In a future where machines use humans as a fuel source and trap their minds within an imaginary world, only the Chosen One and a few rebels fight for humanity’s release from The Matrix.
“You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?”
I got that impression after first watching this mind-blowing film in the theater. Three years later on DVD, its still a stunning convergence of creative mastery and technical brilliance.
The Wachowski Brothers created a story that combines their love of Asian cinema, anime, comic books, science fiction, and classic literature. On the surface, The Matrix is a cyberpunk tale of dominant computers turning humanity into their virtual pawns in order to harvest their energy. For unexplained reasons, everyone’s brain is jacked into a “construct” or virtual world where they live out imaginary lives in their minds while their real bodies are wired and bled of energy to maintain the robots who now rule. A small band of outlaws led by the enigmatic Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) who have escaped the construct search for a Chosen One who is foretold to hold the power to free humanity. The One turns out to be Neo (Keanu Reeves), and much of the story concerns his training and discovery of his power which finally manifests itself at the end.
Visually, the film gushes with eye candy, much of it never before seen. The bullet-time, slow-mo camera techniques, graphic novel-inspired angles, and leather-clad heroes doing kung fu flips through mountains of flying debris as bullets and thumping music whiz by are all undeniably cool. If anything, the film is almost too visually distinctive, meaning that many of the scenes may never be repeated without comparisons to this film. Every inch of the film looks very deliberate and detailed which is much appreciated. There is a consistency and contrast to the look of the brownish, filtered scenes within the construct and the metallic and bleak real world. The sets and art direction are outstanding with many influences coming from the comic book world.
Although already revolutionary in its look and conception, The Matrix set a whole new standard for action with the inclusion of Yuen Wo Ping as kung fu coordinator. Long before the production actually began, Wo Ping and his staff which included Yuen Shun Yi began training the lead actors in kung fu and wirework. Although none of the actors had any formal kung fu training prior, they managed to give fine performances. This world of the construct allowed characters to break the laws of physics which gave Wo Ping the opportunity to stretch his fantastically creative talents even more. The Wachowski Brothers definitely have a true appreciation for Hong Kong cinema that was likely one of the key components in drawing Wo Ping to the production. Although filled with all manner of genre goodies, the martial arts combat is clearly a highlight.
Now peering just beneath the surface will uncover more complex issues ranging from religion and philosophy to ethics. Amid all of the futuristic excitement, The Wachowski Brothers throw in religious overtones manifested in the Oracle, played by the now deceased Gloria Foster. She acts as an Old Testament prophet foretelling the coming of a savior which in this case is Neo. Morpheus could be likened to John the Baptist as he prepares the way for the manifestation of Neo’s power by seeking him out and training him. Cypher’s (Joe Pantoliano) betrayal could be compared to Judas, but his motivation which is his desire to return to the cozy world of the construct is more compelling. One of the moral and philosophical dilemmas Morpheus faces is whether or not he should be freeing people from the construct if they don’t want to face the real world. While the machines seem as inherently evil as a slave owner, they do provide humans with an opportunity to live out their mundane lives, if only in their minds. As Agent Smith interrogates Morpheus we even learn that the machines once attempted to create a perfect artificial world, free of pain. Then we get another mental bomb. Agent Smith, product of a single-minded computer network is thinking for himself and he also sees himself as a prisoner within the Matrix. This fissure among the construct wardens is not fully explored and leaves a tantalizing hope that the sequel will develop this further.
All of these ideas boil down to the fact that this story is extremely well developed for a genre film and deserves as much appreciation as the film’s action and visuals. On nearly every level, The Matrix not only excels but sets new standards, much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner did in the ’80s. Future filmmakers will likely be trying to duplicate or surpass this one for years to come.REVIEW: Matrix, The (1999),
The Matrix (1999) • Yuen Woo-ping