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