starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (née The Wachowski Brothers)
by Vincent Suarez There's an early moment in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves's character retrieves contraband from a hollowed-out copy of one of the canonical texts of Postmodernism, Simulacra and Simulation, in which Jean Baudrillard suggests that modern reality is little more than a series of items and experiences replicating all that has come before; that ours is a reality comprising resemblances. It's details like these which elevate The Matrix above the vast majority of recent science-fiction films. Yet, like the strain of contemporary philosophy informing it, The Matrix is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, holes you could drive a truck through... But it's a scenic drive.
Reeves stars as Tom Anderson, a.k.a. Neo, the former a habitually late software programmer, the latter a celebrated hacker obsessed with the question, "What is the Matrix?" In Kafkaesque fashion, Reeves soon finds himself hunted by dark agents with mysterious powers while being aided electronically (via computer and cell phone) by Morpheus (Fishburne), a known link to 'the matrix.' Upon finally meeting Morpheus, Neo learns 'the truth.' À la James Cameron's Terminator films, humans engendered their demise by creating an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to wipe us out. Yet, because the humans had deprived the computers of their source of solar power by darkening the skies (an act which has left cities desolate), the computers created the Matrix, an elaborate bio-mechanical cyber-system in which people are bred, sustained, and, in death, converted into the form of power upon which the computers thrive. Although it is approximately the year 2199, Neo and those 'plugged into' the Matrix believe it to be 1999 (the supposed 'peak' of our civilization), a computer-generated environment that gives the illusion of existing in 'the real world' while, in fact, lying entombed within the Matrix. Morpheus leads a band of pirates who have broken free of the Matrix and are intent on finding 'the chosen one,' a saviour who'll free the enslaved humans and destroy the Matrix.
Essentially it's Johnny Mnemonic Moves to Dark City, but The Matrix frequently delivers on the promise at which those films only hinted. Upon agreeing to join Morpheus, Neo is plucked from the Matrix in a spectacular rebirthing sequence that rivals anything in the Alien films, both visually and metaphorically. Neo then undergoes a series of training programs in which he's taught to use his mind to bend the rules of existence within the Matrix, such that he can perform amazing physical stunts, like dodging bullets. (The kung-fu sequences are particularly exciting, with Reeves's mimicry of Bruce Lee as evocative as that of Jason Scott Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.) Finally, in the latter half of the film, its impeccable sense of style and exhilarating special effects take centre-stage as Neo and company battle the Matrix.
Unfortunately, The Matrix is one of those films that doesn't stand up to much mental scrutiny; it seems content to merely echo dozens of sci-fi films while ushering in yet another era of groundbreaking special effects. Yet, while not nearly as rigorous in its logic as the Wachowski Brothers' first film, Bound (my favourite film of 1996), The Matrix is infinitely more ambitious, and I'm willing to grant it a lot in the way of its inconsistencies. And, although the film borrows heavily from dozens of other films as evidenced by my frequent comparisons above, that seems to be the point: In introducing Baudrillard early, the film announces that it's an exercise in replicating what has gone before, both within the narrative and within the science-fiction genre.
That may be an easy way for the filmmakers to defend criticisms of lack of originality, but it also places The Matrix firmly within the tradition of postmodern classics like Blade Runner, the film to which I believe The Matrix is destined to serve as a bookend. For, while Blade Runner initiated (and perfected) the wave of 'Po-Mo Sci-Fi,' I think The Matrix will serve as its last hurrah. Ultimately, The Matrix resorts to a cheap 'love conquers all' climax reminiscent of that of The Fifth Element, and then, like Postmodernism itself, fails to offer a hint of what's next. Yet, despite its contradictions and faulty logic, The Matrix remains an exciting, technically state-of-the-art example of rich sci-fi, and it's worth plugging into. Originally published: April 3, 1999.