The beauty of film is that it is alive. You can watch dance sequences from The Band Wagon (1953 – Vincente Minnelli) featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, two performers both long since deceased, and feel that there is a vitality and life on screen more vivid than anything physically beside you in the room. Like all great texts, films morph and change each time you see them; not because they have altered in any way, but because you bring new obsessions and perversions and observations to the viewing process as you get older.
The Matrix is one such film for me. It’s not a film I am particularly fond of, but the memories I have of it are immediate. I remember seeing the trailer for it with my first girlfriend before some terrible Adam Sandler comedy – I wanted to see it, but to my shame then, which in the intervening years has turned to pride, we saw eXistenZ (1999 – David Cronenberg) instead. My first viewing of it came on VHS on a small telly we wheeled into our classroom at school over three successive lunchtimes. It blew my mind. After seeing the sequels at university (one in IMAX) I rewatched the first film on DVD and openly ridiculed it, laughing at the preposterousness of lines such as “No, officer your men are already dead.” Years later, I revisited the series on BLU-RAY hoping to find a redemptive reading – whilst I was entertained, one significant issue stuck in my formatively (and supposedly) progressive mind. And now I see it again, hoping to find links and patterns I have never seen before.
I wanted to write this project as a chance to look at some of the films that affected me profoundly and talk about the vitality and depth of interest to be found in an oft-derided genre. Nothing best exemplifies this, than when looking at The Matrix.
Keanu Reeves was now a star. But stars occupy a precarious place in the world. Directors are allowed to make bad films. Stars are not. If one of his films failed, Keanu would be blamed – and for an actor whose skill and talent were not immediately visible in his choice of style of acting, this was a dangerous place to be in. It was, as indeed it still is, very easy to say that Keanu can’t act. He was continuing to balance performances in big budget action flicks – the underwhelming Chain Reaction (1996 – Andrew Davis) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995 – Robert Longo), a film which is thematically similar to The Matrix, indicating the specific interests of Reeves – and smaller independent movies. But where previously he was starring in movies made by Gus Van Sant, Reeves was now working with insubstantial nobodies such as Alfonso Arau and Steven Baigelman, names that feel suspiciously close to pseudonyms. Movie stars always need hits, but Reeves needed a hit sooner rather than later.
One of the extraordinary features of The Matrix is that it is perilously close to a first film by The Wachowskis. Siblings Lana and Lilly had only one screenwriting credit to their name – the convoluted Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins (1995 – Richard Donner) – and one directorial credit, the supposedly salacious neo noir Bound (1996). Bound isn’t an essential film by any stretch of the imagination, and its success could be in part due to the fact that it was released before widespread use of the internet made access to sex a whole lot easier. It is usefully progressive in its depiction of gay relationships – we’re currently patting ourselves on the back for paying lip-service to them is such dross as Power Rangers (2017 – Dean Israelite) – but Bound is remarkable is its representation and honest depiction of the closets that we all hide in.
But nothing found in Bound could prepare the world for what was coming next…
One of the uncommented upon features of The Matrix, is that it features the death of subtext. From now on (and the work of Christopher Nolan is essential to this phenomenon) movies will have characters explain the themes of the film through lines of dialogue. As movie makers grew ever more confident in the audience’s ability to patch together a stream of quickly edited visual images, they grew less confident to trust them to reflect on the ideas of the film afterwards. In The Matrix there will be a lot of discussions about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. This has the same authenticity as any evangelical church preaching the truth – it will provide a degree of insight into some of the predicaments of society and existence, but the answers they provide will be just as false as the lies they suppose to discount. At times, The Matrix can have the slight air of being caught in a tedious conversation with a stranger at a pub; they’re very insistent on explaining to you some idea or other, but you just want to get back to your friends.
(Who am I kidding – I’m the tedious stranger.)
So despite the occasional sophomoric lecture that bogs down this film – and make no mistake, The Matrix is a film that features as much exposition as it does action – the true pleasures of the film are not vocal, but visual. The Matrix transforms the caricatured biker, black-leather culture that was seen in the early nineties, into a genuine outsider community. For the most part, the heroes of the film are a counter-culture that isn’t actually very counter-cultural; they still adopt the same social restrictions and norms that exist within society. But isn’t that true of any counter-culture – ultimately they operate within a state of capitalist realism. Even Keanu Reeve’s discomforting, alien, hairless appearance when he awakes in the real world is discarded in favour of a form of fashion magazine anorexic-chic.
