The Matrix
First screened in June 1999 / Reviewed in December 1999 / Most recently screened in March 2020
Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Marcus Chong, Joe Pantoliano, Belinda McClory, Matt Doran, Julian Arahanga, Anthony Ray Parker, Gloria Foster, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Ada Nicodemou, Marc Gray, Rowan Witt, Fiona Johnson. Screenplay: Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
This is the angriest, most despondent review I ever wrote for this website, only about a year into its existence. Several claims and even whole passages read to me now as excessive and overheated, but I must admit I still relate to the fury and heartbreak that motivated this bitter piece of writing, not least because I saw the movie—and encountered that spectacle of an ammo'd up Neo and Trinity mowing down every innocent bystander in their path, refusing everybody else's reality, only six weeks after Columbine had happened. Those events are beyond inextricable in my mind; it always felt like life had begged the question of how far The Matrix allows its paranoia, prophetic egoism, disavowal of shared reality, and gun-worship to go. Many aspects of the film demand more credit than I extended here, but as much out of candor as of having no time to offer a new piece, I'm letting this one stand, minus the necessary correction of the filmmakers' names. —Mar. 2020

Twitter Capsule: (2020) I grant its sleekness and innovations. But it's awash in paradox, with gun-loving paranoia hiding in enlightened robes.

Second Capsule: (2020) I want to enjoy the novelty and ambition, all welcome even when confused, but the brutally violent messianism is a huge stain at its center.

Third Capsule: (2020) The sequence where Neo and Trinity shoot up that lobby is the worst I've ever felt in a theater, and hasn't gotten easier for me with time.

Fourth Capsule: (2020) Otherwise, the film around it is a vertiginously exciting/frustrating mix of smart, spiffy, and stupid, but I'll never be able to relish it.

VOR:   On this score, even I have to grant maximal credit. This movie takes enormous, incalculably influential risks across the board. I hate it, but I can't diminish the attempt.

Photo © 1999 Warner Bros. Pictures
The Matrix is a movie that pretends—or, God save us, actually believes—that it is somehow different from pornography, only because the film's content is not explicity or centrally sexual. Bear in mind that what drives pornography is not so much the extent of its uncensored sexual imagery, but rather the smug realization by the pornographer that a viewer will endure and accept any stand-in for connective "story," will permit any deflation of the fullness of human character, so long as the promise of luridness is delivered. In The Matrix, time-stopping, martial-arty special effects occupy the formal space that sex fulfills in a porn film. The framework into which these "bravura" sequences are crammed is entirely derivative of earlier, better films, though the filmmakers trump up everything with a high-gloss sheen that all but announces their own pretension toward sleekness, inventiveness, and wholeness of vision. I couldn't stand it. Never before have I walked out of a movie theater, but an hour and forty-five minutes into The Matrix—in other words, with only about a half-hour to go—I could neither abide nor justify the decision to watch the film's conclusion. Once I got my courage up, I watched it a second time—in a university screening, and therefore without throwing more bucks in the Wachowskis' pot—and now I can at least critique the movie from the only fair perspective of having seen it all the way through. It was even worse than I thought.

The first sequence of The Matrix takes place in the same rainy, black, besotted City of the Bleak Future that every film since Blade Runner has prophecied as our collective apocalyptic doom. Like many other viewers, I am growing weary of this inherited conceit, and I am fully attuned to how the perpetual dark is often just a convenient mask for the kinds of jerry-rigged effects shots on which a film like The Matrix depends. To be fair, while nothing in The Matrix's opening was particularly gripping, neither is the opening scene without its own adrenalized pull. A squad of policemen, headed by a sunglasses-wearing chief (Hugo Weaving, ex-Priscilla Adventurer), corners a willowy, dark, leather-clad woman in a dank back-alley room, only to be felled by her preternaturally quick karate moves and left in the dust of her spry, swift run over the city rooftops. Again, the set-up for the audience is clear: we are made to wonder how this gamine, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, acquired her unique powers of agility and her seeming manipulation of the space-time continuum. Also, does her display have something to do with the cascade of computerized digits that filled the screen during the opening credits?

