Friday, August 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Matrix (1999)


"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
- Morpheus, in The Matrix (1999)


When I first saw The Matrix in April of 1999, it was a Star Wars moment for me. 

In other words, it was a moment in which everything I believed I knew and understood about the parameters of movie-making and visual storytelling changed completely.  Watching this film for the first time is like having a mind-altering experience, and even though we are more than a decade away from the movie's release, a re-watch of The Matrix today still arouses those electric feelings of  a fresh, unfettered mind-state; of the doors of perception swung wide open.

Like Star Wars back in 1977, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix represented a quantum leap forward in terms of special effects presentation.  In particular, the film makes extensive and imaginative use of "bullet time," a digitally-enhanced simulation of variable speed that can be deployed to escort the viewer literally inside a slowed moment of time to observe details from nearly-infinite angles. 

In bullet time, the audience can watch projectiles approach a target in super slow-motion.  In bullet time, space and time become untethered, and audiences rocket around characters, seeing their movements -- and actions -- from more than one perspective.  The technique involves the breakdown of space and time in the frame; the slicing of reality into smaller snapshots.  "Bullet time" uses CGI as a guide, but it is based around the conceit of still cameras surrounding an object and filming dozens of perspectives simultaneously. 

When coupled with The Matrix's extraordinary wire-work and fight scene choreography, bullet time proved an absolute revelation.  In the immediate aftermath of the film, this special effect technique was utilized so much as to become a bad joke, but in the context of The Matrix itself, it still works beautifully.  After all, the movie concerns the very idea of re-shaping reality to our liking through the power of the mind, and bullet time ably reflects that conceit since it too reshapes conventional film grammar, and plays with longstanding cinematic notions of what is real, unreal, possible and impossible.

Beyond special effects breakthroughs, The Matrix also very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Y2K Age.  I can only describe that Zeitgeist as a permeating hunger and trepidation for a new kind of experience; one that reflected and commented on our ever-more technological-based lives.  The film came out at the end of the nineties: the first decade of the Internet, and the age in which the exterior, existential "Cold War" morphed into Pat Buchanan's interior "culture war" within our own borders.    We had peace and prosperity in America, and yet there was uneasiness roiling beneath the boom times.  There was a feeling that, spiritually, we were lost, and that in the Internet and other technological advances there could be a new opportunity to define ourselves and our place in the world at large.  It seemed as if we stood at the doorway of a new reality (a virtual or cyber reality).

Accordingly, The Matrix deals with the shifting-sands of our technological reality, and does so by asking basic questions about how human beings "see" life itself.  For instance, the film forces audiences to countenance the idea that, as individuals trapped by our physical senses, we can't detect objective reality.  Furthermore, it suggests that, in response, we must focus on an almost Buddhist peace about this fact -- that there is no spoon -- and focus instead on the powers of our own minds.   In that quest, The Matrix suggests, prevailing systems and entrenched orders that are inimical to the human spirit might be overturned, or at least, for the first time, truly "seen" and understood for what they are.  It's a delicate dance: the intertwining of Phenomenology with Buddhism with, finally, to a large degree, Marxist, anti-capitalist sentiment.

Innovative in visualization and revolutionary -- even incendiary -- in theme,  The Matrix remains the thinking man's Hollywood blockbuster, the kind of imaginative foray into science fiction thought that seems to come only once a generation.

"It's the question that brought you here."

In the year 1999, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker, alias Neo, by night and a bored cubicle jockey by day.  His latest obsession is tracking a mysterious figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a legendary hacker himself.

But then, one day, Morpheus finds Neo with the help of a beautiful woman, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss). This duo seems to promise Neo an eye-opening revelation about the very nature of existence itself, but at first a reluctant Neo demures.  Instead, he is captured by an apparent Federal agent, Smith (Hugo Weaving), who wants his help capturing Morpheus and Trinity, both apparently known "terrorists."

Before long, however, Neo follows Morpheus and Trinity down a path of no return.  He learns, in fact, that he has mistaken a computer program called "The Matrix" for the "real world."  Morpheus frees Neo from the Matrix and then reveals to him the true history of the world. 

