Amidst all the sappy romantic comedies that have come out on the heels of spring, "The Matrix" is like a taste of what is to come, a prequel to The Prequel, so to speak. Not that the Matrix is like any of the jingoistic summer blockbusters, but it's been a welcome relief for my thriller-craving movie-goer heart.
The concept of the Matrix isn't all that new. It's been appearing in all but hordes of movies recently: "The Truman Show" (albeit a movie of a very different genre), "Dark City," and even in the trailer that preceded the movie itself: "The Thirteenth Floor." It's that we as human beings are part of a plan (usually set up by computers, and in this case machines), that we are being "experimented on" (in this case enslaved) by something we remain ignorant of. When this concept is explored in sci-fi, good sci- fi, like "Dark City" and this particular movie, it always makes me shudder because it's just something so intangible, so fantastical, and so unknown to the human mind. Questioning reality (a tagline for "13th Floor," coincidentally).
So, while it isn't groundbreaking in the screenwriting aspects, the real treat is in the execution. Absolutely brilliant effects, and solid work in the art direction (kudos to the ultra-cool costumes--well, that's what they all look alike, but still) and cinematography. I said "solid." I felt that it could have been a bit more innovative and different, given the subject matter it's dealing with. And yet we've gotten competent work, with the set constantly bathed in a green and black gloom. Hell, even the sunlight looks dark, if you know what I mean. Especially harrowing is the scene where Neo wakes up in his gelatinous bed among the whole "crop"; also, the scene where the phone's ringing, a train is thundering by, and Trinity's about to declare her love for Neo. I'd like the sound effects to earn some recognition come Academy Awards time next year but a) it's still a year away b) more competition has yet to come c) this is sci-fi. The action sequences were directed with a John Woo-ish edge, and thanks to the "if I believe it it's true" theory they're hawking in the film, they had a lot of freedom when it came to the special effects. Bullets stopping midair, morphing men, raining bullets, and did I mention bullets?
The story moved along at breakneck speed most of the time, so that I rarely had a chance to catch my breathe before something stunning or unexpected or humorous happened (yes, it's got some tongue-in-cheek humor). I'm still trying to figure out some points in the plot, and while it was not without holes, I'm glad that it gave us something to think about and that it was much improved over Keanu's last sci-fi outing. Speaking of Keanu (aka Neo), I can't think of anyone who was more perfectly cast. He's no master thespian, but he's the epitome of cool, and he has this gaunt, bewildered, yet determined look around him that makes him so perfect for this thriller. And yes, I did think he did a competent job (whoever does his makeup, however, needs to lay off on the red). Lawrence Fishburne (sp?) was haunting as Morphius, and he and Keanu had some wonderfully spooky scenes together. It's odd that this isn't really a horror film, but I felt terrified at times. I was not particularly satisfied with Carrie-Anne Moss's (aka Trinity) performance, but she has the right look. And this is a movie where looks matter. Excellent casting for the Agents--they look like high school teachers from hell.
The Oracle, however, completely stole the movie. She was well-cast as well and it is oddly fitting that in the apocalyptic world the human race's guide would appear to be something as mundane as a psychic palm reader who bakes chocolate chip cookies. The whole scene that took place in her apartment brought a bittersweet feel that not many sci-fi flicks achieve. The way you kinda feel like when you go back in time and see a dead relative still alive. It's the same reason, I guess, why they made something as commonplace as picking up the phone a matter of life and death. In a way it makes sense, since the Internet has become the primary way most modern human beings communicate.
On a deeper level the movie, like most good sci-fi, makes us think. Granted that the ending was more clear-cut and "happy" than some films like "Dark City" (in the end, it is love that brings Neo back to life--Neo is The One because Trinity and Morphius believed in him, causing him to finally believe in himself), and there are some things that are never explained--like what exactly is the Oracle, how it came to exist, who are the Agents, and how Neo came to be aware of Morphius and the Matrix (or are these just things I have to think about more?)--but it still leaves us with interesting ideas, metaphysical (for example, the idea that "supernatural" phenomena can occur when we suspend our disbeliefs) and scientific (what we perceive is based on nothing more than electronic impulses, after all) and such time-honored questions as what makes us human and what makes humanity worth it. That's what you get in addition to the shoot-outs!
Three cheers for this smart sci-fi thriller.
"How about I give you my finger, and you give me my phone call?"
Rating: B+ (First viewing, 4/1/99)
*YKYAXPW (You Know You're An X-Phile When) . . . "Artificial Intelligence" brings to mind the William Gibson (scribe of "Johnny Mnemonic," coincidentally) episode of the X-Files ("Kill Switch"), where wonder-hack Esther Nairn is reunited with her lover only through AI
* I liked how Morphius gave Neo (or Thomas Anderson as he was back then) directions on his cellphone: "Go to the window. Open it." Sounded like a good ol' text-based RPG didn't it?
* Wooooo, I'm glad BuzzCut!Keanu is back! (So says a Supposed Former Keanu Junkie . . . Hey, I went to a Dogstar concert, damnit! ;)
* It intrigues me how the sets are uniformly grim and dirty in sci-fi thrillers. I'd like to design a set for once where it's so goddamn happy it's depressing.
* YKYAXPW . . . Wait, I thought The One was Cassandra Spender?