The Wachowskis—who, before I go on to impugn their most recent effort, deserve to be remembered for their extraordinary and nail-biting debut film, 1996's Bound—mount this teaser with a quick competence marred only by its transparent dramatic purpose. We always know where the The Matrix is headed, give or take a detail, though predictability proves to be the least of the film's problems. A bigger snag is the film's essential incoherence. The Wachowskis have concocted a premise that is, at the same time, ludicrously convoluted and ho-hum simple. I have no idea what counts as a "spoiler" in a film whose plot barely exists to begin with. Suffice it to say that the theoretics of The Matrix contend that the entire environment most of us know as the "real world" is in fact an elaborate mirage that, through its own seamless connectedness, its illusion of cause-and-effect, has effortlessly persuaded the human race of our authenticity. We have all been duped, slavishly beholden to everything from visual perception (we believe what we see) to the physical laws of gravity, shape, and motion merely because we have failed to question them.

Only a few radical misfits have bothered to pull the curtain back on the Oz of this smokescreen world and have discovered its sinister falseness. This band of informed renegades includes Trinity, the opening scene's woman on the run. The impresario of the group is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a trenchcoated techie-guru who has studied the put-on of Real Life so closely that he can predict the immediate future; this skill is akin to how close followers of detective stories or soap operas can flawlessly suss out the murderer or foresee the next "twist" in a plot. Morpheus, Trinity, and their five or six associates are a kind of subterranean rebel group who are in search of a Messiah, a human who—this is where I got a little baffled—will somehow end the illusion of the real world, or develop an unheralded facility in manipulating and defeating its anaesthetizing omnipotence. Of course, no movie featuring an imminent Savior ever fails to pit two factions against one another in claiming him. In The Matrix, good rests on the side of Fishburne, Moss, et al.; the villains, by contrast, are the police who hunted down Trinity in the opening scene. These cops are usually referred to as Agents, and are in fact super-advanced, shape-shifting sentinels from the race of Machines who operate the matrix. Oh, and all of this actually transpires in the late 22nd century, when the Machines have conquered the earth and are farming vast (and visually unpersuasive) pastures of human fetuses as their energy supply. Look, I couldn't make this stuff up, but nor is it easy to make all that readable.

Now, back to that much-fought-over Jesus figure. If bizarre casting grabs your fancy, it must be sheer delight to discover that the Messianic subject of all this warring and rooftop-chasing is played, or at least embodied, by none other than Keanu Reeves, that cultural icon of blank-faced vacuity. To be sure, the Wachowskis seem perfectly aware of what an empty vessel Reeves is; his appearance in this role is evidence that The Matrix has, or at least proclaims, a certain ironic sense of humor about its own overcooked plot and unbridled paranoia. A couple of scenes are required to introduce the Reeves character in each of the two persona he inhabits over a given day. He is both Thomas Anderson, a skilled but occasionally flighty tech-head working in a corporate cubicle, and Neo, an ingenious hacker who black-markets software and is a hero to the same grungy cult of hangers-on who attended Juliette Lewis's concerts in Strange Days. A series of unexpected, cryptic phone calls and visual coincidences (he spies a tattoo on a woman's arm that perfectly matches one described to him over the phone) tip off even this fogheaded bloke that Something Is Awry in his world. Before long, policemen are storming his office to take him into custody. Phoning in from who knows where, Morpheus tries to coax Neo out of the room—remember, he can foresee where the police will and will not look for him—but Keanu/Neo at this point is too craven to do what Morpheus instructs.