It is actually the twenty-first century, and some years earlier, man created a brand of artificial intelligence that, feeling endangered by his creator, launched all-out war against him.  A nuclear war followed, and now the Earth's sky is black, shrouded in total nuclear winter.  Requiring energy to survive, the machines now grow and utilize human beings as batteries to propel them. 

At the same time they harness human bodies, however, the machines "fool" their unwitting slaves into believing that normal life goes on as before.  All of the enslaved humans "live" in the Matrix, unaware of the real world, and the war for supremacy going on outside it.

Morpheus awakened Neo because he believes that Neo is "the One," a mythical messiah figure who can free humans from the Matrix and take the war to the machines themselves.  As Neo trains and begins to understand the rules of the Matrix, Morpheus is undone by a traitor on his team, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and captured by the villainous Smith...really a policeman of the machine world, dedicated to the machines'  sinister agenda.  

If Morpheus breaks under torture, Smith will know the location of the last, real human city, Zion, and the war will be lost.

Teaming with Trinity, Neo plans to return to the Matrix to save Morpheus, even though he has grave doubts that he is actually "The One"...

"Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions."

A dizzying blend of action and philosophy, The Matrix remains one of the most intriguing and cerebral of all modern Hollywood blockbusters. 

At the same time that the film pushes the technological art of film forward  a generation by the pioneering use of  new special effects, it simultaneously harks back to a period in genre history when thematic subtext and intellectual gamesmanship played a critical role in the film making process.  Like the dystopic visions of Planet of the Apes (1968), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974)  and even John Carpenter's Dark Star (1975), The Matrix  utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation.

At a very basic level, The Matrix is about the very structure of our human existence.  Most importantly, it is about how we, as living creatures, perceive what is real and what is not real.  Morpheus puts a fine point on it when he muses "What is "real"? How do you define "real?"  This interrogative is perhaps the most basic question a human being can ask about his or her environment, about his or her life.

In terms of philosophy, we would probably term this idea an example of Phenomenology, after Edmund Hasserl's field of study and research.  In particular, the film obsesses on the idea that consciousness itself is always the consciousness of something or someone.   It is not objective. 

What we see and perceive with our senses therefore represents only one side side or aspect of reality.  Because of this fact, what we claim to "know" is not actually known in an objective sense.  Again, Morpheus describes the crucible of this dilemma in The Matrix: "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."  
 
In other words, if our senses can be tricked, we can be tricked.

In absence of  the ability to discern concrete, objective reality, it is our intention regarding an object  or person that then creates our sense of reality around said object.  To put it another way, our mind creates an elaborate web of reality around a glass of red wine, or a slice of steak, for example.  We bring to these things our sensory experiences and memories. 

Again, this is our so-called "intention," and it colors our view of the objects in question.  In The Matrix, Cypher considers this problem in detail, when he seeks to be returned to the material world of pleasure inside The Matrix.  He notes, of a restaurant dinner: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

And so we get down to the nitty-gritty of how The Matrix uses Phenomenology.  The film appears to state that if we cannot detect, for certain, the shape of objective reality, then the one thing we can control is our own internal reality.  We must not seek validation, legitimacy, or destiny outside, we must look for it within.  In other words, knowing the path is not the same as walking the path.  We must walk the path.

If Phenomenology proves the root problem of human existence, The Matrix suggests some tenets of Eastern Thought, especially Buddhism, as the response to that problem.  In viewing reality as it is and not as it appears to be (a concept called Prajna), Buddhism suggests mental discipline as the key to mastery over one's mind.  "Right concentration" -- or Samadhi -- in other words, is the secret to mastering life.  Such mastery takes practice, effort (vyayama) and awareness (smrti), and again, these concepts are important facets in the film's narrative. 

At length, we follow Neo through his training process, as Morpheus teaches him how to control his thoughts, and how to shape reality in the Matrix to his thoughts.  The first step in this training involves the acknowledgment of the fact that our sense of reality is not necessarily objective reality.  "Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?"  He asks.  "Do you think that's air you're breathing now?"

