Matrix, The (1999)
Release Date: March 31st, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: The Wachowski Brothers Actors: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Belinda McClory
hat is the Matrix? Oozing nonstop cinematic cool, this incomparable sci-fi action thriller draws parallels to biblical stories, countless religions, and ancient Japanese lore (and plenty of manga, with “Ghost in the Shell” serving as substantial inspiration) as it tells a story of postapocalyptic human subjugation like “The Terminator” on a techno acid trip. To say that it must be seen for yourself is no understatement. With revolutionary special effects, ultra hip wardrobes, and John Woo levels of firepower (modeled after his Hong Kong works like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled”), “The Matrix” single-handedly saved Warner Bros. from a lengthy box office slump and put major appeal back into R-rated films and black leather apparel.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker routinely plagued by existential thoughts concerning the indecipherability between real life and the dream world. When he’s mysteriously contacted by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), an infamous and esoteric underworld leader, Neo follows a series of cryptic clues and the shapely messenger Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to unlock the secrets of the Matrix – a concept of possible virtual realities that has been irking and completely eluding him. Like a drug-addled, contemporary Alice in a computerized, gothic Wonderland, Neo wanders down the rabbit hole to see how far it goes.
The action sequences and stunts in “The Matrix” are nothing short of mindboggling. Focusing heavily on carefully choreographed martial arts battles (set in all sorts of strangely singular environments with elements of wire fu portending the popularity of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), highflying helicopter stunts (boasting a moment in which bullets kick out of a mounted Gatling gun so hard and fast that the expended shells fall like metal rain), and last-second showdowns in the crumbling wastelands of a dystopian vision of pasty human survivors versus squid-like mechanical assassins, this film should enliven anyone’s faith in the action genre. And yet, just as much as it overhauls previous science-fiction epics of oppression and rebellion with the perfect escapism of blazing machineguns and slow-motion hand-to-hand victories, the film also remembers to tell a (largely) coherent narrative of redemption and destiny, further embellished by a convincing, poignant love story that crops up at particularly tense times.
Like the best horror and fantasy productions (to which “The Matrix” owes a debatable degree of influence), human villainy works alongside the agents of monstrous evils. Here, a betrayer in the midst colludes with actual agents of a secretive governmental organization (essentially, spontaneously materializing computer program representatives designed to attack unwelcome interferences in the mainframe – like a wickeder version of Tron’s nemeses). Hugo Weaving makes an unforgettable turn as the unexplainably idiosyncratic Smith, who, unlike his genuine human combatants, seems to cross the boundaries between virtual reality enemy and flesh-and-blood philosopher, like a video game AI that continues to evolve and contemplate the next move even when shut off (or a player that can merge with the game itself).
As with the mesmerizing inhabitants of this eye-opening universe, the costume designs, set decorations, sound effects, the overall look, and the regularly riveting editing contribute to a picture of significant entertainment value. Its wide array of subgenre dabbling and unmatched set pieces comparably set the project apart as a new benchmark for actioners and pessimistically dark sci-fi ideals alike. The intricacies of “The Matrix” are so highly stylized, visually complex, and otherworldly in nature that Neo’s introduction to it here just begs for additional elaboration – which would be granted in the form of two theatrical sequels, comics, games, all manner of merchandise, and the animated short film collection “The Animatrix” in 2003. It’s all quite breathtaking, surreal, and worthy of repeat viewings.
– Mike Massie