I could go on. The Wachowskis certainly do, though inefficiently: an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, I had little more information about The Matrix's plot than I have already supplied, though by this point in the movie, it was eminently clear that Story is not what these artists were paid for when they cashed their salary checks. What is not just disappointing, but truly disillusioning, even appalling about The Matrix was how unimaginative and derivative it is, especially given the potentially provocative scenario. Of course there are huge, extensive philosophical traditions stretching back to Classical Greece that argue that the world we see does not exist in any certain or meaningfully truthful way. Nevertheless, one need not have read deeply in the Philosophy section (I sure haven't) to see how dog-eared this movie's ideas are. Let's pretend you had never experienced any cultural medium besides the cinema, and that you had never seen a film before 1990. Still, even besides the movies I have already mentioned above, has no one seen The Truman Show? Dark City? Total Recall? The Terminator movies? Even eXistenZ, which opened only a month later than The Matrix? Hardly a moment in The Matrix introduces a situation or idea that are not present in these other films. All that is new here is the staggering incoherence and listlessness of the film, as well as the show-offy nature with which it announces its own Trickiness, rather than truly challenging us.

Half the stories in the world, and certainly in modern movies, are founded on the notion that a person (usually a man) who laments being just another cog in the big-business wheel, is actually the crucial agent in a universal waging of ideological combat and a grand-scale quest for truth and discovery. Neo hates his boss, and he hates going to work. He cannot believe that he could be a Messiah, but the joylessness of both Keanu Reeves and the film, rather than allowing us to identify with Neo and take his own giddy ride of self-revelation, merely makes us despair, too, that Keanu is the Chosen One. Not even the film's own merciless lampooning of Keanu's blank-faced image can cover the fact that, in a story that needs a Harrison Ford, an Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an Angela Bassett, some charismatic hero-venturer, all we have is a fashionplate.

Keanu is not the only participant in their own film whom the Wachowskis derogate and diminish, whether intentionally or not. The Wachowskis do a nice job (pay attention, George Lucas) of making their renegade hero's alliance more than a white-boy fantasy world, for in addition to Trinity and Morpheus, there are two more black men and a second female in the world-saving crew. But, really, is Carrie-Anne Moss here to do anything except look beautiful and moon over Keanu, like women always have to do in movies like this? When she says she has fallen in love with him, could that possibly mean anything but a kick for all the disaffected computer-hackers identifying with Neo in the audience, who will no doubt run home and download their own pictures of Carrie-Anne's beatific body? Even worse, I thought, was the use of Fishburne's character, since the image of a black man being beaten by police holds far too much incendiary cultural meaning to fill the place of a mere plot point in a cyber-thriller. Nonetheless, for a good fifteen minutes we cut back and forth to scenes of Fishburne as Weaving & Co. further and further degrade and brutalize him. Whatever credit the Wachowskis get for casting a woman and a black man as Neo's superiors they summarily lose by turning them into the same old pigeonholes as, respectively, a paralyzed onlooker to white male heroism and a degraded victim of white male violence.

I do not mean to sound unnecessarily carpy, and I fully expect reactions along the lines of "The Matrix is 'just a movie.'" I hate that kind of argument, because just as images of racial violence by police have important social ramifications and specific connotations, so do movies penetrate our individual consciousnesses and bear important roles in our view of the world. Strange Days was even more forward than The Matrix in its portrayal of racial and sexual violence, but that film at least recognized the specific terrors and dangers that both led to and followed from such incidents. The scene of Angela Bassett's beating by corrupt policemen was more about her suffering than about Ralph Fiennes's ability or non-ability to save her; the graphic rape-murder sequence in the film's center was itself a protest against how new technologies are too often corrupted for the most depraved, immoral purposes. Strange Days forced the viewer to respond to the horror of its content despite (or even because of) the dazzling innovation of its presentation.

