Filmsite Movie Review
The Matrix (1999)
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The Matrix (1999) is a kinetic, action-oriented, dystopian science-fiction virtual reality film that came from the directorial-writing team of the Wachowski Brothers. Their ambitious and inventive virtual-reality flick was their second feature film following the lesbian-tinged gangster film Bound (1996).

The popular, imaginative, visually-stunning film made reference to prototypical elements of the 21st century high-tech culture, such as hacking and virtual reality. It helped to illustrate what would become of futuristic sci-fi action films with slick and smart plots, and jaw-dropping action.

The highly-successful, profound, nightmarish and influential film postulated a future (in the year 2199) involving an intriguing virtual world in which reality was redefined as a computer simulation. Life on Earth was covered over by the Matrix - a completely-simulated reality or facade since the actual Earth was scorched.

Subdued and enslaved humans were literally plugged into and harvested as batteries (they were an energy or power source derived from their body heat and neural bio-electrical activity) by a race of machines. The humans were in suspended animation, being entertained by a false reality transmitted into their brain by the "Matrix" so they would relax and keep providing power.

Trapped humans were grown in liquid-filled pods and connected to the Matrix with cybernetic cables and implants. Reality was nothing more than a computer simulation (the "Matrix") - a fabricated, illusory dream created by malevolent sentient AI machines represented by virtually-indestructible government Agents (intelligent, mechanized and artificial life forms - super-powerful computer software programs). Their main objective was to keep humans entrapped in the Matrix. The evil machines kept humans pacified and fooled by an illusionary world that mimicked everyday reality.

A group of rebels, led by a character known as Morpheus (a Greek name for the 'God of Dreams'), "unplugged" enslaved humans and recruited them to their cause for further resistance. Only a small number of freed, rebellious humans really lived in the real world - in a deep underground city and refuge known as Zion. Typically, the access point for the rebels to enter and exit the Matrix was via a phone.

There were many taglines on the film's various posters, including:

  • The Fight For the Future Begins
  • Believe the Unbelievable
  • The Matrix Has You
  • Be Afraid of the Future

The blockbuster's wild popularity was due to its combination of comic-bookish plot, mysticism, philosophical complexity, HK martial-arts action sequences, and computer-enhanced digital effects in its unbelievable action scenes. After the first film's success, a second back-to-back film was announced - part of the trend of creating sequels (and a potential trilogy) to capitalize on the original film's popularity. The Matrix was the first in a trilogy with inferior sequels: the somewhat successful but critically-derided The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and the artificially-expanded The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

[Note: The film was also later associated with an anthology or series of nine related animated shorts collectively titled The Animatrix (2003), highlighted by Andy Jones' short Final Flight of the Osiris. The collection of short films detailed the backstory of the "Matrix" universe and the original war between man and machines which led to the creation of the Matrix.]

The Matrix became best known for its revolutionary and innovative visual (and special) effects elements comprising about 20 percent of the entire film - with airborne kung fu, time-freezing camera tracking around frozen action, shoot-outs, wall-scaling, virtual backgrounds, 3-D freeze frame effects with a rotating or pivoting camera, digital compositing, bio-mechanical monsters with tentacles known as Sentinels, and bullet-dodging. Digital effects dubbed "flow-mo" and "bullet time" - slowed-down, rotating action - were created with suspending actors on wires, using motion capture, and filming segments with multiple still cameras shooting from multiple angles, and then enhancing the pictures with CG interpolation. Some of it was filmed against a greenscreen with a rig of cameras shooting at 12,000 frames per second.

These tremendous visual effects were combined with Eastern world-denying philosophy, metaphysical Zen statements, martial arts movies, Japanese anime, Greek mythology, cyberpunk chic, Plato's allegory of the cave, neo-Cartesian plot twists, film noir, Biblical and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) references. The film became a smash hit, featuring elaborate fighting and stunt sequences, as well as a convoluted screenplay that blurred the edge between reality and fantasy without losing the audience's grasp of the story. The main menacing Machine Army agent "Agent Smith" was played with a tongue-in-cheek, edgy pseudo-serious flair by Hugo Weaving, whose mannerisms recalled 1950's Cold War governmental "Men In Black" agents.

With an initial production budget of $65 million, the film grossed $171.5 million (domestic) and $460 million (worldwide). The Matrix (1999) was the fifth highest-grossing (domestic) film of 1999. Actor Keanu Reeves earned $10 million upfront (reportedly), plus $25 million for his cut of the final gross. In the year 2000, Warner Home Video announced that the DVD of the Oscar-winning The Matrix (1999) had exceeded the 3 million mark in units sold in the U.S., solidifying its position as the # 1 best-selling DVD of all-time, although it would soon be surpassed.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards (with four wins): Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing. Its Best Visual Effects Oscar defeated Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) and Stuart Little (1999). While The Matrix won all four Oscar nominations, the two box-office hit sequels The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) weren't nominated for anything.

