Movie Review: The Matrix (1999)

Now that is cool and always will be…
Photo: Warner Bros.

A mixture of philosophy, religion and cutting edge special effects defines The Matrix and the ability of co-writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski to keep audiences intrigued all while wooden characters play out some of the best action ever seen on film is a testament to this film’s staying power. However, will The Matrix ultimately define the downfall of the Wachowski brothers as all their future projects will be compared to their early blockbuster, or will they one day be able to be considered something more than just the boys that brought us bullet-time?

The Matrix centers on Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker with a low level job at a software company who learns early on he is destined to play a major role in the fate of humanity. An introduction to a small band of rebels led by a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) soon teaches him life as he knows it doesn’t exist. The human development of artificial intelligence backfired resulting in a war of man vs. machine that ended in a scorched Earth and robot domination. Humans are farmed for their energy and “plugged into” a virtual world monitored by programs referred to as Agents.

Hugo Weaving stars as the career defining Agent Smith, a role he will always be remembered for as it would now seem impossible to see anyone else playing the monotone aggressor. The role calls for such restraint while an impossible emotional turmoil is broiling on the inside. It is by far the best performance in the film, primarily because the dialogue services his character while the others are operating outside of a standard set of rules and still manage to less human emotion than the programs that monitor the system from which they escaped. Perhaps once you are free of the machine’s control you have no sense of identity and therefore also have no personality. Who knows, but it hardly matters as spectacle and philosophical substance outweighs performance in this flick.

The Matrix could be described as the ultimate homage as it has the look of 1998’s Dark City, the near exact narrative of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (as exampled), begins with a Vertigo-esque rooftop chase and has its own version of a spaghetti western shootout. Traces of “Alice in Wonderland” can be found all while the Wachowskis dabble in every philosophical conceit known to man before passing off the protagonist as the Messiah of a new era. This, quite frankly, is where my primary intrigue in this film remains. Connections between fantasy, reality, religion and philosophy has always intrigued me in films even if the connections are subtle. I love to see how filmmakers and screenwriters can think of new ways to tell the old stories in what seems like a unique environment, something The Matrix certainly is despite its ripped off roots.

The Wachowskis decided on a perfect actor to play our Messiah character dubbed The One, Keanu Reeves. Reeves is often made fun of for his wooden acting, and considered a bad actor due to his rather lifeless performances but the dialogue in The Matrix calls for just such a personality. One thing you can never fault Reeves on is his ability to choose roles, over the course of his career he has managed to pick roles that suit his style time and time again. These roles play to his strengths making his acting style something of an invaluable “talent”. Trying to imagine anyone other than Reeves delivering the now classic “Whoa” line is damn near impossible, especially considering Jeff Spicoli is all grown up.

Whether you look at The Matrix as an incomprehensible mess of mumbo jumbo or a message filled marvel, there is no denying the effect it had on cinema with its introduction of bullet-time camerawork that was not only cool, but an effective, and almost vital, way to tell their story; without it this film may have quite possibly failed right out of the gate. It’s very rare to find technical advances in film that actually service the story rather than hinder the filmmakers. Quite often a film will get bogged down in effects and the director will forget they are telling a story. Despite the fact this was the Wachowskis’ second feature length film they were able to rein in any urge to go overboard and stayed within their narrative structure, giving the audience everything they needed to stay engaged while leaving out just enough to keep them wanting more.