Back in April 2000, I finally saw The Matrix on HBO. I’d missed it in theatres for some reason or other, and finally sat down to see what all the fuss was about. To say I was disappointed is a grave understatement. Here’s what I wrote about it on my SFF.net newsgroup, which is where I posted rants before I started my blog in 2004. (Also yes, I used to record movies off of cable and onto VHS tapes. It was a different era….)
So I finally caught The Matrix on HBO.
This is what all the fuss was about??????
I want those 148 minutes of my life back.
Granted that I saw this on a television screen and not in a theatre, and granted that I am more steeply versed in the tropes of science fiction and comic books, this is still one of the most undeservedly overpraised movies I’ve ever seen.
First off, what I actually liked about it:
The effects were magnificent. After seeing this movie, I am, for the first time, convinced that Hollywood can do a convincing live-action Spider-Man movie. More to the point, the effects perfectly conveyed the flat, not-quite-real aspect of life inside the matrix, which is what they were supposed to do. (Two friends separately commented that The Phantom Menace had better effects than The Matrix, but I have to disagree. TPM‘s effects didn’t always convince me that I was watching alien beings interacting with humans; in fact, I never believed that the Gungam/battle droid war was fought in the same universe as the space battle. But the effects in The Matrix did exactly what they were supposed to do, and the filmmakers deserve praise for that. I especially liked the qualitative difference in the visual style of the scenes outside the matrix as opposed to those inside.)
But couldn’t they have put an interesting movie under the effects? The plot is a collection of the hoariest clichés from the SF/comics world, with nothing new added to the concepts at all, the pacing is abysmal, the acting is pathetic, and the treatment of the characters poor.
God knows I don’t consider originality to be all that important. For one thing, it’s damn near impossible. For another, the most original idea in all creation can still suck if the execution is poor. Hell, Shakespeare didn’t have an original idea in his life. But if you are going tread ground that thousands of pulp short stories, SF novels, and comic books have already tread upon, at least give us something different instead of the stringing together of tired clichés that are only there because the plot calls for them — the betrayer, the female love interest, the hero who has to realize that he’s a hero, etc. It wouldn’t be so bad if these developed logically, but since there was zero chemistry between Trinity and Neo, their falling in love at the end was totally unconvincing, especially since it wasn’t brought out until it was necessary to the plot.
Of course, by that point in the movie the plot has finally kicked in. Certainly took long enough. It takes an hour for the story to finally get into gear, which is much much too long. Establishing the world and then establishing that it’s all a fake is something that should only take 20-25 minutes, not fifty, especially given how many of those fifty minutes were given over to cutesy FX set pieces, at least some of which (the thing that went into Neo’s belly button, for example) were totally unnecessary, and others of which (Neo being freed from his gunky prison) took twice as long as they needed to. It brought back not-fond memories of watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture again — the action is ground to a halt so we can see how much money the filmmakers had to play with.
Not that the pacing improves all that much. So much of the 148 minutes of this monstrosity is given over to people standing around explaining things. There’s a reason why the first rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” Nobody ever shows anything in this movie (which is pretty ridiculous given what a visual feast the film is) — we just get endless exposition, delivered in the same dull monotone almost everyone in the film uses.
Which leads nicely to the next problem, which is the awful acting. One doesn’t expect much from Keanu Reeves, especially when he’s asked to act outside his limited range (that range consisting of Speed‘s Jack Traven and Bill & Ted‘s Theodore Logan), and he lives down to expectations here. I was never for one moment in any way, shape, or form convinced that he was at all special, messianic, or “the one.” (Up all night coming up with that neologism, huh, guys?) This goes back to the telling, not showing problem — we’re constantly (repeatedly!) told that Neo is “the one,” but there’s nothing on screen to support that until he performs superhuman feats at the climax. And there’s no indication as to what changed to lead him to this epiphany. This, in turn, makes it really hard for me to give a rat’s patootie about what happens to the supposed hero.