His next point hammers it home: "Don't think you are, know you are," he implores Neo, suggesting that Neo must overcome the construct of "reality" his mind has erected around him.  The movie's most famous line of dialogue involves the awareness of this truth.  You cannot bend a spoon with your mind because there is no spoon.  It is the mind that must do the bending.

Even the Buddhist concept of samsara -- a cycle of suffering and re-birth -- finds voice in The Matrix, since Neo learns he may be the re-incarnation of "The One," the quasi-religious figure who freed the first trapped humans from the Matrix.  Later films in the trilogy focus more heavily on this aspect of the hero's journey; on the idea of life seeming to repeat itself, over and over, throughout time.

So Phenomenology is established as the basis for the film's philosophy, and Buddhism represents the means by which the self can conquer the existential issues surrounding that philosophy.  This intellectual grounding leaves the film to provide a third important component to wax philosophical about: a villain.  And here, in devising a world of "illusion" and blind, unknowing service to a machine culture, The Matrix delves whole-hog into a a kind of quasi-Marxist argument about man's sense of freedom, and place in the world. 

Specifically, according to Martin A. Dunahay and David Rider, in The Matrix and Philosophy (2002, Open Court, Page 217):  "workers under capitalism do not recognize the relationship between their labor and the capital that they produce because they have become "alienated" from the realities of work.  They also do not recognize that they are forced to work, believing that they are operating in a "free" market in which they sell their labor voluntarily.  In fact, Marx argues, they are exploited because they cannot choose how and why they work."

This paradigm very much reflects the slavery diagrammed by The Matrix.  Trapped by his own way of "knowing reality" (Phenomenology), mankind cannot detect that he is being exploited by the A.I. Machines as a source of labor (of free energy, essentially...as a copper top battery).  Men like Thomas Anderson believe they are free -- and boast free will -- but such freedom is an illusion fostered by the oppressive, controlling structure. In this case that structure is not Marx's punching bag of capitalism, but the controlling A.I . interests.

Interestingly, the end result of such slavery is viewed as being much the same by Marx and the makers of The Matrix, as this passage from Karl Marx indicates: "...once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine...set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself, this automaton consists of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages."

What Marx writes of here, in one sense, is the idea that the individual worker is ultimately subsumed into the machine. Not a literal machine, perhaps, but a philosophical construct or structure, again in the service of capitalism.  The Matrix literalizes the hypothesis, however, actually physically transforming unaware humans into "linkages" of the machine: becoming their necessary energy source; a cog in the larger automaton. 

Just as capitalism derives capital from a labor's work; so does the machine world of The Matrix derive capital (energy) from human participation in  the dream world of "the Matrix."    In The Matrix, the humans are not conscious of their true purpose -- they are lulled into a world of luxury and tactile pleasures by their masters -- just as in the capitalist system, the accumulation of goods and material are the thing which "lull" people into continuing to support and  prop up a system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.  This paradigm makes the film, perhaps, the most Marxist-leaning science fiction film since Metropolis in 1927.

I'm not arguing for or against capitalism, by the way.  I'm merely observing how The Matrix is conscious and cognizant of how a system of control (any system of control...) operates, and how easily people can buy into that system if they are rewarded for their participation.  Cypher turns the other cheek -- ignorance is bliss-- rather than confront his enslavement, and that's what the film concerns, largely: enslavement in a system so large and pervasive that is almost impossible to "see" in its entirety.  The structure of the Matrix program reflects this structure in human life.  It provides law enforcement and government (in the form of the Agents) and religion of a sort (in the Oracles), as well as tactile pleasures.  And yet some especially insightful people (like Neo) rightly still see the system as a trap.

This notion comes across most plainly in the early section of the film, as Neo searches desperately for some sort of meaning or answer about life itself.  He works in an ugly, green-hued office environment, in a small, anonymous cubicle, "a cog" in the vast corporate machine, as it were. 

When he is called on the carpet by his wrong-headed boss, the directors of the film cut suddenly to a view outside the window, of a window-washer cleaning the transparent surface.  This shot is a metaphor for Neo's life at this point: he is trapped inside a system in which he feels unimportant.  Meanwhile, just outside, something tries to get in; to affect his consciousness; to draw his attention to something beyond the system which manipulates him.  He's on the verge of seeing it, on the verge of perception, but not yet ready... 

And again, this is an idea that carries real currency in America today.  We don't live to work; but we have to work to live. Many of us devote the majority of our "waking" time -- forty hours a week, at least -- to an agenda which is not our own, but which pays the bills and permits us to put food on our tables and a roof over our heads.  Even when we are not physically at work, we are connected or linked to this "work" matrix through e-mail and cell-phones.  As Morpheus notes in the film, "it is the system that is our enemy."  It's a subversive and fascinating point.

As much as we want to escape beyond the system, it's not possible for the vast majority of us to do, unless we are -- as Cypher dreams of being -- someone "powerful."  So The Matrix is about the yearning to be free of corporate masters; a dream which often leads to a double life, after-hours -- moonlighting, like Thomas Anderson.  We seek to find a way to thrive outside the system, outside the restrictive structures which propagate and continue the system.  But the system is too big, too all-encompassing, to beat. 

And yes, certainly, The Matrix understands the ways in which big systems can squash the individual, or the individual spirit.  "You think you are special?  That somehow the rules don't apply to you?" Those are the words used by Neo's boss to keep him in line.  The idea is that he must choose -- with his livelihood at stake -- to either be a drone or a maverick.  If he picks the former, he dies inside a little bit at a time.  If he chooses the latter, the "system" will make it exponentially-harder for him to succeed.  Again, what The Matrix truly discusses here is fighting entrenched, established interests.  It's about being Preston Tucker fighting the Big Three, for lack of a better example.  Why not just join the system, rather than try to beat it?

If the anti-capitalism angle makes you uncomfortable about the film, just look at The Matrix in more generalized, inspiring terms. As being a wake-up call from middle-class complacency; a call to see the mechanics of the system, question the system, and in some small way, at least, buck the system

And indeed, there's a darkness to this film also, in the suggestion of how to beat the Matrix.  Although Trinity and Neo are certainly "heroes," at some point they come to realize that they must use any means possible to destroy their enemy. 

Inevitably, this involves killing some of the people who are enslaved inside the Matrix.  These are innocent people.  One of the film's most famous and incendiary scenes, involves Neo and Trinity -- adorning trench coats -- entering a heavily guarded, secure building, and opening fire on security guards and police. 

The scene is brilliantly wrought, and yet Neo and Trinity are still "murdering" people, even if their victims are slaves to the Matrix. 

Some critics have described this sequence as an incitement to violence because it turns "people," essentially, into video game avatars.  And it's easier, one supposes, to blow away an avatar than a living human being, right?  The outsiders to the Matrix (the freedom fighters like Neo), are able to look at other human beings as being simply "pawns" of the machine, and somehow less valuable, the argument goes, I guess.  In that sense, some people might view the film according to another philosophy: fascism.  The chosen few decide who amongst the rabble lives and dies, with an Aryan-like "One" leading the purge.

Now, in my opinion, this scene isn't an incitement to violence, necessarily, but some in the media certainly treated it as such.  Remember all the criticism leveled at The Matrix after the Columbine shootings, and how the now discredited myth of the "trench coat mafia" took hold so rapidly in the mainstream media?  In some sense, this attack response by the networks was the system -- the Matrix itself -- responding to that which it deemed unacceptable: a movie advocating that, as rational, intelligent individuals, we must occasionally break out of our systemic purgatories and act subversively.

The film's purview is combat and all-out war, with the survival of the human race on the line, so Trinity and Neo are no more inciting violence than Luke Skywalker was when he destroyed the Death Star, and all the people aboard that vast space station.   We accept such situations in spectacular action films, rightly or wrongly, and The Matrix need not be singled out as a negative example, especially when there are far more objectionable films out there (see: 2008's Wanted).

Another really terrific and intriguing aspect of The Matrix is the fashion in which it utilizes ancient, historical and mythological language to reflect the nature of this "future" battle with the A.I. machines.  Take the name of the last human city, Zion., for example. In Kabbalah, Zion (or T'Zion) is the "spiritual point from which reality emerges."  In the film, Zion is the base for free humans, the location from which people awaken the "slaves" of the system, so there's a strong connection there. 

