June 22, 2018

The Matrix (1999)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Lana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

What it's about. It is the year 1999. Or is it? Keanu Reeves lives a double life as a software programmer by day, and a computer hacker by night.

Reeves is recruited by Laurence Fishburne to join his tight outlaw band, which includes athletic hottie Carrie-Anne Moss, cynical Joe Pantoliano, and various others of little importance. They have learned that most humans spend their entire lives in a virtual reality (the Matrix), while unwittingly working for computer-generated overlords.

Fishburne and his friends strive to unplug people from their programs. But first, a trio of humorless virtual policemen must be defeated, led by Hugo Weaving.

How others will see it. The Matrix was a costly production, redeemed by a spectacular worldwide box office. The Oscars and other leading film festivals acknowledged the film's popularity and impact by bestowing technical awards: Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, Best Sound, etc. The Oscars did not pretend that Keanu Reeves' acting skills had surpassed those of Sean Penn or Tom Hanks, or that The Matrix was a consequential dramatic movie.

But most viewers don't care what the Oscars panel believes. Today at imdb.com, the movie has a spectacular 1.4 million user votes and a remarkable user rating of 8.7 out of 10. Even women over 45 give it an 8.2. User views rave about The Matrix as "one of the best films ever" and "a kick-ass masterpiece." Give us more floating kickboxers, please.

How I felt about it. The Matrix is perhaps most similar to Dark City (1998), which also featured humans spending their lives in a false world, manipulated and exploited by non-humans. In that film, if you recall, a handsome human hero somehow suddenly acquires the powers of his oppressors and smites them down.

I didn't think much of Dark City, and so it goes with The Matrix. The next task is to come up with a movie with themes similar to The Matrix that I actually liked, to find a way forward for the present movie down a road of quality instead of coolness.

Starting from the top of my Top 500 list and working down, the director that comes up is Stanley Kubrick. If we give him a pass on The Shining, we have a career of very different and sometimes surreal films, e.g. A Clockwork Orange.

There, our lead is an antihero, first misguided and later oppressed. Thus, the first path to improvement is to make Keanu Reeves less of an ideal nice-guy who just happens to be able to stop bullets and float in the air with his mental powers. He knows that the Matrix is a simulated world. But it is not: it has real consequences, even death.

Much of the story is missing: How did the grand cities of 1999 become a desolate landscape? Where and what is this deep underground city of non-controlled humans? What we have left is a story of resistance, a small group of Jedis against the Evil Empire. If Star Wars (1977) works and The Matrix does not, it is because the characters are deeper and diverse, and beyond cool.

The most complex, and therefore the most interesting, character is the Judas-like Cypher. But he is also annoying, which demonstrates that antagonists should be given motives other than the taste of steak and jealousy over Trinity's predictable love for the clueless but hunky Keanu Reeves.

How does Morpheus know that Reeves is "The One", but can't figure out that Cypher will soon murder all of his disposable peers? Why would "The One" even exist?

As for the fight scenes, they are like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in which the laws of physics are tossed out the window to a degree that Bruce Lee would consider absurd. To defeat your enemies, you must outwit and outmaneuver them. You need an army suitable for the task. Floating and bullet catching is too facile a solution.