It’s Special Effects 10, Screenplay 0 for “The Matrix,” an eye-popping but incoherent extravaganza of morphing and superhuman martial arts. Ultra-cool visuals that truly deliver something new to the sci-fi action lexicon will make this time-jumping thriller a must-see among genre fans, especially guys in their teens and 20s, for whom the script’s pretentious mumbo-jumbo of undergraduate mythology, religious mysticism and technobabble could even be a plus rather than a dramatic liability. Warner Bros. looks to collect a tidy sum in all markets from this shrewdly packaged head trip.
Economically made in Australia for about $60 million, live-action comic book marks a big step up in ambition for writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, whose first film was the lesbian crime meller “Bound.” Reportedly, the brothers penned “The Matrix” first and have been working on it steadily for five years; from the evidence, they were grafting on surplus ideas during that time rather than subtracting and synthesizing. Not only is it a good half-hour too long, but there are so many elements here — Christian motifs and mysticism, half-baked Eastern philosophy, Lewis Carroll refs, ambiguous oracular prophecies, the co-existence of two realities, pod-grown babies, time travel, creatures capable of rebirth and, all importantly, the expectation of the arrival of the Chosen One — as to prove utterly indigestible.
After a stunning big-city opening in which a young woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) outmaneuvers some pursuing agents via spectacular, gravity-defying kung fu and gymnastics, focus settles on a slacker-style software expert (Keanu Reeves) who’s contacted by Trinity and eventually led to the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), an alleged cult leader and terrorist who tells the recruit that he is The One, the savior who reps the one hope in the face of malevolent technological forces aligned against humankind in 1999.
But Morpheus inhabits a different universe, one situated some 2000 years in the future, and the articulate leader travels through this oceanic Other World with a lonely band of followers in a techno-heavy Nautilus-like sub. The young man agrees to be refitted to cybertronic specifications in a gruesomely spectacular sequence in which his natural body parts are replaced or reinforced by metal and synthetic material. He emerges from all the morphing with the name Neo as well as a plug in the back of his head through which he can instantly be uploaded with vast amounts of knowledge.
Thus reconstituted, Neo is ready to do battle with the forces that made the world what it has become. It seems that in the early 21st century, there was an all-out war between human beings and advanced machines, resulting in the triumph of artificial intelligence (perhaps this would have been the ideal playing field for the Wachowskis’ interests, rather than the murkier one they chose). The underground city of Zion is now the last bastion of humankind, which awaits The One to disrupt the Matrix, a power field controlled by humanoid computers that have created a “virtual” real world fed by laboratory-controlled human energy. This new world order is enforced by men in black sunglasses led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
A full hour in, the script is still entirely devoted to exposition — Morpheus is brimming with apparent wisdom, commanding aphorisms and tantalizing bits of information, all designed to reveal a bit more about the situation at hand to Neo and the audience. Even at that point, there remains the hope that some kind of focused story will finally get on track, but it never really happens.
Instead, things settle into a muddle of showdowns resulting in deaths and resurrections that confoundingly answer few questions and follow no rules, not even those specified by the film itself.
All this is frustrating and ultimately wearying, given that any number of the story strands could have been developed to profitable effect with sufficient rigor and concentration. As it is, one gives up making any sense of it and settles for what the picture undeniably wields in spades, which is a smorgasbord of effects that in some cases goes beyond what the sensation-seeking sci-fi audience has ever seen before.
The morphing involved in numerous scenes is outstandingly fluid and vivid, but it’s the way the martial arts are handled, as promised in the opening teaser, that sets “The Matrix” apart. Chinese kung fu and wire-stunt ace Yuen Wo Ping was engaged to choreograph the fight sequences, which are on a level perhaps unsurpassed in an American film. Beyond that, filmmakers have employed a technique they call “bullet-time photography,” ultra-fast lensing that, when combined with computer enhancement, allows for altering the speed and trajectories of people and objects, resulting in the live-action equivalent of a Japanese anime film.
Characters can jump to enormous heights, deliver startlingly quick kicks or pause in mid-flight, shift directions, land hard or softly, or do anything else an animated figure might do. Except it looks amazingly real.
The obviously obsessive attention that has been devoted to the visuals has paid off from top to bottom. The sinuous visual style the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope displayed to arresting effect in “Bound” is magnified many times here, and the gleaming skyscrapers of the big city (Sydney) are dramatically contrasted in Owen Paterson’s production design with the murky, threatening future of the bold crusaders.
Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, black-and-leather-happy costume designer Kym Barrett, the stunt team and the many other behind-the-scenes hands have been coordinated to put the film’s look splendidly over the top. Driving orchestral/synth original score by Don Davis is abetted by a selection of heavy rock by the likes of Marilyn Manson, Ministry, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine that will have the intended effect on the intended audience.
Serious, sincere and low-key, Reeves gives his all here physically, which in this instance counts for a lot. Beyond that, he brings no more or less than he ever does to his role, which translates into agreeable eye candy for some and boredom for others. Fishburne commandingly delivers his intellectual tidbits and pronouncements, although to somewhat diminishing effect in the later going, while the other thesps seem cast mostly for their physical profiles. Gloria Foster has a nice scene, the warmest in the picture, as the oracle who informs Neo whether he’s The One.