I find it very hard to see Keanu Reeves and not think of the Bill and Ted movies. I don't think Keanu can either. Whenever he delivers a line, you sit there waiting for him to add a 'dude' to the end of it. At one point in The Matrix, Keanu very nearly does. Upon seeing Lawrence Fishburne jump from one sky-scraper to another he says "Woah," and then only just stops himself from adding the epithet.
It's not this that stops you taking him seriously. Well, okay it is. But it is also the fact that he does like his thrillers silly. Speed was hokum, but very well done hokum. The Matrix is hokum, and would be called a triumph for video techniques over content, except that it is not a triumph. I was expecting silly, but stylish and enjoyable sci-fi in the mode of The Fifth Element, but although The Matrix had some style imposed on it, and there were elements that were enjoyable, there weren’t nearly so many as five.
It’s not just his films that are not so good. Keanu has his own band, and I was privileged to hear them live just over a week ago from the luxury of my tent. They aren’t very good. All I could think was, I’d much rather be listening to Bill and Ted’s band, Wild Stallions. They weren’t much good, but they were entertainingly bad. Anyway, that’s an aside.
The central idea of The Matrix is a sturdy old sci-fi reliable, that is common in books and in the imaginations of paranoid teenagers, but that rarely gets seen on the big screen. Life as we are experiencing it is not really life at all, but a computer-generated illusion fed into our brains by computers bent on world domination. Or in this case, who have already achieved it.
Keanu is selected and woken up into the real world. The transfer from artificial world to real world (and vice versa) has to be via a telephone line. At both ends. In other words, telephone lines in the artificial world are more than a computer-generated concept, but are physically or mysteriously or even magically connected to those in the real world. I should not really analyse it, but it's the kind of superficial logic you would ignore if it weren’t for the films pretensions.
In the real world, Keanu is seen as 'The One.' A saviour figure who can rescue us all in the computer-generated recreation of the world circa 1999. A Jesus in the machine. Sound like hokum, yet? He can save us because he can bend the rules in a way the computers who built and run the network can't. I never really saw how something the machines created not be subtly adapted to suit their needs. They already broke some rules when it suited them, why not others? It seemed the kind of bad planning machines wouldn’t do, but humans would.
If a film is going to make you question things, then it should a) answer most of the questions it raises about it’s own world, b) ask you questions about yours. In the first category there are many unanswered questions. In the second there are two questions that you ask yourself: 1) Is life really just a figment of our imagination in the way the film suggests or another? (A question I used to ask myself when watching Carry On… films.) 2) If it is, does it really matter given that as portrayed in the film, what we see as life, is actually pretty darn good compared with the real world which is all, about living in a dark, dank, cramped hovership with a bunch of geeks and hiding from killer androids? It doesn't take you long to realise the central idea is only there to serve some state of the art video techniques.
These same video techniques have already seen the light of day, to brilliant effect, in a Schmirnoff advert. And what's more they worked better in the advert because in it they were justified by the plot, or at least the cuts. In The Matrix they serve solely to stylise it. And after a while, you found yourself going, "yeah, yeah, a slow motion camera twist as the guy flies through the air, what about some conflict other than the obvious (a) fighting and (b) "Oh, my god, one of them is a traitor. Who'd have thought it in a film like this." Actually, the most original thing in this film is that you know that the traitor is going to be as such the moment you lay eyes on him. The Matrix isn't about shock plot twists.
It is not a bad film. It's diverting. If you got rid of the attempt at clever sci-fi and just had lots of super-human fighting, it would, ironically, be a much better film. There are one or two really good bits. There's a helicopter set-piece that is pretty darn spectacular. But I'd say, wait for it on 'Hollywood's Greatest Stunts' or, rather, 'Hollywood's Greatest Video Effects.'
The best characters are the Computer's Sentinel programs, who appear as Men in Black. They dress identically, but the computer has made their faces different for some reason. The character of their leader is great, whilst still being essentially a robot. Yes, it's sad to say Keanu was out-acted by an android, but so he was in the second Bill and Ted film.
So who does the film appeal to? Well Spods for one. The central message of The Matrix is this: as the world as we know it is not real, so neither are the names people use in it. Therefore the names people use on the Internet, through which our Keanu discovers the existence of the real world, are actually our names in this real world. Thus, in the real world, 25 percent of us are named after characters from fiction written in the artificial world. The film’s pre-climax line says it all, "Call me Bilbo!"
In short, don’t go and see this film. Get a video tape and record on it the following items: The introductory dialog to Plan Nine From Outer Space (For the silly sci-fi element); 20 minutes of frenetic Kung-Fu fighting from any Jackie Chan film (Just to see it for real, and not all done with computer techniques); Ten minutes of a gun battle from any John Woo film; and the whole of that Schmirnoff advert. Pad the whole thing out with assorted bits from the Die Hard / Lethal Weapon series, and half way through slip in a short clip from THX 1147. Watch this instead. Once you’re done, wipe it all and watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but just those bits where they’re flying through time in a phone box. After all, that is essential what the Matrix is all about.