As far as I know, my friend Will has never watched a whole movie during his adult life. He just can’t sit still that long. I’ve watched many films over at his place, but he is in and out of the room and if he sees a quarter of them, I’d be surprised. He’s fond of saying things like, “I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it didn’t make sense.” Or “I didn’t understand the ending of Gosford Park.” So when he tells me that he didn’t like a film, I figure that he didn’t actually see it.
Recently, we discussed the film The Matrix. Will told me he didn’t like it. His reasons were vague, but at least it seemed that he had watched much of it. But it’s hard to say. It is the kind of film that can be confusing if, you know, you don’t pay attention. But I found myself hard pressed to make the case for why I think it is an excellent Hollywood film. So I watched it again last night.
The most important thing about the film is that it is a big budget, mass appeal filmed version of William Gibson’s world. The scene where Neo is first prepared to be taken out of the Matrix is the best rendering of cyberpunk sensibility that I have ever seen. And this gets to the heart of the best aspects of the film: its art direction. The distinction between the ugly green of the Matrix versus the dark vibrancy of the real world is stunning.
It is my working theory that the reason we don’t see many musicals any more is that action sequences have taken the place of dances. Most of the time, it is a poor substitute. In The Matrix, however, the action sequences really are beautiful. As we see in the sequels, there is a strict limit to just how much of these we want to see, but the original only leaves me wanting more. I also find the conceit of the Matrix makes these over the top sequences believable in a way that the Mission Impossible films simply don’t.
On the first viewing, what is most compelling is the story itself. It is a good mystery. And even though the mystery is resolved before half the movie is finished, where it leads is so unusual that it propels the narrative all the way to the end.
And then there are the more philosophical issues of the film. I like that Neo and Trinity are about the same age. The references to Christianity are great (“You’re my own personal Jesus Christ” and “The One”), as are those from Alice in Wonderland. It is especially compelling that Neo is an every man who is too frightened to climb to the scaffolding but self-assured enough to give Agent Smith the finger. And perhaps most of all, the anarcho-syndicalism that is the philosophical basis of all the films is a refreshing change from the brain-dead individualism that poisons most action films.
On this last point, I think many people are in the dark. Over the years, I’ve come to see that Neo truly is the chosen one. The only thing that is special about him is that he has entered the Matrix as an adult. This turns out to be critical to him becoming the One. Left to his own devices, he would perhaps have become someone like Morpheus. It seems as though the cookie that the Oracle gives him is some kind of a program which turns him into the One. (See, for example, the cake in Matrix Reloaded.) This pushes against the traditional notion of heroes being born rather than created.
One thing that bothered me for years was why the machines would choose to use troublesome humans as batteries when they could have just used rabbits or sheep. Why the humans? I’ve come to the conclusion (and yes, I’ve spent far more time on this than it deserves) that the machines were originally created to think like humans and that they must use the humans to make their own culture more rich. Frankly, that should have been the basis for the whole movie. The whole idea of the batteries is preposterous.
I’m equally fond of David Cronenberg’s Existenz. But they are entirely different kinds of films. Even though they both deal with virtual reality, Existenz is really a David Cronenberg film. It isn’t any different than Videodrome or Dead Ringers. As much as I may like them, they are not mass appeal films. The Matrix is. And as such, it is hard to beat.