Enter this chamber of horrors. You'll find many things here— terrifying things. Or, y'know, whatever, man.
The Matrix. 1999. Directed & Written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, & Marc Aden Gray. Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership.
Rated 14A. 136 minutes.
An interest of mine, as well as the minor in my Honours degree, has always been Philosophy. Even the times when I can’t grasp a concept the entire school as a whole is intriguing. There are so many different philosophies, ranging the gamut of Eastern and Western Philosophy, many great thinkers since time immemorial. So what happens when you take the ideas of many philosophies, create an interesting, modern story, then wrap the whole innovative package inside an action film?
Then, you have The Matrix.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly known as Larry and Andy) wrote one of the most unique, original science fiction-action adventures in cinematic history, let alone of the 1990s. Their ideas concerning various philosophies translated into something which captivated the minds of those willing to think outside the box. No more did a science fiction-actioner flick need to be about a renegade ass kicker taking on bad guys, villainous henchman, terrorists, and so forth. Nor did it have to involve space, as was often the case before this came along. After The Matrix, this changed. Writers became more willing to take chances, at least until remake and sequel fever got too serious. For a while, though, we coasted on the high of the Wachowski genius. No matter how you feel about the sequels, this first film broke new ground, daring to go where no one had ventured, at least not in any significant capacity. The story, the action, every last bit is equal to the portion before it. And not many movies can make their stories so amazing while also doing amazing stunts and action sequences overall. That’s where this movie gains its traction.
The Oracle is one of the best parts. Her dialogue does so much. She questions cause and effect. Above her kitchen door is KNOW THYSELF in Latin (Temet Nosce), which was supposedly inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delphi; this connects to the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia. In relation to Delphi, this iteration of the Oracle follows suit with the fact the Pythia, the one through whom Apollo spoke, needed to be an older woman “of blameless life” it is said.
One of the most obvious allusions in the screenplay as whole is the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, narrated as usual by that bad motherfucker named Socrates, or as he was known in his break dance circles Socra-deez-nuts.
If you’ve never actually heard of this allegorical story, jump over here, then come back.
So Neo (Keanu Reeves) is essentially one of those people down in the cave. Chained to his life, this imposed reality, he’s left staring at the blank wall. Only here the blank wall is a falsified reality, one that looks and feels alive, real, genuine. But underneath, outside of the cave, is an actual life. One where things have deteriorated. Now, in Plato’s allegory there’s none of the post-apocalyptic storytelling. Only that the truth is beyond the cave, it is out in the light, beyond darkness. So Neo sits watching the fire in the cave, his supposed life and reality and believing the shadows it casts upon the wall are his only truth. Then in comes Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He brings the truth. All of a sudden, Neo is in the light. At first, it isn’t easy. Like Plato’s narrating Socrates relays, the people exit the cave, they see the light, and initially the light burns their eyes. Likewise, Neo is served the truth so quickly, so cold, his body reacts physically. This is a great adaptation of Plato into a recognizable, yet smart package.
Who better to play the blank slate, the tabula rasa that is Neo than Keanu? Honestly, though. I personally love the guy as an actor, he can be compelling at times. But really, his sort of disaffected attitude works in the beginning. He’s able to feel like this almost teenage-like character, one whose adult life hasn’t fully kicked in. Then as the hits keep coming he begins to feel more real, an emotional man that opens up to the truth of the world. Added to that, Reeves can do the action bit. He’s attuned to this kind of role. Best of all in terms of his casting is that he doesn’t even need to do a whole lot of intense dialogue. Not that he can’t, he certainly can. Rather, the Wachowskis needed someone able to convey the innocent qualities of the character then carry the action star part as the plot progressed. They got what they needed.
Then there’s Laurence fucking Fishburne. A treasure, unheralded. Yes, he gets lot of roles. I just don’t think people appreciate his range. He’s done everything from play in a Coppola classic to portray a wild gangster to give us the best performance as Thomas Harris’ Jack Crawford character on screen. Here, he gives us the perfect Morpheus. Nobody else could have done it this way. He has an iconic voice anyway, though it’s all in his presence, the delivery of his lines. It’s in the fact Fishburne makes Morpheus truly feel like this all-knowing, ever knowledgeable, almost ancient-type figure. This is a star role as is, but Fishburne gives it the extra boost needed to lift his dialogue off the page and make it live.
There’s an equal balance of philosophical musing and action in this film. The innovative bits aren’t solely in the enjoyable screenplay. One massive portion of that is due to the unique action sequences. The Wachowskis single-handedly coined the term Bullet Time, which of course comes out in the iconic sequence where Neo finally discovers what Morpheus meant earlier when implying he wouldn’t have to dodge any bullets, someday, at some point. A solid moment. Before that we’re given a wonderfully bullet laden sequence as Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter the building on their way to locate and free a confined Morpheus. This entire series of scenes is amazing, as they go right up to the top of the building. That’s where Neo first dodges bullets, almost all succesfully. It’s not until later in a hallway facing the agents that Neo realizes he can literally stop bullets with just his hands. Both of those moments are well executed and intense, particularly the latter as its effectively the climax of the movie, after The One discovers his full potential. But any action fan in their right mind will love this movie for its wild fun. Hundreds of bullets literally drop from the sky when Neo and Trinity go for Morpheus, the agents are tough to beat, and this makes for exciting scenes. Love when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) comes up against Neo, they’re riveting to watch, and the fight choreography is stellar (as were the scenes where Neo trains alongside Morpheus fighting). Instead of watching the typical sort of action, the Wachowskis give us gorgeous stunts, a bit of the odd elements that come along with the agents and The Matrix’s physics, even Neo himself. You can’t be bored watching any of this stuff, bottom line.
For me, The Matrix is an outright masterpiece of modern cinema. Again, it taught people that action, specifically that with a science fiction angle, needn’t always be the same tired formula. Philosophy and action can mix. Brain and brawn find middle ground, a territory where each co-exist in the minds of bold filmmakers. There are a couple solid performances, a plethora of action sequences to boggle your brains, and a satisfying finale that’s ripe to lead into other stories, yet can easily be taken as one standalone film if you want to see it that way. No matter how you cut it The Matrix blew things wide open. A movie right before the turn of the 21st century that I’ll never, ever find far from my mind. It comes along with exciting memories of being 14, hanging with best friends, eating chips and drinking Pepsi, watching movies late into the night and having fun. And that’s part of what movies are all about, good or bad. Fortunately, this is better than good. It is perfect.