The Matrix: Re-Examining a Milestone

The appeal of the everyman is that he reacts to situations as you would. The everyman is pure reaction instinct, pure flight or, if he makes it to the third act, pure fight. “If you see an Agent,” other characters tell Neo (Keanu Reeves), “run.” Not what you usually tell your action star. But in the realm of The Matrix, where humanity has been absorbed into a simulation of their idea of the real world, a flawed, nervous everyman made of pure moment-to-moment choices is actually the logical protagonist of a world made of automatons and their mindless flesh-and-blood batteries. Running is the sign that he’s human. The fact that the culmination of the universe-solving prophecy is a normal dude makes it entirely more investing than a genetic space Jesus or robot wunderkind could ever be. That’s why if we’re going to enjoy this series, we have to do it now, before it thinks of those things.

This is where the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix fits itself into film history. It exhumes and stitches together so much other material that the film itself starts to take on the image of its own simulated world. But instead of a simulation made of people’s thoughts, it’s made of Ghost in the Shell, The Invisibles, Akira, Ninja Scroll, Alice in Wonderland, Dark City, Blade Runner, and one particular episode of The Six-Million Dollar Man I remember watching as a kid, in which a man’s partly robot brain is programmed with kung fu training software. This doesn’t make the movie bad (all science fiction is built from the past), but it’s important to know where it comes from when we have to decide later why the sequels went so wrong. There was a point later where The Matrix hoped to be self-sustaining, and it couldn’t quite manage it; it couldn’t stand without its inspirations propping it up. Here at the beginning, it was mostly made from a lot of stuff its creators really liked (it was even filmed on some of the same sets at Fox Australia as Dark City; it was similar enough to the wild philosophy of The Invisibles that author Grant Morrison considered a lawsuit against them on the matter). Unlike the post-punk prophet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the Wachowskis lost faith in the art that they believed in at the beginning, and exchanged it for a belief in their ability to write it on their own. When people say that the problem with The Matrix series becomes its own lore, understand what they’re saying: this is a series that becomes burdened with itself.

Does that mean that the Wachowskis came up with nothing at all for The Matrix? Of course not. But it means that figuring out what is new in The Matrix is even more important: it’s what will make it worthwhile. The one idea that’s absolutely theirs, and which makes this first movie the brilliant stewpot of other things that it is, is that they realized that the best hero of such a story would be someone boring and ordinary enough to be us. He’s their secret weapon: the normal guy at the center of all this complicated monologuing. He makes a lot of murky stuff seem pretty simple in the end. He frees the Wachowskis up to love those other movies; he makes their homages worthwhile.

When I say the film is simple, know that I understand that there’s been a lot of essays relating The Matrix to Sartre and Baudrillard, some of which is quoted in the film. I don’t mean that it’s “dumb.” I mean that the movie itself, the progression of its elements, is simply structured: beneath the simulacra of science fiction, it’s really a destined-hero chop socky, which is what they used to call movies starring Bruce Lee or Gordon Liu. There’s a lot of subtext, but when you get down to it, the plot of this movie progresses through its fistfights. So many bullets and fists fly around in its fake real world (“These rules are no different than the rules of a computer system,” Morpheus says, “Some of them can be bent”), that its slow-motion dodge effect was coined “bullet-time” and used by countless video games and films in the next decade. And “wire-fu,” martial arts done in-camera with harnesses and wires, owes this movie its revolution, to which we surely owe the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill and a lot of really bad movies. I don’t even think the fashion industry in Japan has yet to recover from The Matrix.

But its ability to justify all its physical stunts and incredible impossibilities is also the problem with its influence. The Matrix has a justification for its characters to do death-defying stunts, to leap between buildings, to fall from the sky and combat roll into the next skirmish, which is that the Matrix’s reality is susceptible to your awareness of it. Your belief that you are an invincible action hero, can make you one. The films that try to copy and outdo its feats cannot also copy its universe’s rules: those take place in the real world. This means that The Matrix is partially responsible for how the action hero has become an invincible machine that feels no danger or pain or suspense because, unlike that original film, he/she exists in a reality that’s not supposed to be able to bend those rules. It just has to, to keep up with The Matrix. Please understand, I can blame The Matrix for this while also saying that it’s not the movie’s fault. Copying it has just become tiresome. It doesn’t dampen the enjoyment of the original.

This figures into how I would describe The Matrix as a whole: as a film about which nothing is original or especially sensible, but for which everything seems to work. Neo offers Keanu Reeves the nobody that Reeves will play even if he’s given Jonathan Harker, and that makes him essential to its universe (a drop of charisma would have made the whole thing topple around him). Carrie-Anne Moss wasn’t in a single movie with a Wikipedia entry before she played the statuesque black leather lady, Trinity, who enters the real world early in the film to defy gravity while we still believe such things apply. Her part may be the one that sold the movie. Fishburne reads every line like it’s philosophy, even when it is. The three of them together give the film its wayward awe, its sense that these three horsemen are riding into something universally important and you’re fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to the shrapnel-splitting, wall-cracking action that defines it. The fact that punching Hugo Weaving is that universal business is a testament to how it elevates simple choreography into storytelling: when I say that fighting is the plot in The Matrix, I mean it as a high compliment. There’s a long and venerable film tradition of that being true.

