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The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix is a 1999 American science fiction action film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. The film stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving, and was first released in the United States on March 31, 1999. The success of the film led to the release of two feature film sequels, and the Matrix franchise was further expanded through the production of comic books, video games, and animated short films. The film depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Upon learning this, computer programmer "Neo" is drawn into a rebellion against the machines, involving other people who have been freed from the "dream world" and into reality.
Some of the grumpier nerds also love to point out that The Matrix rips off a bunch of anime; I usually can't care less about anime, but I would point out that its story has a lot in common with Dark City, which came out over a year earlier.
But the thing about sci-fi epics is: They're hardly ever well-written, at least not in the way a Cameron Crowe or Coen Brothers movie is well-written. Effects-heavy immersions into an expansive sci-fi universe live and die not by the material, exactly, but the commitment to it. From its attention-hijacking opening sequence in which a mysterious kung-fu woman (Trinity) is pursued by regular police and even-more-mysterious 'agents' across the rooftops of a dark, greenish city before appearing to disappear into thin air, The Matrix announces commitment to its material. Silly dialogue on its own can earn guffaws; silly dialogue delivered by underplaying actors interacting with well-designed sets and effects that absolutely draw you into a world in which silly dialogue is slightly more common than in ours earns my affection. Do we quote Star Wars because it's great dialogue, or because it's part of something we love?
And so I've never really bought the The Matrix as an experience transcending other sci-fi/action movies, as a movie overflowing with stunning philosophy - 'just' a terrifically entertaining and satisfying production on the order of the Star Wars series.
Everyone knows by now that the film is about the awakening of Thomas Anderson (Reeves), a disaffected computer hacker (codename: Neo) who senses something isn't right about the world around him - and turns out to be correct, as he is exposed by the otherworldly Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) and Trinity to a 'real' world considerably more bleak than the one he knows. This is an admittedly thought-provoking premise, but countless sci-fi films (including a lot of anime pictures) have buckled from their self-classified weight class. The Wachowkis never forget to have fun, and guide us back and forth between ideas and kung-fu, head-spinners and shoot-outs with ease.
This is the first casting of Keanu Reeves since Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure that can be accurately called a masterstroke. Regardless of your feelings about Reeves as an actor, he is perfect as Neo, much in the same way that Mark Hamill was an ideal Luke Skywalker. The befuddlement of Thomas Anderson during his transitions in and out of the Matrix rings absolutely true, and rescues Reeves from his sleepy aloofness. Right before Neo attempts one of his first superhuman feats, a simulated building-to-building jump, Reeves rubs his hands together, takes a deep breath, and says 'okey-dokey'; he's the sci-fi hero as terrific dork.
The perpetual Reeves expression of pretty blankness is perfect for arranging in the Wachowskis' comics-like compositions. The Matrix looked like a comic book before comics were a dominant source of big-budget action-adventure movies (and without actually coming from a graphic novel itself). If the John Woo-style gun ballets now seem a bit unnecessary, check out the scene where Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) chases Neo on foot; the Wachowskis seem capable of staging any kind of action sequence with tension and style.
I can understand why so many people were let down by the rest of the Matrix trilogy, even if I don't share their disappointment. The first film is an action-sci-fi-origin film for virtually everyone; the sequels are inevitably speak to more of a niche audience (and, unfortunately, that niche is one of the pickiest around). There's a reason the original Star Wars is far and away the most popular, even if other installments may be equal or better. With The Matrix, the Wachowskis created their own iconic first installment - and all of the perks and the burdens that come with it.
The 10-disc Matrix DVD box set is an exhaustive set containing 35 hours of bonus material alone. Each of the three films contains numerous commentary tracks, and each film is buttressed by a feature length documentary like The Matrix Revisited. The Animatrix is also included along with three additional discs full of archival material, interviews, philosophical inquiries, trailers, and extra footage. Any Matrix fan will want to own this set and keep it on the top shelf, where the cat can't get to it.
Not even she can tell you what the Matrix is.
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