No 39 - The Matrix
Director - Andy and Larry Wachowski
I remember when I first watched this. On VHS at my friends house. It BLEW ME AWAY. Completely. This film was so different from anything else I'd ever seen. It is difficult to imagine because The Matrix has become such a huge part of our culture, everything has copied it - from computer games to adverts. Yet in 1999, this came completely out of the blue, the shock factor is what has probably put it so high up the list. It struck such a chord with me, I loved everything about it... and for ages we all wanted a phone that slid open - seeing them as the height of cool (oh how fast things have moved on).
Amazingly, for a film that made such a shock on its first appearance, you'd have expected it to have dated in the last 10 years and yet, visually it is still as beautiful and vibrant as it was. The phones are bigger and clunkier, the clothes are a bit weird (though I think that comes more out of the director's passion with bondage and S&M - there is a strong fetish cybergoth vibe throughout) but the special effects (with the exception of reflective objects) still look good.
What I like about this film is that I can't really explain the plot. Partly because it is nonsense (although, unlike the sequels, well thought out and intelligent nonsense) and partly because it is so convoluted that you really need to watch the film to get it. However, by making the real world 'virtual' it opens up some exciting possibilities: the rules - such as gravity - can be bent or broken.
This means that the film is a package deal, we get an incredible sci-fi concept which (people can argue) could be the TRUTH and we get some fascinating visuals as people run up walls, float in the air or punch with remarkable force. These visuals are what makes the film so astounding. From the small touches, like the nightmarish interview Neo has at the hand of the agents or the camera panning through TV monitors into real worlds, through to the excessive set pieces. In fact, every fight which occurs with in the Matrix is a great mix of wire work acrobatics and really daring camera work (this was the first film to have the camera whizz past an object as it is frozen in time).... however, all of this culminates into the Lobby scene, a flurry of bullets and dust and swirling black clad figures but one of the most fast paced, visceral and exciting action scenes to have come out of cinema. The thing is, when it comes to action scenes, guns make the action ugly. It doesn't matter how John Woo you go.... there is no real beauty in firing a gun, it is an ugly mechanical process. At least in other forms of attack you have the beauty of skill and agility.... by introducing the bending of the laws we get to have these graceful nimble ballet like moves and impossible leaps accompanying the barrage of gunfire.... and there is something beautifully coming about that last pillar collapsing after all the gunfire. After that one scene, the rest of the film is essentially a barrage of set pieces as Neo takes on the agents of the Matrix.
Among the barrage of special effects we get to witness something truly magical, bullet time. Although.... once again this has been ripped off by everyone. The bullet time scene was something completely new, an entire new way of shooting and just looked so beautiful. It even looks beautiful in Lego (seriously, that Lego scene is almost more impressive than the actual scene.... it is faultless)
Unfortunately, the amazing central concept and revolutionary special effects are a mixed blessing, because they showcase some of the film's weaknesses. Firstly a lot of the dialogue and writing is badly written... this becomes clearer with the sequels where everything becomes ridiculously convoluted. But also none of the acting is that impressive. I mean Keanu has never been the most varied of emoters, but even Carrie Anne Moss and Lawrence Fishburne come of a bit cold and emotionless....
There is one MASSIVE exception to this rule, and ironically it is in a role which demands an emotionless performance. Hugo Weaving is phenomenal as Agent Smith... A program within the Matrix designed to seek those abusing it. He drips with malevolence and barely suppressed rage. Each slowly pronounced word is full of hatred and restraint. You can tell that he is borderline insane, but the restraint and the fact that it is all bottled in is what makes it scary. He is a fabulous villain, in a film where the only other villain is completely ballsed up.
One of Morphius' crew ends up siding with the Agents and rather than creating an interesting story about human weakness and the allure of the Matrix (after all, I'd go back in there if I could dictate how I wanted to be) - they just turn them into a Boo Hiss villain who kills a lot of people and is asexually creepy.... what a shame.
Villains, in this type of film, are more interesting and more enjoyable when they're not just a 'Boo Hiss Baddy'. Agent Smith is, without doubt, the best thing in this film.... and yet in the sequels as he gets more and more insane he becomes less interesting. A parody of his former brilliance.
And so, my final point.... Neo becomes 'The One'.... A man who can see The Matrix for what it is and manipulate it at whim. He can destroy the agents. He can stop bullets. He can fly. Look how bored he is as he fights Agent Smith.... so.... What happens in the next film? The Matrix 'upgrades' its Agents.... why didn't it do that at the start? Why does it even matter - NEO CAN MANIPULATE THE MATRIX AT WHIM! Surely it doesn't matter how powerful an object is when it is essentially going up against an all powerful God.
That is what annoys me, and it has nothing to do with this film. The first Matrix was so clever, so original, so remarkable.... The Wachowskis then sully it with two confused and convoluted unnecessary films.