Similarly, the mythical Morpheus is the "God of Dreams," who could appear in dreams to speak directly to the dreamer.  In The Matrix, Morpheus appears in the "dreamworld" created by the system -- a land of enforced dreams -- and awakens people from their forced slumber.  Even his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, is connected with the idea of sleeping and dreaming, referring to a king who -- like those awakened from the Matrix -- had a "troubled  mind" and "could not sleep," (Daniel 2:1).

The name Neo, of course, means "new," and in The Matrix, Neo is a new recruit to Morpheus's mission.  Yet "Neo" is also Mr. Anderson's secret identity; a reflection of his desire to find something new outside and beyond the parameters of "the system" that enslaves him.  Trinity represents the number three, part of a triumvirate, but being of the same essence as the other components.  This joins her, explicitly, to Neo and Morpheus, as human freedom fighter and stalwart hero.

Finally, The Matrix does one thing that all great science fiction films must inevitably do.  It not only presents a consistent and driving philosophy for its heroes to pursue (in this case, the way of the Buddhist warrior essentially...), it also achieves the same thing for its main antagonist. 

Here, Smith likens humanity to a virus, in a delicious but ultimately difficult-to-refute manifesto: "It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

Given the exploding population of man, and the consequences to our planetary environment of our increasing numbers, Smith seems to have a point, doesn't he?  Also, it's important to note that in the film, it is man who begins the nuclear war when it is clear there is no other way to "beat" the machines.  He has  not only failed to create equilibrium with the surrounding environment, he has followed a literal "scorched Earth" policy regarding it. If he can't run the playground, there will be no playground.  Smith is a great and monstrous villain, and yet he is not simply "evil" for the hell of it.  He has reasons for his belief system, and they makes him a fascinating opponent.

The look of the film is also extraordinary.  From the first frames of The Matrix, which feature imagery of green computer code cascading down a screen, the film forges a sickly, emerald palette for moments involving life inside the computer/Matrix.  It's an inhuman, antiseptic color that makes audiences aware immediately that something is wrong; that something "inhuman" is happening beneath the scenes.   The generic "establishment" look of the agents works in a  very similar fashion.  At first, the agents seem anonymous and indistinguishable in their suits and ties, but soon we begin to understand that look as a kind of uniform," one that generates terror and dread.   

In the final analysis, The Matrix is a rousing action film, one in which the incredible action cannot succeed without the intellect behind that action.  It's a visceral, brilliantly-directed film, but one in which the weighty ideas carry even more power than the blazing action scenes. 

In other words, the film lives up to one of its core conceits: the body cannot live without the mind.  Here, the mental acrobatics carry the day, even over dynamic stunts, mind-altering bullet-time and tons of kung fu, Finally, The Matrix thrills on the landscape of ideas. But you can't just take my word for it.

Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

11 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:45 PM

    Hey John,I posted in wrong place again.

    As you know I have been using this film in my classes for about 10 years now to demonstrate concepts like alienation, ideology, hegemony, false consciousness, and the use of critical theory in general. If interested, I can send you a copy of a paper I wrote in my doctoral program entitled: Escaping the Matrix: Making room for critical theory in a commodified culture. It suggests the use of critical theory in higher education as a way to rethink the system.
    On a more surreal note, I notice that you did not mention Jean Baudrillard in the post. His book Simulacra and Simulation is used in the film by Neo to hide his software stash. He retrieves it when the group, including the woman with the white rabbit on her arm, shows up at his door. The software is hidden in the last chapter: On Nihilism.

    Here is an excerpt:
    “Melancholia is the brutal disaffection that characterizes our saturated systems. Once the hope of balancing good and evil, true and false, indeed of confronting some values of the same order, once the more general hope of a relation of forces and a stake has vanished. Everywhere, always, the system is too strong: hegemonic. Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight. This, only terrorism can do.” (163)

    Go back and freeze frame the scene when the agents are interrogating Neo and asking for his passport. If you have a large enough TV set take a look at the expiration date -Month, day, and year.

