Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #23
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $463,517,383
Running Time: 136 minutes
Directors/Screenplay: Andy & Larry Wachowski
Visual Effects: John Gaeta
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Score: Don Davis
Editing: Zach Staenberg
Soundtrack Available from Warner Bros/Maverick
Studios: Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership, Silver Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Belinda McClory, Julian Arahanga, Marcus Chong, Anthony Ray Parker, Matt Doran and Gloria Foster as Oracle
Suggested Audio Candy
 Meat Beat Manifesto “Prime Audio Soup”
 The Prodigy “Mindfields”
 Rob Dougan “Clubbed to Death”
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Red or blue pill? That’s the million dollar question right there. I’m not sure which one I’d choose you know. I mean, it’s one thing acting ballsy in front of your friends and proclaiming that you’d go for red every time but entirely another when it comes to swallowing the damn thing. Granted, there are many things about the world we live in that I would change given the chance but I’m also okay with on the whole. Opting for red would mean that my whole life up until that point would count for nothing and everything I know will be abolished in a picosecond. That may be all well and good but this brave new world is decidedly more grim and getting it ship-shape entails a lot of blood, sweat and tears discharged. I’m on the fence here. Perhaps I should ask my old buddy Cypher.
“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Dagnabbit it. I fucking love steak. If he’d have been tucking into an alfresco salad then I’d be on the Nebuchadnezzar right now, partaking in a round of hide the USB with Trinity. The Wachowskis aren’t much help either as they’ve openly admitted that they would neck the blue pill without procrastination. Guess they’re steak lovers too. I think I am going to be required to give this one some serious thought. Thus, I shall provide my answer at the close of this appraisal and get back to the task at hand. Not so much of a task as a distinct privilege mind you. You see, films like The Matrix don’t land in my come about often so, when they do, the only thing you can do is rejoice. Time to go to church Grueheads and hail the almighty.
Once a generation a motion picture arrives on the scene that redefines the science fiction template in one fell swoop. My sci-fi virginity belonged to The Terminator, recent years have granted me Inception, and I finally gave Blade Runner the time it so richly deserved but never received back in 1982. All three movies offered stimulation the likes of which cinema-goers simply didn’t have the tools to process. James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott are debatably three of the most prolific filmmakers on the circuit (no one mention Piranha 2: Flying Killers to Jimmy) and the feat they achieved in fashioning such enigmatic marvels of dystopian narrative boggles the mind, making them more than deserving of their Zeus-like standings.
However my twenty-somethings belonged to two fresh-faced future heads, enjoying a meteoric rise in stature after birthing the glorious Bound and sharing a moniker just destined for greatness – The Wachowskis. Unlike Cameron, Nolan and Scott these two techno tearaways have been the victims of the bar of excellence they themselves set with the film I currently ponder. Their downturn in fortunes only serves to solidify the inexorable fact that their creative peak had already come and passed with The Matrix and, when you consider the amount of time and hard graft it took them to deliver it from seed to breed, that is no less than to be expected.
When The Wachowskis approached Warner Bros. with their original concept for their ambitious project, they were greeted with raised eyebrows and a laundry list of what ifs. Eventually they managed to wrangle $10m in milk money out of their proposed backers and this afforded them the opportunity to offer up something tangible. What they did takes balls, the kind of which Larry Wachowski no longer possesses thanks to this brave leap into the rabbit hole, as they used the entire funds to shoot the film’s opening scene. This proved no small feat as it took six months of intensive training to prepare Carrie-Anne Moss for the challenge. However, it worked a treat and the executives were so bowled over that they green-lit this decidedly risky project and the rest became cinematic history.
There has been much debate about the subsequent sequels and many believe them to be bloated, arrogant and incoherent. Personally I believe that they got many things bang on the money, although both admittedly suffered from the same indisposition. For me it is not that they became too self-aware or pretentious, although The Wachowskis did admittedly make their work a darned sight harder by endeavoring to solve the riddle of the universe. However, if the finger really must be pointed then I would argue that a lack of investment in peripheral characters and redundant gunplay removed a little lustre from both. Other than that, they’re fine by me.
The brothers became reclusive after the last film was released, steering clear of giving interviews so as not to compromise their personal privacy and have since metamorphosed into siblings. The success of their trinity afforded Larry the chance to have that sex change operation he had been hankering after and Lana Wachowski was born. Is it just me or does Lana actually suit him/her better? It’s an irreversible operation so, if the answer is no, then its tough titties. I actually think it’s refreshing as this film arrived on the verge of the new millennium and attitudes are changing so good luck to Lana I say. Besides, I know I’m not alone in stating that Lana’s ass is well-tappable. Come on, who’s really at ease with their sexuality? Just me… GREAT! Moving swiftly on.
While the sequels looked to expand further on the universe they had created, the initiator focuses on a far more tight-knit assortment of sassily outfitted cyberpunks with mantles such as Tank, Dozer and ironically named Switch (more on her later). Our story monitors Neo (Keanu Reeves) and one thing that has niggled me to my inner core interminably is that Reeves is still, on occasion, brandished with the dreaded “wooden” categorization. I double dare any of these belligerent naysayers to observe+ his reaction to personal loss in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate or his turn as an abusive redneck husband in Sam Raimi’s The Gift and thenceforth take a hefty bite from their trilbies. Get a fucking eye dog you mugs!
Anyhoots, to begin with, he has the far less edgy mantle of Thomas Anderson and is pretty much your average schmuck by all accounts. Clocking in each day for his mundane job as a computer programmer, when Anderson isn’t sat in his drab office space, he is moonlighting as a hacker under the alias Neo. He has a hunch that all is not well in utopia and is about to be proved right with regards to trusting his instincts. Before he can so much as clear his in-tray, Mr. Anderson is placed between a rock and a hard place, with the choice of two pills to consume and all other options leading directly to imminent boot down.
“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
The bad news bearer comes in the form of pharmaceutical-peddling Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Since first watching Fishburne as the politically conscious Dap in Spike Lee’s wildly under-appreciated School Daze, the autocratic Furious in John Singleton’s Boyz ‘n The Hood and again as Russell/John in Bill Duke’s fabulous Deep Cover, I have been a titanic admirer of this man and he does nothing whatsoever here to lessen that eminence. In the brave new world that Anderson is about to explore, Morpheus is as close to a father figure as he will ever know. Moreover, he appears to have absorbed Bruce Lee and the training he provides will prove incalculable when burrowing deeper into this particular warren.
“You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability… It is the sound of your death.”
For every hero there has to be a villain and this stubborn adversary comes in the form of suited aggressor Agent Smith, dexterously played by blockbuster glutton Hugo Weaving – a man whose elongated noodle just screams bad guy. He just has that face, a forehead on which you could crack open chestnuts and a great deal of screen presence. For me, this will always be his tour-de-force as he’s every bit as menacing as is required be and eats up the screen like a malnourished swine at feeding time.
Then we have Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and this smiling assassin has a spanner on-hand to throw into the works, while his associates traverse the Matrix. I really want to despise this guy and, for not being a team player, he makes it pretty hard not to desire punching his smug face through. However, when all is said and done, he does make a valid point. Granted, it’s particularly unsportsmanlike and there can be no denying that he’s a weasel. But he is also just an everyday guy who happens to be rather partial to steak and, for that, I can’t knock the fella. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Say what you will but it makes for an absorbing debate.
“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”
We all know the story by now and it would take a number of appraisals to even begin to decipher its Da Vinci Code echelon lesson. I will say that the overarching message is a decidedly bleak one and reflects a brainwashed generation who, with clockwork aptitude, leave their homes each time the cock crows and drive on oblivious autopilot to their creativity-sapping non-careers in their gas guzzling environment-raping vehicles. Don’t get me started (mainly because, until recently, I owned one of said vehicles). Let’s just say that the communication is a stark one.
