Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Matrix Reviewed

Yesterday we had the Matrix Marathon where our friend H, [...], Klutz, Schmuck and I watched all three Matrix films back to back. So, since I told you I was going to do this, I guess I ought to tell you what I thought. Naturally my comments don't reflect the opinion of the fish, who have an entirely different perspective on filmmaking and the arts in general.

The Matrix.

The first Matrix is a fantastic film and if you haven’t seen it – or if you didn’t follow it the first and only time you did, then it is well worth watching. A rather isolated young hacker who goes by the name of Neo finds himself subject to mysterious warnings from an unknown group of people and is told “The Matrix has you,” before suddenly being taken into custody by three very suspect “agents” who might have been general understudies in Reservoir Dogs. Then things start to go weird. Really weird.

To cut a long story short, we’re actually in the future, where machines have taken over and human beings are unknowingly trapped in a virtual world (the Matrix) created to occupy them whilst the machines use their electrical activity and body heat for energy. Neo is woken into the real world, into the future and taken on board a hovercraft which is floating around what used to be the sewers of cities. He has been chosen because he is “The One” who, it has been prophesied, will become the saviour of the human race. But first of all he has to learn Kung Fu…

It is a very well-made film. Keanu “no way dude” Reeves is in a safe role moving fairly smoothly from nervous bewilderment to messianic confidence and the strength of Lawrence Fishburne as his mentor Morpheus and Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity, the hovercraft’s second in command, carry him seamlessly through. There are no duff performances in this film, everybody is superb. And despite some old school ideas about machines taking over, a few careless lines which become amusing the second or third time watching, there are few Hollywood clichés or stereotypes. Lots of leather, PVC and computer nerds becoming heroes.

Matrix has bucket loads of style but barrel loads of substance. Anyone who has even dipped their toes into philosophy will be familiar with some of the ideas of George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop writing during the first half of the eighteenth century. You may not know they were Berkeley’s ideas, but he proposed a doctrine of monism, the idea that reality is mental and the physical world is a construct derived from mental experience. Many centuries earlier a Taoist philosopher, Zhuang Zhou touched on this in a way which is far more poetical and thus perhaps easier to understand.

Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly but when he woke up he knew he was himself, a human being, again. However, he then began to wonder; how did he know that it his experiences of being a butterfly were the stuff of dreams? Perhaps his life as a man was the dream and he was merely yet to wake up.

In other words, how do we know what is real and indeed if any of this is real? A certain contemporary of Berkeley (whose name escapes me) kicked a large rock and declared, “I have refuted Berkeley!” but as was pointed out, seeing the rock, moving one’s foot towards it and resultant painful sensation are all mental qualia. And these days, more than ever before, we can theoretically reduce human experience to a muddle of chemical and electrical activity. Whilst in Berkeley’s time you could see a ghost and well, you had seen a ghost. Today if you saw the spectre of a long dead relative cross the room you would first question the amount of alcohol and other drugs in your system, how much sleep you had had and maybe even take yourself off for a CT scan before you began to contemplate the reality of your experience.

Anyway, the Matrix presents an excellent illustration of Berkeley’s argument, using popular science-fiction ideas about artificial intelligence and virtual reality, before moving on onto the question of what makes us human: the difference between us and the machines.

The Matrix is plastered with symbolism, from references to children’s cartoons and TV shows through to Greek mythology, nihilist philosophy and of course the central reluctant messiah story (Neo is Frodo in Lord of The Rings, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars). Some of this is quietly amusing; some of it helps us along, such as the several references to Alice in Wonderland, a story we’re all fairly familiar with. But some the stuff you can find on trivia sites boggles the mind.

The Matrix Reloaded.

The second film focuses on the nature of choice, whether we have any or whether everything that happens is inevitable. I guess such inevitability could be driven along either by the Fates or some divine scheme or other, or by the pre-programmed nature of human beings, determined by our genes and conditioning. However, it all becomes rather messy and as if aware of the weaknesses in the plot, the filmmakers chose to distract us with not one but three romantic subplots, a lengthy yet compelling car chase, ghosts, vampires, funky futuristic machinery, “upgrades” for the agents and some notable developments in Neo’s power to bend the rules of the Matrix. You meet lots of new characters, mostly clichés like the French Hades character (this was 2003), the martial arts performing East Asian body-guard to the Oracle (she didn’t need anyone on the door in the first film, but now she does) and the young rookie enamoured with Neo and itching to fight for the cause.