    Baudrillard continues: “ If being a nihilist is carrying, to the unbearable limit of hegemonic systems, this radical trait of derision and of violence, this challenge that the system is summoned to answer through its own death, then I am a terrorist and nihilist in theory as the others are with their weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left us.” (163)

    Interesting huh?

    Good review by the way.
    -r

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  2. Hi JKM;

    Loved the look at this, one of the few genuinely "psychedelic" movie experiences (in the sense that it feels like your mind is literally opening to new possibilities while you watch it). And I love that you bring up Tucker in the context of this movie - it's my favorite "capitalist" movie, good contrast to the other side presented by this movie (anagram: "Marx Tithe"). One of the things I love about this movie is the amount of speculation/interperetations it generates... Is Neo in the Matrix the whole time, merely stepping from one layer of unreality to another? Is Agent Smith actually the good guy? All kinds of mind-boggle - if you take the red pill (more Marxism?)

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  3. Excellent retrospective and analysis, John, of this truly breakthrough film. I'm glad to see you mention the Y2K component in this. I still find it amazing that a good many of people have forgotten the angst many in society (and a good many involved in the capitalist enterprise of business) had over the Millennium bug problem. This film broke through all of that with a perspective and philosophy that really turned heads and upsided our own concepts of reality. It's one of those moments where you had all sorts of people talking about it once they screened THE MATRIX. Few films achieve that kind of disruption, and this one did.

    A couple of things I admire about the film:
    1) though we see an "...Aryan-like "One" leading the purge..." it is the people of color in the film that ground the rebellion in a morality that is pitted against the slavery of the system they are in (which the Wachowski Bros will continue as a motif throughout the trilogy). Few mainstream pictures were/are as forward thinking, even in the age of globalization.
    2) THE MATRIX loves to foreshadow things, like with Choi in the hallway scene where he says, "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ." Or when the Oracle first meets Neo and lays out his sacrifice in this film, and in the last. These filmmakers sure delighted in layering things for repeated viewings. Not bad for a film released in March (not exactly a dumping ground month like January and February, but not one the studios show a lot of confidence). You can almost tell their expectations by the release dates for the subsequent installments (big: mid-May for THE MATRIX RELOADED, and less hopeful come early November for THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS).

    I'd also add one more seminal film in comparing this one to: John Carpenter's THEY LIVE. Though it didn't have the SFX or deep philosophical bent as TM, the thought of awakening the masses and pulling the veil off to a reality is quite evident in that picture and I think a distant kinship could be found in its DNA ;-).

    Great, great film you've chosen to look at and continue in a series, my friend. Tell me, will you examine THE ANIMATRIX in this? The backstory it presented was interesting and Final Flight of the Osiris does play a role at explaining some in Reloaded and Revolutions. Just a thought. I really loved reading your thoughts concerning this film and look forward to whatever you have next (and I, too, admire a great many things in the middle installment that'll continue to the blow the doors off of people's expectations. Thanks for this.

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  4. What I always found interesting is that THE MATRIX basically took what had been underground for so long (Cyberpunk, John Woo's Hong Kong action films) and pushed them into the mainstream. A lot of people hadn't been exposed to these influences and this film ended up becoming a game changer not just in the realm of science fiction (just like BLADE RUNNER had done) but also in terms of special effects. These visuals just blew everyone away and I remember seeing this film opening weekend and just being amazed at the visuals that unspooled.

    Looking back I guess a more cynical person would say that the Wachowski's raped and pillaged from all kinds of SF fiction and mashed it up with HK action films but I still think that there is enough of their own stuff in THE MATRIX to make it stand apart from what influenced them.

