The Matrix (1999)

Dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

The ’90s remain a key reference point for action films in this country, and to say “’90s action movie” is to call up larger than life scenarios and apocalyptic visions. There are significantly more ludicrous ’90s action movies than Point Break, say, but what makes it so ’90s is the insistence on everyone needing to jump out of a plane. Our heroes are not terribly difficult people, and their reasons for saving the day are more practical than moral. Even when there might be some moral reason to take action in these films, the serious impetus driving the hero is not something which requires us to really stretch our consciences or review our priors. Con Air is about seeing his daughter, Face/Off is about returning to his family, and so on. In the past year or so, after having basically ignored this genre, I’ve been catching up to the classics a little bit at a time.

It’s been literal years since I watched a movie and thought, “Man, I bet you just had to be there.” Then, it was Ordinary People, a movie where the premise itself is pretty movie-of-the-week and the acting is, from everyone who’s not Donald Sutherland, even worse. And then I watched The Matrix all the way through for the first time in my life, and I got that same vibe of “I bet this hit so differently when people saw it in theaters.” The Matrix is not a bad movie, like I’d suggest Ordinary People is, but when this film came out I was eight years old, and by the time I would have been old enough to see it or even be interested in it, the sequels had been released and everyone seemed to hate them. The phenomenon of The Matrix I managed to whiff from a distance like a cartoon character smelling a pie on the windowsill, but I fully understand that there’s an energy this film had on release that I can’t reclaim. I don’t mean the energy of being in one’s late teens or early twenties in 1999, a phenomenon with a highly technical term which only people with multiple doctorates can really appreciate: to the best of my knowledge, that’s called “nostalgia.” What I do mean is the energy that a film like Fight Club or Being John Malkovich or, to take it away from the so-called miracle year, The Truman Show has. Along with The Matrix, the fixation of these movies on falseness give them the proselytizing energy of a revivalist. Like that preacher in the big tent, these films beseech you to reassess your understanding of the world around you, castigate you a little for having been taken in by the things of that world, and then want you to go forth with that foretaste of a better, truer knowledge and purpose than what you might have gotten from your sad day-to-day of trinkets and distractions.

I promise that this is not another one of those pieces that the Guardian likes to put out to stir up the rage tweets once every couple of months where someone writes about how they saw an established classic for the first time and it was actually kind of bad. Aside from most of those being bait, they are basically incurious; they tend to come down to “You know what, I was right not to care about this thing that other people care about” without ever really getting into why that movie might have bounced off them. The There Will Be Blood review that bounced around the Internet and got Film Twitter testy for twelve hours is the one I think most people will think of, although the one for The Searchers is actually a more obnoxious example. (Without turning this into a Fire Joe Morgan post, I’ll just say that the author of that piece about The Searchers has a real tough time with the whole depiction versus endorsement business as it deals with miscegenation in this movie, as if Ethan Edwards’ opinion about that is the movie’s opinion. The There Will Be Blood post has a significantly weirder energy because it’s mostly about the author’s propensity to date lunkheads and not really about the movie?)

With all that prelude: The Matrix is, as far as I can tell, just another good ’90s action movie. It’s better than most of those (like Point Break, for instance, a charge which I realize is itself relatively controversial). It has some clear differences in structure which make it work differently than a number of the other movies belonging to its cohort, but I struggle to understand what would make it a transcendent film which sails above and beyond its genre. I don’t get the sense that it’s necessarily being singled out for its action sequences, although if there’s something about the movie that really shines, it’s the action. (Unless it’s the body horror elements, which are sort of sparingly used, though when they do come to the foreground they are extraordinary. I haven’t gotten into the literature on this, and no doubt other people would have said this more pointedly than I’m about to. Surely there must be tomes on that one scene where Neo’s mouth closes in on itself and agents of the state/establishment force an unwanted object into his body as a metaphor for trans individuals who are trapped in a body which they feel inadequate control over and which it seems like the government is demanding to keep the way it is. If the movie were more about that this metaphor, I think I could see the appeal, though it’s certainly effective in this limited dose.)

There’s not much to criticize in the film’s action, generally speaking, which continue to feel fresh two decades out and in spite of heaven knows how many imitators. The use of slow-motion is special in this movie because it’s been given a reason to be special. It’s not just “Boy, check out this super cool thing that the actor’s stunt double is doing,” but inherent to the world that the film is making. That Neo (Reeves) can dodge bullets, and that the film can put him in what we and the credits call “bullet time” is a kind of proof that he might be The One. We’ve seen other people act in such a way that time slows down relative to them; this is at the center of that opening sequence with Trinity (Moss) where she kicks a few dudes into the next computer lab. The Neo/Morpheus sparring match is a nice update on every Star Wars lightsaber training sequence. The action piece which seems like it should be the most tired but which still holds up really neatly is the one where Neo and Trinity try to bust into a building to save Morpheus. The guns are blazing (“lots of guns”), the trenchcoats are swirling, the walls are imperiled, the handsprings are on point. It’s a crackerjack scene, not so different than any number of similar scenes of gunplay one might find in other action movies in its basis, but in execution it is absolutely carving out a niche for itself.

But it’s hard for me to buy into what might make this movie really exceptional, which is the plot hook. In other ’90s action films, that’s a jumping off point. “There’s an unstoppable bioweapon on Alcatraz.” “An asteroid is headed towards Earth.” My personal favorite is “This bus has a bomb on it.” Those are treated as problems to be solved as opposed to questions of epistemology or of making meaning. The Matrix could have gone down that path as well (“The world everyone lives in is a simulation”), but it doesn’t stop there. “The world everyone lives in is a simulation, and the protagonist of this story is going to have some work to do as a messianic figure which is emphatically not closed off in this installment” is, as you can see, not quite as tight an elevator pitch. I’ll grant that taking the red pill is not connoted quite so positively any longer, and maybe that’s in my process thinking about this movie. It seems more likely given the directors’ proclivities on future projects that their reach exceeds their grasp. I like the Wachowskis well enough, but the visual maximalism that I find interesting in their movies is the counterpart of an earnestness in their thinking which is more naive than endearing. In this case, I wonder that if something is true it must be better, or that if something is true we have a responsibility to bring it out into the light. This is not a debate worth having against myself on this blog, but it’s the crux of the argument that The Matrix is an exceptional movie in its genre, of the 1990s itself, and so on. If one believes the presence of this kind of debate in an action movie is so compelling and remarkable that it raises the quality of the film, then I suppose you’d have to look at this as a great movie. If the quality of the argument is taken into account, or the depth of the philosophical approach is important, then I can’t get there. “What if we’re all dreaming” is the kind of thing which was probably best left behind with Descartes, but then again, “lots of guns” is the best thing that’s happened to that guy in decades.

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