The Matrix (1999)

1999, Warner Bros. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Gloria Foster.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -3
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults*

External Ratings

MPAA ?R USCCB ?O

Content advisory: Much stylized martial-arts violence and gunplay; a large-scale gunfight massacre; some profanity.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to experience it for yourself. — Morpheus

On a moment’s thought, this characteristic line from Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne’s combination Zen master and John the Baptist figure, seems unnecessarily mysterious and evasive. The Matrix premise isn’t so difficult to express in words, really. There are contemporary philosophers who doubt the ability of language to meaningfully express propositions of this sort; but I think this is rot.

Be that as it may, scratch the surface of the vast body of commentary and discussion devoted to The Matrix, and you could start to get the impression that Morpheus’s comment is a fairly accurate description of the film itself. The Matrix has been described as everything from a neo-gnostic parable to a Christian allegory, from a strikingly innovative action film to a derivative rip-off of kung-fu clichés and stock anime conventions. Commentators have found influences from Plato and Descartes, Lewis Carroll and Star Wars. At the end of the day, can anyone really say what The Matrix is?

One statement seems fairly uncontestable: The Matrix is the most influential action movie since Star Wars. As George Lucas reinvented action-adventure moviemaking in the 1970s and beyond, writer-directors Andy and Wachowski redefined action for the turn of the millennium.

Lucas’s breakthrough was a new vocabulary of action cinematography predicated on computer-controlled camera movements that carried the viewer swooping and diving through his miniature sci-fi sets. Similarly, the Wachowski brothers made creative use of a photographic process that had been around for awhile but never fully exploited: "bullet-time photography," in which an array of cameras positioned in an arc around their subject fire simultaneously or almost simultaneously, creating the effect of a virtual camera swooping around a subject slowed to motionlessness or near-motionlessness.

Though the principle was not entirely new (for example, a series of Gap TV commercials used a similar effect), the Wachowskis not only took far greater advantage of it, they gave it storytelling significance, using it to evoke the perceptions of characters with a heightened level of awareness, whose abilities and physical speed were so great that beside them ordinary people seemed to be standing still.

Combining this technique with Hong-Kong wire-work kung-fu and computer-aided effects, the Wachowskis created a new approach to action storytelling. This approach has been widely copied and even more often parodied, though seldom with the impact of The Matrix. (One of the better examples was Spider-Man, which made effective use of an effect like bullet-time photography to suggest its hero’s experience of "spider-sense" and "spider-speed.")

So, yes, The Matrix is a strikingly innovative action film. It’s also unabashedly derivative, drawing on a wide variety of eastern and western influences ranging from Hong-Kong "wire-fu" martial arts and cyberpunk chic to Japanese anime and the wave of narrative-questioning storytelling popularized by The Usual Suspects. In this, incidentally, it also resembles Star Wars, which counts Flash Gordon and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress among its influences.

And, as with Star Wars, the eastern and western influences in The Matrix include echoes of eastern and western spirituality. Christians watching The Matrix have found both edifying resonances with the Gospel and troubling parallels with world-denying gnostic or Manichaean doctrine — though in truth the film is neither gnostic nor Christian in a meaningful way (see "Is The Matrix Gnostic or Christian?").

It may not be gnostic or Christian, but it’s definitely violent. The film’s centerpiece is an over-the-top set piece involving an immense, glamorized, slow-motion shootout with automatic weapons in which a number of innocent people are killed, and there are several stylized martial-arts combat sequences.

These scenes, along with other aspects of the film, including its echoes of Eastern world-denying philosophy, make The Matrix a problematic film that should be approached cautiously by Christian viewers. Balanced against these drawbacks are a number of positive elements, including an emphasis on the importance of knowing and accepting the truth, even an unpleasant truth, over lies or illusions. (Again, see the article above for a detailed consideration of the film’s moral and spiritual pros and cons.)

Structurally, the story follows the reliable template of the "hero’s journey" from naive innocent to hero-adept (compare Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter). Keanu Reeves is ideally cast as Thomas "Neo" Anderson, an underachieving cube dweller and underground hacker who stumbles upon something so enormous that it would make anyone go "Whoa."

Laurence Fishburne brings boundless attitude to the role of Neo’s mentor Morpheus, a combination Zen master and John the Baptist figure, while Carrie-Anne Moss is simultaneously alluring and dangerous as Trinity. The show-stealers, though, are Hugo Weaving (Elrond of The Lord of the Rings) as the tersely ironic Agent Smith, and Gloria Foster as the down-home, cookie-baking Oracle.

Hong-Kong veteran choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping arranged the fight scenes a year before his Crouching Tiger (and two years before many Americans had heard of his Iron Monkey), bringing new action energy to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking.

The Wachowskis’ allusive dialogue references sources ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Plutarch, and is rife with double meanings (e.g., "Sounds to me like you need to unplug"; "You believe that you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you"). The Matrix is a cleverly made movie, but not a profound one, though it is inexplicably regarded as profound by many of its most devout fans. Perhaps they need to unplug.

Tags: Dystopian, The Matrix, Action, Martial Arts, Science Fiction

Related Content

Mail: Re: The Matrix

I would just like to comment on your Moral/Spiritual Rating of The Matrix of -3. While I do not necessarily disagree with your critique, I just wanted to submit my own Christian connection with the film. As an Engineer, I have always struggled with the mechanics of the Christian/Biblical view of the world. Reconciling biblical topics/events such as creation, global flood, miracles, etc., etc. with observed experience has been a stumbling block to my faith.

What The Matrix did for me was to break down the barrier between spirit and flesh and see, potentially, how they could co-exist. I am referring to the the idea in the movie where their experience in the Matrix was entirely an illusion (to the not-yet-reborn), but at the same time, was complete reality to them. The real reality was the world of the machines.

For me, this opened up the idea that the realm of possibility is indeed infinite, and not limited by the physics of the known universe. While physics appeared to exist within the Matrix, they did not in reality, which is why those “in the know” could manipulate the Matrix (miracles?). In the Christian world, I imagine God’s Kingdom as sort of the real reality, and our earthly, fleshy experience as a pseudo-reality (sort of like the Matrix).

As a result, I know longer waste my time on the hows and whys of God’s Kingdom working on Earth, only that it clearly does. We cant fathom God and his methods, just as Neo could not fathom the “real” world before his “re-birth.” This has become an important part of my faith, and I have used this in communicating my faith to non-Christians (though to what avail, I do not know).

Thanks for writing. Your take on The Matrix is about as valid as any other, I think; the genius of the film is that it offers an evocative pastiche of imagery and allusions that can work as a metaphor for just about anything. The resonances you point to are real enough, and more or less consistent with the filmmakers’ intentions.

That said, our earthly, fleshly experience, though not the ultimate reality, is not a pseudo-reality, nor is it a prison. God created this world and declared it “very good.” To view this world as evil and illusory is the temptation of gnosticism or eastern religion. Of course, the most convincingly gnostic character in The Matrix is the evil Agent Smith!

Incidentally, did you read the articles associated with the review, particularly “Is The Matrix Gnostic or Christian?” and “Sculpting in Bullet Time: The Matrix Revisited” ? They get into these issues much more deeply than the intentionally brief review.

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