7/18/07

R011 The Matrix

(1999, Action/SciFi-Postapocalyptic, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

The future is very retro.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

Heroic kung-fu hackers set out to save the world from their evil robot overlords.

Summary:

How many virtual cows died for those costumes?The vinyl-suited Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) has been engaged in undefined illegal activities on an ancient monochrome computer in a squalid, unfurnished apartment downtown. Her line is traced. The cops burst in. Outside, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his perfectly groomed co-agents arrive to chide the local authorities for attempting an arrest without them. Their reason for caution becomes clear as Trinity breaks several basic laws of physics—kicking chairs, walking on walls and freezing time itself—to slaughter her would-be captors and flee the building. The preternatural agents defy gravity and wreck garbage trucks to pursue her. She makes it to a nearby phone booth and is schlurped away through the receiver.

Meanwhile, super-hacker Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves), has dozed off at his computer in his apartment. His computer wakes him up with a message about The Matrix, and gives him instructions to “follow the white rabbit.” Presumably illegal computer-related dealings ensue, during which he meets a girl with a white rabbit tattoo. He follows her to a club.

Trinity meets him there to tantalize him with vague information about a man named Morpheus and something called the Matrix, but he doesn’t get anything specific until the next day, when Morpheus himself (Laurence Fishburne) calls him at work. Agents have entered the building to arrest him, and the only way to escape is down a window-washing scaffold. Intimidated by the wind and the height of his building, Neo allows himself to be arrested.

The agents seek his cooperation to hunt Morpheus. He refuses, so they seal his mouth shut and drop a tiny metallic squid into his navel. Trinity and her kung-fu hacker cohorts pick him up that night. She removes the squid with a highly complex belly button vacuum and takes him to meet Morpheus. After some standard “last chance to get out” banter involving multihued pills, Neo chooses to stay. They strap him into a chair and ply him with drugs and halter monitors. Then a mirror melts on his hand.

Several special effects later, Neo wakes up bald, naked, and trapped in a pod filled with wires and goo. He sits up to see huge dark poles hung with pods just like his. A giant spider-ish robot unplugs his wires and then dumps him into a sewer. A hovering airship recovers him soon after. A blurry, semi-comatose montage ensues as Neo’s pale, weak body is refurbished by some kind of futuristic electric acupuncture device.

And thus, one of the most overused video game effects of this young century was born.When Neo finally wakes up completely, he is aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a grungy futuristic vessel populated with less stylish versions of the kung fu super-hacker squad. Various reality-bending sessions of exposition explain about the ancient robot-human war. Humans attempted to win by polluting the sky, thus cutting the solar-powered robots off from their energy source. The robots struck back by enslaving mankind, hooking their brains to a reality simulation machine called the Matrix, and using their body heat to fuel their generators. Neo has been chosen to join their crew because a prophecy names him as “The One”, i.e.: a human born with the ability to alter the Matrix at will.

Neo is skeptical, so they download a lot of kung fu directly into his brain and reinsert themselves into the false reality of the Matrix to meet someone called The Oracle. The Oracle turns out to be a middle-aged matron with a compulsive baking disorder and a foyer full of underage psychics. She slathers Neo with a rather thick layer of vague metaphysics, which he interprets to mean that a) he is not really The One and b) Morpheus will soon die unless he sacrifices himself to save him.

Neo tries to share what he’s learned, but Morpheus refuses to listen. Thereafter, the treachery of adjunct kung fu super-hacker Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) leads to Morpheus’ capture and the deaths of most of the squad. Neo confesses the Oracle’s revelation to Trinity, and they decide to rescue Morpheus.

Bullets fly fast and furious, simulated cops fall like dominoes, and various explody things explode while they invade the agents’ stronghold to free their captured leader. At a crucial moment, Neo finds enough super strength and speed to reveal that his is The One after all. (Apparently, the Oracle told him a lie calculated to get him into a situation where he’d discover it for himself.) He defeats Agent Smith in a subway and attempts to flee the Matrix. He almost makes it, but gets a chest full of bullets just before the chosen phone receiver can schlurp him back to reality. Several minutes of false tension later (c’mon, after all this, did anyone seriously believe he was actually dead?) he rises again to see the world in monochrome green. The agents’ bullets stop in mid-air in front of him. Smith makes a desperate attempt to re-kill him by hand, but is killed himself.

Neo returns to the real world to smooch with Trinity. Mediocre sequels ensue.

Thoughts:

Don't run over me yet; this is a very important call.The Matrix is a near-perfect example of the “show, don’t tell” method of story-telling. Here’s a conceit so heavy with its own ludicrous weight that most methods of exposition would simply collapse beneath it. “Remember that one Keanu Reeves movie?” people would be saying, had the story been presented even slightly differently. “The one with all the metaphysical nonsense, you know, where the robots used people as batteries...” Fortunately for the Warner and Wachowski brothers, this is not what people say when they talk about The Matrix. Instead, they talk about the stylized violence, the villainous agents, the shiny black outfits, the ways the movie bent its own reality. And well they should; these are the movie’s strengths. Its genius is that it flaunts those strengths while leading us by the hand from one tidbit of plot information to the next, so that by the time it unleashes its full silliness upon us, we’re already hooked.

Kevin Murphy joins Mike Nelson once again on the commentary track. Comments about the faux technology abound. Mike calls Neo’s operating system “Fake-intosh Version 9,” for instance. When Trinity starts climbing the walls during the opening sequence, Kevin says, “She had one too many cans of Rockstar.” Later on, with the full weight of the metaphysical stupidity pressing down, Kevin wonders if he ought to be making fun of a movie that’s worshipped by geeks everywhere. Mike tells him not to worry. “This is intensely stupid,” he says. Also included are many, many comments comparing the formally dressed agents to Mormon missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The movie’s entertaining enough on its own, but the commentary punctures its serious faƧade to make it even better.