Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Retro Review: The Matrix

 I can still remember the arguments about The Matrix from the spring of 1999; it all started with the trailers, which promised Keanu Reeves doing wire-fu and firing machine guns while Laurence Fishburne behaved mysteriously. The film looked ridiculous, and considering that the equally over-the-top The Devil's Advocate was the last movie many of us had seen Reeves in (and boy, if you haven't seen The Devil's Advocate, grab a twelve pack of your favorite cheap beer and get ready to howl with laughter*), not many people I knew were planning on seeing it. To make things worse for The Matrix, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News decided to post his positive review of the film on April 1st, which many readers of the site assumed was a joke (it was not, but many people didn't believe it).

 Slowly but surely, the film went from half forgotten joke to something people were going to see, that people wanted to see. I don't recall why I was back in Raleigh, but I know I saw The Matrix at Mission Valley. Maybe it was the expectations of failure, but I can't lie: I laughed a lot.

 While there are positives to The Matrix, that's going to have to wait a little bit because there were two things I took away from the first (and probably second) time I saw the film in 1999. The first was that anything "cool" about the world of leather-clad, gun-toting, "Agent" fighting in-computer freedom fighters was totally undermined by ridiculous lines like "I need weapons" and my personal favorite "Whoa! I know Kung Fu!" delivered as foolishly as humanly possible by a wooden Keanu Reeves. Sure, "Bullet Time" looked pretty cool and the fights were well choreographed and the Wachowski brothers made an entertaining cyber chop-socky mashup, but damn was it stupid when it wanted you to think it was so smart. So smart that Jean Baudrillard - who the Wachowski's name-drop by including Simulacra and Simulation in a key part of Neo's hacker apartment - felt the need to point out that they misunderstood what he meant by "virtual world" and that Disney Land was closer to what he meant than the Matrix. But I digress.

 The second point I walked away with, the one that became contentious over the next few months as rabid fans of The Matrix continued to tell me how "original" and "revolutionary" the film was, had to do with the similarity of its plot to Dark City. To this day, Dark City isn't as well known as it should be. The film is arguably the best thing Alex Proyas and David Goyer created (although Proyas' The Crow and I, Robot are more recognizable), but it's always been a sort of "cult" film. The problem is that Dark City was released in February of 1998 and The Matrix in March of 1999, and both films are about men who discover they are a part of a manufactured world, one controlled by all powerful interlopers that dictate their very identities and even the architecture of their world. With the help of a mentor who has some view of the "real" world, they discover powers which allow them to thwart their oppressors, save "the girl" and both films end with an ambiguous suggestion that their journey has only begun.

 Yes, it's true that this is in broad strokes the "hero's journey" that permeates most stories, but the similarities between Dark City and The Matrix were just too much for me at the time. Dark City had been on VHS for what I'm guessing was a few months and it was fresh in my mind, and if you substitute "aliens" for "machines" then The Matrix was just too much of "been there, done that" and recently, at that, for me.

 Not that my point registered with anyone other than people who had seen Dark City. Instead, there would be talking out of both sides of the mouth about how "all movies rip off other stories" but also how "The Matrix is amazing! Nobody's done it like THAT!" and I just didn't get what they were so gaga for. Maybe if I hadn't seen Dark City so recently or if my perception of Keanu Reeves wasn't tainted by Johnny Mnemonic, Speed, and The Devil's Advocate (in short: Bad Actor), it's possible that I too would have looooooooved The Matrix. But in 1999, that was not the case.

 The tepid (to be kind) reaction to The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions was a kind of vindication four years later, although I still watched both of them and really wished I hadn't.

 But that was then, and this is now. With thirteen years and some perspective, what do I think of The Matrix now? Well, I hadn't seen it for several years when a copy of the Ultimate Matrix boxed set came through the used book store I worked for, so I thought I'd give it a shot. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were still bad (although the third not as terrible as the second) but the first film isn't all that bad. The way the Wachowskis set up the beginning of the film, where Tom Anderson (Reeves) isn't aware of his true nature, is handled in an interesting way, one where it isn't clear what Morpheus (Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) want with "Neo", his hacker alter ego, or if the alarming encounter with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) actually happened or not. Things start off with a cracking action sequence that gives audiences a hint of what's to come, but it's a good while before we get bullet time or super acrobatics after that.

 In the years between seeing The Matrix for the first time and seeing it again, I've seen more of Hugo Weaving, Carrie-Anne Moss, and even Keanu Reeves. I must say that in the latter instance, I was perhaps unkind in the characterization of "Bad Actor" (or the suggestion that he wasn't "acting" dumb in the Bill and Ted movies), even if Street Kings and Constantine aren't really going to help make my case (I did enjoy them. Sorry.). He was good in Thumbsucker and A Scanner Darkly, even if the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still stunk to high heaven. Ugh.

 At any rate, with its proximity to Dark City not as much of an issue, I'm willing to enjoy the film as a silly kung fu movie that wants to pass itself off as high minded (and, considering the books and journal essays I've read or seen about the film, clearly it inspires some level of critical analysis) and be happy at that. One of these days I might even listen to the philosophers commentary track (with Ken Wilbur and Dr. Cornell West) and the critics commentary track (Todd McCarthy, John Powers, David Thompson) to hear what they think. As I understand it, things are not always flattering, which is refreshing considering how many "back patting" commentary tracks are out there.

 I have not, and don't know that I would consider it, watched all three films back-to-back. To be honest, I just can't bring myself to listen to the Architect again. But there's always a What the Hell Week out there...

 * While many people like to point at Scent of a Woman as the point when Al Pacino became a caricature of the actor he'd once been, it's hard to argue that the scene chewing, half-screamed "performance" he delivers in The Devil's Advocate is where he jumped the shark. Or nuked the fridge. Whatever that one is. Anyway, his final scene in that movie is Mega-Acting that rivals Nic Cage at his nuttiest.
** I didn't have anywhere else to put this, but looking back it it now, how crazy is it that Joe Pantoliano is the fourth person on the poster? I guess in 1999 most people hadn't seen The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, so maybe Hugo Weaving wasn't that well known, but I'd forgotten that Joey Pants was on the poster. Quick, other than Memento, name a movie with Joey Pants released since The Matrix. I could only name two.

No comments: