Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski direct Keanu Reeves, Carrie Anne-Moss and Laurence Fishburne in the sci-fi epic where an ordinary bloke discovers he may be the chosen one in a simulated world designed to hide the true horrors of reality from an oppressed humanity.
Paul Laight of The Cinema Fix recently made a list of the movies he respected as classics but just doesn’t personally like. I completely understand. I’ve always felt really awkward about not loving 2001: A Space Odyssey considering my tastes and Kubrick fandom. To the point where I watch it more regularly than movies I know I will enjoy in the hope that one day the tumblers will click and it will unlock and allow me in. The Matrix is another one. I love all the influences it hodge podges together, it came out at exactly the time I was its bang-on target audience and yet… boring. Every time. The Matrix’s popularity somewhat baffles me.
I first saw it at a midnight show in Times Square, New York with my friends Meena and Cath. It was in one of those massive underground dilapidated fleapits as seen in Last Action Hero. Our body clocks were out of sync after the flight over, it was pretty much the first thing we did in America after checking in. We had the cavernous thousand seater to ourselves except for an unhinged man who wandered the aisle reciting Laurence Fishburne’s speeches. It wasn’t the most comfortable viewing experience. But it was memorable.
I think I’ve tried to rewatch it a few times since. The last time before now I lasted only half an hour before accepting I still wasn’t in the mood. And I quite enjoyed the action and world building excess of the sequel Reloaded when it was released. In the main though I see a trilogy of movies obsessed with regurgitating overly verbose text as exposition… that mistake pretension for intelligence… and have visually impressive action sequences that have minimal impact as they have minimal stakes. We know Neo cannot die in The Matrix as a) it is fake and b) he’s Jesus / Superman / Olivia de Havilland in it. He bends the law to his will.
Also the shadow of the Columbine High School massacre tarnish it for me. If you present a world that is false and unforgiving, where the populace is blinded to how painful life is and compliantly capable of unacknowledged collusion and then proffer the only solution as trench coats and “Guns. Lots of guns.”… Well, my first thought isn’t “cool”. I don’t believe in censorship, I love screen violence, but do feel there is something irresponsible about The Matrix’s central message considering its core demographic is teenage boys who might be bullied or finding themselves. Why is this different from say The Wild Bunch or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Woo or Arnie? I cannot put my finger on it. I guess the mixture of cod philosophy and the cold advertiser’s sheen of the visuals frame the violence in a way that I find dangerous and conniving. Nothing really matters so blow them all away in a hail of bullets. My tuppence. I know most will not agree with me but its hard not tally the methods of the real life high school shootings that followed in The Matrix’s wake with what is presented in the film. I’m certainly not saying they would not have happened without this franchises existence but I can see the implications that run through this narrative as being a significant straw on a camel’s back.
I guess the neat thing about The Matrix is even though it spews out a lotta explanation as to what is going on in near endlessly dull scenes… these dumps of cod wisdom are esoteric enough to still be open to a certain degree of fluid interpretation. If we skip over the more dangerous message it might send to disturbed kids then there is still lots of chew about the nature of reality, technology and how we view the present. Twenty years on, it is hard not to look for clues about this being a coded study of being born into the wrong gender given the Wachowskis’ own later gender rebirths. That’s certainly here. There’s a fair degree of references to Neo as the classic girls who travel to fantasy world… Dorothy and Alice are frequently cited. And there’s even oblique references to Snow White. The crew of the post apocalyptic hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, number seven like the dwarves. “Wake Up Neo!” And wake up in a hairless, gloopy form – sporting strange orifices that are not the norm – while you are at it! It certainly is a multi-layered text that is a patchwork of sources. Too many in my opinion but I bet the script was annotated with footnotes that outnumbered the word count of the main narrative. I can understand why people might have their minds blown by the basic density of the meta textual fabric and want to obsess over this. It is a movie eager to be picked apart and debated online. Like a Where’s Wally of Easter Eggs!
There is stuff I like. The stunts have an epic scale to them. The ‘breaking free of Morpheus’ sequence that leaps from helicopters to rooftops and back again works for me as pure action popcorn whatever the context. I’m never going to get bored of seeing the quiver of joy on Keanu’s face as he shows off his kung-fu posturings. Carrie Anne-Moss looks glorious in leather. Joey Pants has a few nice scenes as the treacherous Cypher. Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith is a fascinating villain who belongs to a far better franchise in my opinion. When we go down the rabbit hole and take the red pill, the cyberpunk nightmare of reality is horrific and well realised. It is such a shocking vision of the future yet it makes a decent amount of narrative sense.
Yet whenever we are in The Matrix listening to paragraphs of monologued fap or fighting fights that don’t really matter I power down. After all, there is no spoon. But I will say I could see past the lack of spoon just a tinsy bit better after a long break from trying to like it. This was probably my most enjoyable attempt to accept The Matrix.
Perfect Double Bill: Dark City (1998)
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/