“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
That quote by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) during a pivotal scene in The Matrix illustrates not only a central aspect of the film, but also handily sums up a problem with reviewing the film. It’s not one of those films that is only able to be watched once; I’ve watched it several times, personally, and enjoyed it every time. But it is a film in which that first viewing is substantially different from every subsequent viewing. There is a mystery at the heart of The Matrix, a central question that drives the first half of the film, and like all good mysteries, there is a lot of foreshadowing to the revelation. But like all good mysteries, it can only be mysterious once. The question “What is the Matrix?” that was used so heavily in its marketing — including the web site for the movie, back in 1999 when that was still a relative novelty — is a question you now know the answer to. And yet, what remains is still one of the best modern science fiction films and a great action film.
As Morpheus offers Neo a choice of a red pill representing a dangerous truth, and a blue pill representing safety in ignorance, so too must I offer the reader of this blog a choice. If, perchance, you have not seen The Matrix for yourself, I suggest you take the blue pill. Spend time on my other articles, or go elsewhere on the web; though I do not wish to drive you away, I also have no wish to spoil this for you, and it is impossible for me to discuss it without doing so. Take the blue pill, you stay unspoiled, and you can believe… whatever you want to believe until you see the film for yourself. If, on the other hand, you have seen the film, then take the red pill, click the continue link, and we shall see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
“Buckle up, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is goin’ bye-bye.”
I saw The Matrix in the theatre a few weeks after it first came out, and I went into it essentially blind. All I knew about the film was that it starred Keanu Reeves, whom I knew from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and that it was a science fiction film of some sort. Exactly what sort was a detail that the promotional material wisely avoided spilling. Though it is now well-known to be set in a virtual reality world generated by computers, keeping this fact a secret meant that the audience could be every bit as surprised as Reeves’s character Thomas “Neo” Anderson as the events of the film unfolded around him. Even the subtle hints that it had something to do with computers weren’t exactly a give-away in 1999; cyberpunk and virtual reality were the newest branches of science fiction, being born to literature only in the mid-80s, and had not yet established much of a presence in cinema. The only prior examples I can think of were a pair of 1995 films, Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity (the former of which also starring Keanu Reeves), and neither of them had been critical or commercial successes. So although The Matrix was not unique at the time of its release, it was still quite novel, and the notion of an entire virtual world was still capable of surprising the audience.
“What is ‘real’? If ‘real’ is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
In fact, the movie takes great pains to avoid spilling the beans prematurely. The motif of the telephones and computer connections are present from the very beginning, but appear almost incidental at first. A theme, but not an integral plot point. Yet. We also don’t meet our protagonist right away; instead, we see Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his fellow men in black attempting to apprehend a fugitive — Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. All of the actors in the film who participated in fight sequences spent time training to learn how to do the fights themselves to avoid having to rely on stunt people. Because of this, when we see Trinity beating the stuffing out of the police officers the camera doesn’t have to cut away from her face when she strikes a blow, and the scene — though obviously fanciful and over the top — is much more believable as a result. And then, just when the innocent audience is impressed with the fight choreography, the film does something a little unexpected.
The jump-kick that launched a thousand terrible action movies.
The directors, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski (who are apparently now the Wachowski siblings as Larry has become Lana, but I digress) start playing a bit with the reality of the fight scene. Trinity jumps into the air, and the scene pauses as the camera floats around in a 180 degree turn, before she resumes her kick. This alteration in timing underscores the impressive nature of Trinity’s fighting, and naturally, the technique would be copied, tweaked, and replicated ad nauseum in action movies thereafter. It’s still going on today in various forms. But while it is a technique that has become tiresome and is often done poorly, when The Matrix was released it was unusual, and, rather importantly, it was done well. And even though the audience sees Trinity pull off maneuvers that no human should be able to do, and leap distances that astound even the ordinary officers in the scene, the audience is still left not knowing if she is truly superhuman — and therefore something supernatural is going on — or if it is simply the standard action technique of exaggerating the action hero’s capabilities. Even as the phone booth she takes refuge in is destroyed, it only raises more questions. How did she get out? And why was it so important to get to the phone in the first place? The audience can figure out that there is a connection, but figuring out precisely what the connection remains elusive at that point… and continues to be so when Trinity makes her approach on Thomas Anderson later.
