Should We Take the Red Pill?

The delicious but not necessarily nutritious Matrix trilogy

In 1999, The Matrix landed on North America with an impact that some have compared to the original Star Warsin 1977. While the two pictures share some striking similarities (both were sci-fi action flicks that took elements from a lot of older movies, tossed them into a blender and added jaw-dropping special effects), Star Wars beats The Matrix by a mile both in terms of technical innovation and cultural impact. For decades if not centuries to come, people will still be talking about the original Star Wars as a cinema landmark. Whereas I have a suspicion that somewhere not too far down the line, we might look back at The Matrix and wonder why all the fuss about what is essentially a surprisingly good Keanu Reeves kickboxing/cyber thriller, a Johnny Mnemonic that somehow actually worked.

There is art, and then there is cool. True art is profound, whether it is bewilderingly complex or beautifully simple. Cool is glossy and enticing like a candy apple, and typically has a similar shelf life. True art can be cool (as artists from Picasso to Laurie Anderson have proven), and, more rarely, cool can be art (give some early Bowie a spin sometime). The Matrix pictures aspire to be both art and cool, succeeding at the latter goal at the expense of the former.

When the original Matrix premiered there was something terribly of-the-moment about its skintight leather catsuits and funky sunglasses, its hacker heroes and MIB villains, its grinding techno music and bullet-time effects. It hardly felt tired, but it didn't exactly feel revolutionary, either, premiering as it did the same year as a spate of films with remarkably similar concerns, including Alex Proyas' Dark City. Dark City was in its own way as astonishing as The Matrix, but it was more quiet, melancholy and sinister; I could be wrong, but I don't remember a single gun being fired during the entire picture. I'd be surprised if it broke even at the box office and at this point it's most likely remembered only by me and a handful of other dorks. But, flawed though it is, Dark City is a picture that I would classify as art, and the things that are cool about it are so weirdly out of time that the film probably wouldn't have seemed any less cool had it premiered 10 years earlier or 10 years later. Dark City, to be blunt, did not pose, while if you took the posing out of The Matrix there wouldn't be much left. Were it not too ridiculous a notion to put to paper, I'd be tempted to say that Dark City was Cyndi Lauper to The Matrix's Madonna; a funky but richly rewarding beauty unfairly and completely eclipsed by a superficially sexier rival. Wow, thank heavens I caught that analogy in time before I dumped it on you.

All of this is not to dismiss the genuine pleasures of The Matrixand its new sequel, The Matrix Reloaded. I genuinely had a great time with both films, and judging by all the grousing going around it's quite likely I enjoyed the new picture more than you did, probably because I went in expecting another surprisingly good Keanu Reeves kickboxing/cyber thriller and that's just what I got. To be sure, Reloaded is a messier picture than the original, and would have greatly benefited from a few minutes of trimming (not to give too much away, but there is a rave/orgy in the film that goes on long enough that it gets kind of peculiar). Actually, compared to the relatively chaste original picture the sex stuff that turns up in The Matrix Reloaded is pretty peculiar in general, with one scene involving a pretty girl eating cake that . . . well, I haven't seen sci-fi this sexually disturbed since Lexx. But I spent great stretches of the picture perched on the edge of my seat and laughing—laughing aloud, like a giddy six-year-old, for Christ's sake—at action sequences that are so thrilling you have little option but to perch on the edge of your seat and, well, laugh like a giddy six-year-old. It is a tricky matter to critique a trilogy two pictures in, but nowadays that seems to increasingly be the lot of us film critics, so I'll dive right in: no matter whether or not we class them alongside a Dark City, or a Star Wars, and no matter whether we'll still talk about them in 20 years, or five, the Matrix pictures are undeniably, indisputably cool. Some candy apples taste better than others, and this is some sweet stuff.

 
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