The Reality Is All Virtual, And Densely Complicated
by Janet Maslin
Action heroes speak volumes about the couch-potato audiences that they thrill. So it's understandable that ''The Matrix,'' a furious special-effects tornado directed by the imaginative brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski (''Bound''), couldn't care less about the spies, cowboys and Rambos of times gone by. Aiming their film squarely at a generation bred on comics and computers, the Wachowskis stylishly envision the ultimate in cyberescapism, creating a movie that captures the duality of life a la laptop. Though the wildest exploits befall this film's sleek hero, most of its reality is so virtual that characters spend long spells of time lying stock still with their eyes closed.
In a film that's as likely to transfix fans of computer gamesmanship as to baffle anyone with quaintly humanistic notions of life on earth, the Wachowskis have synthesized a savvy visual vocabulary (thanks especially to Bill Pope's inspired techno-cinematography), a wild hodgepodge of classical references (from the biblical to Lewis Carroll) and a situation that calls for a lot of explaining.
The most salient things any prospective viewer need know is that Keanu Reeves makes a strikingly chic Prada model of an action hero, that the martial arts dynamics are phenomenal (thanks to Peter Pan-type wires for flying and inventive slow-motion tricks), and that anyone bored with the notably pretentious plotting can keep busy toting up this film's debts to other futuristic science fiction. Neat tricks here echo ''Terminator'' and ''Alien'' films, ''The X-Files,'' ''Men in Black'' and ''Strange Days,'' with a strong whiff of ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' in the battle royale being waged between man and computer. Nonetheless whatever recycling the brothers do here is canny enough to give ''The Matrix'' a strong identity of its own.
Mr. Reeves plays a late-20th-century computer hacker whose terminal begins telling him one fateful day that he may have some sort of messianic function in deciding the fate of the world. And what that function may be is so complicated that it takes the film the better part of an hour to explain. Dubbed Neo (in a film whose similarly portentous character names include Morpheus and Trinity, with a time-traveling vehicle called Nebuchadnezzar), the hacker is gradually made to understand that everything he imagines to be real is actually the handiwork of 21st-century computers. These computers have subverted human beings into batterylike energy sources confined to pods, and they can be stopped only by a savior modestly known as the One.
We know even before Neo does that his role in saving the human race will be a biggie. (But on the evidence of Mr. Reeves's beautiful, equally androgynous co-star, Carrie-Anne Moss in Helmut Newton cat-woman mode, propagating in the future looks to be all business.) The film happily leads him through varying states of awareness, much of it explained by Laurence Fishburne in the film's philosophical-mentor role. Mr. Fishburne's Morpheus does what he can to explain how the villain of a film can be ''a neural interactive simulation'' and that the Matrix is everywhere, enforced by sinister morphing figures in suits and sunglasses. ''The Matrix'' is the kind of film in which sunglasses are an integral part of sleekly staged fight scenes.
With enough visual bravado to sustain a steady element of surprise (even when the film's most important Oracle turns out to be a grandmotherly type who bakes cookies and has magnets on her refrigerator), ''The Matrix'' makes particular virtues out of eerily inhuman lighting effects, lightning-fast virtual scene changes (as when Neo wishes for guns and thousands of them suddenly appear) and the martial arts stunts that are its single strongest selling point. As supervised by Yuen Wo Ping, these airborne sequences bring Hong Kong action style home to audiences in a mainstream American adventure with big prospects as a cult classic and with the future very much in mind.
''The Matrix'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes strange, unreal forms of violence and occasional gore.