Our collective existential/millennial/Y2K-bug angst now has been
channelled officially into one cinematic premise: the line between
reality and virtual reality is growing too thin for comfort, and
cyberspace is intruding on our personal space. No fewer than three 1999
releases are set to spook us with our infatuation with jacked-in
sensation: eXistenZ, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, and the first entry, THE
MATRIX. Though the marketing campaign (and official web site) teases us
with the cryptic question "what is The Matrix?", it wouldn't be giving
anything away to say that it's something you'll be seeing a lot of over
the next few months.
We'll all be fortunate if what we see is as kinetically entertaining
as THE MATRIX. The story begins as mild-mannered software engineer Thomas
Anderson (Keanu Reeves) -- alias hacker-for-hire Neo -- begins to suspect
that something is strange in his world. He has been contacted by a
mysterious woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) on behalf of infamous
hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and has become the target of shadowy
agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). His very concept of reality
bending around him, Neo meets with Morpheus to learn an astonishing truth:
nothing in his experience is what it appears to be, and Neo himself may be
the key to saving all humanity.
If that description seems a bit coy, it's only because part of the
fun in the first half of THE MATRIX is allowing its bizarre cosmology to
unfold. On the surface it bears a resemblance to 1998's psycho-dystopia
DARK CITY, but writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski (BOUND) avoid the
murky pretentiousness that turned DARK CITY into art direction in search
of a movie. Though there's plenty of exposition required to explain
what's going on in THE MATRIX, the Wachowskis manage to do it with a wink
and a smile, investing the expository segments with wit and imagination.
The film's first hour is somewhat slow going, yet even while waiting for
it to gain momentum there's a certain confidence that it will.
And boy, does it ever. The action sequences in THE MATRIX are some
of the best in a long time, combining wicked visual effects (familiar to
those who've seen any Gap commercials lately) with creative choreography.
Fully aware that they're dealing physics of their own invention, the
Wachowskis let loose with both barrels, sending THE MATRIX over-the-top
and into the realm of video game excess. Amazingly, it almost never feels
like a video-game movie, thanks mostly to the Wachowskis' sure-handed
pacing but also to some ingenious casting. They take advantage of Keanu
Reeves for all the pretty-boy befuddlement he's worth, even having some
fun with his less-than-brilliant image; Hugo Weaving's clinically
enunciated diction helps turn Agent Smith into a perfect icy antagonist.
THE MATRIX is a blast, but it's never a dumb blast. Where else would you
find a hero adding "Drunken Boxing" to his fighting repertoire?
There are plenty of places where it feels like THE MATRIX could have
been tidied up a bit -- a lengthy chase here, a pointless romantic angle
there, a conversation about why everything tastes like chicken over there
-- to bring the running time down below two hours. It's the kind of movie
that will turn off plenty of viewers, either because of its violence, its
convoluted story or its pokiness in getting to the good stuff. Others
will see THE MATRIX as the kind of film that makes use of action and
special effects instead of being used by them, the kind of film that takes
that extra moment to turn its big showdown into a classic spaghetti
Western confrontation. If virtual reality is the flavor of the month,
plug me in to something like THE MATRIX, and give me a world where the
adventure is worth two hours of my time.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 reality checks: 7.
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