The Matrix

[This review includes spoilers.]

"Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony."

I saw this movie in the theater, with no idea what was coming. And it just blew me away.

Our hero is an everyday grunt, like most of us. Thomas A. Anderson (about as generic an American name as you can get) works in a cubicle during the day, and as a hacker who calls himself "Neo," he searches fruitlessly for the truth on his computer every night. When Neo jumps down the rabbit hole and finally "wakes up," he discovers that it is so much worse than he ever could have imagined: the real world is an environmental horror, humanity is enslaved and machines have taken over. (There are numerous clues in the opening scenes that Neo's world is unreal -- Switch even calls him "coppertop" -- but I still didn't see the reveal coming that first time.)

The existence of a savior who can work miracles and save the world injects religious mysticism into the story as a counterpoint to the all-powerful machines, who come off as demonic and evil and a lot more emotional than one might expect. (Near the end of the movie, Agent Smith acts very human with Morpheus, telling him that humans are a virus, talking about how they stink and how much he hates them.) As Neo fights the good fight and absorbs training that will allow him to manipulate reality within the Matrix, he eventually comes to believe what Morpheus tells him -- that he, Neo, is the chosen one who will free humanity. Neo's acceptance of his own reality and destiny is the key to his control of the Matrix in the final scenes on the subway platform.

Just the look of The Matrix is spectacular. Actually, of course, it's two distinct looks so that you always know where you are (a terrific visual device used recently in the series Awake). Every scene that takes place within the Matrix has a green cast with a background pattern of grids and vertical lines, accented with interesting pops of red that symbolize the imprisoned people. When we finally see the human "batteries," they are industrial towers of green with bits of red that represent the humans trapped in the pods. Some of the cinematography in this movie is just stunning -- the lines of green rain cascading down, the stream of bullet casings from the helicopter, the checkerboard floor in the stairwell, Neo and Trinity in the elevator shaft, the slomo "bullet time" scene on the roof. I have always particularly liked the sequence where our heroes are stuck inside the walls, which was filmed as if they were trapped between lines of computer code.

In contrast, when we finally see the real world, it is dominated by blues and browns, and even though there is a lot of machinery, the shapes are more organic. Morpheus and his crew wear ragged, stained clothing. It's not beautiful like the Matrix, but it's real. What fun that we get juicy red steak in the Matrix, and colorless cereal that looks like snot in the real world. Life is hard, man.

Keanu Reeves works quite well as Neo; the role is a good fit for his exceptional physical beauty and somewhat wooden acting style. Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne both do well as Trinity and Morpheus. For me, though, the standouts are definitely Joe Pantoliano as the despicable Cypher, Gloria Foster as the Oracle, and especially Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. Weaving's interpretation of his character is so memorable -- the controlled gestures and precise diction with extended consonants ("... and you help your landlady carry out her garbaggggge"). Love him.

If The Matrix has a weakness (for me, anyway), it's the overemphasis on superfighting and guns. Yes, they were Hollywood game-changers and they were impressive to watch the first time, but the battles -- especially the shoot-em-up in the building lobby -- get a bit old. I think the concentration on action sequences (even bigger! even longer!) instead of on the story were what made the sequels a failure. There were a couple of logic problems, too. If the machines kept humans alive by liquifying the dead for food, why was Neo flushed but not killed? How could Neo pour machine gun fire into the room where they were holding Morpheus, and not hit him?

And of course, there's the reverse feminist journey of Trinity, who starts out as Wonder Woman in the fabulous opening sequence and ends up as Superman's girlfriend, or possibly Mary Magdalene. She even brings Neo back to life with a fairytale kiss. Oh, well.

Bits:

-- The names of the characters are great fun and have meaning: Neo (Greek for "new"), Morpheus, Trinity, Cypher, Switch, Zion, and so on. Neo works at a software company called Metacortex. Morpheus's ship is called Nebuchadnezzar. Love that the two "real" brothers are called Tank and Dozer.

-- The story began and ended at "The Heart of the City" Motel. Most of the places in the movie don't have names.

-- Loved the chase through the cubicles, ending with Neo not quite able to throw himself out of a window. It's no coincidence that the agents look like FBI. Do we resent authority, perhaps?

-- I really liked that the connection to reality was an old land line telephone.

-- There are numerous references to Alice in Wonderland and the white rabbit. Neo even puts his fingers through the looking glass, and we see double reflections of Neo in Morpheus's dark glasses as well as in the spoon. In the Oracle's apartment, the movie on the TV was Night of the Lepus, the one with the killer bunnies.

-- The only colorful place in the Matrix is the Oracle's kitchen. It's still mostly green so it isn't jarring, but there is yellow and orange as well as the pops of red.

-- The guy who knocked on the door called Neo his "own personal Jesus Christ," in case we didn't realize Neo was a Christ figure.

-- It's just so much fun that deja vu is a glitch in the Matrix. What a great detail.

Quotes:

Neo: "You ever have that feeling where you're not sure if you're awake or still dreaming?"
Choi: "All the time. It's called mescaline. It's the only way to fly."

Morpheus: "The pill you took is part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location."
Neo: "What does that mean?"
Cypher: "It means fasten your seat belt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye."

Cypher: "I know what you're thinking, because right now I'm thinking the same thing. Actually, I've been thinking it ever since I got here. Why oh why didn't I take the blue pill?"

Child: "Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth."
Neo: "What truth?"
Child: "There is no spoon."

Agent Smith: "You hear that, Mister Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability."

The Matrix effectively addressed that feeling we all have at times that life is unreal and meaningless, that we're all being controlled, cogs in a machine whose purpose we don't know. The sequels may have been ultimately unsatisfying (I'm not going to review the sequels), but The Matrix deserves its reputation as an exceptional science fiction movie.

Four out of four spoons,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

10 comments:

ChrisB said...

I think I am the only person on the planet who has never seen this movie. But, reading this, it has just gone on the list. Sounds much better than I would have ever thought.

Mark said...

The flushing didn't bother me. Since he had never used his muscles, he would have drowned in that pool, which I'm guessing was the machine version of a compost pile.

Going into each of the sequels, I was hoping the writers would explore certain ideas (but they didn't). You could tell they liked manga/anime style stories, but that was disappointing after the first movie.
- What if Neo was the One, only if he believed he was the One? In other words, Morpheus had to find someone good enough to make it plausible, but it could have been anyone?
- Neo and Smith got power-ups after their deaths. Even Morpheus seemed stronger after his trauma. I wanted to see super-Trinity in the last movie, but it didn't happen.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was blown away by this movie the first time I saw it. I also loved the way it ended; to me, it was a perfect close (I will say no more, since ChrisB has not seen it). I never bothered to watch the sequels because I was so, so sure watching them would ultimately ruin the entire story for me. From what I have heard from friends, not watching the sequels was the right move.

ChrisB -- you must see this movie but skip the sequels. The Matrix stands on its own and probably should have been left that way.

Perhaps a future discussion thread: sequels (and prequels) that should never have been made and those that actually succeed in elevating the central premise/story?

KAM

Anonymous said...

Awesome movie, great visuals and story, and yes Hugo Weaving is incredible.
The Matrix stands on its own, it doesn´t need the sequels that suck.
I can watch the movie over and over again. It´s like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. I only rewatch that one and I´m satisfied.

Iago said...

The Matrix is one of those films that truly changes what people believe is possible in cinema. It's a classic and with good reason.

Keanu Reeves is perfect for Neo: deadbeat drone to mysterious superhero aren't too taxing and mostly need him to be stoic. Carrie-Ann Moss' Trinity is an iconic character and I loved the discussion of Neo's implicit sexism in thinking Trinity was a guy.

I've got an almost quixotic belief that Matrix Revolutions is a good film, both on its own and as a conclusion to the Matrix story and only let down by the cringe-inducing ending. Reloaded is mostly awful with a few good bits (the story of Zion mostly) but take those out and integrate them into Revolutions and you'd have an excellent film.

*runs from the rage*

Elise said...

I love love love this movie!! Can't believe it's been more a decade, seems like yesterday when I was at the cinema watching this.. I actually love Keanu Reeves.. hehe.. While I don't dispute people's observations of his somewhat wooden acting, but I choose to believe that Keanu knows it and actually plays to it really well. I mean look at the roles he picks... Buddha, Speed, Bill & Ted... lol. He's beautiful , love him and is one of my fav actors.. =)

Keith Kotay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Kotay said...

