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The Matrix

The Matrix is, without question, among the most influential films of its generation. I'm speaking here of its influence on the stories told in other action/sci-fi films and on what kinds of movies studios feel are profitable enough to greenlight. And, of course, its influence on the style of action movies and their visual effects. All of which is great, but – as many imitators have proved – adds up to nothing without a good story. And the story of The Matrix is not just engaging as a reason for fight scenes or as an exploration of comic-book style mythology; it's also intriguing for its philosophical and technological implications. Like many of my favorite movies and TV shows, it's enjoyable on many levels – a fun watch if that's all you're in for, but more is revealed as you move each layer deeper into appreciating it.

All of this said, The Matrix is not among my top five movies. Probably not even top ten, although it becomes harder to nail down since I'm contractually prohibited from tying a specific film to any exact number on such a list. Top 25, I'm sure it's on. I watched the film again recently, and enjoyed it a great deal... so how come? How come it drops beneath such long-time leaders as Jurassic Park and Contact? I think for the same reason Fight Club leaves a weird taste in my mouth: grunge. The Matrix is a grimy, gritty, grungy movie. Which is the right choice for the story, of course, but I think it gets under my skin a little. Most of it does not look that fun to walk around in.

Also, probably, the attention of all of its imitators and its superfans tends to put me off. Like the Star Trek fans and the Star Wars fans, the Matrix fans freak me out a little. It's not them, it's me. But still it distances me from the experience somewhat. Particularly in a film like The Matrix that is so rich with details that are targeted at the fanboys and the comic book enthusiasts. In a way, it reminds me of attending the special edition rerelease of The Empire Strikes Back at the Chinese Theatre here in Los Angeles. The people carrying lightsabres and the people dressed as wookies. Meh. Additionally, because the comic book world is one that I can appreciate but am by no means familiar with, I feel a little like I'm an outsider watching the movie. I'm probably among few who fondly recognize Night of the Lupus on the TV in the Oracle's apartment, but all the comic book/Anime/hacker references go right over my head. That its creators, the Wachowski brothers, adopt such a highly reclusive attitude adds to that feeling. It strikes me as the behavior of someone who's cultivating a myth of himself. (As a highly reclusive person myself, I shouldn't be bothered by this, but oh well.) It's my fault for allowing all this to make me feel "excluded" from the film, but it still does.

But maybe it's more about the genre. I have to hand it to The Matrix, it impresses me when any sci-fi movie can hold my interest. I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers because a friend wanted to and, try as I might, I could not maintain an interest in the story. I just don't go for the heavily mythological types of stories and find it difficult to invest in things that can't appeal to my inner pragmatist. This is certainly where The Matrix shines. It appeals on so many more levels because it is working on so many more levels. It asks very fundamental questions about how reality relates to perception and how evolution works and what the future of humanity and technology will be. And I don't think it does so casually. (And I know its creators, if they ever talked to anybody, would be disappointed in its classification as simply a "sci-fi movie." I agree it's more than that, but it does share with those films the sort of dense pedantic detail that can overwhelm the uninitiated viewer.)

I like all movies. (Just about.) I enjoy the experience of moviegoing and I can find entertainment value in just about anything. Therefore, I've learned to be a little more careful about movies that I love. Otherwise, there's just too damn many. Over time, I've decided that in order for it to really be a favorite, a film must either give me a very unique feeling or give me something very fun to think about after I leave the theatre. (Preferably, of course, both.) The Matrix gives me plenty to think about – and in the best way possible. Like Futurama and a few of my other favorite movies and TV shows, the story of The Matrix was all planned out way in advance. That always impresses me a lot because in my opinion it really contributes to that "layered" feeling. There are so many more details to explore because the creators have put so much thought into the "universe" of the story. It's also stunning that a brief part of the larger story can be isolated and told so skillfully that it stands up on its own. (Perhaps the lack of boundaries inherent in such an approach also contributes to my "exclusion" because it's hard to feel like you get it all when you know there's so much more you're not seeing. It's a precarious balance!)

However, what The Matrix unarguably delivers are mind-bending action sequences and characters which truly hold the screen. Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith is imbued with a cold, mechanical stoicism that seamlessly spans his detached pursuit of a programmed goal as it gradually melts into a very subjective rage and hatred. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is fascinating because he is a lifetime crusader against the Matrix, but knows at the same time that he is not the one to bring about its destruction. He knows his entire fight is in vain because he's not the important one, Neo is. And Neo's existence is prophesied, so even if Morpheus did nothing, Neo would still have come along. His inner conflict is more engaging to me than the pressure Neo feels at being humanity's last hope. And Cypher (character actor extraordinaire Joe Pantoliano) confronts us with the most basic question: "What's so bad about living in the Matrix?" Epic but intimate, the world of The Matrix is well architected and hard to forget after seeing the film.

So, good movie: yes. Great movie: yes. Essential movie: of course. Perfect movie: not exactly. But immensely engaging nonetheless. In the context of its two following sequels, it will probably stand as one of my favorite films to think about, which – considering the lack of time travel – is saying something.

[Writing this review was difficult because, thankfully, it was recently brought to my attention that reading my reviews is boring as hell when they're about movies I like. (Very true. They degenerate quickly into mountains of gushy adjectives.) I tried hard to discuss the movie from a perspective of its concepts and effects rather than evaluating its component parts qualitatively. I feel it's been an improvement, and I hope you've enjoyed it. –ed.]

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