Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Matrix (September 29th at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium)

[THE MATRIX screens Saturday September 29th at 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

Even though it shows up on lots of top-ten lists and was recently enshrined by the nerds at Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of the most influential movies of all time, THE MATRIX just didn’t impress me at the time of its 1999 release. Why? Was I too stupid to appreciate it, like all those critics who roasted Star Trek in 1966 or HALLOWEEN in 1978? Was I just a general curmudgeon over my bleak personal life and failed job search and not about to say anything good about anything? Was I not a teenage Aint-It-Cool-News reviewer most likely to be impressed by the movie’s comic-book-level brand of geekbait fantasy/philosophy? Or am I actually correct, in Emperor-Palpatine-Has-No-Clothes way, and THE MATRIX isn’t/wasn’t all that tremendous or original?

Truly, much of the picture’s brain-scrambling concepts had been done before: THE TERMINATOR for robots-vs.-mankind stuff. BLADE RUNNER for d├ęcor. John Woo for martial arts. Much published science fiction and the German TV miniseries WORLD ON A WIRE and the Japanese MEGAZONE anime features for the bit about all reality being a virtual-computer illusion. William Gibson for the general “cyberpunk” vibe. MEN IN BLACK for the, well, men in black.

And especially DARK CITY, for doing just about the same reality-warping conspiracy as the whole MATRIX trilogy, complete and satisfying, in just one movie. The good news, for me, was that MATRIX co-directors, brothers Andrew and Larry Wachowski (one of them recently had a sex change and now goes by another name; filmmakers, ugh) usually had good tastes in their cinematic shoplifting. Still, the Result for the Mini-Me in 1999 came across as a lumbering aggregate, albeit with flashes of (borrowed) brilliance. I called it the equivalent of a Windows operating system, when everyone knows the real groundbreaker is Macintosh OS. Clever me. That’s why I have no friends.

Keanu Reeves – whom one must say deserved some stick-to-it credit for returning to the cyber-sci-fi genre
after his JOHNNY MNENOMIC became the Canadian film industry's biggest flop - plays downtrodden office drone Thomas - known in the computer-hacker underground as `Neo.' Troubled by a vague sense of something not right with the world, Thomas/Neo contacts an elusive Net renegade calling himself Morpheus
(Laurence Fishbourne).

But almost at once Thomas gets captured and interrogated by Secret Service types, whose threatening leader, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) can seemingly manipulate matter itself. Morpheus explains that the whole material world we perceive is just a VR illusion - the Matrix - manufactured to keep a conquered Earth oblivious of the fact that the computers have taken over, their agents manifesting themselves as ruthless,
super-powered Men In Black. We get an all-too-brief glimpse of the real world, a hellish hive only a Borg could approve. Morpheus and his posse are freedom-fighters who have liberated themselves from the Matrix and broadcast pirate-radio signals - but to whom?

That's one of the details the very clever Wachowskis ignored. I thought the midsection of THE MATRIX went from a true head trip to a talking-head show, with much ado about “prophecies” and whether Neo is the “One” foretold to liberate mankind. I tend to find this bit overdone in fantasy material, the ever-reliable prophecy voiced early on that the wildly-overmatched good guy will nonetheless kick MIB virtual butt in the prolonged, pixel-splitting martial-arts finale. THE MATRIX toyed around with this expectation a bit, but did nothing to freshen it up except some vaguely Buddhist-kitsch stuff. SimMysticism, I called it at the time.

Of course, nobody seemed to agree with me in 1999, and the picture made a mint at the box office, was blamed for the Columbine Massacre, probably launched a generation of young film students who, like the talents here, believed that the whole mighty struggle of human existence and fate vs. free will can be addressed quite meaningfully in kickass wire-stunt CGI kung-fu. Strangely enough, critics did gradually rebel, a la Neo and Morpheus and Trinity, against the sequels MATRIX RELOADED and MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, even as I gave those bloated followups thumbs up for fleshing out the dystopic world invoked by the Wachowski Brothers (or brother/sister). Or at least I put the sequels on the very same level as the first. Make of that what you will.

Of course, it is historical fact that when I needed a job desperately I had been turned down for one by Matrix Essentials, the Solon-based hair-products company. Apparently I was unfit to write/proofread tonsorial product labels (possibly you need an MBA, MFA and a PhD, and that’s just to qualify for the probationary 12-year unpaid internship). So there may have been some residual resentment there just over the title. Maybe if the hair-products company had been named Dark City Essentials, my attitudes toward the lookalike mind-blowers might be reversed. Oh well, if you're going to see THE MATRIX, the big screen at CWRU sure is the way to do it. (2 1/2 out of 4 stars)

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