Well, this is my second version of comments on The Matrix. In the first version I made the mistake of relying on my memory instead of re-watching the relevant scene. Thus, my comments were not as accurate as they should have been, and perhaps a bit too critical of the Wachowskis. My apologies to Billie, and fans of The Matrix. In the future I will endeavor to be less sloppy...

The Matrix is a great film, but I have a major nitpick with it: using humans as 'batteries'. In the film, Morpheus states "The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need." This statement raises a number of issues:

1. Is 'bioelectricity' something different than ordinary electricity? If so, is it somehow valuable to the machines, and is it the case that they can only get it from humans?

2. '120-volt battery' doesn't make a lot of sense since power is the issue, not voltage.

3. The human body produces ~330 BTU per hour of heat from the chemical energy of food. However, it would be more efficient to produce heat directly from the food.

4. "25,000 BTUs" is ~75 hours @ 330 BTU per hour, so this number doesn't make much sense.

5. Apparently the food source is the liquefied remains of other humans who have died--but due to the inefficiency of human metabolism there would have to be some significant extra energy input to the system.

6. If the machines have "a form of fusion" then they should have an ample supply of normal electrical power.

So, there are some inaccuracies in this scene which we can overlook. But the key issue is #1, and whether humans are the only source of this 'bioelectricity'. If so, then the Matrix might be justified. IIRC, in one of the sequels the machines seem willing to accept the destruction of the Matrix. Thus we have to question whether 'bioelectricity' is really that important to the machines. Personally, I always thought the 'battery' explanation was far-fetched, especially if the machines have fusion power to generate ordinary electricity...

In this case, is there any better justification for the Matrix? Probably not.
There isn't any good reason for intelligent machines to waste energy and resources to keep humans alive if this 'bioelectricity' idea is bogus--except perhaps for their amusement, which would not require the large number of humans shown in the film...

I still think The Matrix is an impressive film, and I enjoy watching it. The film is well crafted, the depiction of the virtual reality world is impressive, it's entertaining, it has great characters, and the themes of "things are not what they seem" and "stepping behind the curtain" tap into true human feelings (see Allegory of the Cave by Plato)...

However, the 'battery' issue is the justification for the Matrix itself, and I wish it made more sense. Scientific inaccuracies are common in science fiction. Usually they are peripheral mistakes, meaning that they are not the foundation for the whole concept--so we overlook them for the sake of being entertained. On the other hand, The Matrix relies on a questionable premise as its foundation, and I believe that needs to be mentioned. But I suppose I'd rather have The Matrix with this 'flaw' than not have The Matrix at all. Perhaps what really bothers me is that the film was so close to perfection--if only the Matrix itself had a better justification...

Billie Doux said...

Keith, I'm impressed.

Although I love science fiction, I'm the first to admit that science and math were not my subjects in school. My strengths were literature, art and language. I'm well read enough to pick up on it when the science sounds like it might be accurate, but something like this, with the batteries, went right over my head and would never have occurred to me. Very interesting comment.

Keith Kotay said...

Hi Billie. Thanks for your kind words--I just wish I didn't need two tries to get it right...

I was always a science guy. I went to college as a Biology major, but then I switched to Philosophy because I was looking for 'answers' (of course, Philosophy doesn't really supply 'answers', just more complex questions--you have to supply your own 'answers'). Later, I switched to Computer Science and my research area was robotics...

However, as time passed I came to realize that the humanities are more important that abstract science. So I enjoy thinking and talking about literature, movies, art, philosophy, culture, and politics (the last one is rather depressing these days)...

Science fiction appeals to people of all backgrounds, which is why it is fun! :-) The amount of 'science' can vary from a lot to a little, and the amount of 'fiction' can also vary from a lot to a little. I read your comment on the KSR Mars trilogy, and I agree. Those books are have a lot of good science, but are somewhat lacking in the fiction department. I enjoyed reading them, but I doubt if I will ever re-read them. On the other hand, there are books with a lot less science but with a great plot and/or great characters that I enjoy re-reading...