Midway through The Matrix, a character warns Keanu Reeves’ Neo that trying to grasp every nuance of the futuristic world he’s found himself in will “bake your noodle.” She couldn’t be more right: sitting through The Matrix is like having your noodle baked for two hours.
If you’re a science-fiction fan, it might just be the most enjoyable two hours you’ve spent at the theater in a quite a while. Even with its mind-warping plot and eye-boggling special effects, The Matrix isn’t being marketed as one of those must-see movie events. It should be. The stunning action scenes in the film are unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The Matrix unfolds in several acts, each one revealing part of the answer to the film’s main question: What is real and what is not? I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll only say that the movie takes place in an alternate 1999, where humans live in a virtual-reality world that isn’t governed by things such as inertia or gravity. In The Matrix, those forces are like the rules to a video game you’ve played hundreds of times; before long, you learn how to tweak or twist those rules to your advantage.
Neo, a software designer by day and hacker by night, slowly discovers how to play the game, especially after blandly threatening men in black who rarely remove their sinister sunglasses come after him. Enter Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a dapper fellow hacker who claims to know the secret the men in black are trying to hide. The first meeting between Neo and Morpheus is expertly staged, as a tall glass of water rests on a table between the two men. An obvious oddity in the room, the glass remains there until the end of the scene, when Morpheus opens his palms and presents Neo with two pills. One, he says, will allow the young man to wake up and remember this only as a dream, while the other will reveal the true nature of the world in which he believes he exists.
The moment Neo chooses to know the truth he’s hooked – and so are we. Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers who wrote and directed the film, haven’t concocted a completely original story. Movies as varied as last year’s Dark City, Disney’s Tron, and Chris Marker’s 1964 experimental feature La Jetee have all been here before. But the brothers add Buddhism, Christianity, and a dollop of Descartes to the mix, then top it off with a staggering visual style. Thanks to a combination of slow-motion and stop-motion camerawork, the characters are able to leap into the air, hang there for a suspenseful moment, and then pounce on their opponent with blazing speed. At other times, the action on the screen freezes – much like those Gap television ads – and then the camera swings around to a different angle before the motion resumes. Much of The Matrix proceeds as if someone is pressing the fast-forward, rewind, and pause buttons on a remote control all at once – only the images that are being jerked around are so gripping and pristine that we’re fascinated instead of annoyed.
If there’s one rule that must be followed in this movie’s world, it’s that nothing is done (or worn) unless it looks incredibly cool. There are a lot of sunglasses and leather jackets here (even when neither the lighting nor the weather call for them) and every time a flashlight is used it pierces through the darkness with the same pinpointing brilliance that shines from the flashlights in The X-Files. This emphasis on style may explain the casting of Reeves; he looks great throughout the film, and the Wachowskis, taking their cue from Speed, keep the action moving so fast that he doesn’t have much time to act. In a way, Reeves should be thankful that he doesn’t have many lines – for all their visual flair, the writer-directors show the same weakness for tinny dialogue (“It’s my road or the high road,” a character actually says at one point) that damaged their previous feature, Bound.
If there’s a performance really worth talking about it’s Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Agent Smith, the leader of the mysterious men in black. An acclaimed Australian actor perhaps best known for his performance as a blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, Weaving plays Agent Smith as if he were an everyday accountant with a death wish. Speaking in a dull monotone and hardly opening his lips – as if he were loath to intaract with people any longer than he absolutely had to – Agent Smith is like a cyborg version of the dullest teacher you ever had in high school. His threats are delivered as if they were assignments, but Smith backs them up with superhuman strength and a tricky habit of sidestepping bullets when they’re in midair.
By the time Agent Smith and Neo meet for their penultimate duel, the latter has learned how to dodge bullets too, making the battle a show-off sequence for every one of the movie’s visual effects. In this scene and so many others, The Matrix comes across as hallucinatory cinema. The success of the film is that these mesmerizing hallucinations tie in so intricately with the picture’s themes.