In amongst the black leather and gun straps (none of which are used to explore ideas of bondage), the movie cleverly adopts a vivid green light strategy. Oft unseen in cinema, it lends a level of unreality to proceedings, and firmly harkens back to those early computer monitors we all had. Whilst The Matrix, seeks to adopt a level of futurism, most of its production design choices refer back to an industrial age. Theirs is the technology of phone lines and hand pumps. It is neither fortunate or unfortunate that all realism within sci-fi films is heavily influenced by Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott); if something ‘space-y’ needs to look used and lived in, it must be grimy and greasy and consist mainly of metal grills.
If some of these paragraphs read like criticisms, they’re not meant to be. The sins of this film (primarily I wrote in my notes ‘I don’t think Morpheus has actually read Alice in Wonderland’) are no greater than those of any other action movie. They all think they are more clever than they actually are. Human history has not actually always been dependent on machines as the movie states (this is only a relatively recent feature of humanity – see childbirth rates etc.)
The Wachowskis took a genuinely innovative visual approach and hung it onto the Skynet plot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron) – artificial intelligence gains sentience and mankind tries, largely unsuccessfully, to eliminate it from existence. (Much of the floppy mirror CGI effects in the film also lives in the shadow of that hugely influential picture.) Like all the best action movies, The Wachowskis knew that the primary thrill of these films comes from their action sequences. This seems like stating the obvious, but any number of modern ‘action’ directors – Brett Ratner, Stephen Sommers et. al. – could do with understanding this. The Wachowskis fused the kung-fu films of their youth, the visual stylisations of John Woo, and cutting-edge visual technology, to create something truly special.
There is a moment three minutes into the film when you realise you are about to watch something extraordinary. Trinity hangs motionless, poised in the air, like some gothic praying-mantis, and the camera swirls around her, before the action resumes, and she devastates her opponents. It is as if the orgasmic slow motion of Sam Peckinpah’s death scenes has been exploded to the nth degree. In addition to some extraordinarily well-crafted fight scenes, the film employed a technique which allowed multiple stills cameras to fire in sequence around a performance – it was a technique so influential, so popular, that the general public learnt its name… ‘bullet time’. It was the perfect tool for action cinema as it entered the new millennium; it blended physical performance, new technology and computer-generated-imagery in a few stunning shots of ethereal delight. From this point onwards, a fist hitting a face would not be enough. We now expected our fights to have a greater impact than sheer physicality.
And one of the greatest beneficiaries of this was Keanu Reeves. He learnt all the lessons since Kathryn Bigelow had placed her trust in him. He became completely dedicated to choreography, martial arts and weapon training. Watching any training footage of him reveals him to be an utterly dangerous human being. Yet Keanu did not swagger. Subversively, he took all this physicality and kept it to himself. He never attempted to dominate others, or make another individual feel weak. The musclebound heroes of the early nineties (and of today’s cinema) are all about assertiveness. But for a few brief years at the turn of the century, Reeves pioneered a new vision of masculinity; one of dedication, tolerance and peace.
Despite the complete showiness of the film – and there are moments of pure gorgeousness within the film (such as the apple-core pillars in the aftermath of the tower-block lobby battle) – occasionally the film displays some duff notes. I’m sure there is a more interesting non-gendered reading of the film to be made, but for my money, the film completely mishandles its female lead. Initially, Trinity is presented as a woman of capability and agency. She is a stylised and amped-up version of Lori Petty in Point Break (1991 – Kathryn Bigelow) all cropped hair and emotional reserve, and as such, both textually and sub-textually coded as queer. ‘I thought you were a guy,’ comments one of her crew mates to her at dinner, ‘most people do,’ is her response.
But Trinity’s agency is lessened within the final moments of the film. Her assertiveness and belief in others is revealed to be centred upon an infatuation with Neo – a man with whom she has spent very little time. It is an infatuation based almost solely upon inconsequential actions. By making her pivotal moment in the film to be one of physical attraction to a man, The Wachowskis dilute the determination and resilience they had previously imbibed the character with.
So The Matix is a long way from perfect film. It textually has a lot less going on than it thinks it has. It could do with having taken a few more minutes reflecting on its use of women before concentrating so much on its revelations of truth (a criticism that seems equally valid for Christopher Nolan and his endless stream of dead wives and girlfriends). But as a visually pleasurable movie; as a movie which is enjoyable to watch… The Matrix is wonderful. And too often we forget, or through our own self-loathing and pretentiousness deny, that that is what good cinema is all about. Enjoyment.
