Philosophy in Bullet Time - "The Matrix" Review
From time to time, a film is culturally so huge that it ends up defining a generation and drastically shaping the future cinematic landscape. The Matrix, undoubtedly, is the most recent film to achieve that. The Wachowski's masterpiece is the perfect sci-fi movie to understand our reality at the turn of the millennium.
The first thing is to highlight the obvious: Its visual legacy. Choosing a single shot or mental image is impossible. The cell phone as an indispensable gadget. The sunglasses. The gothic costumes in direct contrast to the modern megacity. The constant green filter that emulates the Matrix's code.
The absolute stoicism of its protagonists (and antagonists!) as a defense mechanism. Their constant poker face against extinction. The rusty, gray atmosphere of reality that along with the High-tech elegance of the Matrix form a perfect deconstruction of Cyberpunk.
And of course, the dynamized bullet time effect. That emphasis on visually expanding a small fraction of the time while emulating a camera movement, enhancing the character's actions in the process, blew the industry's mind. Seeing Trinity suspended in the air or Neo dodging bullets was a magic comparable to that time we saw dinosaurs on Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park.
Since The Matrix, loading film sets with camera-filled rails in order to capture and detail an instant is a constant practice. From a Spanish comedy, a Bon Jovi video, a Brazilian advertisement, or hundreds of blockbusters like Spider-Man or The Avengers, the bullet time nowadays goes unnoticed as a normalized narrative dressing.
The visual relevance of The Matrix should never be underestimated. It's an essential part of the message. But its screenplay is so full of interpretive layers, theories, references, and philosophical approaches, that suddenly aesthetic things like the bullet time becomes secondary.
The Matrix did everything right. An engaging casting (The four key characters, Keanu Reeves' Neo, Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity and Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith are simply iconic). An out-of-this-world production design. A big budget considering the circumstances. All that mixed with the Wachowski's wild imagination, and the result was a unique, innovative blockbuster entertainment with the exact dose of depth perfectly distributed and narrated between each kick, explosion, and shot.
The Matrix doesn't conceal its influences. In fact, it leaves them in the open, claiming narratively one of its main themes: How the constant bombarding of pop culture, consumer products, and fashion trends shape our own perception of reality.
Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) expressed it better:
”I walked out of The Matrix thinking, 'What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?' The Wachowskis basically took all the great sci-fi ideas of the 20th century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured.”
In the form, the Wachowski have dozens of inspirations. The Matrix is practically a live-action anime. The fingerprint of masterpieces such as Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell and Peter Chung's Aeon Flux, not technically an anime but equally with high influence of Asian animation, is undeniable.
John Woo and Gordon Chan (mostly Fist of Legend) were practically the outlines for the martial arts sequences and showdowns.
In the substance, the baggage becomes dense, deep and deliciously endless. The constant reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is there for a reason.
To dive into the themes of The Matrix is comparable to following the white rabbit and falling into the rabbit hole. For example, in the most cynical spectrum, this is a clear allegory to the hypothesis of the evil demon of René Descartes. From a more constructive point of view, this is a cyberpunk version of Plato's allegory of the cave. And those are just start points.
The Matrix's most impressive achievement is the ability to bring together so many influences, tributes, and references and still have an undeniable personality of its own. This film is full of religious references on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism.
It also has William Gibson's Cyberpunk and Philip K. Dick's technophobia and the study of artificial intelligence. It has Kung Fu, explosive action and western showdowns. And the amazing thing is that everything works perfectly, being this a story in which the protagonist realizes that there is a whole "true reality" behind his daily matrix's reality.
On a more concrete level, The Matrix works perfectly as a cinematic reference to Baudrillard's philosophy on Simulacra and Simulation (a book that not only appears in one scene but was a must-read for the actors). A permanent allegory on the contemporary experience in a heavily commercialized, media-driven society, especially in first-world countries, where industries and money have managed to create a sense of well-being enough to control citizens and tone down their ambitions, thanks in part to violent historical policies of domination.
The Matrix understood the audiovisual codes of a whole generation and applied them. The soundtrack, for example, remains as emblematic as when it came out. Beyond the great incidental music of Don Davis, which has a strictly cinematic purpose, the selection included future classics like Wake Up by Rage Against the Machine and Rock Is Dead by Marilyn Manson. But above all, it was the conviction and absolute confidence in electronic music as an established genre (and not just a "cool trend") that put the soundtrack of this film on another level. Propellerheads' Spybreak, The Prodigy’s Mindfields, Rob Dougan's Clubbed to Death and Meat Beat Manifesto's Prime Audio Soup sound more legendary and immortal than ever while simultaneously time-encapsulating this work of fiction.
What's Your Rating For The Matrix?
The Matrix works even outside its own fiction. This is the perfect narrative definition of "gaming the system”. A massive blockbuster generator of hundreds of trends that uses explosions and special effects to criticize consumer society and neoliberal alienation.
The film ends with a threatening Neo and a screen detecting him as "System Failure." It cannot be more clear: The Matrix is one of the most anti-system movies ever created. This is a universal proclamation: You need to know the rules of the game (hack the matrix), educate yourself and acquire knowledge (use training programs to be a master in the matrix) and seek to make the system fail for the benefit of all, while awakening more and more consciences.
That's exactly what the Wachowski's did with this movie and the Hollywood system. An in-depth, uncompromising message, delivered using enhanced narrative tools.
You'll probably also want to see The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions to complete the trilogy. Don't expect the same level of awe from these or maybe you'll just start marvelling for the wrong reasons.
Title: The Matrix
Release Year: 1999
Director(s): The Wachowski Brothers
Actors: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Carrie-Anne Moss, a.o.
© 2019 Sam Shepards