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The Matrix (1999)



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If one were to list the five most seminal films in computer generated special effects technology, The Matrix would probably be one of them. What's interesting is that the technology for producing the effect it is famous for -- pausing while characters are mid-leap in the air, while the camera swivels around to continue the action from another angle -- has been around for decades. (Basically, shoot the scene from multiple cameras along the path of the swivel, then edit them together.) Not only that, but the effect did not appear here first: Gap commercials utilizing the effect preceded it by months.

But enough with the trivia. The Matrix is deservedly considered groundbreaking not only in technological terms but creative terms as well. It's a high-adrenaline composite genre piece, a strange but effective hybrid between cyberpunk and martial arts with pseudo-philosophical seasonings convincing enough that fans quoted it relentlessly despite the fact that the film has less to say than it seems to. It occurs to me that the Wachowski brothers are sort of like David Lynch. Both seem to have a penchant for building their movies out of ingredients conceived from ideas that start, "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" The difference, of course, is that Lynch does not take pains to disguise this fact, while the Wachowskis coat everything in a sensible guise. It's a clever ploy, because those duped into thinking The Matrix is deep and meaningful are dazzled, while those who perceive through it snicker at being in on the joke, and both parties leave satisfied. Let's not be duped. "There is no spoon" is a meaningful line in the context of this escapist cyberpunk action adventure, but it is not representive of an important philosophical idea.

Perhaps the most amazing accomplishments of the movie is simply that Keanu Reeves turns in a serviceable performance as someone other than Ted Logan. He plays an office employee of a cubicle farm who is contacted by some mysterious persons who hint at conspiracy theories and then suddenly finds himself on the run from...government agents? More perplexing is that some people on both sides seem to possess superhuman physical abilities, such as a woman who can leap skyscrapers and take out a room full of policemen. The explanation questions nothing less than the nature of reality itself. By itself, the film's secrets are not great innovations, but the way they are used here is positively ingenious. The toying the film does with reality is fun in and of itself, and there is an impressive side benefit as well: it allows action scenes such as those found in the wire-fu movies of Hong Kong -- in which people can stand on ceilings and deliver kicks to dozens of villains during the course of a single leap -- to be utterly plausible.

The action scenes truly are fantastic, edited together as they are using the visual tricks mentioned before. No science fiction movie has ever looked quite like this one, and that is an accomplishment in itself: after a century of movies, it's tough to deliver an original vision to the screen.

Still, the movie is far from perfect. I was unmoved by a betrayal that must have come off the assembly line of cliches. The main flaw is with pacing, and this is less noticeable during the first viewing, when the revealing of secrets more or less keeps up the momentum during the sluggish parts. When the secrets are known, a long stretch in the middle plods. Nevertheless, it does hold up to multiple viewings, and the Matrix trilogy as a whole is the first science fiction trilogy since Star Wars that could reasonably be called, well, "this generation's Star Wars."

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