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Review: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Directed by: The Wachowski Brothers

Premise: A computer hacker (Keanu Reeves) is awakened to discover that what he has perceived as reality is really an elaborate computer simulation keeping humanity asleep while human bodies are used to power intelligent machines. Once awakened and freed from the matrix, Neo joins with an anti-establishment guerilla force that is attempting to free humanity.

What Works: The Matrix is a watershed moment in the history of cinematic science fiction. The film draws upon some of the themes that have been explored before in pictures like Blade Runner, Soylent Green, and even Star Wars but here those ideas are presented with much more subtle depth and an overtly anti-establishment attitude. Where many other science fiction films have dealt with revolutionary themes and subversive agendas, The Matrix goes further by making reference to concepts by philosophers like Plato, Rene DeCartes, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche and then fusing them with revolutionary politics and contemporary anxieties about meaning, existence, and truth. Rather than just using the philosophical ideas as a window dressing for the appearance of sophistication, The Matrix dives into the substance of these ideas, using them to drive the conflicts of the story and the design of the story world. The result is a film that gives new life to old ideas, making them relevant for the contemporary age. In the process, The Matrix manages to do something extraordinary: it captures and dramatizes our contemporary world, acting out what are usually abstract or academic ideas through flesh and blood (or in some instances mechanical or digital) characters. What’s more extraordinary is that the film does not limit its themes and ideas to plot and character, but extends them to the film medium itself. The filmmakers of The Matrix recognize the plasticity of film, a new state of the medium that was brought on by the use of computer technology. The Matrix incorporates this unlike any film before it, using digital tools to bend time and space and doing so in order to amplify the meaning of the film. While all of this thematic content is impressive, The Matrix is also an excellent demonstration of filmmaking craft and manages to be extremely entertaining. The cinematography is terrific and the editing of The Matrix is also very impressive, using some unusual patterns, sometimes breaking from standard editing procedure (like starting a scene on a close up instead of an establishing shot) and pumping the story with energy. The sound design of The Matrix is also very impressive, especially in its use of music. The score taps into the film’s meld of classic ideas with contemporary sensibilities, mixing a traditional orchestral score with electronic and synthetic elements as well as techno or hard rock songs. The mix works very well and both adds to the street credibility of the film’s politics as well as its underlying themes. There are quite a few great action set pieces here such as the opening rooftop chase, the kung fu training sequence, and the helicopter rescue and while each is stunning as a piece of action these scenes also work on secondary and tertiary levels, advancing plot and character. The casting is spot on with Keanu Reeves in the role he will be remembered for; Laurence Fishburne contributes a great deal of seriousness and weight as revolutionary leader Morpheus and Hugo Weaving gives a memorable performance as Agent Smith, the lead villain.

What Doesn’t: Although The Matrix has many fans it also has many detractors. Some see the picture as dealing in pop philosophy, others accuse it of using too many ideas too superficially resulting in a hokey pseudo-intellectualism. Whether this is true or not is fiercely debated among critics and fanboys (or girls). But the fact that the film has opened up this kind of passion and discussion is itself significant. One critique of The Matrix that ought to be considered is its lack of humor. Although there is some humor to be found, The Matrix does suffer a bit from its very serious and self-important tone.

DVD Extras: The Ultimate Matrix Collection includes The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Animatrix as well as six discs of bonus materials. The films include two commentary tracks, one with philosophy professors who liked the film and comment on its symbols and meanings, and another with film critics who did not like film and discuss the film’s shortcomings.

Bottom Line: The Matrix is an important film and its influence can be seen in films such as The Dark Knight and the new edition of Battlestar Galactica. The mix of compelling intellectual inquiry wrapped up in an exciting narrative makes The Matrix a great piece of entertainment and a thoughtful commentary on contemporary life.

Episode: #234 (April 5, 2009)