well as the similarities to Superman’s place in the world.
And it was an unavoidable phenomenon long after the trilogy had completed, when many shows and movies found it tasteful to utilize their never-ending parodies (even though, fuckdammit, we got sick of it).
For those who are not in the know at this point, as spoiler-free as I can make this summary: Neo (Keanu Reeves) is slowly becoming aware that his world is not entirely on the right-side-up, which is when a sexy hacker by the name of Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and an unseen voice by the name of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), both well-known names in his circle of hackers. He ends curious enough to dig deeper and discover that the hackers have a higher purpose (and adversity) in the world they live in as they discover and battle a secret regarding the Matrix and the World around them, a secret that holds the fate of Mankind and their relationship/dependence on Machines in a high balance.
I won’t go into what the Matrix is. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, it’d be like telling you who Luke’s father is. But there are two things you ought to know:
1) is that it adds a different layer to this science-fiction cyberpunk tale that quickly turns into apocalypse setting
2) It makes no sense. But many things in film essentially make no sense when you dig deep into them. In this particular case, it has to do with the fact that what the secret is is more trouble than one would expect the Machines involved to find it’s worth.
And despite the concept being easily walked through, when you walk into the film with an open enough mind (or as impressionable as 13 year old me was), you will find yourself easily engrossed in the film’s experience – which is probably the biggest strength of the film, since it distracts you from some of its weaknesses.
One of the biggest keys in bringing us into the world of The Matrix is that every single cast member is tuned in to the concept, whether they realize how ridiculous it is or not. They act as though they are convinced and that convinces us – considering that the audience’s main avatar into being explained the concept and the rules of its world are our own hero, Neo, who is dealing with all these discoveries as we are. But each of the main cast carries an intense lucidity and involvement within the actions of the scenario that could leave us alienated, if there were not a second layer of performance within the smaller cast members, ie. the crew of the appropriately named Nebuchadnezzer (I just love catching what each name and image means, it’s a fault of mine) who easily hold up a casual attitude towards all the elements of the world and within themselves that only adds to the accessibility of the concept (in spite of most of the crew having little personality – a colleague of mine who hates the movie pointed out the only reason for Apoc and Switch to exist are to exclaim the very undeniably chilling statement of “Not like this!” and I couldn’t really refute him; he was right).
At this height of this cast is a delightfully law-abiding yet ultimately licentious Hugo Weaving in a villainous role that drawls and walks around with an air of cruelty through power, Agent Smith, who will come to be the more upfront antagonist than the Machines involved with the Matrix. Smith’s nature as a being actually defies the need for character motivations – and yet, right at a moment when we think its least necessary, we discover there is a lot more to what this character wants than just being a lapdog for the Machines. In spite of being the least human of all the major characters, Agent Smith appears to be the most-dimensioned, making him infinitely interesting than the humans but at the same time being just as horrible a being that we are still on the protagonists’ side.
Keanu Reeves, a guy who gets a worse rap than deserved for his acting (though he’s not great either), has earned a role in Neo that plays off of all his limitations as an actor. The uncertainty in the most important of moments, the very exaggerated reactions to the smallest factors, it all brings more relatability to Neo’s stance as a guy who has just entered this world and is expected to be able to know what he’s doing. Laurence Fishburne holds a restrained evangelical behavior that, even when you know it’s bullshit, his authority makes you feel he definitely knows something you don’t. Joe Pantoliano and Anne Moss each hold that stereotype of the skeptical creep and the beautiful powerful femme that, sure, it’s shallow but it is also really really engaging.
It’s also funny to look back on how much I hate Christopher Nolan as a screenwriter (despite him being one of the most undeniably talented directors in this day and age) for his plodding and drowning his scripts with endless exposition where we don’t need that when I sort of love The Matrix and it is just as much (if not moreso) guilty of this crime. Almost every single line in the movie is utilized to add a new rule or parameter to what the Matrix is, although certainly subtler than Nolan, to us as an audience and to Neo, up until the final act which has enough sense to do what Nolan doesn’t and eschew the spoon-feeding for the sake of a final act containing nonstop heart-pounding action involving a helicopter, a train, a leap of faith, hand-to-hand combat, explosions that make Michael Bay weep for the fact that they sort of have a context and the kitchen sink… All for the sake of making this fantasy land the Wachowskis have made for their philosophical forum (something I’ve refrained from going in-depth on, because goddammit, I’d be here forever, the Wachowskis are that dense in this trilogy, having invested every possible – I recommend the Ultimate Matrix Collection for your DVD/Blu-Ray collection if you are so inclined to read more into the movie’s themes) now able for the audience to enjoy on a very facetious thrill-ride level that keeps everyone happy and entertained.
I mean, we already got a taste enough with brilliant choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping and some really fucking cool production design that makes us want so much to be involved in this world, at least I because it looked so much like the boundaries between the urban landscape of downtown Miami/Kendall (and insert your own closest Metropolitan atmosphere here) that I grew up around and knew like the back of my hand on one hand and on the other like a dream that has so much wonky and unreal that I can’t put my finger on it. And the sweeping scales of the score by Don Davis, just hinting of digital language and replicated motifs, juxtaposed with the metal and hard rock drops of Rage Against the Machine and Rob Zombie which I was growing into at the age I first saw the movie, gave my adolescent self an epic anchor to base myself in the actions of the film. My favorite of all the production design being the very separation in Color Correction between the two worlds: The Matrix’s sickly greenish tone and the Nebuchadnezzer’s cold blue interiors that feel alien and unfriendly in the realm of the truth. What a brilliant way to differentiate where each realm lies and what it means to the characters. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz‘s sepia and Technicolor boundaries.
The Matrix survived as a film because it was able to get away with a hell of a lot and it largely came from the fact that, at the coming end of the millennium when everything was expected to change, we as a people were ready to free our minds and open ourselves up to a concept so radical as The Matrix. Who knows if the movie would have been made in this day and age or if it would have been laughed out of every studio heads’ face. It was a high concept with a niche market, there was a balanced gambit involved and it was only by the slightest tip of favor that this movie blew up into such a grand franchise (although public interest seems to have died out over these 15 years).
But since time has passed and its faults as a movie are now more visible than ever, the choice really lies in the audience on how to revisit the film and experience all again.
The choice is on whether or not you want to believe in the story.