From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Machines Gone Bad
The Matrix

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then The Matrix may qualify as the most flattered movie of the last decade. It's style has been spoofed, borrowed, and in more than a couple of cases blatantly plagiarized. Its subsequent sequels may have suffered as much from comparison by virtue of the fact that they were not nearly as original in story or in style as the original feature.

In a world that seems to mirror our own, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) works a normal desk job by day. At night, he works as a hacker who goes by the handle Neo. Neo has a fascination with a man the press has labeled as a terrorist. This man is known only as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Neo thinks that Morpheus has the key to a question that Neo has sought to resolve for some time. The question is "What is the Matrix?"

After being interrogated by a mysterious government agent known only as Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Neo gets his face to face meeting with Morpheus. Morpheus advises Neo that he can show Neo what the Matrix is, but once he does there's no turning back. With the assistance of his colleagues Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and others, Morpheus takes Neo to a place he never imagined.

The time is actually many decades into the 21st Century. Mankind was celebrating what would arguably be its greatest achievement: the creation of true Artificial Intelligence. But the creation of A.I. leads to the downfall of man. There was a great war between the machines and mankind. The machines drove a small cadre of humans deep below the surface of the earth. The remainder exists in a virtual environment that is The Matrix. While their minds live what they think are normal lives in the world of the Matrix, civilization's physical forms are kept in a kind of biological stasis where people are used as a kind of battery to power the machine civilization aboveground.

Morpheus and his crew are part of the cadre that live below ground. They are seeking a way to destroy the machines and free humanity from the slavery of the Matrix forever. Neo is believed to be the key. In what way has yet to be determined.

When The Matrix was first released, it was one of those movies that everyone was talking about in sort of coded language. The secret of what the Matrix was was half the surprise of the movie. I only talk about it so freely now because I think it's reasonably safe to say that the number of people who haven't heard about the movie were residing in spider holes with Saddam.

What had people really talking about the movie was the radical new style in which the effects scenes were shot. Christened "bullet time", the movie featured scenes that seemed to take you all the way around a central fulcrum in such a way that everything around it slowed down to an almost dead stop. The technique by which this was done is one of the neater extras on the DVD. The filming technique blended computer animation, a variation on stop motion technology that used multiple cameras taking still shots simultaneously, and the martial arts choreography of Chinese action master Yuen Wo Ping. The end result changed the way action sequences were shot on all big budget films to come.

I am a huge fan of the original Matrix. I also recognize the weaknesses of the film. The dialogue is a bit clunky at times. The pontificating of Morpheus as the one true believer in Neo's place in the grand scheme of things gets to be a little too faux philosophical. And lets be honest, you have to worry about any movie that pitches Keanu as a selling point. These problems while minor in the first film, blew up exponentially in the sequels. But the strengths of the movie far outweigh its weaknesses.

For one, the action sequences helped open up a new generation to the joys of Chinese action films. The style sometimes referred to as "wire fu" is breathtaking to watch when it is done well. Yuen Wo Ping is a true master of the art form. His skills have also helped bring subsequent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and both volumes of Kill Bill to a much higher level than they might have achieved otherwise. The movie is just a joy to watch for the action alone.

And there are some good performances in the movie. Weaving chews the scenery like there's no tomorrow as Agent Smith. He provided the only strong points in the sequels, cementing him as the real draw of the series from an acting standpoint, rather than Neo. Laurence Fishburne has some classic moments as Morpheus. I had hoped that perhaps the movie might be a springboard for a new career for Laurence as an action star who can act. That hasn't happened yet, but there's still hope. Carrie-Anne Moss has some interesting moments as Morpheus' right hand and Neo's love interest. Her skills in the martial arts sequences are accentuated by her slender form. They make her seem fragile even while she's kicking ass. Combined with her cool demeanor, it made her a little bit removed from the standard love interest in an action film.

In the end, the movie made a more than modest profit, going absolutely ballistic on the home video market. In many respects, this movie is what made DVD a commercially viable medium. The various features that illustrate how the movie was done, and a hidden scenes feature called "follow the white rabbit" made this the must own DVD for a long long time. And while it didn't quite follow through on its promise in the followup films, the movie still holds up very strongly on its own merits. Combined with some really bad ass machines, and it's a good party movie to watch with friends and just get rowdy.

Tomorrow or Saturday, Brea will have up the last feature for Machine Gone Bad week: 2001. I'll be back on Monday to start next week's theme: Biographical Epics. There will also be regular posts scattered hither, thither, and yon.
Have a good night!