The Matrix is an aggressively, almost violently, superficial film, which isn’t a bad thing. That it doesn’t realize it is aggressively superficial? That is a bad thing, and arguably the overriding “bad thing” about genre films in the years to come since The Matrix. In particular, the sci-fi genre has descended into a mess we seem only to just be coming out of. There was a great long period post-Matrix where science fiction seemed wholly unable to exist as either thoughtless puff piece or hard-working, idiosyncratic social commentary. Films consistently and inescapably combined the two to sums that were less than the sum of their parts, questing for a maturity without earning said maturity in genuine craft, all while eventually falling back on techno-fried action as an avenue for popular appeal when the ideas of the film failed to pan out. Take Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for one. Not a bad film, but definitely a post-Matrix work of trying to have its edgy, thoughtful sci-fi cake and trying to eat its robot-alien action cake too.
In this regard, The Matrix is definitively a post-Matrix film in sensibility. Many would like to claim that other films have simply misunderstood the lightning rode concoction the Wachowskis unleashed upon the world in 1999, that this one 1999 film got it right while so many others afterward got it wrong. But looking at the film tells us a much different story. The Matrix is a film of real, pressing strengths, but they are always at odds with the inescapable fact that it suffers from the very same flaws that so many later films inspired by The Matrix suffered from. It seems Blomkamp and the like studied their inspiration well, recreating its strengths without forgetting its weaknesses.
Specifically, The Matrix suffers from the simple fact that it is never as smart as it thinks it is, which would be fine if it didn’t spend so much time legitimizing its intelligence. As speculative sci-fi writers, the Wachowskis are unpersuasive, crafting a world that is far more interesting as an abstract idea than a legitimate reality, a fact that contrasts entirely with the great pains they go to in order to depict how “the Matrix” works as a tangible fact. But, first, what exactly is the Matrix? It is an alternate reality in a post-apocalyptic future world run by machines who grow humankind in fluid-filled sacs for eventual harvesting. Pre-harvesting, said humans waste away their time plugged into an alternate reality they accept as their own (they have no knowledge of their true identities as machine fodder). In this alternate reality, dubbed “the Matrix”, they go to work and sleep and eat and watch television and generally live like humans on Earth circa 1999.
All well and good as an obvious metaphor for humanity lying itself into another day and failing to question the true reality that exists behind the curtains we throw up in front of ourselves. Except the Wachowskis spend an ungodly amount of time attempting to explore the nuts-and-bolts functional qualities of this alternate reality as it actually exists in the real world, a decision that literalizies what is functionally a metaphor for our reality and begs questions the two writers are wholly unable to answer. In general, it is good to leave such abstracts as abstracts – the same applies in horror fiction, with so many films losing themselves to tirelessly explaining their monsters in ways that only draw attention to how contrived and non-real said monster really is. Over-writing leads to over-explaining, which sacrifices the illusion and the mystique. It is easy to accept “the Matrix” in its broad strokes, but when the film tries to fill in the details and transform an idea into an actual functional object, the illusion crashes down. We become aware how frail and thin the broad strokes are, and the finer pencil strokes of the details only insist even further.
This problem befell the Wachowskis’ two sequels, filmed simultaneously and released in the same year, but it is obviously embryonic here. The latter two are films that absolutely suffocate on their tormented, wheezingly over-wrought prose and cloying attempts to explore their worlds and front-man Neo’s Jesus-like role in that world. A Jesus-like role that fit the largely scribbled-on nature of Neo as a character like a glove over a sidewalk, and it suited front-man Keanu Reeves even less. Hound-dog, wallpaper Reeves is absolutely perfect for this first Matrix however, filling the role of a generally bored slacker whose non-personality functions more like a silent protagonist or a player character in a video game than a truly defined character.
It is no secret, by the way, that The Matrix operates on the logic of the increasingly prevalent, increasingly adult video game format taking over the world circa 1999. The film follows characters who exist in the real world – Neo is unplugged from the Matrix by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who lead a crew of rag-tag resistance fighters against the machines – constantly being plugged back into levels of the Matrix itself, as though entering video game levels. The somewhat fetishistic prevalence of computer code in the film is another too-obvious reference, and the nature of this narrative structure does a lot to justify Reeves as the film’s blank slate and a stand-in for viewers rather than a complete human being all his own.
But understanding The Matrix in this light, especially relative to where computer games were as a narrative medium in 1999, keys us in to the best prism with which to view the film: as an action movie, detached from social observation or intellectual commentary, but simply a through-line of inventive action set-pieces that play with visual storytelling in creative ways. Like so many video games, The Matrix struggles to legitimize its intelligence and its writing when it is ultimately more successful on straightforward, easily digestible, largely visual terms. Terms that should not be avoided or thrown to the wayside; visuals, after all, are the backbone of cinema, and as a reckless visual experience, The Matrix is a treat. Freed somewhat from the bounds of reality – and the bounds of its too-literal, too-complex screenplay – the two Wachowskis are able to concoct a thoroughly satisfying slice of propulsive action-thriller cinema as Neo and the crew are followed and tormented by an agent of the machines, Agent Smith (a dry, sinister, smugly comic Hugo Weaving), who is sent in to clean up any real world human attempts to invade the Matrix.
At some level, it all boils down to “cool”, but as the entire cloth of 1960s US cinema show us, self-conscious “cool” isn’t something to write off in the best moments, even if it is a distinctly trench coat wearing, hacker friending, techno club raving late ’90s pop culture artifact conception of “cool” when all is said and done. The Wachowskis have an innately enticing, invigorating interpretation of how cinema functions visually, and when their visual ideas aren’t being relentlessly hunted down by their philosophical ideas, they are forces to reckon with. Bill Pope’s industrial-Gothic cinematography plays with colors and symmetry in exciting ways, and the editing by Zach Staenberg is crisp enough that the flow of scene to scene becomes an invigorating gesture itself, doing particular work to keep the film clipping along in spite of the pretentious writing always threatening to hold it back. The concluding half hour of the film in particular, when it drops all pretenses and almost openly announces itself as a sleek aesthetic upon which to string action scenes, is a blast of kinetic, elemental, tornado fury, and this superficial, deliberately adolescent nature is the film’s best mode. It is as if the film itself woke up from its own prison, its own Matrix, which is its writing, and simply got to having a fun time at the movies. A fun, superficial time at the movies, but fun is as fun does, and the Wachowskis understand fun even if they frequently don’t want to admit it.