Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Matrix: A Special Effects Classic Where The Casting Defines The Characters!

The Good: Excellent story, Good character development, Great effects, Wonderful acting, DVD Extras
The Bad: ? That sequels were made?
The Basics: The nature of reality is explored in an action-adventure context when an ordinary man comes to understand the real world . . . isn't!

One of the films that I frequently reference when I am writing reviews of films is a little film called Bound. Bound is a brilliant crime drama that is very intimate in scope (it has a remarkably short cast list), but surprisingly large in the way it was shot. It made the lives of two women who fall in love and take the Mob for millions of dollars seem like the most cinematic adventure that could ever occur within an apartment building. Years ago while waiting in line at a convention, I listened to actor Joe Pantoliano tell eager fans about Bound and how it was basically an audition tape for two untested directors, Andy and Larry Wachowski. According to Pantoliano, it was the cinematic success of Bound that proved to the executives that these two brothers, the Wachowski Brothers, could properly execute a little project they had been sitting on called The Matrix.

The Matrix is one of those films that begs to be seen on a big screen or, barring that, on the biggest television one may find provided that it has a pretty significant sound system. The sound effects in The Matrix are incredible and a great sound system makes The Matrix pretty much an indispensable DVD for the cinephile!

Thomas Anderson, a mild-mannered computer programmer, spends his nights writing computer codes and creating software to help others hack into places they are not supposed to be. His virtual life at night has made him a celebrity in the hacker world, where he goes by the name Neo. Anderson's life is turned up-side down one day when he finds himself pursued by mysterious agents whose job it is seems to be detecting and eliminating computer-related crimes. The agents, particularly one who simply goes by Smith, work Anderson over, but are not given the satisfaction of finding out any of the people he has done work for.

Following a surreal encounter with Smith where he is bugged, Neo is approached by others who seem to have the answer to the question that has been underlying Neo's cyber life: What is the Matrix? When he is introduced to a fellow hacker named Morpheus he is told that reality is not what it appears to be and he is invited to step out of the artificial life he has been living in and come into the real world.

The real world is a dark one, which Neo learns quickly. Humanity is almost extinct, having been killed off by sentient machines that have taken over the surface of the planet. The humans that are alive are either freedom fighters or mindless sleeping drones plugged into machines used as batteries to power the mechanical monstrosities that enslave them. The Matrix, then, is an artificial construct used to keep those legions of battery-people docile and inert, a virtual reality where they live normal lives oblivious to the truth. Accompanied by freedom fighters including Trinity, Neo is informed that he has a destiny, a destiny to destroy the Matrix and free all the enslaved people from the machines.

Despite what many think, the idea for The Matrix is hardly a new one. Only a few years prior, Fox had a television show that began to explore the nature of psychology and reality when virtual reality was involved called VR.5 (reviewed here!). William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (reviewed here!) a decade prior to The Matrix and it has remarkable plot similarities as well as thematic ones to it. I've pointed these things out publicly before and often the most vociferous defenders of The Matrix will tell me that it's not so much the story that is important, it's what The Matrix did as far as advancing special effects that makes it great. Usually, I point out to them that the film Dark City (a masterpiece reviewed here!) utilized many of the same visual stylistic elements about two years prior to the release of The Matrix!

The special effects defenders are wrong; the story is incredibly important. But it is also wrong to suggest that The Matrix might need defending. This film defends itself remarkably well because it is a tightly-written, well-acted piece that has viable and interesting characters, amazingly explored themes, and some pretty amazing special effects. The Matrix does not need to be defended because (unlike its sequels) there is nothing wrong with it.

The Matrix is a philosophical action-adventure film that asks the viewer to contemplate the nature of reality. How can we truly know what is real and what is not in a world where one may construct another life within the confines of a computer? Is cybersex cheating? The sex may be unreal and masterbatory, but the emotions are real, where is the line drawn? The Matrix envisions a world where our very sense of reality is as masterbatory as cybersex only we are too asleep to even realize it! Disconnected from reality, humanity has fallen to machines that oppress them by giving them a sense of being in a life they can comprehend.