Laurence Fishburne is one of the finest actors currently drawing breath, but you’d never know it from this. His method of playing the inscrutable mentor is to talk in a dull monotone and stare straight ahead. It’s a sad commentary on his performance that the only time I ever felt like he was acting instead of just line-reading was when he was a captive of Smith’s. Just sitting there silently, half-broken, he did more acting than in all his “you must be one with the universe, grasshopper” scenes with Reeves.
The only actor I was even a little convinced by was Joe Pantoliano as Cipher — not surprising, as Pantoliano is probably the most underappreciated character actor around. He was a far more menacing bad guy than Hugo Weaving’s Smith (Weaving seems to be counting on his sunglasses to do his acting for him), especially since his reasons for betraying the rest of the rebels actually made sense. Of course, the scene where he reveals his deception is right out of the cliché handbook — he conveniently kills all the characters who don’t have billing first, but then is stopped in the nick of time before he can kill either of our stars. And, of course, the energy weapon he uses is powerful enough to kill Tank’s partner with one shot, and to kill Cipher with one shot later, but two shots to Tank do no appreciable damage, just leave him out of action long enough for Cipher to explain why he betrayed them — and Tank is in perfect shape after that with no ill effects whatsoever. Right.
Once Cipher is dead, the movie pretty much degenerates into a computer game. Trinity was supposed to be some major kickass bruja, but once she and Neo go into the matrix to rescue Morpheus, she’s reduced to the role of sidekick so Neo can do all the really cool stuff.
First we see them go in and shoot a bunch of cops in cold blood. This is nice: our theoretical heroes who are out to save humanity from the matrix — except for those who happen to be in the way at the time. Aren’t these cops also people who need to eventually be rescued from the Men In Beige? Not to mention the fact that Neo shoots up an entire room with an automatic weapon and somehow manages to never hit Morpheus. Right.
Then we get the problem far too many people have when they dramatize people with super powers: they don’t use them except when it’s convenient to the plot. We’ve established that Neo can now leap tall buildings in a single bound and catch people out of exploding helicopters and leap out of the way of an oncoming train and dodge bullets — so why, exactly, does he need to run up a fire escape to get to the third floor, thus leaving him vulnerable to gunfire? (Not that it matters, since the Men In Beige can’t hit the broad side of a barn in the computer-generated world they created.) And why can’t Tank send Trinity back into the matrix after she’s come out? There’ve been hopping in and out of the matrix all movie, why is it suddenly impossible now?
We won’t even go into the abject stupidity of Neo brought back to life by the love of a leather-clad woman. *braaaack*
Not only that, but the entire structure of the world is based on the premise that the Men In Beige need human energy. OK — why humans? Why not bunny rabbits? They produce more heat and bioelectric activity per ounce of body mass than humans, they reproduce like — well, like bunny rabbits, they take up less room in the tank, they’re very easy to entertain, and they are extremely unlikely to get messianic delusions. (As for the complaint that bunny rabbits would make for a less interesting movie, I beg to differ, and submit as evidence Watership Down or any Bugs Bunny movie besides Space Jam.)
One can make the argument that I should’ve seen it on the big screen to really appreciate it, but to that I say hogwash. I have, on one of my movie tapes, The Hunt for Red October, Star Trek: First Contact, and Tomorrow Never Dies. All three of these films were most assuredly made for the big screen, and all of them work better on the big screen — but I can happily watch any of those three movies on my VCR and still get tremendous enjoyment from them. Hunt has some phenomenal performances, a tight script, and an excellent plot. ST:FC is perfectly paced, also has some fine performances, and a very strong villain in Alice Krige’s Borg Queen. Tomorrow has some magnificent byplay between Michelle Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan, a superlative villain in Jonathan Pryce, and some brilliant fight scenes.
The Matrix is a lot of sound and fury, but it doesn’t signify a goddamn thing.
(Thanks to Michael Burstein, James Harrahy, Dave Mack, John J. Ordover, Terri Osborne, and Shanti Feder for their contributions to this rant.)