What is the matrix? That is the question that drives The Matrix forward, it’s the question that keeps the film intriguing, and it’s a question that can spark some philosophical debate. Once viewers learn what the matrix is; how does the matrix work, turns out to be an even more interesting question.
The Matrix was revolutionary for its depiction of action scenes and for popularizing the technique of bullet time – which are action scenes filmed in slow motion, while camera angles move in real time. While special effects and fighting sequences may have been revolutionary, other aspects of the film (plot and acting) couldn’t match these strengths.
So what is the matrix? It’s a film with superb special effects and action scenes that are coupled with a middle of the road quality plot and some substandard acting (for the most part). The film’s strengths though overpower its weaknesses, allowing viewers to easily forgive transgressions in areas of filmmaking that usually aren’t forgivable.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer by day and a computer hacker, going by the alias Neo, at night. His double life leads him to the underground, where he encounters Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) another hacker and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the world’s most dangerous man. Morpheus offers to tell Neo what the matrix is, which is the question that has been giving Neo many sleepless nights.
Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and two other agents work to catch Morpheus and Neo and prevent the two from ever making contact.
The fast paced kung fu styled fights, the excessive amount of guns and explosions, the cold-hearted one liners, and the trench coat and sunglasses inspired looks are what make The Matrix such a stylish and visually stunning action film.
Among my favorite action scenes in this film are when the helicopter crashes into the glass skyscraper – the resulting explosion and glass shattering effect still look amazing to this day, and the scene where Neo walks through the metal detector with his arsenal of firearms and his confrontation with the security officers there.
Despite the great action sequences, gaps in the plot and traditional logic are sacrificed in order to make some of these action scenes more explosive or to keep the actors looking good. For example why do Morpheus and Trinity need to wear sunglasses at night, and thank God Neo only shot the agents and not Morpheus when he sprayed and prayed with a chain gun into the room they were all in. I find myself forgiving some of these plot holes because my inner bloodlust would rather see Neo tear shit up with a chain gun than have a detail within the plot make sense. In a perfect world the plot would make sense and their would be spectacular action scenes, but the world isn’t perfect you can’t win ’em all.
Acting in the film is mostly a sordid affair. The crew that works with Morpheus suffers from thinly created characters. Additional character development scenes feature acting performances that would be better left as extras for the home release (Cypher excluded). Laurence Fishburne and Carrie Ann Moss struggle to hold their own with their roles, but ultimately never look truly bad in the film. At times these two characters can come off a bit robotic, which may not be the best idea in humans vs machine type of movie.
Keanu Reeves hits and misses in the role of Neo. He can deliver his one-liners, and most of his generic dialogue is handled well enough, but when he has to do dramatic or emotional acting – for example when he first learns what the matrix is – his performance completely falls apart. The before mentioned scene is so terribly portrayed by Reeves that on subsequent re-watches of the film I thank the man who came up with the idea for the fast forward button on my remote.
If there is a standout performance in the acting field it belongs to Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. Considering what Agent Smith is, the performance has a good deal of emotion in it. It’s a rather cold and lifeless emotion, but it’s still emotion, and it works perfectly to vilify his character. Weaving also has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in all of film, and he uses this to great advantage in playing with the audiences sense of apprehension for the villain.
Music in The Matrix is a collage of orchestral and electronic rock elements that seems to be inspired by the film’s roots in cyberpunk. The orchestral elements of the score usually work really well to underline the action and drama presented in the film, but the electronic rock elements (minimal as they are) are often distracting. Additionally the rock inspired elements of the score have not aged well as time has passed. What was an admirable idea stylistically, unfortunately does not have the greatest intended effect; at times this element of the score makes the film feel more like a video game.
The Matrix comes with a well written, but not completely original back-story. The plot is strong enough to keep audiences watching, and the enigma aspect (what is the matrix?) of the first half of the film is genuinely intriguing. Combined with stellar sequences of explosive action, The Matrix turns out to be one of those rare films where special effects and violence ultimately lift the film’s potential and make it better than what it ever could have been or should have been.