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The Matrix

Plugged in

by Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Andy & Larry Wachowski

With Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving

If you look at what’s playing in the multiplex, the millennium is truly upon is. There have always been movies questioning the very nature of reality (starting way back with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and going all the way through Total Recall), but now they come in droves, and this time they’re augmented with technology. Last year, there was The Truman Show, about an unwitting man reared up in a huge dome with reality painstakingly fabricated up to the smallest details. This spring only, at least three movies follow up, dealing with the idea that we are manipulated by forces beyond our control, and said malevolent forces try to fool us by creating a fake reality like a gauze over our eyes. The Thirteenth Floor (scheduled to open in May) deals with the technological side of the issue; eXistenZ (late April) -- with the biological side. The Matrix merges these two aspects of artificial existence into one, liberally spices it up with Hong Kong style stunts, eye-popping special effects, wickedly inventive visuals, and a multi-layered story. The result is perhaps less profound than the filmmakers think it is, but in terms of pure entertainment value, The Matrix is the best science fiction special effects extravaganza since, oh, I don’t know, Men In Black two years ago.

I’ll have to forego the usual plot description, since the movie deliberately works hard to confuse the viewers about what’s going on. For the first half-hour, it seems that what we’re witnessing is a peculiar sequence of dreams, each of them ending with the dreamer waking up inside another dream. It seems that someone wants Neo, a famous hacker-for-hire, also known as a software engineer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), and this someone has big plans in mind.

The opening half an hour is very effective in putting the viewer in the same state of mind as the confused protagonist. Cinematography is all muted dark greens, the set is that of a foreboding metropolis, the mood is that of a spooky dream, non-realistic yet compelling in its private logic.

And then, Neo wakes up -- for real. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission, with the revelation being truly, utterly, grandly shocking. The sheer imagination, both visual and narrative, combined with some of the most impressive special effects work up to date, result in a sequence which works on two levels: it’s horrifying, on the most basic primal level, with the horrors springing to reality as if from a nightmare; and it’s exhilarating, taking both Neo and the viewers on a wild ride through an alien landscape.

There is absolutely no way the rest of the film could have been as grand as these three minutes, and indeed the remainder is not -- but it’s still clever and entertaining in its own right, although the film a bit overdone -- too long, too elaborate, and too ambitious. In any case, I’d rather take all of that over the usual thoughtless fakery of Hollywood standard-issue blockbusters.

Because this production, done on a relatively large budget (although the question is how did they get some of this images at any budget?!), is not a standard blockbuster -- it’s very much a private artistic vision of Andy and Larry Wachowski, the two brothers who have previously made only one film, a romantic thriller Bound. They wrote and directed The Matrix together, drawing on such disparate influences as the Western ideas of technology-based (or, rather, technology-enslaved) society and the cyberpunk ethos, and the Eastern styles of kung-fu fighting, Hong Kong action films, and Japanese anime.

The results are nearly amazing, with some action sequences being as tense and exciting as they get. There’s too many of those sequences, and each of them goes on for a bit too long, but there’s no denying the style and power of each of them. There’s no denying that what we have here is a really smart script, carefully delineating the rules of its world and following them without running into any plot holes.

The film runs into some weaknesses in its last ten minutes or so, with the superfluous and somewhat cheesy romantic subplot, and a rather silly closing shot, entirely too upbeat for a dark vision the film presented for the preceding two hours. And then, of course, we have Keanu Reeves.

To be fair, he is one of the most consistently improving actors working today; each of his performances is markedly better than the previous one, and this film is no exception. On the other hand, Reeves is not getting better very fast, and where he started wasn’t much to write home about anyway. But, for the most of The Matrix, he’s fine -- until the last half an hour, where his character acquires a messianic aspect, and here his acting choices are somewhat suspect. These acting choices, by and large, mostly involve Reeves channeling that excellent dude, Ted. There’s a welcome dose of self-depreciation in this, for sure, and it gets funnier when you notice that Neo does use phone booths as portals -- but I wouldn’t say this is the best way to play the Savior of the World.

He still looks right for the part, though; whether executing a slow-motion flip while dodging bullets and firing from two guns at once, or jumping from a helicopter to catch another person in mid-air, Reeves keeps the unflappable air of an Everyman who doesn’t quite understand precisely what’s going around him and, exactly because of this, is capable of doing the wildest thing.

Overall, The Matrix is a story about the victory of human mind over the soulless machine; and whether it applies to Neo’s fight with The Matrix, or the Wachowski brothers getting their vision without being subjugated to Hollywood dumbing-down modus operandi, that doesn’t really matter. What matters, is that The Matrix is a whole lot of fun.