Cast Includes

Keanu Reeves Laurence Fishburne

Thomas A. Anderson/Neo Morpheus

Carrie-Anne Moss Hugo Weaving Gloria Foster Joe Pantoliano Andy Wachowski Larry Wachowski

Trinity Agent Smith Oracle

Cypher ¡Mr Reagan Window Cleaner (uncredited) Window Cleaner (uncredited)

FOCUS: New Technology/New Cinema

The Matrix was launched via a massive 'teaser' campaign featuring taglines such as: 'Believe the unbelievable' and 'Reality is a thing of the past', which recalled the epic blockbusters of an earlier age. The sense of intrigue and conspiracy was fuelled via the prosaic: 'What is the Matrix?' and the rather racier: 'Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.' And 'The future will not be user friendly.'

As the film was released, Warner Brothers felt confident to announce that 'In 1999, the Matrix has you,' as well as, 'On March 31st, the fight for the future begins.'

Thus The Matrix was launched with a mixture of mock 'Discovery Channel' hokum and lines that could have been uttered by Bill (or Ted) in a previous Keanu Reeves fantasy flick. Nobody could claim that they had not been warned about the intellectual content of The Matrix. Few could have realised how spectacular the visuals would be.

The Wachowski Brothers (Andy and Larry Wachowski) are from Chicago. They began as comic book writers. The kinetic energy - especially within the frame - (visual) strength and (narrative) weakness of their films come directly from their early graphic training. Together they wrote the breathtakingly silly screenplay for Assassins (1995) before directing Bound in 1996. Their directorial debut was a very stylish (lesbian) film noir starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. The edgily sexual new noir atmosphere plus the anti-authority (and achingly sexy) central characters would all be driving forces in their sci-fi hit, as would be the high energy Bill Pope photography and Zach Staenberg editing.

In the near future, a computer hacker Thomas Anderson (code-named Neo - played by Keanu Reeves) discovers that all life on Earth may be nothing more than an elaborate façade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence. Why? Because 'our' life essence is being 'farmed' to fuel the Matrix's campaign of domination in the real world (whatever that might be). Neo joins like-minded Rebel warriors Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) in their struggle to overthrow the Matrix. Morpheus introduces Neo to the real world. In reality, it is 200 years later, and the world has been laid waste and taken over by advanced artificial intelligence machines. Neo is greeted as 'The One' who will lead the humans to overthrow the machines and reclaim the Earth.

Teetering as it does on the edge of portentousness, The Matrix is a good deal of fun. The Matrix is also one of the most successful Hollywood blockbusters of recent years. It is notable for its distinctive visual style and also for its ideological reading of late capitalism. While the former has been widely noted, the deeper resonance of its story has been less analysed.

Visually, The Matrix combines elements of the Hong Kong action film with digital technology. The debt to Hong Kong cinema is personified in the presence of Yuen Wo-ping as action choreographer. Yuen is a distinguished director in his own right: his Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (