Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano. 1999 135 minutes Rated: (for profanity and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 3, 1999.
Special Note (May 14, 2003): Written in April of 1999, my 1½-Star review of "The Matrix" is, in retrospect, overly harsh and needlessly sarcastic. Perhaps I was having a bad day when I wrote it, but it definitely seems like I had a personal vendetta against the Wachowski Brothers (I don't). Having now seen "The Matrix" three times, all of my criticisms still stand in one form or the other, although I would now rate it at 2-Stars. My biggest beef with the movie is that, although visionary, it overly relies on pop cultural references and direct film homages instead of being a completely original, free-thinking motion picture. This tendency gets old relatively quickly, as do its far-fetched jumps in logic (even for a sci-fi picture) as the film progresses. Nonetheless, "The Matrix" is not as bad as I originally implied in my 1999 review, and has its definite merits. Unlike most motion pictures released today, at least the Wachowski Brothers attempted to do something a little bit different than what had been seen before in cinema, even if the finished product is not quite the success they obviously yearned for.
The Wachowski Brothers' sophomore directing debut (after 1996's fabulous "Bound"), "The Matrix," is a very clever sci-fi film, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. No, it isn't "clever" for its intelligence or startling imagination, but for the exact opposite of that. By throwing into the mix a highly convoluted and complicated storyline, frenetic action, and almost constantly stunning visuals, its ultimate master plan is to actually make you forget that it pretty much borrows ideas from almost every movie of its type ever made. Apparently, as hints of their desperation to brainwash its audience about its so-called inventiveness, or lack thereof, the Wachowski Brothers have actually decided to bombard us with cross references to other past works of film and literature (namely "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz").
By the halfway point in "The Matrix," the film was tugging me in so many different directions as it miraculously would make up its own set of ground rules as it went along, only to contradict them later, I finally stopped caring or believing anything on the screen. And because of the fact that it is so complex (but in an empty, shallow way), it would be difficult to discuss the plot without giving away major plot points, but here goes. Neo (Keanu Reeves), living in New York circa 1999, is an office worker by day and computer hacker by night, who begins to get mysterious messages on his computer screen concerning something called "the matrix." Soon afterwards, to the warnings of an at-first unseen man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo is being hunted down by Agent Smith (annoyingly played by Hugo Weaving) and his group of henchman with suits and briefcases, because he is the "chosen one" that may obtain the ability to defeat them. Not only that, but it becomes clear that perhaps Neo's life really is just a facade for his upcoming actual life in a different time period, and world.
Confused? If you are, don't worry, because although the movie is slightly easier to understand than my extremely vague description, it nonetheless still adds up to very little in the long run. To start off with the positive aspects of "The Matrix," I'll make a brief list: (1) the visual effects and "look" of the film is constantly dazzling; (2) several of the action sequences in the second half, particularly one involving a helicopter, are exciting and stunningly executed (although the one mentioned is a clear rip-off of the ending of 1994's Arnold Schwarzeneggar vehicle, "True Lies"); (3) the film got off to a great start with its intriguing opening twenty minutes; and (4) well...um...Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, a woman on Morpheus' team, shows a great deal of charisma when she isn't shoved into the background. To me, it was Moss who was the most intriguing character, not Neo, who is played by the wildly uneven Reeves (this is one of his weaker performances) and given such highly intellectual lines of dialogue like "Woah!"
Now for the bad stuff. Aside from the aforementioned direct references to "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz," the movie also heavily borrows from "Brazil," "Alien," "Lost Highway," "Terminator 2," and even the direct-to-video "Puppet Master" series(!). One of the few actual witty moments came when, in one scene, "Night of the Lepus," a cheesy '70s movie about giant killer bunny rabbits, was playing on a television in the background.
I can just imagine the conversation the Wachowski Brothers had concerning this movie:
Wachowski #1: "Sure, the movie is complete rubbish, but we'll make it look really flashy and visionary."
Wachowski #2: "But what if the more discriminating audience members are able to see right through that and immediately catch onto all of the film's obvious weaknesses?"
Wachowski #1: "Good point. I guess what we'll have to do is make the story have a lot of twists and turns, albeit shallow ones, and add some big action scenes."
Wachowski #2: "Good idea. We made the stylish and original movie "Bound," so it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with some things that haven't been seen before___"
Wachowski #1: "What are you talking about?! Why use our brains when we can just steal things from other movies?"
Wachowski #2: "Okay. Now that that's out of the way, don't you think we should at least set some ground rules in the story so that the audience will know what can and can't be done?"
Wachowski #1: "Huh? Why would we do that when all we are going to do is break those rules. That way, we can do whatever we want with the story, but it doesn't all have to necessarily make perfectly kosher sense."
Wachowski #2: "You're brilliant. And you know what else we should do? We should even steal a key plot point at the end from some Grimms fairy tales, like "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty!"
Wachowski #1: "Oh, I see what you're saying now! I agree that would make a touching, yet happy ending. And to make things even better, we'll add this ridiculous character called the Oracle, who is a psychic. That way, whatever she says has to happen, even if we have just killed a character. We can just bring the people back to life if that's what the Oracle says!"
Wachowski # 2: "How'd you get to be so smart, bro?"
Wachowski #1: "Well, you're smart too, and we got that way because of Hollywood! You see, when we made "Bound," we really had to try hard since it was a relatively low-budget film and needed a lot of critical raves to be a success. With "The Matrix," we have a much larger budget, so if we just throw various "bigger is better" ingredients into the pot and stir well, this one might very well be a box-office success and make back its budget."
Wachowski #2: "Yep. After all, look at last year's "Dark City." Now that movie really was original and a visionary achievement, but also a box-office bomb. Apparently, those unconventional films that stray from the confines of a basic Hollywood movie don't do so well. So maybe "The Matrix" will work better if we also create a visionary achievement, but in place of originality, we'll simply add violence and elaborate chases and shoot-outs and kung-fu!"
Wachowski #1: "You know, bro, we make a great team together!"
Wachowski #2: "I couldn't have said it better myself!"