THE STORY – Neo (Keanu Reeves) believes that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), an elusive figure considered to be the most dangerous man alive, can answer his question — What is the Matrix? Neo is contacted by Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a beautiful stranger who leads him into an underworld where he meets Morpheus. They fight a brutal battle for their lives against a cadre of viciously intelligent secret agents. It is a truth that could cost Neo something more precious than his life.
THE CAST – Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving & Joe Pantoliano
THE TEAM – Lana & Lilly Wachowski (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 136 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
Like “Star Wars” (1977) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994) before it, “The Matrix” (1999) is a film that’s tough to discuss without acknowledging the massive influence it had. It was a watershed moment for special effects and modern blockbusters, a stylistic tour de force that’s still influencing how action choreography is depicted in video games, superhero franchises, and more. It balanced bullet-time mayhem with complex philosophical concepts that fans have continued to analyze and interpret ad nauseam. As far as cultural phenomena go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better cinematic example.
However, all that would be moot if “The Matrix” wasn’t a great film. The technical and cultural impact was only possible because writer/directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski managed to wrap it all in a sleek package that was simultaneously mysterious and alluring. Say what you will about the sequels (in my opinion, the less, the better), but the original film still buzzes with the electricity of true inspiration. It maintains the freshness of discovery, some two decades later.
Much of the film’s durability comes down to the Wachowskis’ singular aesthetic. They created a world that was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before, and the alien feeling that emanated from it allowed us to instantly connect with the disconnected Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves). As a computer programmer by day and the hacker “Neo” by night, Anderson pines for something more. Hell, anything. He feels he’s sleepwalking through life, and a timely visit from Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) proves his fanciful assertions correct.
These early scenes are masterfully paced, noting the irregularities of the world without giving away the game. The directors align our perspective with Anderson’s, ensuring that we too are shocked by the discovery of an insect-like tracking bot in his body or interrogation scene in which Anderson’s mouth is sealed shut. Anderson eventually discovers that he’s been living in a simulation called the Matrix, which was created by machines in an effort to use dormant humans as an energy source.
Reeves deserves lots of credit for selling the nightmarish transition from his world to the desert of the real. His increasingly rigid performances in the sequels lent itself to parody in later years, so it can be easy to forget how convincingly he transforms from nobody hacker to human savior throughout the film’s runtime. He more than makes up for what the actor lacks in conventional range with empathy and charisma. He’s one of the great everyman actors of the screen and watching him stumble, fail, and ultimately prevail as a hero-in-training is one of the film’s purest pleasures.
It doesn’t hurt that Reeves is flanked by a Murderers’ Row of supporting talent. Moss is a revelation as Trinity, cold and calculated on the surface but emotionally hopeful underneath. Her chemistry with Reeves is palpable from their very first scene, and their simmering romance adds a welcome splash of humanity amidst the sickly greens of the matrix code. Joe Pantoliano is a delight as the traitorous Cypher, so disgruntled with reality that he’s willing to sell out humanity for the promise of fantasy. The actor was a loathsome baddie in the Wachowskis’ previous film, “Bound” (1996), and he brings the goods yet again in his limited screen time.
Then there’s Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus. In truth, Fishburne is the film’s secret weapon, effortlessly delivering iconic quotables and tearing through pages of exposition that would have leveled most other stars. Neo’s arc is the most traditionally heroic in the film (he is, after all, the hero), but what Fishburne and the Wachowskis do with Morpheus is compelling in a less obvious manner. He’s not just a mentor in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mold; he’s a man with his own aspirations and frustrations. The pressure is on him to find the “One,” and he must repeatedly defend his selection of Anderson from the ridicule of others. He’s a man who’s willing to die for what he believes, and yet he voices uncertainty as to whether he made the wrong choice. Morpheus is the least conventional and, thus, the most rewarding to analyze on repeat viewings in a film rife with archetypal characters.
I would be remiss to discuss “The Matrix” without discussing the film’s action scenes. It’s the rare film in which every action scene is a highlight, whether we’re talking the training montage with Neo and Morpheus, the scuzzy building squabble between Morpheus and Agent Smith (a scenery-chewing Hugo Weaving), or the absolutely hypnotic rescue mission mounted by Neo and Trinity. The latter is probably the most iconic, with its black trench coat aesthetic, techno score, and eye-popping choreography. After all these years, it still looks great despite being imitated to death by hordes of less-talented filmmakers.
Not enough can be said about the Wachowskis’ ability to weave in scenarios where the aforementioned action can occur logically. Their later films have suffered from a lack of focus or an overemphasis on gobbledygook worldbuilding. Still, here, they skillfully dole out the right amount of exposition without burying the lede (i.e., the Architect monologue in “The Matrix Reloaded”). With its analogies and double meanings, the dialogue also comes off better here than in future iterations. The lengthy conversation between Neo and the Oracle is a standout, as is the diatribe Agent Smith gives Morpheus regarding the human condition. In the latter case, the disdain Smith feels is so logically backed-up that we get frighteningly close to understanding it.
It’s worth noting that “The Matrix” was one of many late-90s films that tackled themes of artificiality and alienation. “Abre Los Ojos” (1997), “The Truman Show” (1998), “Dark City” (1998), and “Fight Club” (1999) are just some of the titles that shattered the illusion of monotonous, everyday life. The similarities are striking, whether one points to the fluorescent green offices of “Fight Club” or the superhuman at the heart of “Dark City,” but what sets “The Matrix” apart is its inherent hopefulness. Where these other films offered up bleak outcomes, the Wachowskis and their vessel, Neo, were confident they could make the world a better place. It turns out they were right. A cinematic landscape without “The Matrix” would be as barren as the scorched earth above Zion.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The Wachowskis’ gumbo of exposition, philosophy, science fiction, and action is one of the most intoxicating to ever come out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
THE BAD – Some of the CG effects may seem dated, despite being groundbreaking for the time.
THE FINAL SCORE – 10/10