"Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure." - Agent Smith
Director: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Writer: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Principal cast members:
It is hard to imagine a movie more perfectly shaped to appeal to the Gen X/Y marketplace reaching adulthood with the turn of the century. The Wachowskis made what was ostensibly a cyberpunk-ish sci-fi action film and blended in elements of existential philosophy, wire-fu, messianic self-discovery, and noir-trenchcoat style to create a franchise that perfectly suited the video-game sensibilities of their target audience.
Remarkably, they even managed to spread that appeal beyond that niche and snare a few older baby boomers in the process.
But what would you expect from a story that at its heart is only a thinly disguised re-telling of the New Testament gospel?
The essence of the story is that humanity exists only as a comatose pile of energy-producing bodies for the machines that rule the planet. These barely-human storage batteries are fed a constant illusion that is what we believe to be normal life. But a few enlightened humans actually break free of this and learn to manipulate the artificial reality the machines use to pacify the rest of humanity. These enlightened humans fight the machines with a dream of some future promised land.
Woven into their mythos is the dream of a messiah whose ability to manipulate this artificial reality is even more powerful than that of the machines themselves and who will help bring these prophecies into fruition.
The story centers on the character of Neo played by Keanu Reeves. As the movie opens, he is an office worker named Thomas Anderson, but online, he is a hacker known as Neo and is recruited by rebels who open his eyes to a frightening reality in which the machines rule the world and he is living an illusion. Reeves actually turns in a very good performance in the role of Neo, the reluctant messiah figure for this cyberpunk resistance movement. The usual complaint about Reeves' acting is his utter woodenness, but the fact is most of the heroes in The Matrix are so utterly devoid of emotion, Reeves actually looks like he's emoting in most scenes.
Laurence Fishburne plays Morpheus, a leader of the rebelling humans who is also a true believer. His John-the-Baptist figure seeks out a young computer programmer who he believes will be The One - the culmination of their prophecies. Morpheus is one of those leaders who remain imperturbably calm in the face of even the worst crises. He is by turns a mentor, ship captain, samurai warrior, and high priest. The profound lack of emotion shown by Fishburne in the role should be unappealing, but somehow it kind of works for the character.
Carrie-Anne Moss is Trinity, the ass-kicking loyal follower of Morpheus who gradually falls in love with the new messiah, inevitably sliding into the role of Mary Magdalene. Like Fishburne, Moss is a relatively emotionless and utterly calm figure in the face of danger. It is only in her interactions with Neo that we see something like pathos.
A much more entertaining and pleasant personality is seen in the character of Cypher played by Joe Pantaliano. Too bad he gets the role of Judas in this post-modern passion play. Still, as always Joey Pants is enjoyable to watch whenever he is on screen.
The most intriguing character and most impressive acting are found in Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving. Despite the fact that Agent Smith is a machine, a cybernetic agent sent to hunt down and destroy Neo, he generally exhibits more honest human emotion than his supposedly human foes. Weaving has an angry passion behind his confrontations with the humans that makes his character more believable and amazingly enough, easier to empathize with.
The story really just rolls right off the pages of the book of Matthew. Morpheus trumpets the coming of a messiah and when that messiah is found, Morpheus is the one who baptizes him and starts him on his fatal path. Neo, that messiah, develops followers who are amazed by the miraculous things he can do. Chief among these is Trinity who is part disciple, part lover and it is she who mourns his 'death' and helps bring about his 'resurrection' after Neo is betrayed to the machine authorities by Cypher.
It is hard to say whether the Wachowskis deliberately made this story parallel the New Testament this closely or if it was some sort of slacker accident, but it's hard to believe the parallel wasn't clumsily intentional. The only way the two stories could be more similar is if the gospel of Luke had Jesus duking it out with Pilate in a 10-minute kung-fu battle.
There is no question, the fights are enormously entertaining. The wire-effects and the visual tricks where characters speed up into "bullet time" to dodge gunfire are spectacular. As a fashion statement, the dim, grungy world of the human reality and the ultra-stylish leather-coated version of the matrix in the computers are both compelling.
The biggest problem with the film, however, is that its beauty is truly skin-deep. The science is utterly ridiculous if you know anything at all about physics. The energy required to keep humans alive far outweighs any electrical output you could ever get from them as storage batteries rendering the basic concept - that the machines needed the humans as power sources - totally absurd. The notion of damage taken in a virtual reality killing people outside that reality is just silly. The totally unoriginal messiah story cycle really isn't given much in the way of new and original ideas. Aside from Pantaliano and Weaving, there really isn't any true acting going on here - just lots of catwalk posing and wire-fu special effects.
There is no question the film has visual and auditory style. The Wachowskis can really be applauded for the sensory impact and "gee-whiz" effects that leap out at you. The problem is that there is very little of substance beneath them. Ultimately you are left with a passion play strangely devoid of passion. The World of cyberpunk science fiction has a great many stories so much more worthy of being given this treatment that it is actually sort of tragic. Imagine the Wachowskis using their considerable visual and sonic talents on a story like Bill Gibson's "Neuromancer" or Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather"? Consider what they could do with a Greg Bear novel - it would be utterly groundbreaking cinema in the world of science fiction. Sadly, it appears the Wachowskis simply didn't realize how badly the writing pales next to the artistic style of their film.
Unfortunately they stayed enamored with this essential story until they had utterly ridden it to death with "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions". Even die-hard fans of the first movie were beginning to lose interest by then.
In the end, we have a capable cast who were not allowed to actually act and a cinema style that could have delivered a much more powerful story but was wasted on this one. The Wachowskis have film-making talent - The Matrix proves that beyond a doubt. But they need to find a story worthy of their talents before they attempt something like this again.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 6