There’s a nice parallel to this scene towards the end, with Agent Smith’s bullets heading toward Trinity instead of a semi-truck.
The scene transitions, and we are finally introduced to Thomas “Neo” Anderson, a computer programmer and a hacker in his free time. He’s haunted by a sense of a disconnect with reality, and has been searching for a man called Morpheus who he believes holds the answers. Trinity hacks his computer with a message that leads to him meeting her at a club; she’s an agent of Morpheus, and is priming Neo — she always refers to him by his hacker alias — for the meeting. As she lets him return home to bed, the implication is that she intends to have several meeting with him before letting him get close to Morpheus. This does not happen, however, as the next day at work, the Agents who had pursued Trinity are now in pursuit of Mr. Anderson. A timely delivery of a phone and a call from Morpheus himself is used in an attempt to get him out of there, but a scaffold escape from the skyscraper proves to be too risky for Mr. Anderson. He leaves in cuffs, and is interrogated by Agent Smith. And when he mouths off to Smith and demands a phone call, the audience gets their first overt hint that all is not what it seems.
“Tell me, Mr. Anderson: what good is a phone call if you are… unable to speak?”
The film uses a blend of practical and digital effects throughout. The mouth-melting scene is purely digital, while the implantation of the bug required both practical effects and CGI. The bug itself was digital, but the torso that it went into was a highly-detailed physical model of Keanu Reeves’s stomach, with post-process editing making for a seamless transition between the real Reeves, the model, and the digital bug. And when Trinity, Switch (Belinda McClory) and Apoc (Julian Arahanga) pick up Neo the next day and remove the bug, the bug removal device is a real model.
With Neo back in their custody and thoroughly debugged, he is taken to meet Morpheus in person. Morpheus offers him the red pill blue pill choice, and Neo and the audience finally get a full answer to the question. What is the Matrix? A virtual reality in which all of humanity, save a few remnants, is entrapped, enslaved by machines and harnessed as a source of fuel. An undetectable prison to keep the human race compliant while serving as batteries. It is not 1999. It’s approximately two centuries after that. The life that Thomas Anderson lived, the experiences he had… never really existed. And if Neo didn’t have enough to think about, Morpheus has one more thing to lay on him. There was a prophecy that there would be a man born inside the Matrix who could see it for what it was, and could manipulate it as he saw fit. Someone who could win humanity’s freedom. And Morpheus believes that Neo is the One.
“What a mind-job.”
As Cypher (the ubiquitous Joe Pantoliano) implies, it’s a heady concept and a heavy responsibility to be laid at the feet of someone who is still struggling with the idea that his reality is not, in fact, real. As with Trinity, the crew of Morpheus’s ship all use hacker aliases, and refer to Neo by his. Even Tank and Dozer (Marcus Chong and Anthony Ray Parker), brothers born in the real world, go by names that seem more like handles than given names. It’s a deliberate refutation of the Matrix and its artificial reality, its constraints and control. Rather than going by the names that were given to them, the crew members go by the names they chose for themselves. But Neo is being expected to live up to not only a name he chose, but a new name that has been chosen for him: the One. And he’s not up to it.
Morpheus puts Neo through several training programs to prepare him for challenging and surviving the Matrix. The Wachowskis have a bit of fun with the visual effects of the film here. While the audience may not have been consciously aware of it, the film up until the revelation of the real world has had a subtle wrongness to it. Everything has had just a slight green tint to it. The real world is more natural, with a lot of blue lighting. And the training simulations, virtual but separate from the Matrix, have a yellow tint to them. A careful observer can tell where any given scene is taking place simply by the color cues. In these training sessions, Morpheus tries to get Neo to realize he can surpass the limitations of normal humans in the Matrix. A trained free human can be stronger, run faster, leap farther than someone still locked into the system. An Agent can punch through stone walls, outmaneuver hundreds of bullets. And it is Morpheus’s belief that Neo will be able to do even more than that.
“What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?” “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
But Morpheus’s confidence, though infectious among some crew members (particularly Tank and Mouse), is unshared by Neo himself. In the jump simulation, Morpheus shows Neo how a free human can jump from rooftop to rooftop. No new initiate has ever made the jump on his first try, but hyperactive Mouse (Matt Doran) wonders if Neo, being the One, could do so. But Neo fails just as everyone else has on their first try. When Mouse asks what that means, the other crew members reassure him that it means nothing; everybody fails the first try. But it does mean something. The same as out on the scaffolding, Neo is unready to take risks, unwilling to cut loose from what he believes to be true in order to accept — and thereby change — what is real. And when he finally meets the Oracle, she tells him what he’s known all along: he’s not the One.
“You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something. …Your next life, maybe.”
The theme of duplicity plays a major part in The Matrix, fitting for a movie about a virtual world covering up the real one. The team has a traitor, Cypher, who wishes to return to a state of ignorant bliss in the Matrix. After leaving the Oracle, most of the team is killed, and Morpheus captured by the Agents, who plan to brainwash him into giving them the access codes to the last human city. Neo, having been told by the Oracle that either he or Morpheus would die, and it was up to him, realizes he can save Morpheus — indeed, he must, as Morpheus is more important than a new recruit who is not the prophesied one. He and Trinity launch a rescue, and it’s one of the most spectacular gun fights to take place in an action film. Expertly choreographed, and with an almost literal storm of bullets flying, it’s one of the best sequences in the movie. Meanwhile, Agent Smith attempts to break Morpheus by lecturing him about humanity’s place, its low nature, and how thoroughly sick he is of having to remain in the Matrix. Ironically, as he rants about wanting to escape humanity before it “infects” him, he is already more human than his fellow Agents in his irrational hatred.
“I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink.”
The rescue goes well… except the Oracle was telling the truth about Neo having to die to save Morpheus. As the film draws near to its end, he is shot down by Agent Smith, pumped full of bullets. And as Morpheus noted earlier, the mind makes it real… the body cannot live without the mind, and to die in the Matrix is to die in the real world. But there’s that theme of duplicity again. While Morpheus believed it to be true, the literal truth is quite different; Neo’s real body has no bullet holes, no wounds, and is perfectly viable as a living body. And Trinity, lying to herself about her feelings, finally admits to herself and to Neo that she has fallen in love with him… and the Oracle told her that the man she loved would be the One. The Snow White kiss is one of the oldest cliches in cinema history, or narrative history for that matter, but it fits the constant fairy-tale theme of the film. A kiss to remind his brain that his body is not dead… and Neo revives and rises to face the Agents again in the Matrix. Only now he’s seeing things a little differently.
His next life indeed.
Duplicity, again. And yet, truth at the same time. The Oracle told him he wasn’t the One, because that was what he needed to hear. And he was, after all, waiting for his next life; his death and revival is the event that reminds him that the Matrix truly isn’t real, and enables him to finally recognize his ability to see the Matrix for what it is. And the first thing he does with this awareness is to prove Morpheus correct. He doesn’t need to dodge bullets… because he can stop them in mid-air. Agent Smith charges and attacks, but where Smith was capable of beating him to death in seconds mere moments before, he’s unable to even get Neo’s full attention during the fight. Keanu Reeves gets criticized a lot for not having much range beyond “dull surprise” in his acting, but The Matrix is one film where that criticism is inappropriate. The film has several scenes — from the arrest to the removal of the bug, to his dismay at the idea of having to abandon Morpheus to die — in which Reeves shows he has a bit more range than he is often given credit for. And the dull surprise he does show, most particularly at the climax, is wholly appropriate for the character. Neo’s eyes are open for the first time, and he’s seeing reality in a way he never has before. A sense of wonder and curiosity is what is driving his character at this point; he is barely paying attention to the Agents because at that point, they are simply not a concern. Of course, once he does turn his attention to them, he dispatches Smith with ease.
I always liked the brief “uh oh” glance these guys give each other before they run for it.