By contrast, The Matrix is an embodiment of everything that Strange Days smartly railed against. The Wachowskis have dreamed up brand-new special effects, have raised the bar of technical accomplishment in filmmaking, only to put a pathetically hackneyed, depressingly impersonal, and politically thoughtless bit of tripe onto the screen. After proclaiming our own world false, diseased, and worth escaping, they have promptly built a new world and just as promptly filled it with images and ideas that say nothing and help no one. I left at the moment that a dizzying cascase of virtual gunracks, stretching into a dimensionless horizon, bombarded me from the screen. I predicted that The Matrix would cap its two hours of 2-D razzle-dazzle with that most frequent and most dispiriting modes of conclusion: the kickboxing, gun-blazing, acrobatic combat montage. The pornographic "money shot," or money shots, if you will, that are supposed to make me feel I got my money's worth after sitting through all the endless conundrums ("What is the matrix?," "Do you think what you see is real?") and flat, cheap-looking sets. My brain and soul already felt impoverished in this movie, which not only illumined nothing about me as a human or about humanity in general, but which called humanity false, then feverishly and recklessly searched for alternatives in a world that sports no true characters. I love the movies, but while watching this one, I literally thought I was watching them die. I like people a lot, too, so for two reasons, I felt outside the bounds of The Matrix's ideal audience, which seems to constitute prematurely disenfranchised teenagers testing the boundaries of outright, adult misanthropy.

Violence on screen, despite what some pundits and politicos have said, has much to teach the responsible viewer. It is a vein of human interactions, and as with any human behavior, we stand to learn a great deal by contemplating it, seeing it represented in art, and wondering where it comes from. Plenty of movies are enjoyable for their visual and technical thrills—Aliens comes to mind, or All Quiet on the Western Front, or Pulp Fiction, or Bonnie and Clyde—without making their violence senseless, meaningless, or bereft of any instruction, even when education may not seem like the ultimate goal of the filmmakers. Bleak science-fiction films also, I think, have their place in the cinemas, and not every character has to be fleshed out, and not every movie has to provide a moment of edification for everyone who sees it. I just don't think we need movies that crush the humanity right out of themselves, where even Good and Bad are indistinguishable without the cues of perfunctory dialogue and the obvious promptings of the music score. A video game of The Matrix would be the exact same thing as the movie was, and at least video games teach you—oh, I don't know—hand-eye coordination. The Matrix instead invites you to be a passive, ungiving spectator in a movie that indicts all of humanity for being the passive, unthinking cuckolds of a massive global conspiracy. The movie repeats like a mantra that if you hate rules and order, it's because they are unnatural and despicable; if people around you seem to be following them, then any one of them could be your enemy; if you can identify your enemy, your job is to terminate them. With guns. Is it any wonder that people, particularly disaffected kids, get the "wrong message" from films like this? What other message does this film think it proclaims besides paranoia, isolationism, anarchy?

Sean Penn made a comment recently on television that a kind of movie exists that might be entertaining, or escapist, or even "fun when you were a kid," but when you come down to it, he said, "You are less of a human being now than you would have been if you hadn't seen it." I don't mean to be a killjoy, since The Matrix has been one big $160-million national party since it opened, but to enjoy this movie required for me a desensitization to everything I cared about: a willingness not to suspend my disbelief, but to suspend my belief, my conviction that movies can still be something besides amusement-park rides or summons to nihilism.

I have, since first writing of this review, seen The Matrix a second time, again on a big screen, and rather than alter my opinion (as I truly believed it might), the second go-around merely confirmed by worst suspicions. I stand by my pronouncement of The Matrix as the least humane, least responsible, least pardonable movie I have ever seen. In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves & Co. go to any and all extremes to expose and escape from the so-called Real World. I got out of The Matrix so I could still recognize the Real World by the time I exited the theater. Grade: F

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Film Editing: Zach Staenberg
Best Sound: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, David E. Campbell, and David Lee
Best Sound Effects: Dane A. Davis
Best Visual Effects: John Gaeta, Janek Sirrs, Steve Courtley, and Jon Thum

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Sound; Best Visual Effects

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