And about that action: things start to predict the series’ dim future when Reeves and Moss computer puppets start flipping around, but the Champloo between animation and live wire-fu action is mostly impressive even today. Running up walls, hanging from harnesses, dodging that rain of bullets that never hits good guys, is all kinetic kitsch, unbelievably fun. But the movie isn’t content with being fun, and that’s why I have to take it at its word. The question really isn’t if the fighting is a good time (if that's all it needed, this would be a perfect movie), and it’s because The Matrix makes the question bigger. The question becomes: is it as substantially symbolic enough to make fighting mean something?

The issue with where the series’ effects will go from the seeds planted here is that a war in the real world against the robots will look faker than the supposedly real world generated by the Matrix. Since both are essentially video games played by someone else, the effect of the sensory disenchantment, the core of any story that gives the audience a new reality, becomes only as great as what the film tells you about it. And this series’ weakness, even at the very beginning, is that the Wachowskis feel the need to tell you everything that they thought about their own movie point-blank, in “exposition scenes.” Baudrillard should have been the guy I brought up in the opening of this review, to contextualize the deep meaning of a terrific action movie. But the movie itself quotes him for us, by name, and tells us what to get out of it. Analyses of The Matrix are always late to the party: the movie was already drunk on itself by the time we got there.

This puts me in an awkward position. If The Matrix ended here, as one action film, then the Wachowskis might be said to be great at stir-fry: turning so many other ideas into one sleek product. It even threatens to be completely meta when thought of this way, in the sense that recognizing something from Dark City or Ninja Scroll is the kind of deja-vu that really exists within the Matrix: filmmaking itself, of course, is its own kind of constructed illusion. But sticking Baudrillard in there and not just demonstrating him, but giving us the illusion and the cipher all at once, ironically makes the film seem much simpler. After that first twist, there really isn’t much to think about. The biggest takeaway becomes the Wachowskis’ incredible ego, not in making a movie with ambition, which I will always applaud them for, but in thinking that their audience wouldn’t get how smart it is without being told. Those who have seen the sequels, know just how far this philosophy can be taken.

“I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end; I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin,” Neo says at the end of the film, as he becomes like Morpheus, a new prophet of the truth of the world. He says it at the conclusion of a kung fu movie, which I don’t mean as a criticism; the tradition of martial arts films has always been to hold up a big meaning with simple action, where fighting is really just an internalization of character. The Matrix soars at this ambition by making it canonical: this is literally true for Neo, and the way he ends in this film is really how he should stay. This was a movie about a genre, and it couldn’t survive the Wachowski’s ambition to make it about itself.

Should I really be judging a movie based on its sequels? It’s hard not to when they intrude so heavily on their upbringing, changing conclusions we’ve already seen and expanding the universe in a way that seems to diminish its meaning. This is a mythology that backtracks on itself, and you can feel it when you go back yourself. I can’t watch The Matrix the same way that I can watch Star Wars and ignore the sequels. Now that I know that the philosophy is the intention of the movie and not just the backdrop, it falls way short of its inspirations, and of the kooky brilliance hidden everywhere in it.

It has a wiseman on a mysterious temple to teach us the ways of the Matrix and makes him a sweet grandma lady in an inner-city apartment and calls her The Oracle (Gloria Foster). It has a wonderful bad guy in the passive-aggressive creep called Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). And because of how the actors are positioned, these two parts of a computer program are by far the most human characters in the movie. No matter how much you love the movie’s technology, the result remains a movie that isn’t as smart as it says it is, and that proves it with sequels that make you realize how ambiguous its promises were to begin with. The Wachowskis ended up being too much like Morpheus in the end: they showed us wonderful things, and then they made us wake up and smell the sewer.

The machines make us believe that the things we care about are pointless, regimented, and self-imposed: our dreams and marriages and cruddy jobs and bad haircuts. Not pointless: just pointless enough to be real. After watching how they got so laser-focused on cheap-shot Jesus imagery and bad, bad exposition, I now have to wonder if the Wachowskis thought of this crunchy, satisfying little movie called The Matrix, which I still greatly enjoy, like the robots think of us. Not that it’s pointless. Just pointless enough to be kung fu.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

The Wachowskis

The Wachowskis

Thomas A. Anderson/Neo Keanu Reeves
Morpheus Laurence Fishburne
Trinity Carrie-Anne Moss
Agent Smith Hugo Weaving
Cypher Joe Pantoliano
Apoc Julian Arahanga
Dozer Anthony Ray Parker

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