July 2024

The Matrix (1999)

DIRECTOR: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski


Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Gloria Foster


Entries in the sci-fi genre have a tendency to fall into one of two pitfalls: either they are dry, intellectual ruminations, or use intriguing premises as mere perfunctory launching pads for generic whizz-bang action and special effects. The Matrix, from brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, is the complete package, a near-seamless blending of mind-twisting fantasy, a fascinating underlying premise, and hyper-stylized, kinetic action. This is a film that achieves the rare balance of having equal material to offer to those craving style and substance, and I don’t think anyone can fairly accuse it of being either unintelligent or boring.

Computer programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) operates as a notorious hacker under the alias Neo and is ‘guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for’. Dissatisfied with his existence, Neo is approached by an enigmatic figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who offers to show him ‘how deep the rabbit hole goes’, and thus begins Neo’s eye-opening odyssey into the world that exists behind the veil pulled over mankind’s eyes. The reality we all think we live in is actually a computer-generated illusion known as The Matrix to keep the human mind under control while our bodies are being used by the machines that have taken over the world as living batteries. Morpheus is the captain of a small ship of rebel humans, including Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), among others, and he believes Neo is a long-prophesized messianic figure. But by being awoken to the grim real world, Neo is descending into great danger. The Terminator-esque guardians of The Matrix, known as agents and led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), are aware of Neo, and are tracking him down, along with the other free humans.

Stylistically, along with a few plot aspects, The Matrix is reminiscient of 1998’s far-underrated Dark City. As in Dark City and The Crow, the world is a grim, dark, rainy, gothic place, occupying some netherworld halfway between reality and comic-book stylization. It’s also in a class that includes Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report for the way it functions in equal parts as both mind-bending sci-fi and action movie. For a while (probably about the first fourth of the movie), The Matrix may be rather mind-boggling. But after a while, a hefty chunk of the movie is devoted to lengthy exposition about exactly what is going on. Much has been made of how confusing The Matrix can be, but anyone confused by it probably should have paid more attention during this sizable explanatory bit. In fact, one of The Matrix‘s few flaws is that it arguably spends a little too much time on exposition and slows the pace down for a while. But the payoff is worth the effort and attention. In everything from the costumes (everyone wears sunglasses, and generally black clothes, and damn do they look cool), to the cinematography, to the hyper-stylized choreography of the action sequences, The Matrix is one of the most stylish, and, dare I say, ‘cool’ movies to come along in a long time.

Keanu Reeves isn’t anyone’s idea of a great actor, but in a role like this he fits the bill. He looks cool in the black clothes and sunglasses, he has some moves, and he isn’t stretched by having to project a wide range of emotion. Also, he brings an everyman quality to the part that makes Neo likable. The supporting cast is capable; Laurence Fishburne brings depth and authority to Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss is cool and lethal as Trinity, and Joe Pantoliano is suitably weaselly as Cypher. Hugo Weaving has the perfect mix of dry humor and Terminator-like relentlessness as the implacable Agent Smith; in fact, Weaving’s deliciously ominous Smith is easily one of the highlights of the movie.

The Matrix begins with a kinetic rooftop chase that gets the adrenaline pumping perfectly. Then there’s character introduction, as we meet Neo and see him meet Morpheus and Trinity, lots of exposition, and then an extended climactic stylized action extravaganza. Action aficianados will find plenty of eye candy here, from shootouts with seemingly endless amounts of ammunition to kung-fu hand-to-hand combat. And those of us who like a little meat to go with our slick action and special effects will find a solid underlying premise that teases the brain every bit as much as it pumps the adrenaline.