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  5. Anonymous8:51 PM

    Your post has rekindled some interest in the film for me. I have only been talking about the film as an analogy for a while and not thought too much about the movie itself. I was motivated to dig through some of Baudrillard's books and interviews and found an interesting one from around 2003 where he talks about how the Wachowski brothers got in touch with him after the release of the first film and tried to get him involved in the sequels. He refused, and thought that the film confused the new problem raised by simulation with it's arch-classical platonic treatment. It muddied the water between that illusion that covered the “real” world –the one we live in now, and the illusion of the virtual world that may someday cover the illusion we are currently in. Philosophers have been trying to show us this “system” for a while, and I suppose Baudrillard felt that the film was kind of a distraction from that when he states: “The Matrix is the kind of film about the Matrix that the Matrix itself could have produced.” - It's like the whole Micheal Moore thing – Using the platform of the system to critique the system. Baudrillard didn't buy it. But I somewhat disagree with him here, I think that the technological extension of the older cultural illusion that the Wachowski brothers developed is brilliant because it highlights a transition into another level that we are currently entering. (just look at how many people stare into screens for work, play, socializing, etc.) The virtual world will be a very “real” world in the next generation, just as our current world (post industrialization) is very “real” to us. Regardless, of the distortions, I think that the film can be a powerful gateway into Sociology and Critical Social Theory in general. I thought there would be more discussion here about some of the Marxist ideas you brought up. Hope all is well.

    -r

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  6. D'oh! Ignore my comment on your latest post. I didn't see this review, which is excellent. The Matrix was/is a "Star Wars moment" for me too.

    Great review and analysis.

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  7. Great review.

    I'll agree, this film was a Star Wars moment for me, too. With diminishing returns eventually, as well. This film revolutionized film-making, just as much as Star Wars did (and in some ways, more than James Cameron, which says a lot).

    There was something I've always noticed but you didn't point it out in your review; I'm sure it was noted back in the heyday of the trilogy: "Neo" is an anagram for "One". I always felt that was totally appropriate: Neo was indeed, the One.

    While playing catchup, I saw the Eagle-post from a bit before this. It helped me realize that there's a massive parallel to Space: 1999 here. Specifically, the episode of Metamorphosis. Mentor was using human personalities to keep his computer system going to revive Psychon. Here, the Matrix relies on the energy of human bodies to keep itself going. Thomas Anderson is more than he believes himself to be, as is Maya,
    but it takes an outsider--Morpheus, John Koenig--to free them from the trap they are in. They become extremely valued members of the team. Zion functions as a version of Moonbase Alpha. In the second season, there is a sense, from what I've read, that the Moon is in an area of the space where they could run into the same groups of people again (much like when Voyager was in the Delta Quadrant and continually dealt with the Kazon, or the Talaxians, or the Borg, or the Hirogen in various arcs). Alpha runs into some more Psychons. Whereas in the first season, they ran into a lot of Earth-reminders: Lee and the Astro Seven probe, Jack Tanner and the Uranus Probe, The Voyager, the Ultra Probe, Arkadia, etc... Unless they moved into an area of different space, they'd likely run into some more Psychons, deal with the Tabor, etc. But all that surrounds Alpha---much as the Matrix surrounds the humans in Zion. They must coexist with the Matrix/Psychon space, defeat the Matrix/enemies in Psychon space, or die.

    Anyway, thanks for the great review! Looking forward to the other films...

    Gordon Long

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  8. Hi everyone,

    Firstly, I want to apologize that it has taken me more than a week to get to these outstanding comments on The Matrix. Last week, I became involved in a time-sensitive and highly complex task for one of my publishers, and I haven't had time to stick my head out of it until today. It's been exhausting, and I've had to let these comments go. Sorry about that.

    Now, onto the comments!

    Rick: Thank you for bringing in the iformation about Jean Baudrillard and his book Simulacra and Simulation, which is certainly critical to one reading of the film. Basically, when I endeavor to review a film such as this, I think about what the best approach is, and how much I can include. I decided that I wanted to chart the phenomenology-Buddhism route, as I feel it covers more territory, and gives a better sense, in general of what the film involves. However, the background information you provide on Baudrillard and his participation/non-participation with The Matrix sequels is fascinating. I didn't know any of that. It makes me want to look more deeply at this aspect of the film. I'd love to read your paper...