But the philosophical exploration does not stop there. The character of Neo is a man on the verge of godhood. The Matrix is the story of understanding how one becomes part of something larger and how a hero rises up to become a champion for the oppressed. Neo is the everyman whose journey is to step out of his 9 to 5 job and become a savior to millions who do not even know they need him.

The brilliance of The Matrix is that Neo is a reluctant hero. Like the audience, Neo must be convinced as to the reality that parallels our reality. He must be shown, he must open his mind, and even then he wrestles with the implications of the dark future he finds himself in. Neo is not a generic action hero, he is an ordinary man whose feeling of not fitting in come from being programmed to believe that he is like everyone else. His journey is about losing the programming and becoming the man he (and others) believe he may be. It is the journey from Thomas Anderson to Neo.

But Neo does not go it alone. He is accompanied and guided by Morpheus and Trinity. Morpheus is a sage character whose wisdom and strength and leadership abilities make him a high target of the Agents. He is also one of the few people who knows the location of Zion, the last human city far underneath the earth. Morpheus is a spiritual man who is also able to fight with amazing proficiency and skill because he understands the difference between reality and the Matrix.

Neo's other ally is Trinity, a warrior woman who seems unsure about the destiny Neo is supposed to have, but implicitly trusts Morpheus. She is strong and secure and she wants to help Neo, even if she does not necessarily believe that he can succeed. And the romantic subplot between her and Neo does not seem nearly as forced as one might think.

Trinity is played by Carrie-Anne Moss who has a strong performance that powerfully differentiates between her character's invulnerable persona inside the Matrix and the more shy individual in the real world. Moss plays Trinity with a strong sense of humanity, compassion and loyalty when she is in the real world and an inscrutable deathmask when in the Matrix. It is surprising how much mileage one actress can get out of her eyes, but here Moss makes most of her emotions clear with just her eyes (when they are visible).

Laurence Fishburn portrays Morpheus and he plays him as the coolest mentor since Yoda. Written with a strong sense of spirituality, Fishburn transforms Morpheus into a powerful warrior/mentor with his stride and dignified bearing. He has a leadership quality to him that dominates every scene he is in. Indeed, with his powerful presence, he could have even made Star Trek: Enterprise palatable, had he been cast as the captain! Fishburn not only takes what could be a remarkably generic mentor character on the page and owns it on screen, but he also creates a sense of style and voice for the film that defines it.

It is Keanu Reeves that seems like he might be the weak link in such a cast, but the truth is, Reeves is perfectly cast as Neo. Thomas Anderson has to be a kind of mumbling loser, anyone can be him type guy and that's the role Reeves was pretty much born to play. But with the transformation into Neo, Reeves must overcome that and illustrate some genuinely heroic abilities and to the surprise of audiences everywhere, he delivers. In The Matrix, Reeves is able to play a transformational role as he evolves from ordinary man to superhero. Part of the reason the sequels fail (other than losing most of the philosophy in favor of pretty mindless action) is that Reeves is actually so good at what he does that the end of the film implies the end of the series. Yes, it is Reeves who comes into his own and comes to carry himself with the bearing of a hero after presenting himself as a schlub the first half that makes the character work. Reeves acts with confidence in the latter portions of the film and he does it in an utterly convincing way. This might well be his best performance!

All of the actors in The Matrix seem to be required to do massive amounts of stunts because this is an action film. This might be the film that truly opened the American public up to the idea of wireworks stunts. This is an action film that has a lot of people defying gravity, jumping surreal distances and being really flung around. The stuntwork is amazing and there's not a wire to be seen, but it might be the film - because of how many features were done on the special effects (which are on the DVD!) - that cracked the magician's secret about wirework.

On DVD, the film looks and sounds great. It includes behind-the-scenes featurettes on the special effects, casting and story. As well, there is a wonderful commentary track that is informative and entertaining. The bonus features will treat anyone who comes to the film looking for more, whether it is a first viewing or the hundredth!

The Matrix may have had to have been fought for, but it shows a clear mastery of storytelling and directing abilities from Larry and Andy Wachowski. We're fortunate they started their cinematic endeavors on such high notes!

For other works featuring Hugo Weaving, please visit my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
Happy Feet
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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