|By Joshua Zyber
October 22, 1999
I try as a general rule to avoid any film starring Keanu Reeves, but The Matrix turned out to be such a surprise treat that it makes ideal fare for repeated viewings. The movie is an entertaining hybrid of cyberpunk thriller, kung-fu action, and Hong Kong shoot-‘em-up. The picture was directed with great visual flair by former comic book artists Andy and Larry Wachowski, whose only previous film was the sleazy lesbian psycho-thriller Bound. I expected in advance that this movie would have some dazzling big budget eye-candy, but I was most surprised to discover that it has a decent script as well.
Reeves plays a computer hacker who goes by the alias Neo. His life gets a little complicated when he wakes up to a strange message on his computer screen and is lured into the company of mythical superhacker Morpheus. He is soon shown that his entire world is an intricate virtual-reality computer program called ‘the Matrix’ designed sometime in the future to keep human beings as unwitting slaves. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One” who can help him to free humanity from their bondage. The movie makes some overt references to Alice in Wonderland that are played out heavy-handedly, and the idea of swallowing Reeves as a messiah figure is troublesome at best. Nonetheless, the concept is intriguing and the script smartly avoids most of the dumbing-down that plagues the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
No, it is not a flawless picture. There are several gaping plot holes, and a major story contrivance hinges on the necessity of the characters to reach special telephones in order to leave the Matrix, but the reason for this is never adequately explained. Why, I must ask, couldn’t their buddy back in the “real” world simply extract them from the program? And, this being the case, how did turncoat Cypher manage to get inside the Matrix to arrange his secret rendezvous without someone to pull him back out?
The movie wears its inspirations clearly on its sleeve. The story is part Dark City, part Tron, and a good chunk of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not to mention that the ultra-cool slow motion shootouts owe a heavy debt to the entire career of John Woo. Most of the scenes within the Matrix itself are imaginatively envisioned, but for some reason the movie loses focus in the futuristic scenes, which take place largely on the bridge of a ship that seems a generic mish-mash of the sets from any number of made-for-cable programs. There are two stunning 12 Monkeys-inspired set-pieces involving the harvesting of human beings for use in gigantic power plants, but otherwise the rest of the future world is shown in nothing but a murky, impenetrable smog, with some vague glimpses of what is said to be a sewer system. Perhaps the money was running thin at that point, but surely they might have come up with something more interesting than a darkened sewage tunnel. References are made in the dialogue to the promised land of Zion, the last human city on Earth, but the movie fails to ever take us there. I suppose the filmmakers are saving that for the sequel.
The Wachowski brothers’ background in comic books leads to some truly dynamic visuals, but it also manifests itself in one-dimensional stock characters and some painfully awful dialogue. When, early in the film, a policeman is heard to say, “Don’t give me any of that juris-my-dick-tion crap”, you know that Tom Stoppard never laid his hands on this screenplay.
Yet, somehow, the movie prevails over its inadequacies. This is due in large part to the strength of the basic story and a great deal of determination to make this movie fun without lapsing into outright stupidity. That’s a lot more than any of its summer movie competition usually strives for, and I have to give credit where it is due.
The movie truly is fun. The mixture of whiz-bang special effects, adrenaline-pumping violence, and a fetishistic obsession with leather outfits, dark sunglasses, and guns guns guns makes for a kinetic blend. Even the limited range of Keanu’s ability to emote is carefully tailored into the film to make him less annoying than usual. The visuals are sleek and stylish, the action scenes often jaw-dropping, and the narrative moves along at a pulse-quickening pace. Combine that with the generally smart and (dare I even say it?) thought-provoking script and what more could you want from a sci-fi action picture? The Matrix delivers in ways that many notable big budget turkeys have failed.
The movie was an enormous hit and may well have saved the careers of Keanu Reeves and super-producer Joel Silver, both of whom had been riding a wave of recent flops. Warner Bros. has seen fit to deliver the film to home video in terrific fashion on both laserdisc and DVD.
I would love to call the picture transfer reference quality but the film’s original photography leans toward the grainy, overly dark, and occasionally washed out. Much of this was done to heighten the unreal feeling within the Matrix, but some of it is also just plain ugly. Not that this isn’t fitting for the style of the movie, but regardless it makes for a difficult transfer to NTSC video. The laserdisc does an excellent job of preserving the theatrical presentation, but there are some scenes where the grain seems to float in unnatural patterns, such as the interrogation of Neo by Agent Smith near the beginning of the film. The DVD has had some artificial grain reduction done, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’d like to preserve the intention of the original photography. On the other hand, grain tends to be very distracting on video in ways that it does not in a projected film print. The DVD also has some color correction not found on the laserdisc transfer. Some of the daytime scenes were photographed using a process that de-emphasizes the color blue and leaves a greenish hue. The laserdisc presents these scenes approximately the same as I remember them in the theater, but the DVD has added additional green tinting. Again, your preference for this might go either way. I’m sure that these are both minor differences and that either edition of the film will be perfectly satisfying.
The image is fairly sharp and has been letterboxed to a 2.35:1 ratio. The movie was shot in the Super35 process, and not unusual for this format the framing occasionally seems cramped on the top and bottom. It looked that way in the theater too, and most of the time the compositional balance is fine. Clips from a full-frame edition of the film look much more awkward, and all of the special effects shots are cropped in any ratio other than the full 2.35:1. My copy has a couple of minor pressing-related rolling dropouts, but they are very brief and only momentarily distracting. Some of the night scenes look like they could use a little extra light output from the video transfer, but on the whole the quality of this laserdisc is top notch.