    Hi DLR: I think you pinpoint the greatest thing about The Matrix: It opens itself up to various interpretations. It can be read on a number of levels, and in a number of ways, and in that fashion never plays as old, tired, or empty. It's a cerebral and visceral thrill every time you watch it. In this way, I actually feel it is a superior film to Star Wars. I've watched Star Wars about a hundred and fifty times, I would reckon, and it finally has no new frontiers or knowledge for me...I've worn it out. That hasn't happened to me yet regarding The Matrix!

    More to come...

    best,
    John

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  9. Hi Michael (Le0pard13)

    You make some great points here regarding The Matrix. I'm particularly happy you mentioned the ethnicity of so many in the rebellion: that aspect of the film helps to undercut the white man's burden aspect of the picture, to a large degree. I wish I had pointed that out, myself!

    Secondly, context is always vitally important to an understanding of a motion picture, and I'm glad you brought up the Y2K bug. You're quite right that it had people in big business quaking. I have an uncle who was a business consultant on Wall Street who literally quaked in his boots over the Y2K problem for something like three years. I first heard him describe it in 1996, I believe it was. It was a huge psychic "apocalypse" on the horizon, and The Matrix definitely plays into that context.

    I need to watch The Animatrix. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen it, and for that reason (as well as my busy schedule), at this point I'm probably just going to include the three live-action films. I will definitely return to The Animatrix, however, to complete this investigation, at some point. That's the nice thing about blogs: open ended!

    J.D.: I love you formulation here, that The Matrix took what had been "underground for so long (Cyberpunk, John Woo's Hong Kong action films) and pushed them into the mainstream." That's a great and valuable point, and makes me think of George Lucas and the way he brought forward a pastiche of Akira Kurosawa influences/films with Star Wars. But you're absolutely right: The Matrix made mainstream and popular a certain subset of action films in a tremendous way.

    I don't see the homage/pastiche as a rape either (anymore than I see Lucas's work as a rape...). There's definitely enough original material in terms of philosophy and presentation here to make The Matrix a singular entity all its own.

    Great comment!

    more to come...
    JKM

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  10. Hi Bob:

    It's so nice to see you here, sir, and to see that you are following my blog. I am honored to have a writer and thinker of your stature joining the ongoing pop culture discussion here. We share indeed the love of The Matrix, and the idea that it is a Star Wars moment! The first time I saw the film, I was truly blown away. Rewardingly, the film holds up, and to my surprise, I think I like the first sequel, Reloaded, even better!

    PDXWiz: Great catch on the Neo/The One trickery going on there! I admit, I hadn't seen that, but now it seems perfectly clear! I'm also intrigued by your connection to Space:1999 Year Two, which I also readily admit was another one I had not forged myself. I'll have to really think about that!

    Great comments, my friends.

    All my best,
    John

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  11. Knowing that I am a huge fan of THE MATRIX, Michael alerted me to your series. I've only read this one so far but I am looking forward to getting on to the next ones.

    I really enjoyed reading this and seeing some interpretations I had not previously explored. As has already been said there are so many paths one can take in this film that each discussion can be brand new. It's one of my favorite things about the film. I'd actually go so far as to say this was my STAR WARS since I never had a "star wars moment." (Let's not go into my tv/movie childhood restrictions:) I remember my excitement leading up to this film (I went to the theatre as soon as tix were on sale to get mine) and being alone in this excitement (perhaps it's where I was living at the time but there was no buzz) and how thrilled I was that the film far surpassed my very high expectations.

    "The Matrix utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation."

    That is why I chose THE MATRIX as my top sci-fi film of all time recently. I feel sci-fi is not sci-fi if it does not do that.

    And

    "I'm merely observing how The Matrix is conscious and cognizant of how a system of control (any system of control...) operates, and how easily people can buy into that system if they are rewarded for their participation."

    This is why I loved and love THE MATRIX. I feel that the aspect of "reward for participation" is actually a fairly quiet thought in the film so it's wonderful that you pull it out and describe it so well. The film, for obvious reasons, does not glorify participation or even go into how willingly people will participate for rewards and I find it to be what mimics our "real" systems the most.

    Thanks for the excellent examination and trip down memory lane. I think I am going to go pull out my copy right now and queue it up.

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