The Matrix
directed by Larry
& Andy Wachowski
(Warner Bros., 1999)

It's the late 20th century, or the late 21st. It's hard to be sure. But Morpheus has a theory.

Morpheus, a computer-age freedom fighter, believes that about a century ago, war broke out between mankind and machines. The machines won, but not before the Earth was devastated. Desperate for electricity to keep them going, the machines hooked themselves up to human beings, whom they cloned to provide the power source they needed. They also programmed the clones to believe that they were living in a world where all was well. This digital illusion they called The Matrix.

But not all the human beings were entirely taken in by the illusion. Thus, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew -- Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Tank (Marcus Chong), Apoc (Julian Arahanga), Mouse (Matt Doran), Switch (Belinda) and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) -- have escaped the matrix and spend their time circling the post-apocalyptic Earth in a high-tech hovercraft and using their computer to search for the one they call "The One." The One, they believe, will help them and those like them break down the Matrix and put people back in control of their lives.

This makes The Matrix part 1984, part 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and part The Gospel According to St. Matthew, with a bunch of Buddhist philosophy thrown in for good measure.

It's a messianic quest film on acid, a paranoia fest featuring special effects that are as inventive as they are expensive. Whole scenes turn into liquid platinum and ooze away; instructional programs blur the line between video games and live-action martial arts bouts; bullets spiral through space, only to stop in mid-flight and be plucked harmlessly aside by Neo "The One" Anderson (Keanu Reeves).

What's best about the special effects, though, isn't their sheer stunningness; it's that they reinforce a key theme: If you can't believe what you see, then what do you believe? Like Morpheus, viewers must collect bits and pieces of data and formulate theories. Unlike the viewers, however, Morpheus, Neo and Trinity have to act on those theories.

Adding the perfect touch of comic-book menace are the special agents out to capture Morpheus, a cadre of agents whose square-rimmed sunglasses and flat demeanor make them look like a bunch of Tommy Lee Jones clones. The comparison is as apt as it is hilarious.

Only two flat notes dull the brilliance of The Matrix:

1. It seems odd that such a high-tech revolution as that pursued by Morpheus, Neo and Trinity should end in a bloodbath of low-tech violence, with a near-endless supply of guns pouring out a near-endless supply of bullets.

2. After all that's said and done, it's finally love -- in the form of a kiss from Trinity -- that saves Neo's life.

It's as if the ingenious constructs of the early film have crashed and the outcome is suddenly dependent on Hollywood's oldest cliche: Love -- and bullets -- conquer all.

If The Matrix had an ending as clever as its setup, it might have become the sci-fi flick of the century, the perfect union of imagery and theme. As it is, The Matrix is one long, high-speed effects-driven joy ride -- with a big mouthful of food for thought on the side. It's too bad the ending makes it difficult to digest.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer

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