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Non-Review Review: The Matrix

Today I’m taking a look at the Matrix trilogy. All three films, all watched and reviewed in one day. Join us for the fun! All three reviews will be going on-line today.

Part of me wonders if The Matrix has been somewhat tarnished by its two sequels and countless spin-offs, video-games, tie-ins and “expanded universe” material. I mean, you can pick any number of iconic pop culture moments from the original film (from “I know kung-fu” to “whoa” to “stop trying to hit me and hit me”), but you’re left with a third film in the trilogy that ultimately grossed less than the original. Watching the entire trilogy back-to-back helps the later films seem much stronger, but it also perhaps helps illuminate what was missing from the following two films that made the original such a classic.

Bending over backwards to make a good movie...

The core premise of the movie and its trilogy is an intriguing one. It’s hardly one original to the film, but it’s one that seemed to really catch on with it. The notion that the entire world around us is a fake construct was the core idea of Dark City, a film which went into production at around the same time and lent some of its sets to this bigger movie. Similar themes would be explored in movies that would follow, from the hallow world of The Truman Show through to the recreational reality of The Thirteenth Floor. The basic premise is deeply rooted in pulp fiction (notably in the works of Philip K. Dick), and also a topic of frequent discussions amongst existentialist philosophers.

However, what gave this film a step over the rest – at least in grabbing the public’s imagination – was perhaps the manner in which the film tackled its subject. The movie has one big core idea – the notion that what we perceive may be distinct from reality. That’s a huge can of worms, but the movie manages to tackle it by staying on topic. “What is real?” Morpheus asks. “How do you define real?” The fundamental philosophy of the film is that human nature is to challenge and question rather than to accept – or at least, that it should be. The only human free of the Matrix who wants to go back to sampling delights he knows to be fake is revealed as a traitor – he’s not fit for either world.

A code green...

The movies that would follow could never find a way to address their philosophical themes in so direct a manner. I don’t mean this to be belittling or condescending, but film is a simplistic medium. It requires great skill to phrase sophisticated moral and philosophical questions through it, while seeming to do so naturally – it doesn’t have the same capacity to tackle these complicated quandaries in the same way as books do, for example. Perhaps this is why Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen didn’t work as smoothly as it should, while Kick-Ass surpassed its source material – both offer a deconstruction of the American superhero, but the latter is less complex than the former. The simpler the question, the greater the chance for a film to explore and develop it.

None of the two films that followed would hit on an idea as straightforward as “what if the real world isn’t real?” and I think that’s part of the problem. The philosophical dilemmas in the sequels required a lot of forced set-up and academic debate, while the nature of reality is a concept that can be played with and developed while seeming organic. However, the nature of the question posed by the film isn’t the only facet of the movie which seems superior to those that would be developed afterwards.

Shady agents...

Part of the appeal of The Matrix is how “grounded” it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are insect robots, impossibly stunts, CGI and cyber-punk to beat the band – but the core of the film is still relatable. The original film spends more time inside the fake world than the two films that would follow – and that world seems instantly more relatable than the cyber-punk trappings of the “real” world. It helps that, in this film, the Wachowski Brothers speak in common cinematic tongues. The heavily stylised Matrix, for all its green tint, is dripping with familiar elements.

The movie opens feeling like a noir film, with the police hunting down a trapped hacker. Hell, when the agents show up, the police officers are less than pleased to see them – the cynical inhabitants of a cynical world. “You give me that juris-my-diction crap, you can shove it up your ass,” the officer in charge warns Agent Smith as we watch his unit position themselves inside a dilapidated building. Later on, in an abandoned subway station, a confrontation between our hero, Neo, and the villain, Smith, feels like it has been lifted directly from a Sergio Leone Western. A sheet of discarded newspaper blows by in place of tumbleweed.

A great shot...

These bits, which speak to a universal language of cinema, and are instantly recognisable to any movie-goer, casual or otherwise, are mostly missing from the two sequels. Anything striking part of this first film – absent in the others – is the honest sense of novelty and wonder. The first time we see Trinity make a jump between two buildings, we hear a police officer exclaim, “That’s impossible!” And we agree with him. There’s a definite “wow” factor at play here, which almost becomes passé in the movies to come. Similarly, the movie’s villains – the “agents” – seem almost impossible to defeat. “Everyone who has fought an agent has died,” Morpheus informs us – and we believe him. However, that threat is all but gone in the sequels.

