The Matrix (1999) is one of those cult films which enjoys massive popularity and is frequently parodied or referenced to the extent that even if, like me, you are slow on getting around to watching it, you will know the basic premise and concepts of the film. The images I had in mind were of immersive, frantic worlds based on green numbers and revolutionary action sequences involving that ‘slow motion floaty-through-the-air thing. (My interest in film making is a bit amateur…) Directed by the Wachowski Siblings, I had very high expectations.
The film starts off with an action sequence as Trinity, armed with seeming superpowers, escapes from mysterious authorities. This establishes the action-orientated tone of the film which, for the time being, I enjoyed. The narrative then cuts to Neo in an initially confusing sequence of events as he becomes embroiled in what appears to be various conspiracies. I particularly enjoyed the scene where, on the phone to the elusive Morphius, Neo must escape from his high-rise office block only to submit himself to the authorities. However these sequences are detriment to the idea that Neo’s life takes place within a virtual reality. When the final reveal comes it lacks the impact it could have had if Neo’s life in the false reality had been sufficiently developed. That said, the reveal alone was expertly handled, in a gloriously horrific scene where Neo wakes in a luminescent bath of fluids, his body punctured with metal tubes, suspended in a darkened cavern surveyed by superior technology. I felt physically uncomfortable and terrified watching this, making it one of the most successful scenes of the film and quite possibly my favourite.
The central concept behind the film, that humanity and artificial intelligence went to war and humanity lost, becoming enslaved as a use for fuel for the machines, is fascinating and chilling. It also bears striking similarities to a script I wrote three years ago, which is quite unnerving. The concept is both ‘shown’ and ‘told’ to the viewer in a narrated sequence which works effectively.
It’s at this point, however, that the film declined. The plot seemed to dissolve in favour of mindless action scenes. It developed a bizarre obsession with Eastern martial arts as a means of fighting the AI forces policing the reality. And guns. Lots of guns. Too many guns. Although I liked the idea of ‘downloading’ these abilities to the characters, even if I’m not entirely convinced it made any sense. Slipping in and out of the virtual reality and the action which ensued did create tension, although more could have been made of the concept. It’s difficult to explain, but I felt the false world was not clearly defined. Perhaps that’s intentional, but having seen similar ideas done (Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library and the film Inception, to name a couple) The Matrix’s world pales in terms of development.
After the convoluted and, ultimately, pointless Oracle, and the more effective betrayal from Cypher as he kills half of the resistance team in a genuinely shocking series of events, the film becomes, basically, a shoot-out. The team leader, Morphius, has been kidnapped and Neo decided to launch a full-on assault of The Matrix to rescue him. It’s clearly a suicide mission and, for that reason, nobody has ever tried anything like it before, which Neo somehow takes as proof he’ll be successful. I know the action scenes are one of the main selling points of the film and I’ll concede that they are brilliantly executed – there’s just far too many of them! My only memories of 20 minutes of the film consist of shooting, punching, escaping in a helicopter, more shooting, more punching, various action shots, running, shooting, etc. etc…
The climax of the film is a final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith, during which Neo is killed. At this point, I was hooked once again. Did they really have the bravery to kill off the protagonist, I wondered. Was this the natural extension of the film’s bleakness? No. Which is fine, if there’s been a good reason behind it. Instead, due to some nonsensical prophecy from the Oracle, Neo is “the one” and can somehow defy death. Okay. The words deus ex machina spring to mind – readers of recent reviews will know this is a technique I absolutely loathe. And a romantic subplot is thrown in from out of nowhere, just ’cause.
The film was very well directed, however, and it is from the direction that I can understand from where the film has derived such praise. I abandoned my desire to pursue a film-making career a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t go into exactly why The Matrix was a revolutionary movie at the time, but I think the fact the effects still stand up well today, 14 years on, in this age of CGI mania, is a testament to the direction. The Wachowskis do really well to create the bleak tone – is ‘grimy’ the right word? Or ‘gritty’. It’s not to my personal taste – along with the excess of guns and sunglasses, which have ruined many a film for me – but I can see it’s done with success.
The acting was, overall, pretty good. Hugo Weaving’s excellent performance as Agent Smith is the only role which particularly stood out to me, and perhaps Jon Pantoliano as Cypher, but there were no lacklustre performances either.
The Matrix makes up the first film in a trilogy, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge it alone. Yet, having watched a trailer for the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded, which involves more shooting, more punching, more running about and beating up poor Smith, I feel no desire to watch it. And I generally feel compelled to finish any story I’ve begun. I’ll certainly watch it if the opportunity is thrust upon me, but I feel no desire to seek it out myself. Overall, although there is a lot enjoy in The Matrix and much to marvel at, I was, on the whole, disappointed. Maybe my expectations were just too high.
Final Rating: 7/10