Watching the film for a second time, or third, or seventh, there are a lot of clues to be noticed throughout the film. Some of it isn’t particularly subtle — N-E-O becomes the O-N-E — and Morpheus’s comment about not needing to dodge bullets is shown in as direct a manner as possible. That Cypher turns traitor is not particularly surprising given his “Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” comment to Neo, but I have to wonder how many people forgot about the early comments from the Agents about having an informant by the time the revelation actually came about. When watching it a second time, it’s possible to see hints of Cypher’s deception from the very first conversation he has, when he insists the line is clean and it isn’t. There’s also a subtle hint to the Matrix itself early on, with the disc that Neo gives his friend being hidden in a book entitled Simulations and Simulacra — which is to say, virtual realities and things which appear to be what they are not. And then, of course, there are curiously prescient statements from even minor characters that foreshadow Neo’s role.
“You believe you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken.”
Obviously, it was Thomas Anderson’s boss who was mistaken on that front. And Neo’s friend who buys the pirated software from him describes him as his “savior, my own personal Jesus Christ”. As Neo ends up with supernatural abilities, is destined to save the world, and dies and comes back to life, what appears to be a throwaway comment on the first viewing becomes rather unsubtle foreshadowing on a second viewing. To be honest, as heavily as the Wachowskis play up the symbolism in the film, I’m surprised they didn’t have Neo fall into a crucifixion pose upon his death. It would seem they do have a modicum of restraint.
There are three things that really make The Matrix a great film. The first is that it has capable actors playing interesting characters. While some of the crew are there essentially to fill up space, even the minor ones have hints of personality that make them entertaining to watch. And the main characters of Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity are all well-developed and their actors play their roles well. The romance angle between Neo and Trinity is a bit rushed, but you can’t have everything. Joe Pantoliano brings Cypher to life in such a way that you can like him as a bit of a friendly rakehell until he reveals his true nature — at which point he’s just as easy to hate even though his behavior and mannerisms are completely unchanged. He’s a very human villain, one who hasn’t gone off the deep end so much as simply walked to the edge and stepped over out of an honest self-centered belief in what he wanted. And Hugo Weaving made Agent Smith such an entertaining villain that they couldn’t resist bringing him back for the sequels.
“You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability…”
The second thing that makes The Matrix a great film is that it’s an exciting action film. No matter how many times you see it, the action sequences are thrilling, and each sequence is different. The hallmark of a good action film is how well it gets the blood pumping, and The Matrix is a great rush. But the third thing that makes it great is that it’s not just about the action. This is a cerebral film, and in more than one way. The first time through, you spend the film wondering what the Matrix is, what’s going on, how these things happen. The second time through, you start notice all the clues that have been laid out. And every time it’s natural to start thinking about the ramifications of the Matrix. Why it works the way it does, how different things come about.
The Matrix started out almost as a cult film; it had a very long run in the theatres, but it was more that it received a steady number of viewers rather than a big surge all at once early on. Its popularity spread through word of mouth. And it would go on to become, arguably, the most revered science fiction film of the past 20 years. Its influence is everywhere. Action film after action film has attempted to duplicate or improve upon the “bullet time” effects of The Matrix; the slow-down-then-speed-up motif that is so popular right now is a direct descendant. People ponder whether the world of the Matrix could ever be real — some even going so far as to wonder if it is real. (I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say “no”; letting us wonder about it by permitting the release of such a film would be counter-productive. Unless it’s an elaborate double-bluff. Happy paranoia fuel, folks!) The Matrix was nominated for four technical awards at the Oscars — Sound Mixing & Editing, Visual Effects, and Film Editing — and won them all. It won the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films’ Saturn award for Best Science Fiction Film, along with a win for Best Director for the Wachowskis. Fishburne, Moss, and Reeves were all nominated for Saturns. It made the AFI’s list of 100 Years, 100 Thrills at #66. It also spawned a pair of sequels, though they are nowhere near as well-regarded. I may someday do a write-up on what went wrong with the Matrix sequels (short answer: they were made), but taken as a solitary unit, The Matrix stands as a very solid film.
The Matrix is both a great action film and a great science fiction film. It’s exciting and intelligent, and features entertaining characters. It has great fight scenes, thought-provoking questions, and very quotable dialogue. And it’s a great film the first time you see it, and a different great film every subsequent time. While not perfect, it’s astoundingly good, and holds up to repeat viewings. It’s perhaps the most influential film in the science fiction genre in the last few decades, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”