The Wachowskis don’t exploit their insight and instead hone in on a solitary locale for the lion’s share of the duration. The Nebuchadnezzar is anything but sterile and each of the ship’s internal organs is brought to the forefront to help illustrate the marriage between man and machine. The entire second act provides us with significant downtime with the characters aboard the ship and this makes the impact all the more destabilizing once loyalties are compromised. It is then that the insular confines of the ship are replaced with greying urban bastions.
The much-heralded lobby scene needs no preface other than to suggest that the penny dropped hard when watching it for the first time as I realized that the future was now well and truly upon us. Thus, I have opted instead to focus on the rooftop scene that directly follows it. It is here that The Matrix seals the deal for me and one sophisticated shot of Trinity has provided my cerebral cortex with its lifetime screen saver. Every time I watch this particular moment, I receive a petite shot of adrenaline making the desire to leap from my seat into crane formation akin to Ralph Macchio too strong to repel.
Right then, back to Switch. Why her you ask? What’s so significant about Switch I hear you ponder. Ever since Vasquez held Gorman’s quivering hand around that grenade there has existed a void which Switch could have filled; that strong independent female character. Trinity is too recognizable a choice for someone who has spent their childhood rooting for the token black guy in slasher flicks and I needed a new unlikely heroine to hang my hopes on.
Intriguingly, when Belinda McClory auditioned for the role, it was intended to be played by androgynous actors. In the “real world” the character would be male and, when plugged into the Matrix, would become a female, hence the somewhat fitting name Switch. It ends up irrelevant as she is snuffed out way too soon and a little part of me died in that moment.
That said, aside from the under-utilized Switch being turned off like a trappist monk in a Texas whorehouse, I have absolutely no qualms. It truly is flawless; with the millennium fast approaching it needed to be and succeeded, in the eleventh hour, in becoming the decade’s scientific darling. John Gaeta’s visual mastery is on display throughout and it is he who is responsible for the birth of bullet time which, using a chroma key set-up, ingeniously merges with CGI to create an effect repeatedly emulated ever since. The budget is well spent with numerous dazzling set-pieces framed exquisitely by director of photography Bill Pope and the astonishing blend of digital and practical effects remains unmatched by its peers to this very day.
“To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.”
There isn’t a whole heap I could say about The Matrix that hasn’t been said many times over. It is slick, stylish in the extreme, infused with brilliance in every area, both technologically and emotionally. Its dystopian bleakness lends itself well to proceedings and its posers are rather potent ones it has to be said. Could it be that we’re all merely being harvested? Are we actually as free-range as we think? Regardless of how deep we want to descend, it is just a first-rate piece of science fiction.
“Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”
Some may bitch about it stealing from Masamune Shirow’s mechanized Manga monster Ghost in The Shell so I make this point to you slander-hounds. If you are betrothed a dime store hooker for your sixteenth birthday and get your rocks off, then does that mean that you should rebuke the gift a few years later with a more high-class ho? The Matrix is a brazen harlot of a film and three hundred years ago The Wachowskis would’ve burned at the stake for it. But no matter how many skanky venereal diseases it may have accumulated, it is double-jointed and can get both legs behind its head. So there! Besides, there are a number of other influences on exhibit, from Lewis Carroll, Karl Marx and Franz Kafka to the themeology of both Blade Runner and The Terminator, without which, this would never have come to fruition.
Which brings me back to the burning question – red or blue pill? The results are in Grueheads and I can now state with assurance that I would plump for the former. Alice in Wonderland always fascinated me and, if I were to leap down the rabbit hole directly afterwards, then I may just get to see what’s under her petticoat. I’m not saying I won’t regret my decision soon afterwards and cannot attest to the safe passage of our friends at Zion either, but bullet time is just too fascinating a prospect to pass up and I’m sure I’ll soon forget steak once Trinity unzips her PVC catsuit. The Matrix it is then. See you at the motherboard fellow hackers.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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