What Was the Matrix?

The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski), 1999

The Matrix was the third in a cycle of movies to arrive in the late nineties with a strikingly similar theme. Like its predecessors from the previous year, Dark City and The Truman Show, it tells the story of a seemingly ordinary man who suddenly finds that his whole life is faked: he is trapped in an artificially created environment designed to keep him in submission. Like the heroes of those earlier movies, Keanu Reeves’ Neo starts to realise that he is somehow special, and tries to escape the confines of his prison. Yet while I liked both Dark City and The Truman Show (particularly the latter), I think The Matrix found the most perfect framework in which to play out such a story. The artificial city of Dark City was essentially a fantasy construct, kept running by creatures with mysterious magical powers; while The Truman Show was a more reality-based media satire that showed its fake world constructed painstakingly out of bricks and mortar. The inspiration of The Matrix is to graft this plot into a cyberpunk premise in which the world is a computer simulation, created to keep humans enslaved so that machines can live off the energy produced by their bodies.

Cyberpunk is a pretty self-indulgent genre. Using elements of other genres such as film noir, it tries to dignify the geekish idea that within the virtual world of cyberspace, computer hackers become heroes. There’s no doubt that that some classic science fiction has come from the genre, which provides fertile ground for writers to play out the kind of dilemmas of reality, memory, perception, and control that Phillip K. Dick explored so effectively. If I sound a little jaded, however, it’s because I’ve come at it through a great deal of mediocre film and literary theory that rolls cyberpunk in with French academic theory and gets wildly overexcited about the concept of virtual existence. Even while this academic hijacking of cyberpunk has occurred, there has been a simultaneous dumbing down of the genre in the cinema, with most films dealing with ideas of cyberspace in a manner that is at once embarrassingly literal and yet fundamentally unrealistic (think of the ludicrous search through the virtual database in 1994’s Disclosure). The triumph of The Matrix is that it manages to evoke the disquieting themes of cyberpunk without becoming either pretentious or ridiculous.

The film does this by motoring along: the Wachowskis are clearly interested in the philosophical underpinnings of their work, but they are skilled enough not to let the film slow down as it contemplates these. At the level of story, they have brought together a lot of disparate elements and made the eclecticism work for them. Just as George Lucas combined westerns, war films, samurai movies and other genres into the glorious fusion of Star Wars, the Wachowskis mix cyberpunk with various other film-geek aesthetics: Hong Kong martial arts, John Woo gunplay, comic books, anime. The first half of the film is constructed as a mystery, with Neo trying to understand a series of increasingly frightening encounters with the sinister Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). It’s cleverly done, with nifty twists on familiar devices. For example, the Wachowskis repeatedly use the old bit of following a horror moment with the character waking up as if from a nightmare: by using it a few times in a few minutes, they cleverly imply that Neo is trying, but failing, to wake from the nightmare of the matrix itself. Since Neo is “waking” into a dreamed existence, the old convention is turned around, highlighting that the act of (seemingly) waking up is part of the way the matrix lulls Neo back dismissing anomalous experiences and accepting his reality.

Once Neo truly awakes, the film shifts gears seamlessly from a relatively low key science fiction genre piece to high speed action. It’s here that the Wachowskis most rely on their Hong Kong influences, and they prove more adept at staging and shooting their action sequences than most of the specialist action directors in Hollywood. A fight between Neo and Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus turns out to be just a warm-up for the stunning set piece in which Neo and Trinity (Carie Anne Moss) try to rescue Fishburne from the building in which he is imprisoned. As well as being sensationally executed, these sequences are also distinguished by the humour with which they’re staged. When Neo fires a machine gun from a helicopter into the building, for example, the camera moves underneath the helicopter to show the shells raining out of the sky, in acknowledgement of the outrageousness of the moment. Hugo Weaving’s Smith is central to the film’s skewed humour, with an over-the-top performance that is both menacing and comical. His odd, distorted speech patterns are effective at instantly establishing that he is somehow abnormal – it sells the idea that he is a machine.

That the Wachowskis can float so many philosophical concepts in amongst the carnage, without it seeming forced, speaks to the way each level of the film reinforces the others. This saves them having to labour their points excessively, and the sequences in which Neo realises his whole life is a facade work well as a parable about the way in which a consumerist, work driven lifestyle can become a spiritual coma. (The film is much more graceful about making this point than, for example, David Fincher’s heavy-handed Fight Club). The machines are cleverly aligned with professional authority by such subtle devices as having Neo’s boss speak in a style reminiscent of Agent Smith. The screenplay is ingeniously structured, too, with the prophecies of the Oracle (Gloria Foster) dovetailing nicely at the conclusion of the film. Most other films would throw around such talk of character’s destiny with no intention of following through on it (the Star Wars trilogy is a good example of this syndrome), but here there is careful attention to detail. For example, the Oracle says Neo isn’t “The One,” but might be waiting for his “next life.” Sure enough, he only realises his status as “The One” after he dies and has been resurrected. The conclusion, too, is perfectly poised between victory and ambiguity. It neatly rounds out one of the best films of the nineties.

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