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The Matrix (1999)

by on 2011/01/30

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

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The Matrix is, in my memory, unique for being the only video I have ever rewatched immediately upon first completing it.  While I thought I understood it, I hadn’t necessarily enjoyed it.  I felt I needed to be . . . careful approaching it.

I’d seen it all before, though never in a single piece.  I could scarcely believe it worked.  Things that shouldn’t have gelled did:  art and craft, brains and brawn, spirit and substance.  It’s an endeavour so exceptional and rich, it not only withstands multiple viewings, it encourages and rewards them.

Putting aside my original outrage that it took the wind from Dark City’s (1998) sails, I’d suggest The Matrix is the new Star Wars, Superman, and Tron, all in one.  It has none of their weaknesses, and combines all of their strengths and more.

The tale spans parallel locations.  One is relatively familiar, an unnamed metropolis in 1999.  This virtual world preoccupies the minds of mankind as their bodies are exploited by the mechanical victors of a global war.  The other setting is familiar only from dystopic science fiction, the scorched Earth of perhaps 2199, sown with bionic farms, and patrolled by menacing drones.  Rare humans roam free, fighting to unseat their overlords.

Navigating through and between these realities is Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a white-collar office worker and part-time hacker.  Both pursuer and pursued, his quest to find an elusive mentor (Laurence Fishburne) is hampered by the efforts of a cabal of men in black, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

What follows is an experience as adrenalizing for action fans as stimulating for the philosopher, filtered through the aesthetics of a cutting edge music video.  Grand ideas are explored through conversations and fight scenes alike.

I’ve often considered film to be one of the greatest artistic media, and The Matrix demonstrates why.  It’s the cooperation of all other arts, gracefully achieved.  It succeeds through a rare pitch-perfect union of story, scripting, casting, choreography, costume, performance, framing, effects, editing, and more.

Each department comes through at the top of their game.  Editing, for example, is an inherently “choppy” craft.  Instead I felt as if the tradition of “invisible” or “Hollywood” editing had been abandoned as too obtrusive.  The momentum and fluidity of The Matrix is nearly hypnotic.

Great care is taken even in the smallest details, adding up to an exemplary whole.  In Alien, an otherwise excellent film, I criticized misaligned fades between similar shots.  Here such hiccups don’t exist, or are effectively dealt with.  Watch, for instance, the dissolve between a monitor and the holding cell it surveils.  Other transitions, notably the “code rain”, join scenes both visually and sonically.

The code rain serves an additional useful purpose:  future-proofing.  Generations from now, it won’t appear “fake”.  If anything, it will appear appropriate to the 1999 setting.  As indecipherable as it is “technological”, it proves useful as a plot device, a transitional element, and a litmus for the evolution of Neo.  He reaches his potential in comprehending the unfathomable.

He begins unremarkably enough, trapped in a corporate job, mere moments of which are sufficient to convey most of the angst of Office Space.  Gradually, over the course of the story, Neo’s potential is revealed.  The Thomas Anderson who began unknowingly bound by its rules learns to play the game better than anyone else.  His ultimate revelation grants him both insight and the ability to change those rules at will, a Superman for the information age.

The narrative functions on many levels, with action demarcating and illustrating the hero’s journey and a variety of themes.  Despite the minefield of such complexity, the whole succeeds less for “correctness” than for raising philosophical questions in an effective and entertaining way.  It is, at its core, the Unitarian of sci-fi spiritualism, cherry picking whatever grist suits its mill.

Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is making a varied, dense meal so palatable.  Packing ideas into every line is no guarantee of overall profundity, let alone fun, but this story and script manage the balance perfectly.  Despite including all the usual devices — pathetic fallacy and portents, western and fairy tale tropes and motifs, anagrams and symbolism, as well as innumerable other touches — its intricacies work less mechanically than organically, more a poem than a machine.

That’s how I see The Matrix:  a compromise without compromise.  For some I know, it was a spiritual awakening.  For me, it was more of a paradigm shift.  It may or may not change your life, but it has already changed filmmaking.  Many see it as a perfect storm of comic book, film noir, geek, goth, martial art, superhero, and techno thriller.  Well I’m one of them.  If it’s not my favourite, it’s close.  For intent and execution, craft and compulsiveness, it strikes me as virtually flawless.

* * * * *

Rated R for language and violence

138 minutes

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