Part of me wants to dismiss "The Matrix" as a loud and empty spectacle, 1999's apex of dazzling technological style over substance. It lacks anything like adult emotion, and its themes and images arrive at a dizzying, stupefying pace, as if vomited up by some voracious creature that ate the last 20 years of sci-fi and action-movie history and only partly digested them.
In fact, the Wunderkind writing/directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski (whose previous film was the gangster pastiche "Bound") have performed a sort of public service for infrequent moviegoers. If you've never seen a John Woo film, any of the "Alien" movies, "Blade Runner" or either of the Terminators, or if you believe the Borg was a medieval castle and "City of Lost Children" was one of the more obscure Italian neorealist films, then you can do all your pop-culture homework in one fell swoop. "The Matrix" is all of those films, as well as a video game, a primer on Zen Buddhism and a parable of the Second Coming. It may bore you to death or blow your mind -- and it's long and convoluted enough to do both -- but it holds nothing back.
Eventually the sheer density of plot and action in "The Matrix" convinced me that the Wachowskis are serious about their craft, if about nothing else. If most sci-fi films skimp on story to get to the explosions and chase sequences more quickly, this present-meets-future-meets-apocalypse yarn offers such an intricate plot you can't keep it all in your head at the same time. I kind of understand why bullets and helicopter crashes are deadly even in a world that turns out to be an elaborate illusion. But I can't figure out why the evil government agents who abduct a clean-cut young software engineer named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) and melt his face early in the film also implant a creepy, crawly cyborg-scorpion in his tummy. Maybe just because they can. They hardly need to keep track of his movements, since they're pretty much the omniscient masters of the universe. Or something.
That's the way it is with "The Matrix" -- you either give away major plot points or you can't really talk about it at all. Anderson works in an office in regular old 1999, though it's an oddly timeless, clammy version of the present via "Seven" and "Blade Runner," full of dripping Gothic architecture, monochrome clothing and outdated cars. When he isn't at work, he becomes Neo, a hacker searching cyberspace for traces of a shadowy character called Morpheus, who in turn is somehow involved with a mysterious construct or theory or whangdoodle called the Matrix. (It's amazing that movies can still make people who sit on their asses in front of a computer seem like they're doing something cool and dangerous.)
Morpheus turns out to be Laurence Fishburne in little round sunglasses, playing precisely the urbane black hipster every bored white suburban kid dreams of meeting -- the guy who'll turn you on to some opiated hashish, blast you with the tenor solo from "Chasin' the Trane" and lay a heavy Zen koan on you, all in the same afternoon. We may be a long way from racial justice in America, but in Hollywood movies, blackness is the universally understood symbol for superior wisdom.
His band of trendily clad renegades includes Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a boyish vixen in Irma Vep leathers, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), whose shaved pate and devilish goatee make him resemble an aging techno DJ trying to hang on to street cred. The group dashes through the nameless city from one fashionably decaying set to another, one step ahead of the face-melting agents, themselves sporting the retro shades and tie clips of LBJ's Secret Service. Both sides in this conflict are able to dodge bullets, run up walls and across ceilings, and otherwise suspend the ordinary rules of space and time. But they're not so super-powerful, apparently, as to make the near-constant gunplay and martial-arts combat unnecessary.
With the gnostic manner of Alice's Caterpillar -- Lewis Carroll is another point of reference that gets tiresomely hammered home here -- Morpheus offers Neo two pills. One will return him to his drone existence, while the other will open his mind to the Matrix so he can learn what the hell is going on. It doesn't take a degree in Miltonic studies to understand that any red-blooded action hero will choose the hit of acid over the tranquilizer. If there's one thing we know about Keanu Reeves' characters here -- and there might be only one thing -- it's that they're earnest searchers after the truth. It's here that this previously frenzied movie goes completely apeshit. We've got gravity-free virtual-reality kung fu, choreographed by Hong Kong wizard Woo-ping Yuen. We've got millions of mechanical spiders, along with killing machines that look like a crossbreed between Whoopi Goldberg and a giant squid. We've got the entire human race enslaved in individual tubs of goo, or maybe inside a giant computer program, or both.
So what is the Matrix, exactly? Let Morpheus explain: "The Matrix is everything, it is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to shield you from the truth." Um, OK. Is Neo really the long-prophesied savior of humanity? (Maybe.) Is a cookie-baking, Marlboro-smoking, middle-aged black lady really an all-seeing oracle? (Sure.) Perhaps the unutterably evil Agent Smith (a good role for the sardonic acting style of Hugo Weaving) is closer to the mark when he says, "Human beings are a cancer on this planet. We are the cure." Needless to say, all this pseudo-spiritual hokum, along with the overamped onslaught of special effects -- some of them quite amazing -- will hold 14-year-old boys in rapture, not to mention those of us of all ages and genders who still harbor a 14-year-old boy somewhere inside.
There's no point defending "The Matrix" on intellectual grounds -- it's too big, too noisy and not nearly as original as all the movies it so successfully absorbs and emulates. If you're the kind of person who feels tired after five minutes of MTV, don't even consider it. Once considered a sensitive actor, Reeves now gets by on his athletic bearing and stoic demeanor; Neo seems nearly as robotic as the computer-generated agents pursuing him. But as in "Bound," there's an appealing scope and daring to the Wachowskis' work, and their eagerness for more plot twists and more crazy images becomes increasingly infectious. In a limited and profoundly geeky sense, this might be an important and generous film. The Wachowskis have little feeling for character or human interaction, but their passion for movies -- for making them, watching them, inhabiting their world -- is pure and deep.
SALON | April 2, 1999