THE MATRIX (1999)
Directed by: Andy & Lana Wachowski (The WB)Written by: Andy & Lana Wachowski
THE MATRIX in one sentence:
Yourself: If Neo is the 1, does that make everyone else 0s?
Golem: On April 3rd, a lonely software developer gets to work on saving the world.
Here's a story about me and THE MATRIX:
Yourself: I watched it a good 3 or 4 times between the ages of 11 and 13. I'd stomach anything on cable TV to kill time while my Ogre Battle 64 units lethargically crawled across the map.
Golem: In middle school, I heard so many stories about the action sequences in this film.
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: This movie works almost too well as a first-act thriller, so much so that I was a little disappointed once the red pill happened and the curtain pulled back. It's a testament to the quality of the reveal, but requires an extra level of suspension of d.b. - here in the Year of Our Lord 2015 the nature of the Matrix is as ingrained into American cultural consciousness as Luke Skywalker's paternity.
Joe Pantoliano being revealed as a traitor before his actual betrayal is big-time putting character over drama, which makes sense if you're a TV show or just not two seconds away from killing that character. He's fairly memorable for essentially a hack Judas, but the tension of trip two into the Matrix is kinda cramped thanks to the self-spoiler. Plus that fucking interminable phone speech he gives while unplugging his buddies is easily the most boring scene in the entire movie.
I don't think the machines' plan makes a lot of sense, but I also don't care.
Golem: The movie took its time getting to Neo doing lots of zany stuff, and I went in expecting those action sequences to make the film. But I can appreciate the careful buildup to it.
The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: THE MATRIX? This is such a watershed movie in terms of visual style that, save for the (heavenly) absence of shakycam, pretty much every current action flick still looks like it. If THE MATRIX didn't invent genre color-coding and John Woo, it's certainly the movie that got everyone talking about 'em.
If the terminal green filter doesn't jog your memory, keep in mind that everything else is latex and leather; you oughta call this movie Green Öyster Cult! With hit single "Godzilla"! Haute couture comes to the rescue of the Nebuchadnezzar's fairly quiet crew - compare that to the last squad of nobodies captained by Fishburne on a mission of Infinite Terror. I'll take the purely visual presence of Apoc, Switch et al. over EVENT HORIZON's "dialogue-driven" say-my-personality-ism. THE MATRIX's wardrobe is as shallow as metaphors get, but clearly the idea is that our fashionable heroes aren't just rebels, they're individuals. The bad guys' team uniforms (Agent suits, SWAT gear, or funny security guard hats) are exactly what's holding them down!
The weaving of special effects into highly stylized shots (your bending-over-backward circular pan or someone flying in a perfectly straight line after being kicked) really accentuates the idea of an unraveling reality. The viewer can't separate where the characters are bending the rules of physics from where the filmmakers are, creating a visual realization of the thematics. So much time is spent panning and slow-moing that the movie starts to feel like a sequence of paintings, undoing the idea of time in the same way the Agents (and eventually Neo) can.
Golem: Maybe this is corny, but the one-color look of the film--be it green inside the Matrix or gray outside of it--drives home how depressing this world is. From the beginning, Neo suspects that the Matrix is fake and hollow, driving him to play on his computer all day. But then, the real world sucks too, because you have to live on a space ship flying through sewers. You either trick yourself into believe you're eating steak, or you face reality and eat gruel. I really wanted a moment with some color, but I don't think it would fit. Instead, the whole movie is sad to look at. (Aside from the woman in the red dress.)
Occasional computer effects keep things interesting. The bug that enters Neo looks and behaves realistically. It's tangible. On the other hand, when he takes the red pill, the mirror melts in a sequence that's fantastic and dream-like. Finally, when agents pop into a person, the victim convulses in pain, making them feel real. But then, the convulsions are so twitchy and fast-paced that it can look more like buggy animation than human pain.
Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Hugo Weaving, duh. His staccato matter-of-fact delivery transcends self-assured into a manner only a computer program could duplicate. All you need to know about what he's thinking is in the varying enunciation of his punctuating "Mr. Anderson"s. All the better when he finally unleashes his seething disgust. Weaving's weird toothy grimace and bug-eyed stare give us that Agent Smith isn't really a program - he's a sociopath. Debate the other aspects of the movie all you want, but Agent Smith belongs in the pantheon of classic genre villains.
Shout out also to the other two Agents. I don't know if it's hard to act emotionless, but Weaving wouldn't be as great without them as an offset.
Golem: Yeah, Agent Smith was great at chewing the scenery. Everyone had a cool manner to them, delivering sly lines and trying to appear badass, but Hugo Weaving ran with that as far as he could to make a totally fun-to-watch menace.
A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: Going with something from the surprisingly quality thriller act, the agents cornering Neo in an interrogation room really effectively sets up the main philosophical interests of the movie: 1.) duality (Mr. Anderson or Neo?) 2.) Kobayashi Maru (help us or we'll kick you in the nuts) 3.) reality isn't real (oh my god my mouth) and 4.) Hugo Weaving is rad. In fairness, the movie is pretty much on fire anytime the Agents are controlling the screen. Maybe the Matrix isn't so bad after all? Considering they're the "human" incarnation of McAfee Virus Protection, the seamless blend of menace, exasperation, and incredulity is a lot of fun.
Golem: To steal something Yourself brought up, one sequence has the good guys crawling in the walls of a creepy old building to avoid agents. It's cramped, and everyone is stepping all over everyone else. It's a nice parallel to their real-world predicament. Sure, I understand that they cruise the sewers to avoid detection, but this sequence drives home the feeling of what it's like to live on the fringes, huddling in a corner and hoping no one looks your way. Even scarier, the only escape is for an agent to grab your comrade and reveal you.
What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Like most mainstream blockbuster action films that want to be taken seriously, THE MATRIX really lobs it in. It's all teenagers 101 questions without answers: how do I know life isn't a dream? why do I care? "No one can tell you you're in love/the Matrix" is a funny bit of wisdom in this context; it's like the movie is telling me that I'm not supposed to watch it. There's a nice little bit that parallels having a career with living out a simulation: the woman-in-the-red-dress training, when Morpheus first gives the full spiel on the Matrix, has some of the only dialogue I can take seriously. It's a welcome touch of spirit, but what the hell does it have to with all the Messiah stuff? If he really wanted to fight the man, Neo should've taken the blue pill then turned the rest of the movie into FIGHT CLUB.
Golem: Maybe the film gets a bit mired in its existential dialogue, but there's a golden nugget of meaning at the core of it all: with self-mastery, you can accomplish anything. Neo can't change when his boss expects him to arrive at work, and he can't change that he has to live on a dumpy sewer ship. But he can change whether or not he is The One. The Oracle herself can't tell him otherwise. Nothing is true unless you believe it. In the film's closing shot, Neo loses his belief in gravity. Taking this philosophy into a virtual realm lets the film toy with the laws of physics without it getting (too) silly.
Also, the film also claims that the late 90s were the pinnacle of human society.
Note to future self on watching THE MATRIX:
Yourself: (Don't Fear) The Trench Coat. Although the images that stick belong to the thriller, sci-fi, and action genres, if you dive headfirst into the Matrix alongside Neo, you'll find a proper (Star-Warsian) adventure. Golem is going to say something pessimistic, but remember: it's because he lacks Imagination.
Golem: Is it too flippant to say "take the blue pill"? Well, at least try to pay more attention to the more abstract dialogue. Watch Agent Smith closer, too.
Other movies you already should've seen:
DICK TRACY (1990)
DICK TRACY (1990)