Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Matrix

Back when it originally came out1, a friend an acquaintance of mine at school would not shut up about the "genius" of The Matrix. Not of the art, cinematography, choreography or effects work, but the story.

Don't get me wrong: the story's pretty good. But this guy was seriously obsessed with its genius, almost to the point that - looking back - I'm not entirely sure he was a million miles from believing its "virtual reality prison" setup was real. But then again, ever since I saw The Truman Show I've had moments where I've caught myself wondering if things are really as coincidental as they seem…2

A few weeks ago, I happened to stumble onto The Matrix while flipping channels. It was the scene where Neo, at work, receives the phone from Morpheus. Oh, how cool that slide-out keypad cover thing seemed when I was fifteen. Even the idea of a courier service - a postman who would take stuff right to you, not just leave it at your house? I was blown away by this technology even before the cool stuff happened.

I figured I'd watch it for a bit, but was feeling tired and didn't expect to stay up much longer. I watched the whole thing. I'd forgotten how brilliant it is - even the story, weighed down by Keanu's dodgy acting and some creaky dialogue, is great. Not genius, but the pacing and exposition are perfect.

The whole way through the film you're learning stuff. At the start you're being shown hints and images that tease out the banal weirdness of Thomas Anderson's world. Then when he gets out, we learn about the world as it was and how it came to be destroyed and then ruled by machines. We learn what the Matrix is - its rules, its restrictions - and then its weaknesses, how the limitations in the program can be bent. That's a pretty exciting idea, especially to a fifteen year old. Hell, even to a 29-year-old.

Having the film begin with Thomas Anderson, in a world we recognise, gives the audience a frame of reference, and since he's new to the "real world" outside the Matrix he's the audience's stand-in as everything - or, nearly everything - is explained.

There are elements of the story that I'm still not sure on, though - the expanded explanations of the Oracle's role and origin, in the sequels, do a lot to undermine the religious-inspired aspects of the story. I'd have been happy enough for her fortune-telling to have gone unexplained; it's not really important how she knows what she knows (and her foresight extending outside of the Matrix always seemed a bit too powerful for a construct of the program); likewise the importance of Neo's abilities is weakened somewhat by the second film's revelation that he's basically been given them in a random number generator, that in the end he's not actually special in any way other than being in the right pod at the right time.

I prefer to ignore the sequels as much as possible, but they do tend to creep in at the edges when you're not looking. As far as I'm concerned, The Matrix ended two films and fifteen seconds earlier than Warner Brothers would have you believe3.

Despite its wide reach philosophically, The Matrix has a surprisingly narrow scope for its story. There's no massive globe-trotting adventure either in the Matrix or outside, as the script and director seem happy to focus, instead of being distracted by spectacle to the detriment of the ideas. The sequels (again with the sequels) seemed to lurch wildly from COOL STUFF to PHILOSOPHY with no middle ground, but the two aspects manage to coexist quite happily in the original film.

Smarter people than I have tried to deconstruct the symbolism and philosophy of The Matrix, but I really like how the crew of the Nebuchanezzar represent different attitudes to the world. Morpheus is faith, pure and simple; he believes in Neo as The One and that's all he needs. Trinity is loyalty - she believes in Morpheus, and doesn't seem to have her own goals (that's some worryingly sexist symbolism right there). Tank is probably the closest to pure hope - as a human born outside the Matrix he shows, if nothing else, that humanity can survive, and his optimism does a lot to argue that we deserve to. Cypher, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of hope - he's acceptance of The Way Things Are. Disillusioned with reality, he'd rather be stuck in the dream (although he'll try to get an upgrade if he can). It's almost a pity he never gets to talk it over with Neo, who's still struggling to grasp the rules of both the Real World and his changed perspective of the Matrix.

Recent big-budget action film-making is the domain of shaky-cam; choreography through obscurity and quick edits that make it difficult to tell what's actually happening4. The Matrix is shot, dare I say it, properly - multi-second shots with lots of clear action, and cuts to wide angles to establish where the participants are in the room, so you don't get surprised by a pillar or phone box mid-fight. You don't only know where the actors are, you get to see them actually hit each other, rather than getting a punch's wind-up and impact in different shots.

The high points of The Matrix's aversion to cuts in action sequences are its bullet time sequences. It's hard to imagine an era without the sweeping slow-motion shots that the Wachowskis popularised, but to see someone dodge bullets in such spectacular detail is still a bit special today (although that could be the nostalgia talking). I've never quite understood why you'd use slow-motion to indicate that someone's moving really fast, but it looks cool.

Oh, that's probably why.

1 In 1999. Fourteen years ago. You may now commence feeling old.

2 I would make the most boring reality TV star of all time, by the way. Watching me play XCOM and watch anime doesn't seem like an entirely worthwile use of my own time, let alone the broadcast spectrum.

3 Having Neo fly up into the camera at the very end is an incredibly dumb way to end your incredibly smart film.

4 The best example of this is probably the Bourne series - the fight between Matt Damon and Anonymous Assassin #1 in the Paris apartment is brilliantly shot, but by the third film the hand-to-hand fights (and even driving sequences) are so unstable that you don't have a sense of their geography.

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