Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving defy gravity in ground-breaking sci-fi The Matrix
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an office-working drone by day, hacker Neo by night, who wishes there was more to life than this. He’s going to get more than he wished for when he’s offered a choice between the “Red Pill and the Blue Pill” (truth or fantasy) by Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), leader of a mysterious hacker group with super-human athleticism and strength. Choosing the Red Pill, Neo wakes up to find himself plugged into a massive machine – and that the world he knows is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic cage, a computer simulation known as The Matrix, used by the all-conquering machines to keep humanity docile while they use their bodies as batteries for their empire. Even more than that, Morpheus is convinced Neo is “The One”, a prophesied saviour who will bring an end to the Matrix. Can Neo accept his destiny?
The Matrix is a superb fusion of a whole host of questions that clearly fascinate the Wachowski siblings. Questions of identity come flying to the fore, as well as the battle for individualism in a conformist society. The Matrix has very earnest points to make about learning to embrace the people we really are, which it delivers with a host of references to philosophy and psychology. It could have become indulgent and self-important (a trap the sequels would fall into), but it delivers the story with a crowd-pleasing burst of energy, mixing in film noir, kung-fu and some rather endearing characters that we end up really caring about.
It’s also of course super, super cool. Everything about it passes the test: from the leather trench coats and shades to the high-octane action and the sense that the film is speaking directly to the alienated, authority-nose-thumbing teenager in all of us. This is a film for the people, the under-dog, with something for anyone who has ever felt trapped, bored or oppressed by their fate (i.e. nearly everyone) and reassures them that their dreams of having a special destiny might actually come true. It tapped into people’s joy and fantasy in a way The Phantom Menace totally failed to do.
This is a classic slice of mysticism. It’s not a film as clever as it thinks it is – it’s main calling card is still Alice in Wonderland the go-to for all films musing on dreamlike fantasy worlds – but it still throws a host of fun little questions and thinking points at the audience. Today, its also easier to see how the film is a celebration of counter-culture and sexual fluidity in a way that had to be snuck under the wire in the 90s. It asks (in a simple) way questions about who we are and what is it all about, in a way that really appeals to rebels. It’s the sort of film a Camus-loving teenager who is fed up with their parents, dreams they had the skill to make.
Skill is the key here. This is a superb achievement by the Wachowskis. It’s brilliantly directed, fast-paced and electric. The camera-work frequently makes use of a flurry of flashy tricks (reflections are a common theme), but which never over-whelm the narrative. It’s revolutionary use of freeze-frame camera work – an ingenious invention created “bullet time” where a series of cameras each taking one shot seem to allow us to rotate at normal speed around actors caught mid jump – introduced something we’d never seen before (and was much imitated and parodied later). The action sequences are stunning – a series of high-stakes, super-cool kung-fu-laced punches and kicks that are shot with a fluid camera that manages to seem both classic and deeply immersive.
It also works because our heroes are really underdogs. We are told again and again that they are vulnerable in the Matrix – that for all their gravity defying feats of strengths, when they come up against the “Agent” sentient programmes, they stand little or no chance of surviving. The goodies die with astonishing regularity in the film, and even the leads are shown to be extremely vulnerable in combat. Our empathy for them is so well crafted, that we even forgive the fact that they gun down countless numbers of their fellow humans during the film (it’s handwaved that anyone can become an agent at any time, so the slaughter of dozens of regular Joes is pretty much essential to prevent this).
A lot of that is also down to the excellence of the main performers. The film channels Keanu Reeves instinctive sweetness and gentleness in a way few other films managed to do as successfully before – he’s brilliantly convincing as both the kick-ass hero, but also the endearing fish-out-of-water who says “woah” as Morpheus jumps over a building. Carrie-Anne Moss is determined, assertive and very humane as Trinity while Laurence Fishbourne’s natural poise and authority are perfectly utilised as Morpheus. Opposite them we have a performance of such dastardly, lip-smacking, Rickmanesque consonant precision from Hugo Weaving, that Agent Smith becomes an iconic villain.
It all comes together into a film that delicately weaves a plucky under-dog story of a hero trying to find his purpose around a few perfectly staged, edge-of-the-seat action set-pieces, that hits a perfect balance between a wider-audience and a cool and pulpy indie vibe. It’s the sort of film that will please the masses, but many people will still feel is speaking very personally to them. Hugely influential, it remains a masterpiece of action and science fiction cinema which, while never as clever as it thinks it is, is hugely vibrant in its filming and endlessly, repeatedly exciting when watching.