The Matrix (1999)

reviewed by
James Sanford

If you find yourself completely baffled by what's going on at any given time during "The Matrix," don't be too hard on yourself. It appears the Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed this lavish sci-fi thriller, wound up losing track of who's doing what to whom early on in the game and decided to simply play the rest of this opus by ear.

Like "Alice in Wonderland," from which it takes an early cue, "The Matrix" creates its own logic, setting up rules just to break them and making it clear that the one thing you can count on in this tale is that you can't count on anything.

The erratic plotting would be a built-in turn-off in most movies, but the Wachowskis manage to somehow turn chaos into an always intriguing, frequently nightmarish look into the dismal future. The Wachowskis' "Bound," a tense study of a deadly love triangle, quickly became an acclaimed cult film when it was released in 1996, and "The Matrix" seems certain to follow a similar course.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about "The Matrix" is the Wachowskis' handling of Keanu Reeves, an actor who has lately bombed hard in roles outside of his patented Valley Boy/wastoid niche. Anyone who suffered through "Johnny Mnemonic" or "Chain Reaction" probably won't be exactly geeked about the prospect of seeing Reeves in action again.

And yet, his flat-toned voice and blank-slate face actually work to his advantage as Neo Anderson, who's the only man on Earth capable of destroying the Matrix, a computer-generated dreamworld controlled by emotionless Agents, themselves the outgrowths of artificial intelligence run amok. Assisting Neo in his mission are the inscrutable Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the unsteady Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a lithe beauty whose body ought to be classified as a lethal weapon.

The action sequences which make up easily 80 percent of the movie are spectacularly well-executed, combining kung fu and jujitsu moves with time and space trickery that allows the fighters to hang in mid-air, run up walls and freeze flying bullets before they reach their targets.

"The Matrix" also includes some truly amazing visions of the world 200 years from now, including fields of cocooned human fetuses ready to be harvested by towering robots, and fleets of Sentinels, electronic monsters that look like neon-tinged jellyfish.

But what truly sets "The Matrix" apart from other exercises in style, such as "Dark City" and "Blade" are the bursts of wit that keep popping up: having the infamous monster movie "Night of the Lepus" playing on TV some 200 years in the future, or showing us an all-knowing oracle who lives not in a temple or a palace, but in a run-down apartment where she bakes cookies in between predictions.

And, unlike "Dark" and "Blade," which lost their impetus after strong starts, "The Matrix" actually picks up steam as it goes along. Who cares if it never makes much sense? At least it's not dull.

James Sanford

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