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Taken For Granted – The Matrix

February 1, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes…

Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


The Matrix

Wide Release Date: March 31, 1999
Directed By: The Wachowskis
Written By: The Wachowskis
Produced By: Joel Silver
Cinematography By: Bill Pope
Edited By: Zach Staenburg
Music By: Don Davis
Production Company: Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership, and Silver Pictures
Distributed By: Warner Bros. and Roadshow Entertainment
Starring:
Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson/Neo
Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus
Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity
Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith
Joe Pantoliano as Cypher

What Do We All Know?
Released in the summer of 1999, The Matrix became a must-see film very quickly. It was the fifth highest grossing film of the year, an impressive feat for an R-Rated film. The Wachowskis had created an original sci-fi action film that had mass appeal; it had insane special effects, fantastic fight scenes, and enough ideas to keep people talking. As we were rapidly approaching the new millennium, it’s easy to see how the film made such an immediate impact. It was probably the biggest touchstone in American Action films since T2: Judgement Day, and remains one of the most well known and talked about films of its era.

Many suspected the Wachowskis would be powerhouse directors after such a massive hit. But, with the exception of producing V for Vendetta, the sisters haven’t been able to truly follow up on their initial success. Which begs the question; are we all overrating The Matrix, making excuses for the parts that we like? Or does it hold up as a great film today?

What Went Right?

Full disclosure; The Matrix is not a movie that would make my “deserted island” shortlist. I watched it quite a few times as an impressionable nine to ten year old, but my affection for it ended around the time I got done watching The Matrix: Revolutions. I haven’t watched the film in about a decade, which means that I don’t know this film in-depth and back to back. On the flipside, it also means that everything was very fresh when I rewatched it for this column.

First and foremost, the film has a good story to tell. We have a pretty regular guy who finds out his life is an illusion and gets abruptly pulled of it. The dystopian future with the machines, the hows and whys of the situation are all given a perfect amount of exposition. Not too much that it gets tiresome, but enough that we can follow. The story serves as a backdrop for philosophical questioning, revolutionary bullet time special effects, and martial arts action. It’s a fun time at the movies, and now that I’ve distanced myself from it, it does an effective job of hooking me and making me want to see it again.

What really stood out for me is how well the hand to hand combat scenes hold up. There is a ton of impressive stunt work shown off here, most of it in camera, shot and edited so we can see the action and connect with the characters through their fight. There is also no frivolous combat in here; the focus is on story and every action scene feels like it happens at the right time and for exactly long enough. The only thing I would criticize is that the sound design could have afforded to be a little more impacting. It’s hard not to see this action and think about how this film’s popularity influenced the renewed interest in martial arts film around this time. Would Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have been as big of a hit in America if not for The Matrix? It’s hard to say, but I’d like to think it played a role.

But the movie is of course well known for its conversations. I think this comes down to hiring of some very impressive, commanding actors in key roles. Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus is one of the all-time great mentors, and in many ways is the character we learn most about. He is Obi-Wan Kenobi and Charles Xavier combined, and is only outperformed by Hugo Weaving as the villainous Agent Smith. His monologue on the human race is good material, but Weaving makes it truly great. And while their roles are smaller, Joe Pantoliano and Gloria Foster are also excellent as Cypher and the Oracle.

What Went Wrong?

The Matrix may be smarter than an average blockbuster, especially at a time when films like Independence Day and Titanic were dominating the box office. (That’s not a knock on those films, but they don’t exactly ask tough questions.) But the movie is still going for broad appeal, and this leads itself to dialogue that often feels on the nose. The worst case is this gem from early on:

“Hallelujah. You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.”

This is said to Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves’ character before the name change) early on, so that everyone can know that he is supposed to be a Messianic character. In case a title like “The One” and plot elements like “The Prophecy” are too subtle for viewers. While the Chosen One story is all over the place in media, I do not think that The Matrix handles this aspect particularly well. Neo is a sympathetic enough character, but I think the Christ comparison does little to help him.

Truthfully, The Matrix doesn’t have a lot of great characters. Neo works as an audience surrogate, but isn’t a particularly compelling protagonist. Trinity is also quite boring, and the rest of the crew is no great shakes either. Mouse and Tank have a bit of personality, but if you can tell me one thing about Apoc or Switch besides their names and maybe their hair, I’ll be shocked. That really matters when they get killed off. Why should I care about them? The story is good enough to work anyway, but some extra character work would have gone a long way to making it even better.

What Went Really Right?

The Matrix is more of a really good film than a timeless masterpiece; an “A” but not an “A+”, if you will. It struck at the right time and it’s influence cannot be denied. But what makes it beloved? Why are there devoted fans who are willing to gloss over the film’s imperfections?

Simply put, the film is “smart enough”. It may not be a master’s course on philosophy and religion and the nature of reality. But it doesn’t have to be. It touches on them, and in a way that is accessible and entertaining to a wide group. It may not provide answers, but it does encourage its viewers to ask questions. Being an “Intro to Philosophy” class as well as one of the coolest sci-fi action films ever made is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Chinatown
Taxi Driver

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week we reviewed another Scorsese classicRaging Bull. This week, Michael introduces me to the hidden gem known as Thank You For Smoking.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include two excellent foreign films from 2016: The Handmaiden and Train to Busan, as well as the classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.