The Matrix (review)

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Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory

I knew The Matrix was something special when I realized, halfway through the film, that I wasn’t fighting an urge to laugh at Keanu Reeves, as I usually do. He’s actually — and here’s something I never thought I’d say in reference to Reeves — good. And I give all the credit to the writing and directing team of brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski. Reeves’s lines are minimal, thereby cutting down on the opportunity for him to mangle dialogue. And they wink at the audience, letting us know they’re aware of Reeves’s appeal and limitations, when they allow another character to say, to poor Keanu’s befuddlement, “You’re cuter than I thought… but not too bright.”
Thomas Anderson (Reeves, from Devil’s Advocate) is a mild-mannered software engineer by day, looking uncomfortable in a cheap suit, ensconced in a sterile gray slot at a dehumanizing cube farm. By night he is hacker extraordinaire Neo, sleeping on his keyboard surrounded by sliding piles of CDs and selling disks full of unspecified ones and zeroes to suspicious-looking slacker types. But then he meets legendary hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who introduces him to the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, from Event Horizon). Morpheus explains to Neo that the world is not what he thinks it is, that nefarious forces are at work to hide the true reality from humanity, and that Neo is “The One” whom it has been prophesied will remove the blindfold from the eyes of humanity and lead everyone into freedom.

As Keanu might say, Whoa.

Morpheus tells Neo that what he perceives as the world is actually the “Matrix,” but that “unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” That sort of applies to the movie itself. Yes, I can tell you that the Matrix is a kind of giant virtual-reality computer program into which every man, woman, and child on Earth is plugged, and that the film is derivative of just about every interesting science-fiction movie of the last twenty years, but that makes it sound as if The Matrix isn’t the coolest thing to hit the screen in quite a while.

The Matrix‘s paranoid fantasy is a brilliant synthesis of 90s pop culture: William Gibson and Scott Adams, government-conspiracy chic and Biblical end-times anxiety. The Wachowski brothers steal shamelessly from Brazil, Blade Runner, the Alien and Terminator movies, Total Recall, Men in Black, and Star Trek. And get away with it. Dazzling visuals — the film combines a dark, grainy, handheld style with bleeding-edge FX — and brilliantly staged gun battles and martial-arts duels help distract from the realization that there’s not a single original concept behind The Matrix. Also enthralling are some compelling, complex characters: Trinity, her kick-ass, take-no-prisoners ‘tude amply conveyed by Moss; and her colleague Cypher, played by the always interesting Joe Pantoliano (U.S. Marshals). But the movie is stolen by Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, the menacing MIB who tries to keep Neo from learning the truth about the Matrix — Weaving is hypnotic, his droning, accentless voice and cool confidence both terrifying and thrilling.

The SF audience is going nuts for this movie (one guy I know saw The Matrix four times in the week after it opened), and with good reason. For one, it’s filling the pre-Phantom Menace void. Star Wars is an especially big influence on The Matrix. Neo has a Luke Skywalker-style hero’s journey. Morpheus is his Yoda — he all but says to Neo, “Do or do not. There is no try.” And Neo’s learning to control the Matrix is very like Luke’s attempts to master the Force — Neo may only be shifting around ones and zeroes while Luke’s battle is mind over matter… but then, as the film asks, “What is real? How do you define real?” Matter is only atoms and electrical fields bopping against one another anyway. And therein lies the second part of The Matrix‘s appeal. The film’s metaphysics are the stuff of late-night dorm-room debates, mixed with literary allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Kakfa and everything in between. Not so mindblowing if you’ve read a few books, but then, not everybody has read a few books.

But the real secret to The Matrix‘s destiny as a box-office triumph and cult in the making is that it plugs right in to the fantasy of every intelligent, disenfranchised, socially inept, outcast SF fan, computer geek, and comic-book nerd (incidentally, that portion of the movie audience that drowns its misunderstood sorrows in repeat trips to the multiplex and the purchase of mass quantities of videos). “You have a problem with authority,” Thomas Anderson’s boss at the soul-sucking cube farm lectures him. “You think that you’re special, that the rules don’t apply to you” (like all of us who feel as if we were dropped on this planet by aliens). Yet it turns out that Neo — Anderson’s alter ego, his “secret identity” — is destined to save the world (just as the dork brigade has always suspected of itself). “You’ve felt it your entire life,” Morpheus tells Neo (though he’s actually speaking to the audience, with its clandestine understanding of how things really are), “that there’s something wrong with the world.” And even though they don’t know it, all the sheep — everybody who’s sleepwalking through life and paying taxes like a moron — they’re all about to be saved by Neo, even if they don’t even realize they need to be saved, the schmucks.

See, that’s how, like, amazingly deep and cool The Matrix is. People would wake up if only they, like, got it.

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