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Sci-fi meets hardcore action in breathtaking and heart-stopping film

The Matrix
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving, Belinda Mcclory, Julian Arahanga, Marcus Chong, and Matt Doran
Screenplay: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Producers: Joel Silver
Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski
MPAA Rating: R for sci-fi violence, language, and brief nudity

1996 was the year of the indepedent market, with four of the five Best Picture Oscar nominees being produced outside the mainstream studio system. 1996 also released one of the most astounding suspense-thrillers to come to the screen in years. The title was Bound, and it was directed by first-timers Andy and Larry Wachowski. Both had made names for themselves with their screenplays, and they finally had produced a film that showcased their talents. A film noir picture for the 90s, Bound brought a superb filmmaking team to light, both talented in the ways of creating and maintaining a mood.

And now, they come out with their sophomore effort. Where most sophomore projects tend to explore the same basic elements that made the first film a success, the Wachowskis fix their sights on something entirely new. With a much larger budget, a special effects studio, and a massive crew, they have upped the ante. Bound was a film set in one apartment, and for most of its entirety, stayed there, gaining a sense of claustrophobia. The Matrix couldn't be more different: the Wachowski brothers have an entire city to work with. Shot in Sydney, with a budget of about $60 million, The Matrix features some of the most innovative special effects matched with a complex plot and virtuoso action.

There is something to be said about a film that sticks with you long after you've left the theater, as is the case with The Matrix. Two days after seeing it, I can't seem to ignore the fact that I was utterly stunned by the film. My initial feelings as I left the theater were mixed, as the film contains two different acts: the first hour is mostly setup and story, the second hour is mostly action and resolution. The first half actually manages to draw out its welcome, forcing us viewers to wonder when the action will begin. The previews show the film to be action-packed, and the first hour is full of dialogue and conversation, with little action. Perhaps it was those expectations that caused my initial reaction to be lesser than what it is now. Looking back, I can honestly say that I haven't been more enthralled by a motion picture in such a way since Dark City, another science fiction film, dealing with a similar subject as this film.

The Matrix manages to work not only as a serious science fiction film, but as a pure-bred action film too. As a result of the former aspect, a plot of intracacies limits my ability to explain what the film is about. Saying one wrong thing could ruin some of the surprises the film has. The film begins with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a beautiful, leather-clad woman, being chased around a city by three men in black, otherwise known as Agents. Her goal is to contact Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer-programmer-by-day/infamous-hacker-by-night type of guy. She is to bring him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), one of the most famous hackers around. Neo knows who he is, and jumps at the chance to meet him. Little does he know what kind of trouble he is about to face.

Basically, The Matrix is a hybrid of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days and Alex Proyas' Dark City, simply put. The Wachowski brothers realize that their film steals ideas from other films, and include painfully obvious literary allusions (from biblical to Lewis Carroll). Certainly, the inclusion of "Alice in Wonderland" plot elements (varying from the white rabbit to eat-me-drink-me moments) forces us to realize that the Wachowskis know that their film is derivative. Unfortunately, this inhibits the film from achieving the same sense of awe that Dark City brought out in most viewers. One of the most important rules in film is something Roger Ebert came up with: originality today is not what a film is about; instead, it's how the film goes about what the film is about. In other words, the subject of the film is not what makes it original. It's how the film tells its story that makes it original. Such is the case here. The Matrix is a smart film, and utterly original from start to finish. The "Alice in Wonderland" allusions distract us from the story--this is the film's only consequential flaw. Other than that, it's perfect entertainment that engages the mind while pleasuring the senses.

Something must be said about Keanu Reeves, especially since he's been dumped upon by critics and labelled a hack. However, he's managed to make over thirty films, something a hack probably could never accomplish. I believe Reeves is talented when he gets a good screenplay (however, he should stay away from anything Shakespeare). The Devil's Advocate showed his talent, as did Speed (which, of course, made him famous). But here, Reeves seems perfectly natural. Simply put, he could be one of the best action heroes to grace the screen since Bruce Willis. Reeves is essential to the film's success. If he performed poorly, the film would be a disaster. Thankfully, Reeves makes us believe in him--he's an everyday sorta guy. We grow to like him because of his flaws, and we cheer when he finally overcomes them. It's not an Oscar worthy performance, but it's the best Reeves you'll see.

Laurence Fishburne is terrific in his first role since his performance in the vastly underrated Event Horizon. Fishburne talks in a rythmic and cryptic style, never saying enough about anything. Carrie-Anne Moss isn't quite as strong as the two female leads in Bound, and wearing the black, skintight leather only strengthens the idea that the Wachowskis recycled her character. But Moss' athleticism is very assured--she molds the character into her own. Hugo Weaving creates one of the best villains since Stephen Dorff in Blade. Weaving's monotonous way of speaking adds to his character, despite the fact that he is essentially a computer program. Joe Pantoliano, who co-starred in Bound, is one of the weakest of the cast; however, to his credit, it seems like a poorly written character. Pantoliano displayed his amazing talent in the Wachowskis' previous film, but here he seems stagnant.

Of course, who goes to see The Matrix for the cast? Audiences want to see the special effects that seem to litter the trailer, and those audiences will not be disappointed. The effects look absolutely stunning within the context of the film, especially the new effect brought to light in the "Gap" commercials. It's referred to as 'Bullet time' which allows the appearance of moving faster than a speeding bullet. Whenever the new Superman gets produced, maybe they should look into this effect. But that's not all that's impressive here. The Wachowskis provide us with some stunning images, particularly one showing an entire field of newborns. This is exactly what special effects are for: they enhance the story, while making us gasp at the images they produce. We don't initially realize that they are effects because they are so flawlessly integrated into the story. It's the newest form of filmmaking, spawned in the 90s, and will probably become the future of cinema. That's not to say it's a good thing, of course. But special effects can take a film only so far. In the case of The Matrix, hand-to-hand combat scenes are in abundance here, and special effects can not make bad fighting look good. Thankfully, the Wachowskis brought in Hong Kong martial arts masters to teach the actors the basics in fighting techniques. The result is thoroughly realistic combat scenes--if you've seen anything by John Woo, this blows even his action sequences away. It's that good.

The Wachowskis are masters of the camera, as they aptly showed in their debut feature. They don't just put the camera in one spot to film action--that's what theater is for. They move the camera around, and give us images that our eyes feast upon. The green hue that pervades the screen makes us realize that this is an alternate reality--it's a computer generated one. The Wachowskis, with the aid of cinematographer Bill Pope, capture the action with grace and style. Not for one instant is anything we see confusing (unintentionally, that is). The final thirty minutes, when the film goes into hyperaction mode, is filmed with delicate edits and almost balletic use of slo-mo. Just imagining the amount of work it must have taken to film is astonishing. Their screenplay is smart, though sometimes edges into the pretentious. And Don Davis' musical score is suitable to the atmosphere the film creates. Technically, it's a first-rate production that never lets down.

The Matrix is rated R for sci-fi violence, language, and brief nudity. In a decade where studios love to produce special-effect laden productions with no story to enhance it, it's refreshing to see something like this. Hollywood needs more directors like the Wachowskis: the type of people who want to make good entertainment without dumbing down to audiences. Of course, this won't be the last time we'll see this type of story done. This year alone will produce two more: The Thirteenth Floor and eXistenZ. How Hollywood manages to do this is beyond comprehension. Let's just hope that those two will be as good as this one. If your craving for good, action-packed science fiction and can't wait for Star Wars, then here is your treat.

**** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews