"Matrix" - An Utterly Unique Film
KEANU REEVES STARS AS A HACKER IN AN ESPECIALLY EFFECTIVE MOVIE FROM THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS
by Wesley Morris
YOU KNOW you've entered some perfectionists' alternate universe when even the spanking new White Zombie tune on the soundtrack needs a 21st century remix and every movement in front of the camera looks choreographed, right down to the blinking eyes and shimmering light. The perfectionists of this world are Larry and Andy Wachowski, two brothers whose idea of fun is creating a planet of their own, as though Earth was no longer good enough. As far as they're concerned, why settle for Earth when you can have a whole galaxy sprung from the jokey crevices of your imagination?
"The Matrix," the Wachowskis' second film, finds that baffling place where the PlayStation meets the Steadicam and explodes it with singular shotmaking and state-of-the-art special effects. The Wachowskis put that time-splicing device used in the Gap Khakis ad (objects are suspended in midair as the camera rotates around them) to its most exhilarating use in "The Matrix," as the highlight of several combat sequences.
Neo (Keanu Reeves), a hacker in search of answers he didn't know he was looking for, is led to a band of outlaw time bandits whose cryptic leader is a mellow-intense guy called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne seductively practicing the Zen art of taking his sweet time).
Based on his alleged disrespect for authority, Neo looks to be The One, that figure capable of helping these people unravel The Matrix. Though Reeves' Neo must be one of those passive-aggressive nihilists - you know, he's accidentally late for work at his corporate compu-job but just stands silent before his boss to feign indifference to coming close to getting fired.
Without being certain why, Neo wants to know what is this riddle called The Matrix, even though he's curious in the same way that the film's ads make us wonder - because some mysterious voice whispering the question.
All Sphinx-like, Morpheus speaks to Neo in tautologies and koans, then invites him to take a pill to cross over into a realm in which the real and imagined are indistinguishable. From here "The Matrix" becomes Ridley Scott's "Alice in Wonderland" by way of Tsui Hark based on a story by Aldous Huxley and Robert Heinlein. It's that bizarre, that intricate and that engrossing.
And despite drawing a host of comparisons, the Wachowskis have concocted a movie that looks wholly unique around the concept of The Matrix, which is sprung from a backstory so brilliantly sci-fi preposterous it makes Ray Bradbury novels look derivative.
"We've seen it all before, but why should you?" seems to be the brothers' agenda as they create an eminent shotbook all their own, finding exhaustive ways to restore the lightning to filmmaking cliches that have sapped the science-fiction film enterprise of its adrenaline. They managed to elicit similar enthusiasm with 1996's revisionist girl-on-girl noir "Bound," if for no other reason than they understood how to generate tension from a simple tracking shot or just by canting a camera angle.
With "The Matrix" the Wachowskis have squashed what expectations there were for their style to hew consistently closer to that of the Coens brothers, whose "Blood Simple" echoed throughout "Bound." Here, they've foresaken taut narrative double-crossing for Magritte-style visual chicanery and ideas that function on a more visionary scale that, like "Bound," initially feel shoddy and predictable.
But the world of "The Matrix" - which under other circumstances would be automatically suspect given the blockbuster past of its producer Joel "Let's Just Blow Everything Up!" Silver - knowingly envelopes an entire cyber culture, staked on a virtual reality without succumbing to counterfeit concepts.
Morpheus trains Neo to use his own version of the force in simulated environments that appear real. The best of these takes place inside a pagoda, in which Neo and Morpheus ignore gravity, going at each other while airborne. It sounds like a moment ripped straight from "Street Fighter," "Mortal Combat" or any other game where a landed punch is followed by "Finish him!" But the Wachowskis are smart enough to up the ante on the visceral investment in video game action by avoiding obvious cutaways, impressing you, instead, with the fact that it's Fishburne and Reeves bruising each other, not stunt doubles.
Casting Reeves may look like the real stunt, but he's born-again as the relatively silent man of action that made "Speed" worthy of his wooden talent. In an interrogation scene early on between Neo and a cleverly conceived trio of space cops cum Secret Service agents (led by Hugo Weaving, who seems to be channeling Sam Neill impersonating Rod Serling), Reeves does some of his most interesting acting with a piece of latex covering his mouth.
When Reeves exhales an occasional "whoa," it could just as well be at the film's ornate dreamscape of a production design, done by Owen Patterson. The dank interiors radiate as much warmth as the vast computer-generated scenes do a deceptive coolness.
If "The Matrix" has a shortcoming, restraining it from true depth, it's that the filmmakers seem intimidated by the implications of their very ideas. Thus, the film revels in boys-will-be-boys shots of raining bullet casings and slightly undercooks a blisteringly agile member of the outlaws named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Still, where most effects-laden extravanganzas aspire to be nothing more than a live-action comic book, "The Matrix" sees things with the venturesome clarity of a graphic novel.