The final advantage that the film has over its sequels is the way that Keanu Reeves’ underacting effectively makes him a black slate. As the messiah archetype that he will undoubtedly be over the course of the trilogy, here he seems like a blank slate. His simple “whoa” and the fact that Thomas Anderson is painted as a cypher for the audience help make the movie seem more relatable – it’s easy to engage, because we can assume that his relatively vacant emotional state is due to him being overwhelmed by the incredible revelations he faces. It doesn’t serve to create a wall between the audience and the protagonist like it does when he’s confirmed as some sort of diety.

Pod people...

Watching the film, though, it is interesting to note just how incredibly accurate it seems to label Morpheus and Trinity as “terrorists.” It’s striking to note how indifferent the group is to civilian casualties. Since they’ve caused significant carnage and never killed an agent, I think it’s safe to assume that they’ve killed a lot of plugged-in humans. Since the movie confirms that dying inside the Matrix means dying in the real world (“the body cannot live without the mind”), it does make them seem quite indifferent to human suffering.

“These people are still a part of that system,” Morpheus justifies to Neo at one point, “and that makes them our enemy.” The movies that would follow would tone down the “collateral damage”, so it’s still pretty shocking to watch the famous hotel lobby sequence and remember that those are real people in the context of the film. It’s still an element of the film which gives me a bit of trouble to be honest, as the actions of the lead characters borders on fanaticism. It’s highly unlikely that the Earth in the state that we are shown could support 6 billion unplugged humans, so what do they plan to do if they can figure out a way to free everyone?

The movie is certainly a great leap forward for special effects...

Still, it’s easy to overlook questions like these as the movie stylishly makes its points. Even the obligatory exposition scenes seem wonderfully entertaining (“welcome to the desert of the real world”), partially thanks to the visual mastery of the Wachowski Brothers – but also thanks to Laurence Fishburne, who could easily replace Morgan Freeman as the smoothest voice in the world. I honestly can’t recall a film which manages to so skilfully drop massive amounts of plot-related information without ever seeming boring.

I mentioned that the entire trilogy does well from a viewing marathon. I watched all of these in one day, and I actually found all three films enhanced by the experience. A casual glance might suggest that the “trilogy” is best broken down into the first film and then the two that followed, rather than existing as one over-arching plot across three films – and, to some extent, I still view it that way. The four year gap between the first and second/third films (along with the fact that the shift in focus between the first and second/third films) make it clear there is a definite distinction, and I’m not convinced all three were planned at the same time.

Need a lift?

Still, there are odd moments of symmetry which suggest that the first film was the first step in some grand design. We are treated, for example, to a brief cameo of the architect’s screens as Neo waits in an interrogation room. Morpheus’s story about the original “One”, who should be reincarnated as Neo, is especially ironic given the revelations at the end of The Matrix Reloaded.

“When the Matrix was first built, there was man born inside who could change and shape the Matrix at will,” Morpheus explains, recounting the founding of Zion. “It was he who freed the first of us, the Oracle prophesied his return and when he returns he will hail the destruction of the Matrix.” Given what the second film in the trilogy explains about the function of “the One”, it’s hard to argue with Morpheus’ earlier assertion that “fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”

There's nothing mini about this gun...

There are other elements which work quite well. It’s funny to hear Agent Smith observe that “human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet” – given how he ends up in the two films that would conclude the story. There’s a rich sense of irony (and a dark sense of humour) in his confession that he hates humanity and fears he has “somehow been infected by it”, let alone his admission that he “must get free.” Truth be told, it’s entirely possible that the Wachowski’s wrote these lines without planning the final movies, and only went back when the two sequels were greenlit. Still, small ideas like that help to build a sense of continuity between the three films.

The Matrix is undoubtedly a pop culture classic. It’s still hugely influential to this day. Perhaps its impact has been somewhat diminished by the relatively abstract philosophy of the movies that would follow, but it’s still a powerful and effective film. It takes a clever idea and executes it in an incredibly stylish manner – it’s the perfect union between blockbuster cinema and thought-provoking film. It’s a balance that the two sequels wouldn’t always get right, but here it works.

Check out our complete reviews of the Matrix Trilogy:

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One Response

  1. Nice to see you strip this down and give it the full inspectoin. I genuinely believe this is one of the best films of our generation. Absolutely perfect film making, story, action, and everything else… Every scene is there for a purpose, and it never gets old or boring.

    Even today, it holds up against the current blockbusters. Just don’t know how the ‘chowski’s could go from Bound, to this to everything else…

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