The Matrix (1999)


Directors: The Wachowski Brothers

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

Somewhere in the middle of “The Matrix,” one character laments having been shown the world as it truly exists: dark, depressing, and without much to look forward to except surviving. The lie fed to him and the rest of humanity by the Matrix presents a more comforting environment with places to visit, people to see, a job with a steady paycheck, and delicious food to be eaten. He would prefer to have remained ignorant of what’s really out there, much as we all were when we were young and naive. I envy those children for whom the pinnacle of their day is another episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” They know nothing of war, poverty, disease, politics or domestic violence. It would be nice to be so carefree again, but it would also be irresponsible for us as the adults to ignore all the ugliness of the world. If there were no one with the courage to stand up and protest, nothing would ever change.

In the world that Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is familiar with, he is leading a double life as a computer programmer and as a computer hacker, the latter of which has him working under the assumed name of “Neo.” All that he thinks he knows is turned upside down one day when men in suits and sunglasses referred to simply as Agents come looking for him. Soon he meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Both have been steering him towards a sort of enlightenment, waking him up to the reality that the Matrix is a fabrication. Neo is at first unwilling to accept what he sees with his own eyes. Morpheus tells him why he was awakened: It is Morpheus’s belief that Neo represents the fulfillment of a prophecy foretelling of a man called “The One” who freed the first humans and is due to return to finish the job. He believes Neo is that resurrected savior of mankind. It’s a lot for Neo to process.

After extensive training, Neo becomes a valued member of the team, even exhibiting leadership qualities when Morpheus is captured by the Agents, whom no one engages in combat if he/she can help it because of their incredible strength and speed. Neo surprises everyone, himself especially, when he shows that he can move like the Agents can. Among the superpowered A.I. Men in Black, Neo has something of a counterpart. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), although no stronger than the other Agents, seems more cunning, more intelligent. He’s had it with the Matrix, and is desperate to find a way to get out. Capturing Morpheus for information was part of his plan. Coming face-to-face with Neo (whom Smith refers to as “Mr. Anderson”) wasn’t.

“The Matrix” is a neat little anti-establishment film, but it is a fantastic action flick, littered with breathtaking fight sequences and gun battles. The scene that stands out the most comes when Neo and Trinity enter a heavily guarded facility inside the Matrix where Morpheus is being held. Both come wearing long, black trenchcoats, and both are heavily armed. Sadly, it was also this scene that was held against the movie when detractors claimed that it influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teenagers who perpetrated the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999.

If Keanu Reeves hadn’t already proven himself to be a credible action star with “Point Break” and Speed,” “The Matrix” made sure that he wouldn’t be known exclusively for the “Bill & Ted” time travel comedies. Even so, his utterance of the word “Whoa!” still makes you think of Ted. Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Morpheus almost seems like an audition for a Jedi in a “Star Wars”movie, but his Obi-Wan Kenobi-like character has more feeling than any of George Lucas’s heroes who learned to use the Force.

Unquestionably, it’s Hugo Weaving who is the scene-stealer. You hang on Agent Smith’s every word even as you hope for Neo to take this bastard down. Most people probably weren’t terribly familiar with Weaving back in 1999 (I certainly was not), but he’s all over the place now. He’s been a regular staple of the science fiction and fantasy genres, portraying V in “V for Vendetta,” the Elf Lord Elrond in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and provided the voice of Megatron for Michael Bay’s live-action “Transformers” films, to name but a few of his contributions.

“The Matrix” has become as much a part of popular culture as any of the major sci-fi franchises. Even now, fifteen years after the movie was originally released both Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving have been seen once again playing their characters, this time in separate, very entertaining commercials. Agent Smith appeared in an ad for General Electric, whereas Morpheus could be seen selling cars for Kia.

Where “The Matrix” slips is in its mumbo jumbo. As “Star Trek” often does, “The Matrix” will sometimes use big words to sound smarter than it actually is. The Wachowskis are actually reaching for something profound, particularly in the choice vs. destiny debate. They don’t quite go completely off the rails with it, but it’s still best to just concentrate on the “hero’s journey” part of the action. Speaking of which, as great as the action is, I really wish that this movie (along with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) hadn’t made “wire fu” quite so popular. Martial arts films have suffered the most because of it. They were better without that unnecessary, over-the-top complication.

Of course, like most any popular movie, “The Matrix” eventually was burdened by sequels, filmed simutaneously and then released within six months of each other in 2003. In chapters 2 and 3 of the “Matrix” saga, the mumbo jumbo is raised to dangerous levels. In “The Matrix Reloaded,” there are several notable action sequences… but they go on for far too long and, because the participants never injure one another to any great degree, none of it really means anything. So disappointed was I by “The Matrix Reloaded” that I have never bothered to watch “The Matrix Revolutions” in its entirety. In my mind, “The Matrix” ends so perfectly that there really was no need for any further stories to be told. Although I know it’s not the truth, I like to pretend that, once Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” begins playing over the end credits, that’s all there is. There is no spoon, and there are no sequels.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I enjoyed your review tremendously. I learned a new term, “wire fu,” which made me laugh! It was cool the first time we saw it, but was subsequently way too overused as a cool special effect in films.
    You are right about the sequels, and I especially thought the long highway car chase scenes were just ridiculous in Matrix II. Well done!!

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