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The Matrix

Apocalyptic Melodrama Redux


by Gregory Desilet


The Matrix (1999) shares in depicting the same apocalyptic nightmare as The Terminator as well as succumbing to the same temptations of technological gimmickry in giving itself over almost entirely to special effects and visual fireworks. Also like The Terminator, The Matrix is followed by two sequels to form a trilogy of films in which the sequels do little more than serve as remakes of the original.  Although touted by some as posing profound philosophical questions while also being “the most elaborately plotted action movie ever made,” The Matrix offers a plot every bit as absurdly paradoxical—and consequently as pretentiously unilluminating—as The Terminator. And finally, also like The Terminator, the plot of The Matrix, despite its appearance of complexity, ends up as little more than, in Roger Ebert’s words, “a superhero comic book in which the fate of the world comes down to a titanic fist-fight between the designated representatives of good and evil.” For Ebert the film “recycle[s] the same tired ideas” that have come to be a routine expectation from Joel Silver produced “exercises in violence.”

Critical opinion of The Matrix varies widely, however.  In his commentary on the film in The Blood Poets, Jake Horsley claims that The Matrix “may well be the outstanding American movie of the '90s” (1999b, 432). Horsley even suggests that the film may need to be included among the best of the century because it has “the kind of emotional power that one generally gets only from works of art... as such, it may well be the cheekiest, most audacious, and most exhilarating work of art since Citizen Kane” (1999b, 440).

Glossing over the comic book aspects of the plot, Horsley remains impressed by its ingenious “gnostic” themes and marvels at how the Wachowski brothers, as writers and directors, could have conjured up such a “demonically inspired and wickedly effective pop parable.” This parable is for Horsley an “amazingly coherent blend of Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Jean Baudrillard, messianic prophecy, apocalyptic lore, martial arts, mysticism, and technological paranoia” (1999b, 432). Apparently Horsley does not play video games. The potpourri of influences he cites are all in evidence in various guises in video games of the 1990s—which suggests that the Wachowski brothers are probably video game enthusiasts. 

When thinking of the video game experience, it becomes easy to see where the Wachowskis got the idea for the film. The world of the “Matrix” is analogous to stepping into the virtual world of the video game—with the insidious difference that the simulation is so holographically and sensually perfect that it reproduces an experience of real life indistinguishable from real life. The theme is similar to the movie Tron (1982) but instead of entering into the electronic hardware, humans enter into a programmed world created by electronic software. For Horsley the excitement generated by the possibilities of this challenging illusion take the film beyond being a “piece of first-class entertainment” and into the creation of an “experience that bends our concepts of what is real and what is not, and leaves us in a very tight spot indeed” (1999b, 433).

Contrary to what Horsley asserts, the film does not leave “us” in a very tight spot.  Beneath its superficial and highly ornamental dalliance with the question of what is really real and what is not, it returns “us” to a very old and familiar spot. In setting up a tension between a programmed illusion and reality, the film presents a clear distinction between an inside (an illusion) and an absolute outside (the really real). But instead of genuinely wrestling with the difficulties—ethical, social, political, etc.—presented by this tension—as John Fowles does with the concept of meta-theater in his novel The Magus (1968—which was made into a film that preserved some of the genius of the book)—the filmmakers arrest the chance for real conflict by making the illusion the work of demonic “inorganic beings” whose purposes are despicably malevolent. This melodramatization of the tension between illusion and reality forecloses the possibility of the protagonists confronting genuine conflict between two worlds and the potential attractions of those worlds by making the choice both ontologically and morally obvious if not necessary. 

The choice that should have been dramatically constructed to be a moment of extraordinary inner conflict and soul-searching, the choice between masking and unmasking illusion, between embracing the familiar and risking the unknown, is instead rigged in advance and ridiculously oversimplified by being cast in the alternatives between good and evil. By the time the young hero Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is given the choice between the “blue pill” and the “red pill,” he has already been treated to a “Surrealist nightmare” of pursuit, capture, coercion, and torture—including the insertion of a gruesome, insect-like parasite into his body—by agents who give the unmistakable appearance of being the polar opposite of anything that could be considered “good.” 