The audio is crisp and clean, and packs the expected punch during the action sequences. The disc also has Dolby Digital encoding for those who like their explosions extra loud. Despite some of the dubiously-earned awards that it may have won, the film has a fairly standard action movie mix. Dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel, hard-driving Techno/Industrial music spread to the front mains, and sound effects zooming back to the surrounds. There are some nifty sound effects, but nothing I would call particularly innovative. Cannon-sized gun shots and that metallic tinkling of empty bullet casings on the ground are as cliche as this type of movie can get. I might go so far as to say that the mix is almost subdued for the first half of the movie, and doesn't really kick in with a lot of power until Neo's kung-fu training. When it does get going, though, it's a lot of fun. Surround activity is aggressive even in basic Pro-Logic, but the Dolby Digital's discrete channel placement keeps the bullets whipping back and forth around your head. There are times when you can almost feel them slicing the air in front of you.
The movie is spread to three sides in CLV and the side breaks are very well chosen, with the platter break emphasizing a sight gag at the very end of the biggest shootout.
Let’s not forget the goodies, shall we?
Both laserdisc and DVD editions of the film contain an audio commentary by actress Carrie-Ann Moss, editor Zach Staenberg, and special effects supervisor John Gaeta. There are three production featurettes and a series of “B-Roll” behind-the-scenes clips. The DVD also contains a music & effects track as well as some DVD-ROM material for those with appropriate computer equipment. Neither are significant losses for me.
The commentary track is largely a waste. Apparently the Wachowski brothers could not be bothered to participate and the value of the discussion is extremely limited without input from the writer/directors. Conversation starts off lively enough, but after ten minutes tapers off into a series of long, uncomfortable silences. Moss has next to nothing to say throughout, and there is almost no discussion about the elements that do and do not work in the movie’s narrative. In fact, at one point Gaeta completely misses one of the most disturbing aspects of the film, the casual manner in which the heroes mow down human bystanders who get in the way. There is a half-hearted attempt to explain this within the film, but Gaeta seems to think that it’s perfectly fine because, “They’re not real people”. Actually, they are real people. For each civilian killed in the Matrix, a body in the “real” world also dies.
Visual references within the film (such as the rooftop chase from Vertigo) go completely unnoticed by the commentators and even the technical aspects of the production are only discussed fleetingly. Really, there’s not a whole lot of anything being discussed in this commentary track except for the occasional overstatement about the depth of the script or the genius of the directors. The participants were clearly not prepared at all for the task, and you can tell that it was a chore for them to make it all the way to the end. My recommendation is to listen only to the first ten minutes of Side 1, then at the first significant gap you can safely skip right to Side 3, which is where most of the useful information is clustered.
Making The Matrix is a fifteen-minute promotional piece originally made for the HBO network. Typical for this type of program, there are many brief on-set interviews with the cast and crew as well as a number of behind-the-scenes outtakes. The most interesting parts involve the lead actors training to perform their own kung-fu stunts. Clips from the movie are presented in full-frame, and some of the night scenes have more light output in the transfer for a more detailed image. The show is worth watching and you may glean a few interesting pieces of information, but the objective was more to advertise the movie than to document its production, so the value of repeated viewings is minimal. Both Wachowski brothers are seen at work and speak briefly between takes. After the way they had been mythologized in the audio commentary I was half-expecting them to be brooding, introspective geniuses. Instead, they remind me of a pair of inarticulate losers that I went to film school with. That may be an unfair comparison on my part, but regardless it knocks them down a few notches in my estimation.
The most interesting of the three featurettes, What Is Bullet-Time?, breaks down the revolutionary special effect process used to create the most eye-catching sequences in the film. In essence, the Bullet-Time process allows the filmmakers to break the laws of physics by fluidly moving a camera three-dimensionally around an object that has been frozen in time. The manner in which this is achieved is quite clever and elaborate, yet makes perfect sense. John Gaeta appears on camera to explain. He is an amusing, odd little man who dresses in a NASCAR-style jumpsuit for no apparent reason and gushes such an enthusiastic stream of tech-speak that you are almost better off ignoring him and focusing entirely on the visual demonstration.
What Is The Concept? is the most tedious of the featurettes. A stream of storyboards and special effects test footage played over an incessant Techno-music beat, the program is repetitive and excessively drawn out.
On Side 4 after the featurettes, a series of “B-Roll” behind-the-scenes outtakes has been collected. Some of them are interesting, some amusing, and all brief enough to keep your attention from wandering the way it might during What Is The Concept?. These clips can be accessed on the DVD only by utilizing the alternate angle feature while watching the movie, but the laserdisc presents them more conveniently in a bundle as part of the supplement section.
The disc jacket has the standard poster art on the front
cover, but some of the very worst promotional text I’ve ever read on the
back. “Mind-warp stunts. Techno-slammin’ visuals. Mega-kick action.” I
honestly suspect that a 13 year old boy may have written it. “The movie
flat-out rocks.” Indeed. Were I not familiar with the picture ahead of
time I would be seriously disinclined to take interest after reading the
jacket back. Luckily, the quality of the movie and the contents of the
disc set a higher standard than the marketing department seemed to realize.
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