Friday, November 19, 2010

The Matrix (1999)

USA/Australia, 136 minutes
Directors/writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Photography: Bill Pope
Editor: Zach Staenberg
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran

Dark and self-consciously suffused with a diseased green, as if witnessed via monochrome computer terminal monitors of the '80s, The Matrix, which seemed so futuristically groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1999 and now seems so vaguely yet persistently dated, plunges us quickly into its various exasperating contradictions and paradoxes. The action comes fast and furious in the first 10 minutes, then slows considerably until its big finish. Except for a handful of fantastic set pieces along the way it settles most of the time for being awfully talky, and the talk tends to be all too often awfully trite, sampling a smorgasbord pastiche of new age received wisdom (I can't be the only person, amidst all the yakking about a mythical Jesus-like figure known as "The One," to keep thinking of Gwen Welles's Sueleen Gay in Nashville). On first viewing it's arguably a sound enough strategy, enabling viewers time to absorb the complex implications of the high concept: a world now organized and controlled by sentient machines that depend upon human beings as a source of energy akin to batteries, maintaining human docility with an elaborate neurological ruse experienced as "the matrix," inside of which it is always 1999 and people believe they are living the kinds of lives we all think we know. Thomas A. Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, by day is a faceless software developer in a giant unnamed corporation, by night a computer hacker with the handle Neo. He is recruited by a mysterious band of ragtag outlaws in trench coats headed up by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), who strike blows for freedom and are hunted by nameless "agents" cut so square and efficient they make FBI personnel look like weekend bikers. The first time I saw this, when it was new, the story seemed to me so complex and intricate that I could barely follow it. But every viewing since has made it seem more and more straightforward and practically hackneyed. Not sure how that works but I think I'm about done now. Still, I could not possibly ever steer anyone away from this who hasn't seen it yet—the fight scenes, heavily influenced by the gunplay of Sergio Leone and John Woo and whole traditions of kung fu action, make it entertaining enough by themselves. And the innovation of "bullet time" alone, which has gone on to be used and parodied extensively, makes it something of a necessity, although you will probably have the sense that you have already seen it even if you haven't, so pervasive has its influence grown in the years since its release. A good many absurdities must be taken at face value (human beings as batteries for machines? really?), which is surprisingly easy given the more profound sense exploited here that all is not as it seems, that there is more to everything we experience than we presently know. To the extent that this does work, that's the primary idea powering it.

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