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'The Matrix': Whoa, Baby! A Dazzling Futuristic Phantasm

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Matrix
Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss star in "The Matrix." (Warner Bros.)

Andy Wachowski; Larry Wachowski
Keanu Reeves;
Laurence Fishburne;
Carrie-Anne Moss;
Joe Pantoliano
Running Time:
2 hours, 15 minutes
For violence, profanity, morphic resonance
"The Matrix" is so wild and crazed it requires adult supervision. Thank God, it never got it. It rocks.

Emerging from the sick minds of the Wachowski brothers – these bad boys named Larry and Andy who made their mark with the perverse yet witty lesbo-noir "Bound" – it postulates the following: You (and me and everyone else) are not the lean, sleek creatures our mirrors display each morning. We are the dreams in the soft brain of a cloned baby whose pulpy body is suspended in fluid in a tube, tended by intelligent machines. We are fed a diet of electronic impulses that stimulate us into thinking we live in a place called "here" on a planet called Earth in a year called 1999. In other words all reality that we experience is virtual reality.

Why do the machines keep us alive? I missed that part. I guess they need our energy to run their garbage disposals, or possibly they require help with their taxes. But humanity dozes onward – it's really 2099 – in caverns that look like they were designed by Attila the Hun's version of Albert Speer, all deco-Gothic-art-moderne-cathedral-esque vault of darkness. Those canisters on the wall? Why, that is humanity – an Alpo display in a cool basement.

Hello, fellow tube-babes! Don't despair. Help is at hand. An intrepid crew of commandos fights to liberate us. Again, my ancient brain is too sludgy with concepts like "logic" and "cause-effect" and "probability" to follow the mechanics of it: It seems that the commando team, led by a genius called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), seeks to overthrow the machine order. They live underground, they come up in some sort of ship (again, me no get), and in that proximity to the caverns they can plug into the Matrix and thereby insert themselves into our reality where they seek to awaken us, but are thwarted by "agents" (of the machines) that look like Men in Black but are really Sentient Programs. Meanwhile the agents themselves are searching for Zi-on (as it's pronounced), the last real city on Earth, or really under it.

The higher eschatology of this is weirdly resonant and titillating; it's like that moment in an 8-year-old's life when he realizes that atoms and the solar system are the same configuration and goes on to wonder if the solar system isn't an atom in a giant's universe! (I still do. That would be neat-o, huh?) What follows is an action movie with mythic overtones in a vernacular of virtuoso tricks and unseen but weirdly familiar vision. It seems like a battle royal in dreamland, where the logic has a nightmare quality to it, a freedom from responsibility and sense that's somehow bracing.

Put another way, here's what follows from this setup: everything. You name it, they stuff it in, a whole vastness of pulp tropes. Commando raids, guns, kung fu, lovey-dovey stuff, betrayal, monsters, punk fashion, neon, torture, explosions, even a few dangerous ideas. Fortunately, the actors are dull enough so that they don't get in the way of the directors.

Our hero is Neo (i.e., "new man"), played by the nice-to-look-at/impossible-to-take-seriously Keanu Reeves. He's okay, not that you'd notice if he wasn't. The others – Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, to name most – are also okay, though maybe they weren't, and I didn't notice.

What you do notice is the incredible energy and stylizations of the Wachowskis, who seem to represent the next generation with a vengeance. I have seen the future and it smirks. Is this what the movies are becoming? Well, yes. But at least the Bros. W. do it with the brilliance and zip of the pioneer spirit. Their minds stretched and liberated by the possibilities of cyberspace, John Woo, CD-ROMs and microwave ovens that can heat a hot dog in 25 seconds, they seem to imagine movie plots in five dimensions, not a mere three, and action in six. "The Matrix" builds to such kinetic momentum that the movie becomes a spike of pure action, and since it's taking place in baby brain reality rather than authentic reality, it's liberated from gravity and sense.

The story is told from Neo's point of view, and it tracks his burgeoning consciousness and his sense of what he can do. Turns out he's "new" in more than one sense. In fact, he might be "The One" who's come to lead the tribe to redemption. (Question: How can these people "save" humanity? Humanity is a toothpaste of DNA and protein in tubes. Are these five people going to break all the tubes and raise a billion babies? Answer: Not given.) So someone has read the Bible and someone has seen "Star Wars" and someone knows who both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are. Is it a movie or a pop quiz on classical mythology?

There's a kind of liberating, almost transforming energy in this film; it lights you up and sends you out all giddy with silliness. You won't quite know what you've seen, but, dammit, you know you've seen something.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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