The Matrix (1999)

D: Andy and Larry Wachowski
S: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fisburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

Slick, stylish sci-fi fantasy in the mould of the end-of-millenium angst of The Truman Show and Dark City . Keanu Reeves is a straight-laced computer programmer by day and a pseudonymous hacker by night (today's equivalent of the masked avengers of 1940s comic books). He is contacted by an enigmatic master hacker named Morpheus (Laurence Fisburne) and discovers, as the protagonists of so many genre films in recent years have, that the world is an illusion; in this case an elaborate computer simulation controlled by malevolent machines who have enslaved the human race. Reeves, it seems, is the only hope for mankind, a sort of virtual messiah whose power to manipulate the fabric of this artificial reality he has only begun to discover. Meanwhile sinister baddies led by a marvelously evil Hugo Weaving are out to stop Fisburne and his band of outlaws from helping Reeves to fulfil his destiny.

Following their peculiar debut feature Bound with an extravagant $63m pinball game of a movie like The Matrix may not win Andy and Larry Wachowski the critical plaudits which Joel and Ethan Coen eventually received. But it has won them respect at the U.S. box office (where it grossed over $100m in four weeks), which is always good currency no matter how auteurist your projects become. Written and directed without delineation of roles by the brothers, The Matrix is far from original, but it is distinctive. It fuses bits and pieces from genre films including those mentioned above and countless others, with not quite random snatches of referentiality from sources as diverse as The Bible and the language of computer programming. Early on Reeves' character is seen with a copy of Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacrum, Gloria Foster plays a wizened guru named "Oracle", our hero embarks on his mission having received the cryptic message "follow the white rabbit." The Alice in Wonderland parallel is obvious and deliberate, and with a rogues gallery of colourful characters popping out of the scenery at will, the film is primarily a hallucinogenic virtual trip through the mind of the late twentieth century in which cyberspace is a metaphor rather than a place. It is also a noisy, visually jokey spectacle which fuses long leather jackets, shades, and heavy weaponry with fluid, stylised martial arts and computer-generated digital trickery. One particularly nice imagistic flourish is the penchant for 'bending' the scene with crystal-clear freeze frame and slow motion within which the camera continues to manoeuvre, mimicking the 'breaks' in the programme which the characters exploit to perform super-human feats of combat and motion.

In many ways the film is the flip side of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ , a hard-edged techno-fetishistic cyberpunk more in line with the writings of William Gibson. It lacks the organic viscerality of the Cronenberg and the postapocalyptic trappings of the failed Gibson-penned Johnny Mnemonic (which also featured Reeves), but it reflects a concern with the potential shift from passive to active represented by alternative technologies in the twenty-first century. The cinema has failed so far to sufficiently harness the internet as a plot device (The Net, You've Got Mail). The Matrix posits, as does Cronenberg, that we have been asking the wrong questions of interactivity, and that far from the Freudian cliches which have defined the initial speculation about the future of video games and computer simulations, new concepts of space, time, and the body need to be developed in order to address them. It emerges as an alternative dimension, a cerebral fusion of digital and organic where bending reality to the will is a matter of learning which buttons to push, which is an increasingly genuine possibility which must give pause for thought despite the outlandish way in which it is being handled in these films.

On its own merits and apart from any philosophical implications (which may or may not matter to you) the film is not the Holy Grail of cyberspace movies it promises to be. Its storyline is stretched too thinly, with many unlikely and improperly motivated reversals extending it beyond its natural life. It is busy and inventive, but not quite as gripping as it hopes, with ultimately little enough meat to flesh out over two hours of screen time. On the level of performance, Reeves is perfect for this kind of role as essentially another digit in the stream of data which makes up the movie, but a more sardonic touch would have been nice. Fisburne is all presence as the inscrutable Morpheus, and though there are equally entertaining supporting performances by Joe Pantoliano and Hugo Weaving, none of it is convincing on a human level (though this is hardly the point). Carrie-Anne Moss has a thankless sidekick role as what appears to be an underdeveloped 'eve' to Reeves' 'adam' (though this aspect of the plot is never fully explored), after making a striking entrance which plays the movie's trump visual card of violent martial arts with special effects enhancement.

The Matrix is the kind of film which either appeals to you or does not, and you'll know within five minutes whether to leave the theatre. For those willing to tolerate paper-thin characterisation and an excess of undisciplined imagination it will pass the time easily enough. It is entertaining and it is certainly stylish, and it may well inspire legions of devoted admirers. But though the film is being toted as a potential Generation X counterpoint to The Phantom Menace, and is replete with clever gags and impressive special effects, its resonances are too often borrowed and too recently recycled for lasting appeal. It is also perhaps just too much, and it is especially hard to buy in to its redemptive ending (a problem which also beset the otherwise superior Dark City). It is worth seeing, but it is not to all tastes.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.