Think back, readers, back to 1999. For those of you who were there, you surely remember the first time you saw “The Matrix.” This is the film that blew more then one suburban teenager's mind. Simply put, there wasn’t anything quite like it at the time. The movie has just about everything. It combines cerebral sci-fi, Hong Kong action, summer movie explosions, and college philosophy. It manages to be very smart as well as incredibly entertaining, a crowd pleaser and a brain teaser. Maybe the Wachowski Brothers stole all that stuff from other sources, but they certainly imbue the material with an effortless, invigorating, contagious energy.
Let’s deconstruct this appeal, slightly, shall we? There's a reason I referenced teenagers in particular being impressed with the movie. The premise of reality as we know not being real plays into any young person's sudden distrust of authority, in this case the ultimate authority of their own senses. That can be pretty horrifying, and the movie certainly entertains that interpretation. However, the matrix sequences are incredibly freeing. Here's a movie were you can literally become a kung-fu master, helicopter pilot, or super bad ass just by having the information downloaded into your brain. By 1999, the hacker, rave, and black trench coat fashions were actually all a few years pass their prime. It's these equal themes of paranoia and freedom through self-determination that made the movie truly popular. No wonder the film inspired such fanatical devotion.
As a genre thriller, the film is hugely successful. The story is gripping right from the exciting, mysterious opening scene. Here we get the first dose of the bullet time fighting style. That became a cliché so quickly but at the time it was a way of doing fight choreography that was unique. We get hit with it nearly seconds into the film and it really blindsides the audience, telling them this is something different. Even after being ripped off and parodied countless time, it’s still so fucking cool, especially during the climatic battles.
The ensemble cast is fairly strong throughout. Laurence Fishburne imbues the role of mentor with a real sense of gravitas. The movie never quite stoops to making him a wise old sage cliche simply by acknowledging his self-doubt. Carrie-Anne Moss conceals a similar self-doubt as Trinity beneath a mask of steely strength. Joe Pantoliano does play the sort of slimy bastard role he’s done before, but, hey, it’s what he’s good at. He makes it astonishingly easy to like his character at first and, upon the big plot reveal, even easier to despie him. I wish we had gotten to spent a little more time with Marcus Chong, Anthony Ray Parker, and especially Matt Doran since Tank, Dozer, and Mouse all seem like pretty interesting characters and each actor is up to the challenge.
The best performance is Hugo Weaving. Snarling, staring, and villainously monologuing, he is a comic book bad guy, just barely under over-the-top. Yet Weaving is having such a ball in the role, you can’t help but relish the opportunity to be bad as much as he does. He imbues every line with villainous venom. Now, we come to Keanu. Reeves isn’t a great actor but he can do well in certain roles. Perhaps Neo was a bit out of his range, with all the deep thinking required for the part, but he at least gets the wide-eyed confusion and wonderment down pat. His surfer dude stiffness is never distracting, which you can't always say.
As awesome as so much of the movie is, there are flaws. The pacing could use some work. The first act is solid, despite not much happening beyond exposition, but its fascinating exposition and this is a movie where knowing the rules before really getting into the story doesn’t hurt any. Things begin to dribble a little during the second act, especially during the visit to the Oracle which could have used some editing. However, after Morpheus’ capture the story gets the drive it needs and the third act kicks off a fantastically paced series of excellent action sequences.
I get the impression there might have been some last minute rewriting or rearranging with the script. As I pointed out above, killing off half of your cast midway through the movie, before even really getting to know any of them, plays like a cheap, easy way to ratchet up suspense during the middle chapter of the film. Generally, I think a lot of the traitor subplot could have used some rearranging. Also, I've never been much convince with the movie's use of epic archetypes and prophecies. Things like the Oracle and The One all seemed more like attempts to build up a mythology behind the story then anything natural to evolve out of the writing process. The final reveal of Neo as the One and the way it wraps up all the plot lines at the end there can't help but come off as somewhat cheap. Finally, the Neo/Trinity love story has always been pretty flat. There's just not much chemistry there. The romance seems destined instead of natural. Sadly, all of these problems would play even further out in the much maligned sequels. But, more on that later.
Despite it's own problems and the problems it would create, I can't help but love "The Matrix." Call me a hopeless nostalgic, if you want too. I stand by my opinion. It's just that awesome. [Grade: A]