Plot Synopsis

Opening Prologue:

The opening was composed of a zoom-shot into dripping Japanese-like characters (or glyphs) on a computer screen displaying columns of greenish numbers, followed by the film's title.

A voice-over conversation was in progress (and being secretly listened to by a third line) between two unidentified individuals (later revealed to be Cypher and Trinity), two rebels fighting the forces of The Matrix under the leadership of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Computer hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) was in "The Matrix," while Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) was back at rebel headquarters. A Messianic savior ("the One") had been identified - but it could prove life-threatening for the targeted individual:

Cypher: "Yeah."
Trinity: "Is everything in place?"
Cypher: "You weren't supposed to relieve me."
Trinity: "I know, but I felt like taking a shift."
Cypher: "You like him, don't you? You like watching him."
Trinity: "Don't be ridiculous."
Cypher: "We're gonna kill him. You understand that?"
Trinity: "Morpheus believes he is The One."
Cypher: "Do you?"
Trinity: "It doesn't matter what I believe."
Cypher: "You don't, do you?"
Trinity: "Did you hear that?"
Cypher: "Hear what?"
Trinity: "Are you sure this line is clean?"
Cypher: "Yeah, of course I'm sure."
Trinity: "I better go."

As the mysterious black vinyl-clad heroine Trinity had suspected, their computer connection was not clean - their conversation had been traced after their hard-line was cut. They were being located, identified, and targeted. She was about to be apprehended by police in Room 303 of the run-down Heart O' the City Hotel.

[Note: Room 303 was a mirror of Trinity's name. "Trinity" means three.]

Two sinister agents with dark suits, ties and sunglasses also emerged from a black sedan outside the hotel: they were duplicating Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and Agent Brown (Paul Goddard), who warned the over-confident Police Lieutenant (Bill Young) about their deadly suspect Trinity. But the Lieutenant wasn't worried about the "one little girl" inside. However, Agent Smith's prediction was accurate - his two units (four police officers) were "already dead" - Trinity felled them with lightning quick action when they tried to handcuff her.

She frantically phoned her Rebel leader-warrior Morpheus for advice on how to escape the Agents. He suggested she proceed to "another exit" - a viable phone connection in a phone booth at Wells and Lake. As she fled, she was pursued over rooftops by Agent Smith.

[Note: The sequence was somewhat reminiscent of the opening rooftop chase in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). The set was the same one used for the apocalyptic, sci-fi film noir Dark City (1998). Also, all of the street locations throughout the film were actual intersections in the city of Chicago, the hometown of the directors.]

Both jumped over an impossibly-wide expanse between buildings. By answering the phone just in time, she escaped death from one of the frustrated Agents when he rammed an immense garbage truck into the phone booth. She was transported out of the Matrix.

The Agents spoke about how they had a reliable informant (Cypher) among the rebels, who had given them the name of their "next target" who was believed to be "The One" -- "The name is Neo." A search had already commenced for him.

Introduction of Thomas Anderson (Alter-Ego Neo):

The film then introduced the main character - an individual who was living two lives:

  • Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer working for a software company (Metacortex), a techie slacker
  • Neo ('Neo' was Thomas Anderson's hacker alias, an anagram for his designation as the "One"), a computer hacker

In the year 1999, computer programmer-hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), with screen-name alias Neo, was asleep in front of his computer in his cluttered apartment, Room 101.

[Note: As with Trinity's name, Neo's room number 101 also reflected his later designation as "The One." The digits "1" and "0" also represent binary code.]

He had been conducting searches on the name "Morpheus" - a notorious figure in the news. The display scanned a document titled: "MORPHEUS ELUDES POLICE AT HEATHROW AIRPORT", and a "manhunt" was under way. The computer screen awakened Neo and urged: "Wake up, Neo..." There were further typed cryptic messages: "The Matrix has you..." and "Follow the white rabbit. Knock, knock, Neo." [Note: The messages were from Trinity, who was trying to summon and reach out to Neo.]

He answered a knock on his door, where drug-using friend Choi (Marc Gray) (with girlfriend Dujour (Ada Nicodernou)), who was two hours late, was there to purchase a contraband computer disk from him for two grand. Neo stashed the wad of bills in a hollowed out book, titled "SIMULACRA & SIMULATION," in the chapter titled 'Nihilism.'

[Note: It was an actual book, written by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in 1981 and first published in English in 1994. It was subtitled: The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism. The post-modern, densely-written philosophical work basically postulated that authenticity and truth in the current cyberworld were entirely suspect since the symbols that represented reality were essentially meaningless - the main theme of The Matrix.]

Choi was thrilled to receive the illegal disk - and unwittingly labeled Neo as the One:

"Hallelujah! You are my savior, man! My own personal Jesus Christ!"

Feeling faint ("white"), Neo told them about his uneasiness with the world: "You ever have that feeling where you're not sure if you're awake or still dreaming?" As they left, they invited him to join them at a techno party to get 'unplugged,' when he noticed a white rabbit tattoo on Dujour's left shoulder. He decided to follow, as Trinity had suggested.

