Working off the transcendently paranoid, made-for-movies premise that reality might be the grandest illusion of all, The Matrix comes on like an all-or-nothing mindfuck, hot-wired into the intense existential panic that courses through millennial anxiety attacks like The Truman Show and dystopian sci-fi trips from Philip K. Dick to last year's inventively convoluted Dark City. But the second film by Andy and Larry Wachowski (the brothers' follow-up to Bound, their obnoxious lesbian-chic-for-straight-guys neo-noir) turns out to be a tunnel-visioned crowd pleaser, and the spook factor that initially juices the movie evaporates in the interests of quick-fix set pieces. With big guns. And kick boxing.
There's plenty of plot to spill, so in the broadest possible terms: the world is in deep shit, but oh look, a Savior is on hand. The Matrix wears this biblical allusion like a bumper sticker, with a dopey, self-congratulatory smirk. The metaphor gets even more insane when you consider that The One (as he's repeatedly referred to) is, um, Keanu Reeves. In yet another blankly effortful performance, Reeves plays a computer nerd nicknamed Neo, who's led to his dubious destiny by a couple of enigmatic, leather-clad figures: the vixenish Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, underacting an underwritten role) and the stoic Morpheus (a no-bullshit Laurence Fishburne). They toy with Keanu's pretty little head for a while, but when the revelations arrive, they're suitably momentous, so I won't give them away suffice to say, it's not really 1999 after all.
The Matrix has all the makings of a cult for starters, there's the too-much-information syndrome that fanboys revel in. Their central idea is vivid and enormously suggestive, but the Wachowskis' screenplay is composed mostly of mile-a-minute gobbledygook and mystic hogwash, and while the natural temptation is to deconstruct the mess, I suspect the film won't get any more coherent on subsequent viewings (finally, a movie tailor-made for Keanu's perpetual look of befuddlement). Virtual reality is relatively fresh and obviously fertile terrain for movies (it's the theme of David Cronenberg's upcoming eXistenZ, which is both more playful and more ingenious), and here, you wish it was more than simply a neat way of introducing really cool effects.
Ultimately, The Matrix settles for technically dazzling comic-book shtick. Some might count this as a good thing, but I'm not a fan of the Wachowskis' more-is-more aesthetic, which they unleashed in the inappropriately florid Bound, and which has since turned even more grotesque. The visual effects (especially a shooting technique called "bullet-time photography" that applies animation tricks to live action) are impressive, but the movie's overall style is wearing. The camera (or computer program, as the case may be) calls attention to itself more than to what's within the frame, all swooping overheads and nutty angles. The John Wooon-speed shoot-outs and martial-arts tomfoolery, though tongue-in-cheek, are similarly histrionic (even if the virtual-reality context provides some sort of explanation for the gravity-defying acrobatics). The cumulative effect is perversely deflationary: long before it's over, the film has flushed the paranoia from its system.
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