WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Dissatisfied computer programmer and part time hacker ‘Neo’ becomes involved with a group keen to show him that there is more – much more – to life than he knows. Not only is the world around Neo not what he thinks it is, he is also potentially the key to the future freedom of the human race, if he can unlock his extraordinary abilities.
Time has been rather sniffy about The Matrix. Sure, the second part of the trilogy was pretty poor and the third not much better; sure, the directors have made some other dodgy decisions since; and sure, Keanu’s a miserable sod and Neo’s a daft name. But this film?
This film is cool. Way cool. A revelation on its release, The Matrix is a visually spellbinding movie that takes some geeky Science Fiction ideas and fashions something ultra-hip from them. At the core is the idea that humans, believing they are living in a functioning society, are in fact experiencing a computer-created dream, their bodies creating energy for machines that took over after gaining consciousness. Whilst this idea is not brand new (it has overtones of Terminator, Dark City and no doubt countless sci-fi B-movies*), it feeds off a primal paranoia that we are not in charge of our own lives. The idea is also presented with stunning conviction: when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is re-born into the ‘real’ world and given a brief history lesson by resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the visual panache of the sequence is a stunning sci-fi moment, Fishburne’s calm narration guiding us through the spectacle.
Design throughout is excellent. From the instant we see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) embarking on a gravity-bending chase in a glistening black outfit, we know we are in for a treat. The look of the resistance, and of the Agents assigned to destroy them, is spot-on. This is allied to the John Woo-like ballet of the stunts and gunplay and also to the famous ‘Bullet Time’ camerawork, whipping round the characters as they swerve in slow-motion. Even with the progress made in Computer Generated Imagery since the release of The Matrix, the last half hour of action, which sees Neo staging an audacious rescue of Morpheus, is still a ‘wow’ moment; as is the point when Neo realises his full potential and the world, literally, bends around him.
It’s not all about the effects, though: Reeves and Moss are apt for their roles, Fishburne is strong as Morpheus, and Joe Pantoliano makes an entertaining villain. Even more so is Hugo Weaving as vindictive computer programme Agent Smith, popping up everywhere to hunt down Neo and his friends.
If there has to be criticism, the film struggles to convey the ‘real’ world and the real enemies of the resistance – machines called ‘Squiddies’ – as effectively as it conveys the disruption of the virtual world of the Matrix. Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, is fine, but the Squiddies themselves appear to swim rather than fly; ironically, they always look like CGI whereas the supposedly computer-created world is always brilliantly realised.
The Matrix also suffers from occasional bouts of naff dialogue, either quasi-religious, pseudo-technical or straight out of Amateur Philosophy Hour, which make portions of the film drag a little; this of course was a major complaint about the sequels, which neglected to tell a sufficiently compelling story to steady up passages of incomprehensible waffle. But forget about those films and take this film on its own merits. The Matrix is never less than interesting, and when it is good, it is astonishingly good.
NOTES: I would have called the film Attack of the Baby-Farming Robots. Which may explain why I’m not in the movie business.