Classic Review: The Matrix

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  An iconic film that changed action movies and sci-fi for the internet age, ‘The Matrix’ features strong performances, good writing, and indelible personality.

Sunglasses, leather, guns, all black.

Sunglasses, leather, guns, all black.

Review:  As my arbitrary limit for declaring a movie “classic” is 10 years, the revolutionary action film ‘The Matrix’ can now be reviewed.  Awesome.

Though still relatively young, ‘The Matrix’ left such a deep impression on pop culture that its acceptance as a classic was inevitable.  Being this new, though, prevents it from experiencing wide acclaim from “them”; you know, the embodiment of the critical zeitgeist.  That won’t stop me, though.

‘The Matrix’ is technically the first chapter in a trilogy of films (I have not, to date, seen the sequels), it stands out and on its own.  Like the first released film of the ‘Star Wars’ series, it remains a satisfying experience whether you’ve seen the sequels or not.  Like another recent classic, ‘The Truman Show’, ‘The Matrix’ is a blend of sci-fi and philosophy, specifically Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (which, if you still haven’t read it after my ‘The Truman Show’ review, you need to go do so now).  This film takes a bent towards action, and pure, undistilled, all-natural dystopia, expressed through dark scenery, a ‘used universe’ setting, and green hues.  Since the “real world” as we know it is a virtual reality in ‘The Matrix’, they can get away with all sorts of cool abilities and plot devices while avoiding direct application of magical tropes.  The primary influence behind the film, and the reason for the reality-bending abilities, is Japanese manga and anime.  Several popular ideas from those media make their way in, most prominently the trope of “The Chosen One”, in this case, Keanu Reeves as Neo.

So the idea is that humanity is enslaved by machines (Many people, myself included, have jokingly said that this is where the ‘Terminator’ franchise is going chronologically).  They are hooked into a dream world, which prevents them from suspecting the possibility of their entire lives being controlled by malevolent computers.  The very idea is nightmare fuel, and it can be very disturbing to watch the construct that keeps people hooked into the titular Matrix.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  If ‘The Matrix’ wasn’t terrifying, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.  So, anyway, some people are outside the Matrix, and are attempting to free those within.  Eventually, a computer hacker named Thomas Anderson contacts them, and is rescued from the Matrix.  What the rest of the plot wrestles with is the question of whether or not Mr. Anderson (Mr. Aaanderrson!  Sorry, carry on) is the One.  Turns out his real name is Neo, and that he is the One.  But it’s the getting there that’s the fun part.

The cast all meshes well.  I can’t think of any characters that I would consider a waste of film.  The highlights are Laurence Fishbourne as Morpheus, the man that Neo contacts when he’s discovering reality, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith (Mr. Aaanderrson!  Don’t worry about me, I just need coffee).  Agent Smith is not technically the main villain, since that is the Matrix itself, but he is the personification of the machines in the dream world.  And he is effective.  His speech towards the climax about the machines relationship to humanity is chilling and memorable.

There’s a lot that can be said for the special effects.  I don’t think there’s been an action film since ‘The Matrix’ that hasn’t tried to capture its flavor in some way, or just outright ripped it off.  Though it didn’t invent it, it made the “bullet time” effect beyond popular, and it even showed up in ‘Superman Returns’ 7 years later.  Now that’s iconic.

How about music?  Don Davis.  The Propellerheads.  “Spybreak”.  Awesome.  Marylin Manson?  Not so much.

The biggest stumbling block, especially for the more conscientious among us, is the murky spirituality.  Which I won’t defend, but I don’t have a moral problem with it… it’s fiction, and it isn’t outright offensive or evil.  The second biggest is the tone (which is dark) and the gore (which is occasional), but you can chalk that up to being an R-rated movie.  The same with the language.

Really, ‘The Matrix’ is a good film.  Not one of the very best, but good.  Good enough to be iconic, good enough to be full of truth and interesting ideas, so that’s good enough for me.

And one more time:  Mr. Aaanderrson!

Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.