Wednesday, 19 August 2009

'The Matrix' (Wachowski, 1999)

Keanu Reeves stops bullets and redefines cinema in what is arguably the greatest film of all time.

It is difficult to discuss truly seminal cinema outside the context of what came before it and what came after it. It is difficult not to address what has influenced it and what it has influenced. Indeed, it is difficult to add any truly meaningful commentary to a film that has been as scrutinised, as analysed, and as criticised as this. And so I will open with a quote from Darren Aronofsky describing his first viewing of the film with actor Jared Leto:

"I walked out of The Matrix with Jared and I was thinking, 'What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?' The Wachowskis basically took all the great sci-fi ideas of the 20th century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured. Suddenly Philip K. Dick's ideas no longer seemed that fresh. Cyberpunk? Done."

Indeed, Aronofsky cites The Matrix as a direct influence on his 2006 experimental sci-fi masterwork, The Fountain - a beautiful meditation on the nature of death and peoples' relationship with it inspired by a real life trauma in Aronofsky's life when he was concerned for the life of his parents. He describes his film as "a post-Matrix, metaphysical Sci-Fi movie, and it's very different to anything you've seen. I call it post-Matrix because Matrix reinvented sci-fi in the same way Star Wars did, or 2001." Darren Aronofsky isn't the only respected artist to commend the quality of the Wachowskis' modern masterpiece. The prince of cyberpunk himself, William Gibson - the author of seminal works such as 'Neuromancer', 'Count Zero' and 'Mona Lisa Overdrive' (also referred to as the 'Matrix' trilogy) - has claimed that The Matrix is "the ultimate cyberpunk artifact." And Quentin Tarantino recently revealed that The Matrix used to be his second favourite film since he started making movies. Until the controversial sequels were released, that is. More on them later.

So what of this praise? Where has it come from? What about The Matrix has provoked such fervor, envy and admiration from fans and fellow artists? The film itself is the story of a lowly computer hacker, Thomas Anderson, who is played by a suitably confused-looking Keanu Reeves. Under his hacker handle of 'Neo', the film's hero quickly becomes embroiled in a group of alleged terrorists who show him that reality is not reality at all, but rather a digitally constructed illusion designed to keep human minds in a dream state while their bodies' bio-energies are harnessed by artificially intelligent machines hundreds of years in the future. Neo goes on a path of discovery, deeper down the proverbial rabbit hole, attempting to grapple with the prospect that he may be 'the One' - a messianic figure prophecised to lead humanity to freedom. As Aronofsky said, while the concepts of virtual realities and artificially intelligent machines are not new, they are executed with a style, skill and intelligence that ensured The Matrix would become one of the most highly respected films in cinema history.

On a fundamental level, the film's story takes the form of the classic Campbellian monomyth. But not since Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) has it been applied with such originality and such energy. Stylistically, it takes its cue from the films of John Woo, his signature slow motion, double-gun bullet ballet, and characters dressed in sunglasses and long, flowing trenchcoats dominate the now-iconic 'lobby scene' at the beginning of the film's third act. Other visual influences include Japanese animé, whose anticipatory action beats and manipulation of the subject find their way into the 'bullet time' shots, whose technology was pioneered specifically for the purposes of achieving the shots envisioned for the film. From an intellectual standpoint, the film provides a socio-political critique and commentary on the nature of self in relation to society, the loss of individual identity, and the temptations of conformity and obedience in exchange for 'the easy life'. Thematically, the sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) are far more mature and challenging works, but they are not as instantly relatable as the central idea of the first film that understandably talks directly to teenagers and young adults still struggling to understand who they are and what their place is in the wider world.

Trying to restrict a review of something as deep and dense as The Matrix to a reasonable length is something of a challenge. And that is testament to the fact that the film demands more from its viewer than most films. A seamless union of arthouse intelligence and sensitivity with mainstream razzle-dazzle and fanfare, The Matrix manages to be all things to all people while also maintaining a distinctive identity of its own. It is one of the last masterpieces of the 20th century, and one whose impact will no doubt continue to be felt long into the future.


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