Unfortunately, none of this is very satisfactory. Neo, our hero, is now like Superman on speed and his adversaries become far more extreme, including one chap who multiplies himself so that Neo is taking on twenty of the guy all at once. Impressive FX, but there’s no suspense there, you can’t guess whose winning because the rules have been stretched twisted beyond recognition. Although you route for lovers Neo and Trinity, when she dies and is brought magically back to life, you feel somewhat emotionally cheated.

It is rather as if they attempted to imitate the move from Ridley Scott’s Alien to James Cameron’s Aliens; from focusing a group of independent civilians coming to a realisation and facing an enemy against the odds to a group of soldiers at war against that enemy, learning more about it as they went along. Aliens was louder, more violent, more melodramatic and far more commercially-minded than Alien, but the sequel worked very well.

Matrix Reloaded tries to up scale in a very similar way, but at the same time as dealing with the subtle complexities of human consciousness, choice and destiny, as opposed to straight-forward scary monsters. We begin to explore the idea of computer programmes having consciousness and thus having the choice to rebel and break away from the system in which they were designed to operate. That’s a fairly big idea, as far I as I can see, but it gets totally lost.

You get to the end of the film unsure of any of the parameters established in the first film, but not in a intriguing, cliff-hanger sense. You are back to Berkeley’s question, “How do we know if any of this is real?” and reach the point in philosophy where most people give up. If the Matrix is not real, and various characters we trusted are not as they seem, if we no longer understand what is inevitable and what we have control of and then the rules in the real world begin to bend, well what’s the point in watching the last film? You half expected the filmmakers to jack it in at the end and for Neo to wake up in his bedsit saying, “Wow dude, what a bodacious dream!”

The Matrix Revolutions

This is a very difficult film to discuss without spoilers. I am therefore not going to try; if you don’t want to know, don’t read on, but in summary, I wouldn’t recommend this film.

Well, it all gets a little crazy from here on in. Basically, the machines are attacking Zion, the last human city built deep down inside the Earth. Meanwhile, Neo decides to pop off to the machine city for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, perhaps not even himself. The Christian vein comes to the fore with an obvious and somewhat insane anti-Christ figure and well, we all know what a messiah has to do in order to save the human race.

The mistakes of the second film in terms of spectacular yet profoundly unexciting special effects sequences are repeated ad tedium. Elongated, noisy scenes in which one lot of machines try to fight off another lot of machines was a bit like watching the screen while someone else plays Space Invaders – except you have no experience of Space Invaders and have no idea how much skill or otherwise is involved. It gets gorier but without any recognisable context; Neo is blinded by burns but doesn’t such a pass out from the pain and shock. Trinity winds up with several metal spikes through her chest and abdomen but manages to hold a coherent conversation for some minutes before her peaceful death.

And then at the end you don’t know why good was victorious over bad. You don’t really know what clinched it, only that it was something to do with choice; choice being what makes us human. But then I’m confused about this in the same way as I am confused about the Christ story. Jesus martyred himself because he refused to stop preaching what he believed. This required tremendous courage, faith and love, but he wasn’t the first or last. Something about his death means that some people believe that in dying, he took the sins of the world on his shoulders and saved us all. The trouble is, that to a non-Christian, how exactly this was achieved is a mystery; I guess you just have to believe that’s what happened.

Unfortunately, the conclusion to the Matrix Trilogy was much the same; Neo was special, Neo made a choice, sacrificed his life and you’re not sure how, but that’s how his adversary was defeated and the human race was saved. Christianity has the advantage of thousands of years, millions of followers and libraries full of discussion on these issues. This film does not.

I think I will have to watch this one again because it really did seem that poor and was somewhat of a disappointment at the end of the evening.

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