The Matrix is one of the movies that formed my late childhood. As it is now, it serves no philosophical purpose, has no deep or profound characters, and doesn’t confound its audience by creating paradoxical layers of reality. It is as straightforward as a Hollywood movie could be. But what it does do, and what it does better than most movies of the ’90s, is create a sense of time and place that is so firmly rooted in the paranoia and chaos of the end of the 20th Century that despite having special effects that seem borrowed from a distant planet, its themes, style and essence make it unmistakably current to itself.
The movie was filmed in 1998 and released in 1999. The terror of Y2K was looming over the horizon like a plague ready to devour the unprepared. The Matrix sat right on the cusp of this transition, as if teetering from left to right, unable to decide in which century to land. Of course, anyone who survived the year 2000 knows that nothing went wrong. The computers didn’t reset. The economy didn’t implode and buildings didn’t crumble. The only thing that really changed was the pop music scene, which saw the inevitable decline of the boy and girl bands (after considering today’s pop scene, I miss the Backstreet Boys).
The Matrix, directed by The Wachowski Brothers (now The Wachowski siblings), brings together both centuries. It has the quickness and agility of the early 21st, a time that saw the arrival of such kinetic epics as The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Memento and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. Its concept stems from the grunge of the ’90s, with its dark and rainy nights, fear-driven way of life, and its questioning of what’s real and what’s synthetic. Many critics have compared the idea of its story to Dark City, a futuristic neo noir about the control a group of dying aliens had over a seemingly oblivious civilisation of humans, who lived in a world that was not real. I have seen Dark City. We were shown it in a film theory class back when I was in university; I remember being intrigued by its premise and disappointed by its execution. The climax in particular was more goofy than exhilarating. The Matrix, on the other hand, delivers with its execution despite having a premise that seems borrowed from Dark City. It says something for the story that ten years later Christopher Nolan would tweak it for his science-fiction psychological labyrinth, Inception, and reshape the entire myth to suit a brand new generation of moviegoers.
But back to 1999. The Matrix opens with one of those What In The World sequences. A bunch of overweight cops storm a dingy hotel room and attempt to arrest a hacker by the inconspicuous name of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). As the squad leader approaches her with the cuffs and his recitation of her rights waiting to leave his lips, she turns around and demolishes the entire squad by kicking chairs at their heads, dodging bullets, and delivering a flying kick while the camera circles her as if fixed to one of those plastic horses on a carousel. She receives a phone call from an unidentified man, who tells her there are Agents, to which she replies, “Goddamn it”. A rooftop chase ensues. Trinity and the Agent leap over buildings like Spider-Man on Cops, and then Trinity races towards a ringing phone booth while a truck threatens to crash into it. I refer to this as a What In The World sequence because we have no idea what in the world Trinity is doing. The sequence stands outside the plot and operates as a teaser. I remember, back in 1999, not understanding why she felt the need to run to a telephone that was about to be smashed into chiclets.
The unidentified man, as we discover later, is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He is the captain of a hover vessel, called The Nebuchadnezzar, that careens through the tight underground tunnels of a dystopian Earth. The vessel looks something like a dirty toy for women with electromagnetic dishes drilled onto its hull for no other reason than to add light to surroundings that are caked in shadow. Morpheus is a philosopher, but his ideals are not grounded in logic or reason. I mentioned at the start that The Matrix isn’t philosophical. This is true. It’s not. Morpheus speaks in intricate poems, delivering the kind of platitudes that are meant to encourage and inspire, sometimes confuse. He has convinced himself that he has found The One, the messianic individual predestined to save Earth from the clutches of the Agents and the Machine that created them.
Enter Neo (Keanu Reeves, not playing for awards season), the monotonous and grave hero who lives his life as a hacker before undergoing Morpheus’ shock therapy of the underworld. Morpheus explains to Neo, and to us, that as the 21st Century began, mankind created a super computer that grew to be so smart it overtook the world. It drew its energy from the sun (like Superman), and when the humans blotted out the sky it drew its energy from the humans — “We are no longer born; we are grown”. And then, just like in Dark City, the Machine constructed a fake world for the humans to believe they live in. This fabricated world is the Matrix. What Neo has to do now is infiltrate the Machine and destroy it, thus saving the world and restoring balance.
As far as I can tell, the Machine manifests itself in the Agents, who dress like secret servicemen and patrol the highways of the Matrix. The baddest of them is the one they call Smith (Hugo Weaving). This means that instead of Neo fighting a computer at the movie’s climax — which would be too ridiculous for commercial cinema — he has to fight a humanoid personification of the computer. It’s less ridiculous. Smith’s scariest feature is not his skill in combat or his power to morph into whomever he wants, but his unyielding ability to return from death, brand new, like a video game character with extra lives. One of The Matrix’s greatest scenes takes place on a subway platform, where Neo and Agent Smith fight it out like a couple of Mortal Kombat characters (indeed, even the location resembles a Mortal Kombat backdrop). The choreography is flexible and innovative, and the outcome lends itself to victory and defeat almost simultaneously.
This is perhaps what makes The Matrix such a memorable science-fiction cum cyberpunk film: The action. I have nothing against action. Action is like food. You take enough of it to survive; too much and you could bloat up. Everything in moderation. The action in The Matrix is not only moderated, it is saturated. Choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping, most of the fight scenes tip their hats to the classic kung fu scenes of early Chinese films. Even the defiance of gravity and reliance on weapons as part of combat is inspired by films that, at the time of their release in the ’60s, proved to be too comical for Western audiences. After Bruce Lee, kung fu was no longer comical. It was hip. What The Matrix has succeeded in doing, more so than, say, The Karate Kid, is revitalising kung fu for the 21st Century, priming it for future Hollywood movies to exploit and explore.
The fights in The Matrix are spectacle. The visual effects, the Bullet Time innovation, the slow-motion and thirst for gunfire, decorate it. What is special about the effects is that they don’t subtract. If they did, this picture would have failed. Here is a movie that exists on basic terms. It is the story of Jesus Christ told for the modern people. It lacks sophistication, but its method of storytelling is sophisticated. This might be all that’s needed. Movies teach and inform. They move, inspire and lead. Sometimes they frustrate, but they also entertain.
The Matrix is one of the most energetic and stylish of entertainments.