This review appeared in the Aug/Sept 1999 issue of Frontier, Australia's science fiction media magazine.
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
What is "The Matrix"? A slam-bang sci-fi spectacular that shouldn't work, but somehow does. Exceptionally well.
The Wachowski brothers, who made a splash a couple of years back with their debut effort "Bound", certainly have a knack for making high-octane films that are never short of atmosphere, style, or thrills. With art direction reminiscent of last year's under-appreciated "Dark City" and Hong Kong-style action choreography, "The Matrix" provides science fiction the much-needed infusion of new blood, which has suffered in recent months from a spate of average-to-mediocre offerings, such as "Star Trek: Insurrection" and "Wing Commander". Furthermore, in a theatrical market that will be soon overcrowded with two more films of the 'virtual reality' genre, namely David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" and Centropolis' "The Thirteenth Floor", these qualities will help make "The Matrix" the film that most audiences will remember.
When Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves of "Speed") isn't working as a computer programmer at a major software development firm, he is busily hacking into protected systems and committing computer crimes for hire as his alter-ego, Neo. While working at home late one night, he receives a puzzling and interactive message on his computer screen, ordering him to 'follow the white rabbit'. A short time after this strange occurrence, Neo receives an invitation to an underground rave from one of his 'customers'. At first, Neo rejects the offer, but when he notices that one of the women heading to the rave has a white rabbit tattoo on her arm, he becomes intrigued and decides to go.
Are you telling me that I can dodge bullets?
No... what I'm telling you Neo, is that when you're ready, you won't have to.
It is at the rave that Neo comes into contact with a mysterious woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who works for a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a hacker of legendary stature that Neo has long-aspired to contact. However, it is revealed that Morpheus has actually been searching for Neo for a number of years, convinced that Neo is 'The One' who will liberate humanity from 'the Matrix', a vast virtual reality system which up until now, Neo had thought was 'the real world'.
The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
It seems that in the future, mankind has been enslaved by intelligent machines which use humans as a power source. In order to keep the humans unaware of their enslavement, the Machines have constructed the Matrix, a computer representation of Earth in the twilight years of the twentieth century. Neo was supposedly born with some special powers that would allow him to manipulate the Matrix and help defeat the Machines, and so Morpheus immediately begins his training to use those special powers to their fullest. Meanwhile, the Machines are also aware of Neo's existence, and they dispatch a number of sentient agents (men in black) to capture him, under the leadership of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
I know what you're thinking, 'cause I'm thinking the exact same thing. Actually, I've been thinking it since I got here: why didn't I take the blue pill?
At first glance, you would think that "The Matrix" would be a bad movie. There is no denying that "The Matrix" shamelessly plunders the sci-fi archives, filching plot elements from old "Twilight Zone" episodes, "The Terminator", the books of William Gibson, among others. Furthermore, the Wachowski brothers have also thrown in some overused Christian motifs, Lewis Carroll references, and bits of existentialist philosophy for good measure. Furthermore, they cast Keanu Reeves in the lead, not known for his great thespian skills and who hasn't been in a good movie in the past few years since "Speed". All in all, it looked like "Johnny Mnemonic" all over again.
You're going to help us Mr. Anderson... whether you like it or not.
However, "The Matrix" manages to defy expectations. Despite the seemingly-cliché plot, the Wachowskis have combined the story's elements into a serpentine narrative rife with intrigue and a surprising amount of intelligence. And while the film requires a lot of exposition to keep the audience up to speed, the attention paid to the story's pacing helps to keep things moving along without putting the audience to sleep.
So what do you need, besides a miracle?
Guns... lots of guns.
The visual splendor that the Wachowskis invested in "Bound" is also apparent here. The textured scenes are painted with a pallet of light and shadow, and brought to life through a number of cinematic techniques that call to mind the films of John Woo ("Face/Off"). The world of "The Matrix" is a bleak cyberpunk interpretation of our modern-day world in which ominous silhouettes and claustrophobic paranoia are around every corner. And when it comes to the action sequences, including the film's unforgettable clip-burning shoot-out in a marble foyer, the Wachowskis are masters at combining the old standards of American action films, the acrobatic grace of Hong Kong action cinema, and the visual flourishes of Japanese anime to create a series of very slick and sexy skirmishes, whether they be with automatic weapons or mano-a-mano.
Furthermore, the use of computer technology in the special effects is quite prominent, especially the use of 'bullet-time photography'. In bullet-time photography, a series of cameras, each running at a thousand frames per second, are placed around the object of interest, which then allows for computer manipulation of the speed and trajectories of the objects that comprise the shot. Although this technique has been used before in a number of films (including "Lost in Space", "Wing Commander", and commercials by The Gap), "The Matrix" is the first time that this has been used so extensively and to such great effect.
Never send a human to do a machine's job.
The film is also surprisingly well cast, especially with Reeves as the lead. Reeves is really only suited for roles in which the acting demands are light, not requiring too much emoting or finesse, and the role of Neo is perfect for him. As Neo, Reeves only has to look puzzled, act cool and handle a gun, all of which he does without difficulty. Fishburne has quite a commanding presence in the role of Morpheus, and Weaving is exceptional as Agent Smith, using his perfect enunciation and dry demeanor effectively to create a menacing villain that audiences will love to hate. And while the demands on the rest of the cast are light amidst all the intrigue and action, they all fulfill their responsibilities pretty well and manage to look good at the same time.
With its penchant for creating juicy pieces of cinematic eye candy, labyrinthine plot machinations, bona fide 'gee-whiz' moments, and terrific action sequences, "The Matrix" is the perfect remedy for those jaded moviegoers who think that they've already seen everything when it comes to action movies and sci-fi cinema. The Wachowski brothers have outdone themselves once again, and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.