Continuing my 2014 “anniversary” write-ups (which, in case you’re still unaware, I started on February with my Pulitzer Prize-winning “College Dropout” album review) is a review of a film (Yaaaaay! A film review! No more rap music! Woo-hoo! For NOW that is…..tee hee hee hee!) that…let’s face it…..EVERYBODY must have seen or heard about. The only logical way for anyone to be unaware of this movie is if they were literally living under a big-ass ROCK for the past 15 years (no disrespect to my peoples currently living under big-ass rocks. I hope y’all get out soon though! That’s my word! Flintstones shit! Yabba-dabba-doo, mang! All day, every day!). Of course, I’m talking about the 1999 sci-fi action flick “THE MATRIX”. And so, I’ve decided to dedicate my 100TH POST (That’s right. My ONE HUNDREDTH POST – according to WordPress) to this seminal masterpiece! And why shouldn’t I anyway?
Seeing “The Matrix” 15 years later, (Ahh, funny how time flies), it looks more daring, bold and ambitious than it did in 1999. Written and directed by Lana Wachowski (then Larry Wachowski) and younger brother Andy, “The Matrix” combined their interests for Japanese animation, Hong Kong action cinema, comic books, video games, cyberpunk sci-fi stories, mythology, philosophy and religion. It came out at a time when I was heavily invested in video games (preferably fighting games), comic books, Hong Kong martial arts films and Japanese animation (which was a MAJOR sensation in Trinidad & Tobago during the late 1990s). When the first TV spots for “The Matrix” were screened, I had no idea what the movie was about. It reminded me a lot of “Dark City” (1998) (which you should DEFINITELY check out, by the way), with its dark, eerie tone, stylish visuals and ominous dialogue (Laurence Fishburne’s “Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself” line DID sound pretty fucking ominous at the time!).
Intrigued as hell, I stopped by the nearest movie theater to check it out for myself. My first viewing experience of “The Matrix” was a matinee double bill, with the first film being the the WORST movie of 1999 (even worse than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” which is saying something): Will Smith’s cinematic belly flop “Wild Wild West” (REMEMBER THAT SHIT?!!!). SIDE NOTE: R&B singer Sisqo’s chorus on the theme song for the movie – rapped by Will himself…..STILL gives me nightmares. Long story short, after I watched “The Matrix” in that darkened theater, I walked out into the bright, sunny world as a changed man….or teen or whatever I was back then. I felt as if the proverbial “wool” was lifted off my eyes, and I saw the world in a different light. Yes, I knew it was a fiction film, and the world outside the theater was real. But I was so mentally spellbound by what I saw, I began to question the reality of everything around me. Even the taxi that drove me home (rimshot). I mean, we, as human beings, may be physically free, but are we really mentally enslaved? Are we really aware of this enslavement – and do we want to be? And if we do become aware, should we stay inside that mental prison where we may feel safe and secure, or fight our way out of it? These were topics that I never thought about before, presented in a cinematic format I would’ve never imagined (Existentialism in an ACTION FILM?! Ninja please!), in a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
From its trademark opening shot of green-coloured symbols of computer code sliding down a black background like rain on a window, to its extraordinary opening sequence, “The Matrix” sets up its own distinct personality, among the many sci-fi and action films of the past, from the get-go. This sequence, which pits Carrie-Anne Moss (who plays the mysterious Trinity) against several armed policemen and dark-suited Agents (more on them later), sets up the reality-twisting, mind-bending and gravity-defying world of “The Matrix”. Trinity runs up walls, across ceilings, leaps from rooftop to rooftop and, in one iconic shot (which was later parodied in a TON of other cartoons, TV commercials and movies – “Scary Movie”, anyone?), is shown suspended in mid-air as the camera spins around the room, before delivering a fatal kick to one of the policemen. Her character, like others in the movie, are searching for a man named “Neo”, who’s believed to be a computer programmer-by-day/hacker-by-night by the name of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves).
Neo is established in the film as a lonely individual, reliant on technology and barely awake (in one scene, the camera spins 180 degrees to show the clutter of technology – hardware, CDs, stereo etc. – surrounding his desktop table as he sleeps in front of his computer). He too is searching for someone: in this case, a figure named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). When Trinity finally meets Neo at a club, the question “What is the Matrix?” is asked. This question has plagued Neo all his life, though he’s not sure why, and he believes that Morpheus holds the answer. After a terrifying encounter with three Agents, one of whom labels himself as Agent Smith (played excellently by Hugo Weaving), Neo confronts Morpheus and learns the truth. The world of the late 20th century that he lives in is nothing more than a simulation created by intelligent machines created by humans in the 21st century. This simulation, called “The Matrix”, serves to keep humanity in check, as they are artificially created and used as a source of bio-electric energy. Morpheus and Trinity are part of a human resistance who’ve declared war on the machines, freeing or “unplug” humans from the simulated reality of the “Matrix” during their journey to victory. But the machines have defenders in both the “Matrix” and the post-apocalyptic landscape of the “real world”: tentacled flying machines called Sentinels in the “real world”, and human-like ‘programs’ called Agents in the Matrix. Humanity’s only hope is the one person capable of bending the rules of the system of the Matrix in ways no one else have ever done. One person with the speed, strength and power to defeat the machines, and bring an end to the war. This person is Neo…..a.k.a. THE ONE (not to be confused with that Jet Li movie back in 2001. Man, that movie fucking SUCKED!)
Unbeknownst to viewers at the time of the film’s release, the story of “The Matrix” was written by the Wachowskis as a trilogy of movies. Of course, the film’s financial success and critical acclaim helped green-light the sequels “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”, both released in 2003, six months apart from each other. In “The Matrix”, there are subtle hints at both the promise of a trilogy and the “outcome” of the final film. The hotel room in which Trinity fights the policemen has the number 303 on its door, and Neo’s apartment door has the number 101. In the film’s climatic chase sequence, Neo finds himself in the very same room Trinity was introduced in the aforementioned opening action sequence. His ‘fate’ at the hands of Agent Smith in that room is a premonition of the outcome of the battle between Neo and Agent Smith in the underwhelming finale “Matrix Revolutions”. It’s funny that the room number 303 hints at the third and final chapter of the Matrix story. However, Neo is triumphantly “resurrected” in the climax of “The Matrix” – reborn, if you will, with a greater awareness of the Matrix world. Does this suggest that Neo’s “death” in “Matrix Revolutions” hint at a later resurrection? And if so, why wasn’t this point established, at least to make a more satisfying conclusion of the Matrix trilogy? Ah well. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.
But this is one of the things that I truly appreciate about “The Matrix”. There are so much visual, thematic and narrative cues taking place in the movie that become more apparent with subsequent viewings. I didn’t even notice the number usage, for example, until a few hours ago when I watched the film again before doing this review. But as a viewer, you find yourself so immersed in this story, in this world, that you forget that these cues are staring at you in the face. Like the Matrix itself. It’s there, but you don’t realize it. Consider the visuals of the film. The world of the Matrix is enveloped in a green tint, while the “real world” uses a cold colour palette of greys and blues. Even in the martial arts training simulation sequence involving Neo and Morpheus, there’s a slight, almost unnoticeable, tinge of grey present in the brown and white colour palette used in the dojo. This suggests that what you’re seeing is still a simulation, even though – visually – we’re not inside the Matrix.
On the subject of this sequence, “The Matrix” boasts some of the BEST martial-arts sequences ever filmed. And as a fan of martial-arts films, I can attest to that claim! Orchestrated by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (whose work on the Jet Li film “Fist of Legend” inspired the fight scenes in “The Matrix”), these sequences are brilliantly shot and expertly executed, each with its own narrative structure (note of the three-act structure of both the fight scene with Morpheus and Neo in the dojo, and the one with Neo and Agent Smith in the subway). Another scene which pays tribute to Hong Kong action cinema is the lobby shootout scene of the third act, where Neo and Trinity shoot their way through a squad of armed guards to rescue Morpheus. With its bullets, flying shrapnel and stylish slow-motion movement by Keanu and Carrie-Anne in this scene, this is still an INCREDIBLY BAD-ASS action sequence that still holds up to this day.
But the one scene that figuratively and literally BLEW the fucking minds and dropped the fucking jaws of everyone who saw “The Matrix” for the first time is the REVOLUTIONARY “bullet-time” scene following the lobby shootout. Simulating slow motion, the camera does a complete 360 degree movement from behind, around and under Keanu Reeves as he dodges the bullets of an enemy Agent on a rooftop. The FLAWLESS execution of that scene alone elevated the film to a higher echelon, a level that not even the brawl between Neo and a horde of cloned Agent Smiths in “The Matrix Reloaded” or the earth-shattering, “Dragonball Z”-inspired climatic fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith in “The Matrix Revolutions” could match.
But I’ve only described action. What about the story? The script by the Wachowskis is surprisingly and superbly well-written, with careful attention to the sometimes philosophical, sometimes profound dialogue. The performances are great, especially from Laurence Fishburne (who OWNS his fucking role) as the fatherly, intelligent Morpheus, the late Gloria Foster who plays the elderly prophet “The Oracle”, and Hugo Weaving as the menacing Agent Smith. The cinematography by Bill Pope is fantastic, the editing, sound design, sound mixing and visual effects (all of which earned the film Academy Awards) are fucking SOLID, and the musical score by Don Davis is nothing short of unforgettable.
As you have gathered, there is so much to talk about and appreciate in “The Matrix”. As a science-fiction movie, it delivers an insightful look at virtual reality and the perception of “real” versus “fake”, as well as man’s eventual downfall at the hands of its own creation: machines. As an action movie, it gives us an unlikely hero in the form of Keanu Reeves, who elevated himself from surfing with the late Patrick Swayze in “Point Break” to assisting a scared-as-shit Sandra Bullock in driving a bomb-strapped bus in “Speed” to action hero IMMORTALITY as the gun-toting, ass-kicking, slo-mo bullet-ducking Neo! Anyone can relate to this film, in some shape or form, regardless of age (unless you’re under 8 years old or something), sex, religious or political belief, social status or educational background. Its universal themes of freedom, truth-seeking, courage and the will to believe in oneself and/or in something greater, still resonate to this day. One of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, one of the best movies of the 1990s, and one of my all-time favourite movies, “The Matrix” is an absolute must-see. Now get out of that big-ass rock of yours and free your mind already. And remember. Neo’s watching you!
MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars: “See this movie before you die”