Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne get top billing, but the real stars of The Matrix are John Gaeta, Yuen Woo-Ping, and Bill Pope. Who, who, and who? Well, these three guys — Gaeta supervising the eye-popping visual effects, Yuen coordinating the whiplash stunts and fighting, and cinematographer Pope showing the flair for kinetic action he displayed in his movies for Sam Raimi (Darkman, Army of Darkness) — are the heart and soul of The Matrix, which otherwise would lack both, plus a brain.
The Matrix is one of those headache-inducing sci-fi movies some of us need to have explained to us out in the parking lot; once we figure it all out, we realize there’s not much there to figure out. This is the first of a string of similar films (preceding The 13th Floor and eXistenZ, which was far better) dealing with virtual reality; is anyone really that nostalgic for The Lawnmower Man?
Here, for instance, we learn that reality as we know it is actually a computer-generated construct (the Matrix), that we all reside in gooey wombs while thinking that we’re leading our lives (that means you, reading this review, and me, writing it), and that the machines of the world have set it up this way to siphon off our energy to use to keep themselves going. Are you reaching for the Excedrin yet? Movies like this toss in a lot of complicated mumbo-jumbo so we won’t realize we’re watching yet another expensive good-vs.-evil comic book. There are two realities at war in The Matrix: the deep movie it pretends to be vs. the shallow popcorn flick it really is.
Keanu Reeves, in monosyllabic superhero mode, is a hacker nicknamed Neo, who is recruited by a band of rebels to aid them in their fight against the tyrannical critters (who manifest themselves mostly as Secret-Service-type agents). Trained by Obi-Wan — uh, I mean Morpheus (Fishburne), Neo becomes a black-clad hipster warrior out of a Hong Kong actioner, aided by ass-kicking partner Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) as he shoots, kicks, punches, and cartwheels his way through a seemingly limitless supply of faceless enemies.
I enjoyed a few of the FX/stuntwork conflagrations, which come close to putting the thrill and spirit of the best adventure comic books on the big screen. But The Matrix goes on far too long, and writers-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote the comatose Assassins and made a splash with their spectacularly overrated debut Bound, don’t seem to have anything on their hard drive except cleverness. The paranoid details of the premise are thoroughly worked out; the characters and motives, much less so. Of the actors, Fishburne gets by on sheer presence, while Hugo Weaving, one of the queens from The Adventures of Priscilla, keeps himself amused in the role of the head bad-guy agent by working 1,001 variations on a threatening monotone.
Too bad the filmmakers don’t have as much variety. The Wachowski brothers are skipping from genre to genre, but unlike other brother duos like the Hugheses and the Coens, they don’t transcend genre; they just wallow around in it, whether it’s kinky noir or apocalyptic sci-fi, and overload it with so much stuff that some people will no doubt be impressed. The Matrix, I fear, may reach the same sci-fi fans who embraced Dark City — people so hungry for thoughtful science fiction that they’ll project deep meaning onto anything that seems weird enough to be deep. The marketing whizzes at Warner have constructed their own reality around this hollow eye-candy, and if the fans fall for it, they’ll think they’re seeing a classic, when in reality they’ll be in wombs of wishful thinking, deep inside a Matrix created by a studio desperate for a hit.