THE MATRIX

Directed and written by the Wachowski Brothers

With Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving

***


Over the past few years, a number of American filmmakers have tried their hands at a thinking person's sci-fi film. Unfortunately, they've produced a succession of interesting failures. PI cloaked a rote thriller plot and anti-intellectual attitude behind an inventive visual style, while GATTACA squandered its intriguing premise on a stupid athletic-triumph-over-adversity story. Although Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS was the most successful of the bunch, it still fell prey to the sadistic voyeurism and tendency to live vicariously that it warned against. My favorite recent sci-fi films have come from overseas: I'll take Argentine director Gustavo Mosquera's MOEBIUS, an obvious influence on PI, and Tsai Ming-liang's apocalyptic Taipei musical THE HOLE over any of the above films. THE MATRIX certainly isn't in the same class as MOEBIUS or THE HOLE - in the end, it's also something of an interesting failure - but at least it marks a small, hesitant step forward for Hollywood sci-fi.

Neo (Keanu Reeves), the hero of THE MATRIX, is a computer programmer by day and hacker by night. On the verge of getting arrested for his illegal activities, he's contacted by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), who thinks he may be some kind of messiah. Morpheus tells him that they're really living two centuries in the future, in a world whose day-to-day existence is an illusion created by the Matrix, a consensus reality used by intelligent machines to keep humans in their thrall . Morpheus gives Neo a pill that breaks the spell of the Matrix, and he joins a band of rebels in their fight to bring the human race back to power.

Most Hollywood genre films have an Achilles heel: their enormous distance from the world we live in. This distance that can't be measured simply by the amount of special FX and CGI they employ; filmmakers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and George Miller have shown that these effects can be used for purposes other than protecting an escapist fantasy against the intrusions of emotion or thought. In some circles, it's commonplace to treat digital effects as if they were inherently malign, but the best critique of Hollywood escapism may be a more complex and imaginative fantasy, rather than a nostalgic lament for the glory days of neo-realism. I'm quite sympathetic to English critic Jonathan Romney's suggestion that digital effects will find their redemption in the service of a playful, even anarchist agenda.

Without the influence of novelist Phillip K. Dick, THE MATRIX wouldn't exist, but Dick himself often used sci-fi/metaphysical speculation as a commentary on the malaise of the present. His TIME OUT OF JOINT, which THE TRUMAN SHOW drew heavily from, is a clear response to the banality of suburbia and the repressive conservatism of 50s American life, and when I read it as a teenager, it struck a chord with me largely because it expressed my own frustration with the limits of 80s American life. I wonder if 90s teenagers will respond in the same way to the transcendental yearnings of THE MATRIX.

The Wachowski brothers have cooked up an eclectic stew: references to Zionism and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard rub up against a plethora of appropriations from writers like Dick and William Gibson, as well as dozens of other films. In the first half hour alone, they borrow images from VERTIGO, ALIEN, John Carpenter's THE THING and David Cronenberg's THEY CAME FROM WITHIN and VIDEODROME. Like BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX imagines the architecture and interiors of the future as decrepit, fetid industrial spaces, and it also employs a milder version of SE7EN's "designer vomit" production design.

Frankly, the production design, cinematography and lighting are a great deal more compelling than the plot, which periodically devolves into a series of betrayals and chases. Keanu Reeves' callow blankness occasionally suits the personality of his characters, as in THE RIVER'S EDGE and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, but he makes a terribly bland hero. However, just as the Matrix conceals another reality, THE MATRIX itself contains several other films: an allegory about the process of watching this kind of film, a surrealist film and an abstract film. The first will please the kind of academics who take reflexivity for profundity, but for me, it's the least engaging one. The surrealist film takes over around the time Neo leaves the Matrix: at this point, both we and him are confused about what might happen next. We've both entered a new world of possibility. This promise isn't entirely fulfilled by the rest of the film, but it never quite fades away. The metaphysics of THE MATRIX don't have much resonance, but what resonance they do have stems from this spirit of openness and adventure.

The abstract MATRIX is the freest, most exciting one. The Wachowskis may not be as inventive as Asian postmodernists like Takeshi Kitano, Wong Kar-wai or Tsui Hark at his best, but there's plenty of brio to their bricolage. Few Hollywood films have borrowed this skillfully from Hong Kong cinema, and unlike most Woo imitators, the Wachowskis'action scenes manage to capture his shoot-outs' choreographic grace. Action movies and structural avant-garde films like Michael Snow's WAVELENGTH and Ernie Gehr's SERENE VELOCITY have something in common: their explorations of the plastic properties of film. (In fact, Snow's LA REGION CENTRALE may be the ultimate example of film-as-rollercoaster) Despite its pretensions, THE MATRIX doesn't say much about our perceptions of the world around us, but it displays plenty of the expressive potential of special effects. As frustrating as its thematic failures are, they don't merit the snobbish condescension with which Jonathan Rosenbaum castigates its "explosions, mutilations and broken glass" as the cheapest of thrills.