Having loaded the dice in this way, the potentially interesting ontological issues raised are washed away and the film becomes standard melodrama. Ebert expresses his justifiable disappointment in the overall results when the “bad guys fire thousands of rounds, but are unable to hit the good guy. Then it's down to the final showdown between good and evil—a martial arts battle in which the good guy gets pounded until he's almost dead, before he finds the inner will to fight back. Been there, seen that...” As in the case of The Terminator, the two sequels to The Matrix serve up the same thing ad nauseam.

As Ebert also points out, the Matrix—the illusory world created by the demonic computer network—is a world that perfectly simulates the pre-Matrix world and for which there is—in the real world “outside” the Matrix—an enslaved and incubating human corresponding to every individual in the Matrix. Ebert rightly wonders why the computer network would go to all the trouble of engineering this elaborate “hoax” on humanity. If it has the power to enslave all of humanity in enormous “energy farms” for the expressed purpose of leaching and channeling human life force for its dark but unrevealed purposes, then why not keep the bodies in a “dreamless” coma instead of an elaborate program that must itself consume a great deal of energy in perpetrating its highly detailed visual, sensory, and narrative effects? The most immediate answer seems to be that such a relatively boring scenario would not meet Hollywood requirements for “wouldn't this be neat?” storylines. Here, again, the unbelievability of the story resembles the absurdities of The Terminator.

In addition to shortcomings in dramatic conflict and narrative detail, The Matrix also, as Horsley has the good sense to acknowledge despite his praise for the film, “lacks subtlety... lacks characters, and as a result... lacks any real psychological depth” (1999b, 443). In fact, the film surpasses even The Terminator trilogy in presenting wooden characters and leaden dialogue—with effects that are in places so stupefying as to be comical.

Lacking in dramatic conflict, narrative logic, character development, and psychological depth, The Matrix is left standing primarily on the merits of its special effects violence.  Most of the 135 minutes of The Matrix are filled with relentless sequences of violent combat—including extremely prolonged, elaborately choreographed, and slow-motion enhanced martial arts battles and automatic firearms exchanges. Due to the way in which the rebels can manipulate the Matrix program, the violence in the action scenes breaks the rules of spacetime, gravity-bound reality.  In this regard, The Matrix further resembles the world of a video game. Horsley notes that “since the characters are interacting largely in a computer-simulated reality, the violence can be impossible without stretching our patience or belief; the circumstances require it to be off-the-wall” (1999b, 441). Jacked-up with computer enhanced powers and sexed-up with bad black trenchcoats, cool-guy sunglasses, and slick high-tech firearms the rebels are presented in action scenes in ways that can only be described as a glamorization—indeed, a Hollywoodization—of violence. And, although direct imitation has not been claimed to be the most pervasive effect of entertainment violence, it is worth remembering that The Matrix was among the films that exercised seductive appeal to the Columbine killers. This fact raises again troubling questions:  To what extent can such saucy cinematic portrayals of violence be consumed by audiences without significant negative consequences on predispositions toward conflict resolution and relational behavior? And to what extent should the makers of such films be given praise, or even a pass, for their work?

Horsely exemplifies the confusion among critics regarding The Matrix when on the one hand he gives substantial praise for the overall experience offered by the film while on the other hand he submits a caveat such as the following: “The most disappointing thing about The Matrix is its reliance on the familiar terms of action movies, presenting violence and 'resistance' as the only means to overcome tyranny” (1999b, 436). To be more precise he ought to say, “presenting absolute destruction as the only means of overcoming an enemy portrayed as wholly and irretrievably evil.” If this kind of criticism of violent melodramatic filmmaking remains only a footnote caveat at the bottom of a page of commentary, then this kind of filmmaking can be expected to continue pouring forth from Hollywood. 



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