Wednesday, June 14, 2006
There Is No Trilogy, Part 1 of 3: The Matrix
Enough has been said about the Matrix movies, particularly the sequels, to make me kinda fuzzy on what I thought of them. I remember liking all three films to some extent, the first more so than the other two, but what happens when you read a hundred different opinions on something like this is you kinda forget what reasons you had for thinking the way you did. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, I decided to take another look and re-rent the entire trilogy, and go through it one movie at a time. I'll try and reign in the philosophical stuff a bit, that wasn't my major anyway. I will, however, be looking quite a bit at how the films now fit together as a whole and maybe compare that to how they stood apart.
So, THE MATRIX.
Like the first STAR WARS movie, THE MATRIX was conceived as a complete stand-alone story, but with the doors left open for a larger trilogy. Seven years later, it plays like the first act of a classic heroic saga, combining the Campbellian journey of the protagonist (which I'd go into in more detail if I had the book with me) with the introduction of a very cool, very elaborate sci-fi setting. It's a superbly crafted movie, rich in conceptual and thematic detail while still working very well as a story.
The plot, you probably know. Keanu Reeves is a computer hacker going by the name of "Neo", who is contacted by a group of fellow cybercriminals led by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne.) Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a hydraulic cocoon, and finds out with Morpheus' help that he was trapped, along with most of the human race, in the Matrix, a computer simulation designed by the machines that now rule the world to keep humanity in a trance while they use us for power. Morpheus believes Neo is "The One", a man who prophecy says will have the ability to defeat the machines and free mankind from enslavement. When hacked into the Matrix, Morpheus, Neo, Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and their fellow rebels can bend the rules of reality, perform seemingly superhuman feats, learn skills instantly and pull guns from nowhere, but the downside is, if they "get killed", they die in real life. And they're opposed by the Agents, ultrapowerful programs who take the form of men in business suits and sunglasses.
There's a lot I'm leaving out. Zion, Sentinels, the Oracle, "deja vu" as a glitch in the Matrix, the importance of non-cordless phones, etc. Everything's worked into the story well, feeding into what is a surprisingly coherent linear narrative. The drawback is that it does go on a bit, feeling just a little longer than it should. The climax, in particular, seems overextended, though this adds somewhat to the suspense of the ticking clock. That said, I can't blame the Wachowskis for wanting to throw in as much as they could. What's an epic science fiction story without tons of minutiae for the fans to obsess on?
The acting, for want of a better word, works. I wouldn't call it realistic- everyone's a bit too solemn and stentorian- but that's what the story calls for, and it adds a mythic dimension to the gritty, street-level visuals. Keanu Reeves is well-used, Fishburne comes across as the kind of actor who can do this stuff in his sleep, and Hugo Weaving makes Agent Smith a memorable villain with just the right combination of restraint and scenery-chewing. The action, as over the top as it is, has a good visceral punch.
Some interesting conceptual stuff this time around, which I'll bear in mind for the next two movies. Fate and whether or not it means anything is brought up again and again- on the one hand, the rebels want humanity to be free and make its own decisions, but they follow prophecies, one of which turns out not to be true, but does lead to a character making the right decision. So, there's fate, and there's guidance, and it's hard to say what's what. The phrase "Get up" is heard a few times by various rebels, telling themselves or others to keep resisting. Okay, that one's obvious. The whole "humans as batteries" thing is bad science (we take in more energy than we produce, like all high-on-the-food-chain organisms), but it's such a great image that I'll forgive it.
So, THE MATRIX holds up well. It's a rich, imaginative, and sufficiently non-brainless picture, full of neat ideas but not quite overstuffed. But there's not too much controversy about this one. Lots of people love it. I'm just glad to get the easy one out of the way. The real fireworks are coming up.