At the loud, techno-rave party gathering, he was personally greeted by Trinity - he knew of her reputation as 'The Trinity' who had hacked into the IRS-Database in the past, and he admitted that he originally thought she was a guy. He realized she was the one hacking into his computer with the cryptic messages, and was urging him to follow. She warned that he was in danger: "They're watching you, Neo." She had also been watching him for some time, and knew about his solitary, troubled life in front of a computer. Whispering into his ear, she asserted that his search was similar to her earlier quest for "an answer":

"I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing. I know why you hardly sleep, why you live alone and why, night after night, you sit at your computer. You're looking for him. I know, because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question just as I did."

He responded with the question he had been seeking an answer to: "What is the Matrix?" She responded:

"The answer is out there, Neo. It's looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to."

The next morning, "Mr. Anderson" (Neo) was late for work at his software development company Metacortex in a downtown area, where he was a computer software programmer. In his boss' office (while Neo was distracted by window washers with squeeges attempting to clean the dirt from the windows, a significant metaphor), he was reprimanded and disciplined by Mr. Rhineheart (David Aston) for his "problem with authority," his continued tardiness, and his refusal to accept the rules of the company. He was offered an ultimatum - and a choice:

"Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forth, or you choose to find yourself another job."

In his bare greenish-tinged cubicle, Neo received a FedEx envelope - inside was a ringing Nokia cellphone with Morpheus on the line, stressing a dire prediction:

"I've been looking for you, Neo. I don't know if you're ready to see what I want to show you, but unfortunately, you and I have run out of time. They're coming for you, Neo. And I don't know what they're going to do."

In fact, Agents were already in his office ready to seize him -- and Neo was guided by Morpheus on how to evade them by following specific directions. He was directed to keep low and proceed to another office, and then climb onto an outside scaffolding to get to the roof. When given the chance to either be taken into custody or to escape, Neo's fears of falling from the skyscraper forced him to give up:

"This is insane! Why is this happening to me? What'd I do? I'm nobody. I didn't do anything. I'm gonna die. Shit! Oh, shit! I can't do this."

Seizure and Questioning of Neo by Sentient Agents: A Nightmare?

Neo was seized and taken into custody by the Agents, led by Agent Smith, and brought to a white room for questioning - viewed by multiple video camera monitors. The camera approached into one of the monitors to enter into the room. With a large case file in front of them, the Agents knew about his double life as a computer programmer, and as a hacker. He thought that he was being interrogated for hacking:

"As you can see, we've had our eye on you for some time now, Mr. Anderson. It seems that you've been living two lives. In one life, you're Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number. You pay your taxes. And you help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers where you go by the hacker alias 'Neo' and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future. And one of them does not."

They also understood that he had been contacted by Morpheus, and they considered him "to be the most dangerous man alive." Agent Smith proposed a bargain: they would "wipe the slate clean" and give Neo a "fresh start" if he would cooperate and help in bringing "known terrorist" Morpheus to justice.

Although he first answered that it seemed to be a "really good deal," he refused to be scared and intimidated by them, and provided an alternative: "How about I give you the finger and you give me my phone call?" He then went further: ("You can't scare me with this Gestapo crap. I know my rights"), but found his mouth sealed and fused shut and he was unable to speak. (The Agents used programming of the Matrix to close his mouth. His lips became soft and taffy-like as he tried to move his jaw.) Neo was thrown onto the desk as Smith threatened: "You're going to help us, Mr. Anderson, whether you want to or not."

A long, fiber-optic, metallic electronic wire tap was activated and placed on his stomach. Revealed to be a living organism (an insectoid-like with tendrils and a tail), it burrowed into his belly-button. As he screamed, he awoke from his Matrix nightmare (?), now back in his apartment and unharmed.

Neo's First Contact with Morpheus:

Morpheus phoned Neo and told him that the agents had underestimated him (as "The One") - otherwise he would have been killed:

"They got to you first, but they've underestimated how important you are. If they knew what I know, you would probably be dead."

Morpheus then revealed his belief that Neo was actually a messianic One destined to save the world (proven right by film's end):

"You are the One, Neo."

He suggested meeting and instructed him to go to the Adams Street Bridge. During a nighttime rainstorm, Trinity (and two others, androgyne Switch and driver Apoc) drove up and picked up Neo in a black limousine. Switch held Neo at gunpoint, and severely warned: "Our way or the highway." With no real choice in life and at a dead end, Neo decided to remain in the car. Using a large, mechanical X-ray extraction device applied to Neo's abdomen, Trinity used the vacuum-sealing navel probe to remove the bug and deactivate it by squashing it in the tube, and then dumped it out the car window onto the wet pavement. In the street, the device reverted to its original metallic form.

Neo was driven to meet Morpheus in a large room on the upper 13th floor of a dilapidated, dark and rotting hotel, the Hotel Lafayette.

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