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Back When The Matrix was Cool

Hey an alternate poster! No Joey Pants, but something different right?

It’s kind of joke now, The Matrix.  Keanu Reeves, please. Oh hey guys, an actor that isn’t that good acting like he’s confused for 90 odd minutes, comedy gold!  After the completely bloated and somewhat insane last two movies the whole fictional universe has become the realm of geeks who are only concerned about wearing black and pretending to know martial arts.  There have been animes and books, a table top RPG, and numerous video games, even a short-lived MMO.  But that wasn’t always the case.  In fact, I remember a much younger me going to the movies with my father way back when in March of 1999.  At the time, the impending release of Star Wars Episode 1 was THE focus of my movie going brain.  Little did I know that a sci-fi movie that was getting just a bit of buzz would turn out to be one of the cultural milestones of action movies, while Star Wars would be underwhelming, to say the least.  So let’s go back to before the Matrix became a THING, and when it was just a damn good movie.

I’m not going to spend a ton of time rehashing the plot given how the film is now about twelve years old, but it actually seems pretty standard science fiction at first.  Robots have taken over humanity and are using them as batteries, woah!  The “woah!” part is very important in the form of Keanu Reeves.  Now, I’m not a Keanu hater.  He is not a great actor, I’ll admit.  In my opinion his range is very small.  Luckily for us and him, this movie falls directly into that range.  I joked in the opening, but he’s very effective at playing a character who doesn’t know what’s going on.  In fact I think this whole movie works based on the fact that Neo is basically the audience.  He’s an ordinary guy who suddenly finds himself thrown into an insane situation and we are learning the rules of this situation right along with him.  Yes, Neo is a blank sate, but that’s the point.  I consider it a failure of a film if it’s forced to have characters expounding long-winded speeches to nobody in particular so the audience can understand the plot.  The Matrix has PLENTY of long-winded speeches, but they are not at nobody in particular.  They are directed straight at Neo and since we’re living vicariously through him, it’s an excuse to explain some admittedly dense plot details in a legitimate way.  In fact, this is the exact same thing Inception tried to do with Ellen Page’s character.  While it was functional and didn’t ruin the movie, I think The Matrix did it much more organically and effectively.

Keanu always seems confused, but I will admit, I'd have the same look on my face if this happened to me.

So yes, the plot is deep and everything, but what was the lasting image of The Matrix?  The action scenes.  At the time the slow motion zoom around with the camera thing WAS new and cool and deservedly got a a high amount of praise.  To me though the real triumph of the Matrix is something that I noticed at the time and sadly has NOT seemed to become a trend in the world of Hollywood action movies.  PULL THE CAMERA BACK.  The Jason Bourne trend of having the action up close and with a shaky cam sucks.  The argument for it is that makes the fight feel more visceral and personal.  That’s entirely true.  But there’s a reason most people don’t get into physical altercations all the time…it kind of sucks.  I don’t want to feel like I’m IN the fight in my movies.  I want to be able to see and follow the actual combat.  And that the Matrix did amazing well.  The iconic dojo fight scene between Neo and Morpheus works so well because we can see every move.  It also works well because as the behind the scenes details reveal, during the actual takes used in the film Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne were just actually hitting each other instead of pulling the punches and kicks.

Still awesome.

The action scenes of the first film, while not as technically marvelous as some of the set pieces in the second and third, are more memorable in my view.  Why, you ask?  Because while the second and third films amped up the action to near insane levels, The Matrix remained grounded.  It’s as Morpheus explained it to Neo before he became “The One” and got crazy powers.  There are rules in the matrix, they can just be bent.  When Neo basically becomes Superman in the sequels, much of the drama goes away.  He can fly, he can use telekinesis, he can fight hundreds of suited mans at once.  Not so in the first film.  Here we have a reality, ostensibly OUR reality that the film wants us to believe is false, just amped up.  When Trinity dispatches the cops in the first fight of the movie, she doesn’t do it because of super powers.  She does it because she is stronger, physically faster, has a faster reaction time, and is trained in every conceivable form of fighting.  In fact it’s this interaction with normal humans that basically just goes away in Reloaded and Revolutions that is what I enjoyed the most about the first Matrix film.  It was a movie that really did remain in the real world just enough that the fantastical things carried weight to them.  It was only at the very end, as Neo jumped into Agents and sploded them from the inside out, that the film truly let loose.  Only the end being the most important phrase.  As young me watched the last shot of the film, which if you recall is Neo literally flying into the sky Superman like (a feat he repeats throughout the next films), I thought “holy shit!  Think of what he’s going to do NOW!”  As it turned out, he was going to whine and brood for a solid two movies and become so powerful that the only dangers he ever faced were artificial and forced.  That isn’t quite what young me was thinking.

So I suggest to you, readers of Faceplant, do as I did recently and watch the Matrix again.  Forget all the surrounding madness of the FRANCHISE and focus on the first film as it was back in 1999.  I forgot how revolutionary it was at the time, and seeing it with fresh eyes was supremely enjoyable.  I guess this turned out to be less of a review and more of a nostalgia laden lament about what happened to the brand as a whole, but that’s ok.  Buried amidst that monolith really is one of the better films of the past twenty years that is worth visiting again.  Woah.

The first time, it was mind-blowing. By the end of the third movie, meh.


2 Responses

  1. I was late to the Matrix phenomenon. I figured it was another Keanu Reeves crapfest and pretty much ignored it. Then my professor in some pretentious film class (if you just equated everything to a phallic symbol, you got an A) gushed about this movie. And all his little groupies then gushed even harder about this movie. This only made me want to ignore it even more. Months later, I finally got the DVD and it blew my fucking mind. I was geeked for the second movie. Went opening night and…fell asleep. I had a lot of excuses, but the DVD release only confirmed my fears. It sucked. Hard. The French chick was hot though, so there’s that. Matrix I is one of the all time greats.

  2. I loved The Matrix. I still do. I agree with all your points, too. Whenever the second or third movies come up in conversation, I always say, “Oh yes, wouldn’t it be great if they had made sequels? But they didn’t. Too bad.” Because the awesomeness of the first movie shouldn’t have to be brought down by the other two.

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