That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #13: It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.

Posted by kozemp on November 12, 2012

Interesting factoid: The Matrix is why I have a policy of staying spoiler-free when it comes to new movies. It is the genesis of that policy because The Matrix is the perfect example of what can happen when you have zero knowledge of a movie going into it.

Here’s the thing people may not now remember, years after the fact: before it came out, The Matrix was hardly a sure thing. It was dumped in a midweek release slot just before Easter – not exactly prime real estate. Keanu Reeves hadn’t been in anything resembling a success in 5 years. The advertising campaign was, for reasons we would eventually learn, purposefully opaque. And “The Wachowski Brothers?” Who the fuck are these guys?

When it comes to prerelease hype, suffice it to say, The Phantom Menace this wasn’t. (Unfortunately, the Phantom Menace would have the opportunity to be itself a few weeks later.)

Put it this way: I only even saw The Matrix in the theatre that first time because the week after it came out, I was sitting around on Wednesday afternoon with a guy named Tony who I wrote a movie column with for the college paper. We had just finished up our latest piece, and as I wrapped up my notes he said, “you doing anything? You want to go see that Matrix movie? Whatever the fuck that is.”

I had planned on being drunk for most of the afternoon, but that could certainly wait (and it would). Who doesn’t enjoy a Wednesday afternoon trip to the multiplex to see a movie you barely know anything about?

But then you sat there, and you watched it, and The Matrix became one of those things you wish you could see for the first time again. Count Rugen in the hallway. “I am your father.” And, with them, The Matrix. The whole thing. The experience of seeing it unspool before you that first time, if you don’t know anything about what it is, it was simply mind-blowing. It was transformative in a way that I don’t think anyone can ever experience again. If I had a kid tomorrow (god forbid), even if I waited until he was 13 years old or so and said, “okay, son, today I’m going to introduce you to The Matrix,” he wouldn’t have the same epiphany I (and others) did, because by now the notion of “the matrix” is a cultural touchstone, almost. It’s like Superman’s origin story – everybody already knows it. (I am going to assume this will not stop Idiot Man-Child Zack Snyder from retelling it again, but that’s another show.)

No one, for the rest of eternity, will ever again have that experience of seeing The Matrix for the first time completely ignorant of what it holds. That’s a little saddening, I have to tell you, though I won’t deny that it’s also pretty cool, knowing that some of us have an experience that is special, that can never be duplicated.

So, let’s get some things out of the way. Keanu Reeves is, as he is in all things, not especially great, even though the part, with its repeated wordless grunting, is essentially tailor-made for someone of his, shall we say, talents. And the script, by which I mean the screenplay, the actual words that are spoken and plot points that occur, the hard stuff, not the gooey, philosophy major center, isn’t the greatest thing to come out of a typewriter for any significant length of time.

The movie does have two very important things going for it, though, and they push it way over the top.

One is the elephant in the room: the effects. It’s easy to pooh-pooh the visual effects in The Matrix now, 13 years after the fact, when they have been copied and copied and faxed then copied then faxed then copied again. Bullet-time. We know. Wire-fu. We know. CGI fight scenes. WE GET IT. But for all the copies and the parodies and the ripoffs and the knockoffs, let’s not forget that the FIRST time you saw these things all combined together it was jaw-dropping. It’s easy to dismiss that now, to dismiss your earlier awe as a symptom of being younger or stupider or less refined or whatever. But we’re not talking about plot or character or any of that analytic shit here. We’re talking pure, unadulterated wonder, and if you’re unwilling to even admit that you once felt that, never mind allowing yourself to actually go back and experience it again well, heck, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.

And the other thing?

This is one of those things that, unlike the knock-you-off-your-feet effects the first time, is something that becomes MORE apparent with each time you see the movie: once you get past the batshit-crazy VFX, Hugo Weaving is the most awesome thing in this movie.

This is partially because in a movie about robots enslaving humans in cyberspace where everyone is So Bloody Serious All The Time – honestly, Larry Fishburne’s performance is like a gravitas well – Hugo Weaving (and, in her lesser screen time, Gloria Foster) is the only one bringing any remote sense of irony or fun to the proceedings. This is not to say that movies shouldn’t take themselves seriously. They should. But there needs to be SOME kind of escape valve, or release mechanism, someone in the entire thing who is willing to say, “okay, this is a little ridiculous, I recognize that it’s ridiculous, but let’s just have a good time with it.” It doesn’t hurt that in the process Weaving is willing to chew up scenery and spit it out like a wood chipper.

It’s also partially because Agent Smith is by far the most interesting character in the film, with Cypher coming in a meager second place. And he is the most interesting character in the movie because – say it with me, kids – HE WANTS SOMETHING. This is a pseudo-flaw in the movie overall; it’s so intent on hitting all its psychological/philosophical marks and delivering on the action setpieces at the same time that a lot of the actual characters get a bit of short shrift. Morpheus’ motivation isn’t to be a savior (interesting), it’s to be John the Baptist TO the savior (not interesting). Neo just wants to, uh, be knowledgeable, or something, whatever, yeah. Honestly Neo’s character arc is so muddled and unfocused that it really only snaps into focus in the last 10 minutes of the picture because Morpheus SAYS it does. And Trinity, ugh, god, the less said about Trinity in general the better. (I direct the jury’s attention to my father’s review of Carrie Anne Moss: “that is one bony bitch.”)

But Agent Smith, aaahhh, Agent Smith. His desires are focused. His desires are primal. He wants OUT. And he works for it. He spends the whole movie working for it, and in one of the great screenplay misdirections, the whole time we think that Smith is just a faceless automaton working for this system, but in his one bravura scene when we find out that Smith has had an agenda all his own, that, more than any special effect, is The Matrix’ Crowning Moment of Awesome.

And yes, we could, were we so inclined, talk about how these fundamentals were or were not carried on in the sequels, and the general quality thereto, and whether these movies really earn all the philosophical foofery that puffs them up. But none of that takes away from the fact that despite all the CGI craziness and Philosophy 101 hoodoo, the true genius of The Matrix is that, like its namesake, it has fooled us but good: Agent Smith, the villain, the personification of faceless electronic evil, is actually the most human character in the whole thing.

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