Saturday, September 10, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: The Matrix

There are those moments when going to see a new movie in the cinema can allow you to be a witness to a sea change in filmmaking. When The Matrix was released in March 1999 I don’t recall thinking much about it beforehand in the way of anticipation. But when the movie finished, I had but one thought in my head: “Tremendous!”

The Matrix utilized state of the art technology and equipment to employ special effects in ways that augmented the story rather than supplanting it like so much of the effects-driven tripe we see now. Beyond the fantastic look of the film, it’s also a movie that strives to say something interesting. It is philosophical in nature, asking the BIG questions about destiny, technological advancement, the nature of reality and the meanings of these things for humanity. Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed the film, are clearly movie and comic book nerds (a term I use without derision) with a solid background knowledge of the classics.

What’s so remarkable is how well it holds up after twelve years. Let’s not ruin a good thing by talking about the sequels, though. Watching it again recently for the first time in probably seven years, I was amazed that all the CGI looks better than probably 90 percent of what we see today. The Wachowskis took great care along with their technical teams to ensure seamless transition between worlds, to make the dream world appear perhaps even more real than what the heroes deem “the real world.”

The Matrix takes place in a future dystopia, although the vast majority of the people don’t know they’re living in one That’s because the reality as we know it, the film suggest, is an artificial construct designed and maintained by the man-made AI. The construct is known as The Matrix and nearly every human being is plugged into it, kept alive in a dream world while their physical bodies lie dormant and are sapped of the energy necessary to keep the machines alive and functioning.

However, some humans have been extricated from The Matrix and now live in a perpetual battle to free humanity. One band of these fighters is led by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), the captain of a ship called the Nebuchadnezzar. His crew is comprised of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and a few others. They have sockets in the backs of their heads that allow them to hak into The Matrix in order to free others who might help them in their war. One of these is Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who also goes by the hacker alias Neo. Morpheus believes Neo is The One prophesied to take down the machines and win the war.

The first half of the film is devoted to a great deal of exposition, a structural necessity to explain the rules and limitations of The Matrix to both Neo and the audience. Because The Matrix is a computer program, rules such as gravity can be bent or broken. Yes, the expository dialogue is limiting, but it’s also part of the fun of the action as we see Neo going through his training and learning martial arts by having software uploaded directly to his brain. Reeves, Fishburne, and Moss all trained for several months to look proficient at kung fu so the camera doesn’t have to regard the action from distracting angles so as to conceal the presence of stunt doubles.

Interestingly, The Matrix doesn’t have a clearly defined mission to set the plot in motion. It’s designed as the first installment in a series so by its nature it must be open-ended, but the Wachowskis were careful to make it a film that can stand alone because at the time no one knew for sure whether or not a sequel would get the green light. The plot is driven more by decisions the characters have to make based on a series of smaller vignettes. The overarching mission is the defeat of the machines, but the first step in that direction is the extraction of Neo. So first he has to be convinced. Then he’s trained. Then they take him to the Oracle (Gloria Foster). Then there’s a conflict that Neo has to resolve and reach a stage of enlightenment and become The One. When the film ends, the war is not won. In fact it’s only beginning.

The enemy is the Artificial Intelligence, embodied by entities known as Agents in order to provide a substantive villain for Neo and the gang to square off against. The Agents are basically programs designed to weed out and destroy the humans, like Morpheus and crew, who hack into the system for the purposes of sabotage. Because Agents are programs, they are virtually unstoppable, although because they take the place of any human still plugged into the mainframe, they have limitations. In theory, Neo and the others should be able to replicate the abilities of Agents, assuming they can attain a level of equilibrium and self-belief sufficient to overcome the limitations set by the programming.

Neo’s first encounter with an Agent is with one named Smith (Hugo Weaving), who comes to him (before Morpheus pulls him out) as a Federal Agent tracking him for his hacking offenses. The way Smith talks to him becomes more interesting after you’re already familiar with the movie. It is laced with phrases of double meaning, just as Mr. Anderson leads a double life – one as a respectable software engineer and the other as a computer hacker. The script is full of clever turns of phrase and inside puns like when someone refers to Anderson as “Coppertop” because as a part of The Matrix he is essentially a battery, or when Cypher says to Neo, “So you’re supposed to be The One. Jesus!” These bits don’t necessarily add substance but they do add flavor that helps set The Matrix apart.

Production designer Owen Patterson did a heck of a job with the overall look of the film. The scenes on board the ship and the underground tunnels and sewers through which it flies around are some of the best and most vivid sci-fi art direction among the many multitudes that have been modeled on Alien and the films of Terry Gilliam. I was actually surprised to learn that art directors Hugh Bateup and Michelle McGahey have never worked on a Gilliam film. This is in spite of the sets being made up of various hoses, pipes, metal gratings, spikes, prods and rods, looking distinctly like something out of Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. Bill Pope, a cinematographer who is no stranger to working with dark subject matter, added his expertise behind the camera, infusing the whole film with dreary and muted shades of green, gray and black.

It’s abundantly clear how influential The Matrix has been in terms of action films and standards we hold for the look of such films. Its influence is far-reaching, not only affecting Hollywood action films like the Bourne series and just about every comic book adaptation, but also the martial arts dramas by Zhang Yimou such as House of Flying Daggers and Hero. That said, The Matrix also owes a debt of gratitude for its visual style to John Woo, who in turn took several cues from Martin Scorsese. So the Wachowskis’ film sits squarely within a continuum of great and classic action cinema. That’s some pretty good company to be in.

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