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With: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano
Written by: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
MPAA Rating: R for sci-fi violence and brief language
Running Time: 136
Date: 03/30/1999

The Matrix (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Waking Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Matrix is an inventive science fiction idea that rivals the brilliant thinking behind last year's Dark City and The Truman Show. Its first 30 minutes are deliriously fascinating, as the story unfolds for us and we learn about this new world bit by titillating bit. But about half way in, the movie decides it needs something to wake us up. And so it turns into a generic Hollywood action movie, albeit one with different rules and great new effects.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) works in a dull office building by day, and by night is a master computer hacker who goes by the handle "Neo." We also meet Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss (from the TV show "Models, Inc."), also a computer expert. Trinity seems to be able to defy gravity. In one scene, the cops burst in on her while she's working. She escapes by moving incredibly fast and hanging in the air like Michael Jordan. Later, when she meets up with Neo in a club she tells him he's "next." Before long he's taken to see Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, a man who seems to have all the answers.

WARNING: If you don't want to know what the Matrix is until you see the movie, don't read the next paragraph.

It turns out that the Matrix is everything on Earth as we know it. Neo has been selected because he is "the chosen one" and Morpheus wants to "wake" Neo up. Neo finds himself in a pod surrounded by millions of other pods as far as the eye can see. He's been there his whole life. So has everyone else. Our brains are plugged into the Matrix so that we experience life -- walking to work, drinking coffee, dating, wearing clothes, etc. But everything is part of a computer program, like the holo-deck on Star Trek. And the year is not 1999 -- it's more like 2199. Artificial Intelligence has been invented and, like the Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it has gone bad and decided to take over the world. Now machines harvest human beings like crops and consume them for energy.

Morpheus and his band are human beings who have "awakened" from the computer program and now live in the "real" world, a blackened, dismal place. They are able to enter and leave the Matrix whenever they want. But since they know it's a computer program, they can avoid certain rules, like gravity. Their goal is to overthrow the evil computers. What I wanted to know is: if humans are nothing but food for the evil machines, why bother with all this deception?

After all this amazing stuff has been revealed to us the plot turns ordinary as one of Morpheus' crew decides to turn traitor for a chance to return to the Matrix with no memory of ever having been outside it. There's also a visit to an "oracle" who lives in the Matrix, and whose job it is to forecast the ending of the movie. From there it's pretty much a chase-action-chase movie with the good guys fighting the bad guys, who dress like FBI men with dark glasses and earpieces. The action scenes have fantastic special effects. Neo and Trinity do wild backflips, walk on walls, and dodge bullets. Reeves and Fishburne actually studied kung fu for six months before filming this movie. A good deal of their moves were borrowed from Hong Kong movies such as the now-classic Swordsman II (1992).

Happily, Fishburne -- a great actor -- has most of the dialogue. I'm sorry to report that after a brief career upturn with Speed (as well as not making Speed 2), Keanu Reeves seems to have lost some of his acting skill. The audience I was with laughed out loud at some of his line readings and some of his body language. My moviegoing companion pointed out that there was no reason Hong Kong star Jet Li couldn't have played the Neo role. Not much English was required, the acting would have been superior, and Kung Fu training would not have been necessary. As for the other actors, Moss is enjoyable, coming across sexy and tough, and character actor Joe Pantoliano (Bound) is also around for levity.

The Matrix was written and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski who scored with the terrific lesbian crime thriller Bound in 1996. But it was produced by Scott Silver, who has made a fortune grinding out endless action flicks like the Die Hard movies, the Lethal Weapon movies, and Assassins (which the Wachowskis also wrote). Although the action scenes are impressive, it's clear at what point Silver's influence was felt. I felt a little gypped watching a movie that obviously wanted us to think, but turned off its own brain halfway through.

Still, I'm recommending The Matrix because it's rare that we get such great original thinking in our movies today. It made me appreciate Dark City (now on video) all that much more for not losing its way.

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