Saturday, 30 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 44 - The Matrix

#57 - The Matrix

Sometimes, you’re looking for an answer. But it’s always the question that drives us. You know the question...
Why the hell do I keep opening with quotes?
Okay so back in the 90s, two brothers (though one of them is now a sister) had this idea for a film. Now this film would have a huge budget, extensive special effects and could either be a big hit or a box office bomb. In order to make sure the two brothers could pull it off the studio had them direct Bound first, just to prove they could make a film. And thus one of the most influential and innovative films emerged at the end of the 90s, creating a whole new trend in filmmaking. Of course sadly by the time the sequel came along four years later, the techniques had been copied and parodied to death but let’s just ignore that for the time being.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a mild-mannered citizen who goes about his business and leads a respectable life to the outside world. But behind closed doors he is a notorious computer hacker going by the alias Neo and he is eventually approached by a group of strange people, led by a creepy guy called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who says they want to free him from the “dream world” and bring him into the “real world”. It turns out the real world is a post-apocalyptic future where mankind is at war with the machines and nearly all of the planet has been destroyed. The world Neo thought he lived in was actually a computer simulated program called The Matrix that the majority of human beings are hooked up to, harvested for energy to fuel the machines. Naturally Neo has a hard time believing this and Morpheus assures him that the reason he was freed from The Matrix was because he believes that Neo is “the One” who is destined to lead them in the war against the machines and win. As if Neo doesn’t have enough problems already, there are also Agents in The Matrix who are powerful sentient computer programs who can possess anyone still connected to The Matrix. And yes, they do kill people.

I remember seeing this film when I was about eleven years old and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I was disappointed with the second movie and I thought the third was passable but this has thankfully held up over time. I actually had to watch a two-hour documentary on the making of this for one of my film classes (it was our lecturer’s way of getting out of actually teaching us something that day). It draws a lot of influences from Anime, Hong Kong action films, spaghetti westerns, dystopian fiction as well as having references to the hacker and cyberpunk subcultures and a couple of nods to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (the white rabbit, the rabbit hole, the looking glass etc). It also itself influenced the infamous bullet-time sequences and mid-air fighting scenes, using fancy camera tricks and on-set special effects instead of just resorting to CGI (which the sequel did and that’s probably why it didn’t work as well as the first movie). Though be warned, the infamous bullet dodge sequence has been copied and parodied so many times, it can look a little ridiculous watching it now and people do tend to forget that it was cool for its time.

Let’s talk about our actors and get the negativity out of the way. Once again I find myself having to talk about Keanu Reeves and his inability to convey any emotion at all in front of the camera. I used to be a fan of his because I saw this film as a kid and of course kids don’t notice bad acting that much, so it was quite a shock when I watched this back and saw how wooden his performance was. The lines such as “I’m going to learn jiu-jitsu?” and “I know kung-fu” really stick out. And there’s the scene where they can’t decide whether or not to pull the plug on Morpheus and Neo says “this isn’t happening” and goes into a big speech about what they should do next. He sounds completely bored as though he’s reading the evening news. I’m not a big fan of Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. I find his performance a bit too forced and robotic though that could have been intentional. His American accent is quite similar to Clive Owen’s in Sin City – it hides his natural accent but it’s not really that accurate. Thankfully the other two leads Laurence Fishburne and Carrie Ann Moss (Trinity) do much better and promptly steal the show with Morpheus’s idealism and Trinity’s no-nonsense attitude. Trinity’s “dodge this” line definitely stands out in a good way. As someone who despised Link in the sequels I enjoyed Marcus Chong as Tank who seems just that little bit nerdy. The rest of the supporting actors were all fine though it’s too bad their characters didn’t get much screen time or development except maybe Mouse and Cypher.

The production design for this film is extraordinary. My favourite touch is the green palette which is done over the scenes in The Matrix, giving it an alien other-wordly vibe and this of course goes hand in hand with the green codes we see making up The Matrix. Now these scenes are contrasted with the scenes in the real world which have a predominantly blue colour palette to give that a washed out look. A couple of neat production tricks show up in the scene where they drive the car to the Oracle. It is actually a filmed shot of the street passing by placed on a backdrop and played while they’re in the car. This was to give the city an artificial feel. Another big touch is in the scene with the woman in the red dress. The directors cast several twins and triplets as extras and put them in the same costumes to give the sense of a lazily-built computer program. And now we get to the big stuff with one of my favourite shots in the film – where the helicopter crashes into the side of a skyscraper. You see the helicopter hit the building, the whole glass surface ripples and then implodes before giving off all the fire and smoke as Trinity swings from the rope. 

In addition to the above mentioned scenes of pure awesomeness, I found one scene where the team are hiding from the agents and they have to literally hide in the hotel walls. It’s pretty tense and of course Morpheus’s big primal scream followed by jumping through the walls onto the SWAT team is just another awesome moment in this movie. The entire Morpheus rescue scene with the helicopter is so cool to watch and of course that goes hand in hand with the above mentioned skyscraper bit. Really the whole sequence of events when Neo and Trinity go back in to rescue Morpheus counts as a favourite scene. And yes the climactic Neo/Smith fight scene is really cool (which an episode of Charmed completely ripped off to give Mary Sue Prue yet another You Go Girl moment).
While I am talking about favourite scenes, I do have to point out some really lazy writing. This happens in the subway just after they’ve rescued Morpheus. The phone is ringing but Trinity chooses that time to tell Neo something personal. Neither of them answer the phone and it conveniently gives them enough time to wait there while Smith catches up with them. Call it “Plot Induced Stupidity”.

So what else is there to say about The Matrix? Is there a person alive who doesn’t like something about the film or has at least felt its influence on other films? True Keanu Reeves is a big letdown in this but I really don’t think anyone else could be Neo. He may have been wooden and monotonous but he made that role his own, so that’s something. If you really feel like you must continue the story then feel free to watch the sequels but they do pale in comparison to this, as is nearly always the case. And raise your hand if after you first watched this, you started to wonder whether this world is truly real. I guess we’ll never know...
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