The Matrix is a special effects extravaganza with an honest-to-goodness head on its shoulders. That’s both a good and a bad thing. Too much of the film is given over to borderline-dull talking-heads style plot exposition that takes place amid some admittedly impressive visual noodling. Basically, this obscure yarn is built around a rather fundamental philosophical notion: what if the life we lead, all of the people around us, and all of the various external stimuli that we think of as “reality” were really hallucinations imposed on us by some mad genius who has our brain floating in a tank — or, in this case, artifically intelligent machines who use our “real” bodies as batteries in a distant-future world and keep us happy and oblivious with this late-20th century fantasy environment.
Humans who have freed themselves from the matrix can fight back by plugging in to the vast system and entering it as virtual representations of their real selves. If they can manage to find and free their one true savior, who can tackle representations of the alien beings (black-suited characters known as “agents”) in their own fabricated world, they stand a fighting chance of liberating all humanity from slavery. The only problem is, if those virtual representations run into trouble when traipsing through the phony world, their physical counterparts will suffer the same physical damage.
(Well, I hope I got all that right. If I didn’t, I’m sure I’ll get email telling me exactly what I got wrong. The Matrix has a sizable online fan base, all of whom enjoyed the film tremendously.)
As a high concept, this may seem way too complicated (the primary reference points, after all, seem to range from William Gibson to God Himself). The characters on screen, all of whom have hip-verging-on-ridiculous comic book names like Trinity, Morpheus, and Cypher, struggle to explain it in scenes that are punctuated by too-clever neologisms (“the matrix is the world pulled over your eyes,” right). The actors, a mostly good-looking crew who look convincing enough in this techno environment, also struggle to get a bearing on their material.
As the flick’s pivotal computer nerd-turned-action-hero Thomas/Neo, Keanu Reeves is, well, absolutely unconvincing. Yes, his rather lightweight screen presence may be appropriate to the script, which casts him as the reluctant savior of the human race, but there’s something wrong when a film’s opening-night crowd simply giggles at the hero’s attempts to be a badass. (Chicks, however, seem to dig him.) The wiry Carrie-Anne Moss, playing Trinity, is a nice visual rhyme for Reeves, and she looks good in leather pants. That seems to be the main prerequisite for her role, since she’s relegated to third-banana status after the astounding opening sequence. (She does get to do some latter-reel hand-wringing over Neo.) As Morpheus, the mentor who leads the film’s ragtag group of rebel humans in the battle against the machines, Laurence Fishburne handles an endless series of pseudo-mystical platitudes with formidable dignity — hard to remember the time when this guy called himself “Larry.” Australian actor Hugo Weaving stands out as the acrid Agent Smith, leader of the sunglassed threesome of goons out to take Neo down. The rest of the cast, an able group of character players (including Joe Pantoliano, who appeared in the Wachowskis’ previous Bound), is generically appropriate to its formula sci-fi environment.
The directors, Andy and Larry Wachowksi, showed a gift for low-key character drama in their debut feature, but here seem much less concerned with characters and relationships than with their full battery of special effects hoo-ha. Script and story are subordinate to the movie’s real raison d’etre, which is a stunning, unprecedented fusion of Hong Kong-style martial arts choreography with digital imaging technology. Nothing if not savvy, the Wachowskis went directly to the source, hiring Woo-ping Yuen to devise the sort of fantastic hand-to-hand combat that fueled his Cantonese films, including Wing Chun (starring Michelle Yeoh of Supercop fame) and Fist of Legend (with the incomparable Jet Li). The results are unrivalled by anything outside the realm of Japanese anime — bullets are frozen in mid-air, bodies and limbs occupy two positions in space at one time, and kung-fu fighters hover in space in front of their opponents before kicking the shit out of them.
The final 20 minutes or so, which are basically an extended chase sequence encompassing several fight scenes and a spectacular helicopter stunt, are dazzling. No, the Wachowskis can’t shoot a gunfight with the sense of geography and grace that makes John Woo’s films so gripping, but they can counterfeit his style well enough to make your eyes pop. And the film operates, at this point, on a level of visual invention that makes you forget that the 100 minutes or so leading up to it were a pretty long sit. Even so, there’s a love-is-all-you-need gimmick near the end that makes for the cheesiest finale since The Fifth Element, and the final scenes are so obviously a sequel set-up (the only thing missing is the words “to be continued” scrolling up the screen) that the film is only semi-satisfying even on its own terms. With a better cast and a tighter script, this could have been a knockout.