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Monday, May 19, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Matrix (1999)

Director: Andy & Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss

The effects might not seem quite as spectacular anymore, but I remember when The Matrix was first released and all anyone at school could talk about was how cool it looked. This film presented something different, something new and exciting. It would also lead to countless imitators and spawn two sequels (I found Reloaded damn near unwatchable and never bothered to see Revolutions), all of which would attempt up the special effects ante. But there's still something special about this one, something worth coming back to.

At a very base level, the plot of The Matrix isn’t fundamentally very different from that of a film like Star Wars or the stories that inspired it. We are presented with a single man who possesses gifts which have as yet been untapped. He joins a rag-tag group of misfits, one of whom will become his mentor, and together they will attempt to save humanity. What separates The Matrix from Star Wars - and what is perhaps the key to the film’s appeal – is that rather than creating a far away land as the setting, The Matrix is firmly grounded in the here and now, presenting us with the idea that reality, as we know it, is an illusion and that to see the “real” world we must take the pill and “unplug” ourselves from the dream world. The idea that we’re all just plugged-in to a false reality is perhaps the best way I’ve ever heard to describe the Internet age and the way that the internet has shaped our world and our view of it in ways that are often contradictory (for example, the internet makes the world more “accessible” and brings people closer together… through everyone’s isolation at their computer stations). Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given a choice: one pill will allow him to erase his memory of seeing the “real” world and let him slip back into the wonderland of his existence; the other pill will allow him to continue seeing things as they actually are. This, too, is a way of grounding the story in our own reality, a time when there’s a pill that can be prescribed for every ailment real or imaginary. The implication is that we’ve drugged ourselves into complacency, into not being able to recognize that we’re plugged in and that there’s something just a little… off about the way things are.

But the success of The Matrix isn't based on story alone. This is a film that’s look can only be described as slick, and not just in terms of the special effects. You only need to look briefly at Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to know that you’re seeing one of the coolest guys in any movie, let alone just this one. The costume design of the film helps to elevate it above you’re average action movie and into the realm of mythology. The long, black jackets when contrasted with the suit and tie look of the Agents, emphasizes that this is a battle of youth and rebellion against an old and conservative ideology. These same jackets would also become controversially symbolic of a particular subset of youth culture. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, the stylized violence of the film in connection with the “anti-social” dress of the characters would lead to this being one of many films accused of glorifying violence and desensitizing the audience. There’s no denying that the film glorifies violence, specifically gun violence. All you have to do is watch the shot of the bullet rippling through time and space to see that. But to place the blame on a film (any film) is to ignore the fact that art reflects what is already present in the culture.

The special effects of the film have been copied and parodied almost out of relevance, especially the shot of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) hanging in the air in Kung Fu pose while the camera does a 360 and the action starts again. To see this now is to see something you’ve already seen hundreds of times in different variations. But for those of us who first saw it in The Matrix, it was awe-inspiring, and that’s why the film has managed to maintain a place in the collective imagination rather than fade away to obscurity like other fads. Of all the CGI extravaganzas that have come out in the near decade since it was released, this film remains one of the best, a standard against which others can still be measured.

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