In An Alternate Reality, Keanu Reeves Is Lord And Master.
By James DiGiovanna
APRIL 5, 1999: QUESTION: 400 YEARS ago, when Shakespeare was writing plays that would challenge the range and acuity of the finest actors of his era, was he anticipating the arrival, one day, of that extraordinary talent known as Keanu Reeves?
Answer: But of course.
Keanu Reeves, who was not only born in Canada but is part Hawaiian, making him the most international superstar since Attila The Hun, lights up the screen in The Matrix, his best movie without a bus in it.
My pal Petix said The Matrix was the finest sci-fi film he'd seen in ages, and he immediately began calling everyone he knew in order to urge them not to miss this latest Keanu-rrific cinematic spectacular. I was not quite as impressed, and only called two or three really dear friends.
Still, The Matrix has something going for it--even if that something is largely in the special effects, which for once are truly very, very special.
The story concerns a computer hacker (played by Professor Keanu Reeves) who has always felt that there was something wrong with reality, in spite of the fact that he's so attractive as to be Keanu Reeves. His suspicions are confirmed when he's contacted by mysterious über-hacker Morpheus, who hips him to the fact that the entire world is just a computer simulation piped directly into our brains. Morpheus makes this clear by walking up Keanu's beautiful, naked, sleeping body, which, like the bodies of all five billion other people on earth, is stored in a vast bio-pod system that looks like something out of the movie Alien, if that film had had a much bigger effects budget.
Once Keanu and company know that the world they thought was the real world is in fact a computer world, they learn how to manipulate the reality of the ersatz environment, giving them super-powers when they return to the simulation.
The complicated plot and back-story are actually pretty interesting, and the first 20 minutes of the film unfold in an extremely cinematic manner, giving lots of visual hints and subtle clues. However, once Keanu crosses over to the real world, there's a long sequence that's mostly exposition, with Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus giving Keanu and the audience a history lesson. This is most disturbing as it interrupts the flow of special effects, which is what this movie is all about.
However, once the back-story is filled in things kick back into high gear, with lots of scenes of real actors doing impossible things, like dodging bullets and slowing down time and responding to Keanu Reeves without laughing.
The problem with the latter half of the film is that all the secrets have been given away. After that it's just a question of whether Keanu and his Power Ranger friends can beat up the bad guys.
In any film that rests on a mystery, the best way to layout the story is to have pieces of the puzzle slowly revealed, so that there's always more to know, and there's always the chance of something surprising happening. The worst way is to simply have one of the characters tell the audience what's going on. The Matrix survives this indiscretion only on the force of its visual sense, and of course the unmatched thespian competence of Lord Keanu Reeves, esq.
It's strikingly odd that The Matrix works this way since it's by the Wachowski brothers, whose last film, Bound, did a great job of resurrecting the film noir genre with a plot-heavy story loaded with suspense. That film relied on visual motifs to clue the audience in to what would be happening, giving hints to the story while still holding on to the suspense.
Bound was also a rather shallow piece of eye-candy, but that's an element of the genre which can be played for effect. In noir, much of the dramatic force is carried by the shadowy sets and smoky looks of the actors. The Matrix maintains this visual sensibility, which is refreshing in an effects-laden film. Rather than rely on explosions, colored lights and shiny things to hold the attention of a supposedly simian audience, the Wachowski brothers pay close attention to the small features of every shot. In Master Reeves' apartment, noir-esque lighting sets the mood, whereas in his day-job office at a software company, everything is super-clean and shiny.
The fight scenes, too, are superbly filmed. The Hong Kong directors so in vogue these days could learn a lot from the Wachowskis. Even in the midst of a melee it's always clear what's happening, who's shooting at whom, and where the action is headed. Such clean storytelling avoids excessive cutting and close-up shots, instead making strong use of establishing shots.
It's unfortunate that the strong photographic sensibilities of The Matrix aren't matched by an equally strong acuity of narrative, as the ideas in the story have a lot to offer. Exposition can be regarded as a sin of the science fiction genre, though, since so much of a sci-fi world is unknown to the audience. George Lucas handled this by scrolling text up the screen ("A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...) which is certainly a clumsier method than the dialogue-driven model of The Matrix, so I'm assuming fans of the genre will forgive this and just get into the Keanu-osity of the whole thing: like Dame Keanu himself, The Matrix's good looks make up for its lack of thought.
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