As action cinema entered the twenty-first century, The Matrix proved to be the defining text. The clear visuals of the film were easily pastiched (see the not-completely-worthless Scary Movie 2 (2001 – Keenan Ivory Wayans)), but the dystopian, leather-clad aesthetic, and bullet time style effects became de rigueur in cinema. X-Men (2000 – Bryan Singer), Charlie’s Angels (2000 – McG), Equilibrium (2002 – Kurt Wimmer), Underworld (2003 – Len Wiseman), Aeon Flux (2005 – Karyn Kusama) and season finales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are amongst a handful of media directly ripping-off The Matrix one way or another. It goes without saying that they are all diluted versions of the original film. More widely, the use of CGI for action scenes became prevalent. Ignoring the sheer physicality of The Wachowski’s work, studios became convinced that the signature action sequences of their films should be visualised, composed and composited within computers. Green screen work was now standard. The early 2000s feature a dearth of decent action films, such was the genres reliance on flimsy, ineffectual computer generated imagery. It would take the arrival of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass) to convince filmmakers that physical action, and talented second-unit action directors, were valuable and necessary to a film’s success.
Keanu was once again a superstar… but little consideration was given to his talents by the cognoscenti. He continued to work steadily in and around the action genre in the years since The Matrix’s release. There are worthy films made in these years – Constantine (2005 – Francis Lawrence) is particularly pleasurable – but like Nicolas Cage, Keanu’s distinct talents seem destined to be underappreciated throughout his career. Whilst lesser actors are given their ‘McConaissance’ periods, Reeves seems to be stuck with a wooden perception. Not that it seems to have bothered him; if anything, he has knuckled down into his naturalistic, calm screen presence. John Wick (2014 – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch) featured Reeves as the titular hero (with a similar dress-sense and demeanour to Neo), and allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate that his physicality was as impressive as ever, even though he was pushing fifty. No longer was he Bill and/or Ted proving himself in an unfamiliar genre.
Quite deliberately, I’ve chosen to not mention the two Matrix sequels he appeared in directed by The Wachowskis. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were filmed back-to-back, and are largely disappointing. Portentous and overlong, they sought to accelerate The Wachowski’s live-action anime style. Whilst they both feature some decent action sequences (the second film’s motorway sequence holds up pretty well, even if it is obviously filmed of a manufactured stretch of set) they add little to the enormous thrill that we all felt when we saw the first film. With the major studio’s timidity towards new ideas, it is little surprise to hear that they are talking about making another sequel in the years to come…
Of more interest is The Wachowski’s choice of projects in the subsequent years. Delving deep into their thematic exploration of individuals coming to recognise their own true identity, they crafted three wildly differing pictures. Speed Racer (2008) is a vividly colourful, almost video game aesthetic movie, which underlines the evils of capitalism. Where most films seek to deny their roots (think of how the contemporaneous Slumdog Millionaire (2008 – Danny Boyle) is almost ashamed that it is based on a television gameshow), Speed Racer embraced its cartoon origins is a hyperkinetic family film. Heavily indebted to George Lucas’ distinct visual mise-en-scene developed across his Star Wars prequels, Speed Racer blends deep focus CGI backgrounds, physical props and extraordinary matte paintings within single scenes, using whatever was necessary in each shot. It creates a true fantasy world, quite unlike the one we are used to. Jupiter Ascending (2015) is more of an action picture, but one that gets bogged down in pointlessly dull exposition scenes. There is a strong coherence to the action sequences, but they carry little weight, as it is tremendously hard to stay invested in the plot mechanics of the film.
Both films were critically and commercially disappointing. As was their other film made in this period, Cloud Atlas (2012). Whilst that is a somewhat understandable response to the other films, Cloud Atlas (which was co-directed with Tom Tykwer) is a small masterpiece. It is a beautiful, beguiling films, that is a masterpiece of narrative editing, such is its dedication to cross-cutting across timelines with related lines of dialogue or images. Whilst committed to a presentation of extraordinary racial and gender politics, the film seemed curiously ignorant of the fact that having white actors ‘black-up’ is a highly-politicized act. The argument was made that all actors play character of different races, regardless of their given skin tone, but this ignores the fact that the majority of the cast identify as white (and male), so true equality seems impossible. Regardless of this, it is a film of extraordinary scope and imagination, and it deserves further exploration.
For a brief moment at the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that action cinema had found a way forward. It was able to subtly incorporated new computer technology and had found heroes that stepped outside the previously prevalent toxic depictions of masculinity.
It was a glorious moment, whilst it lasted…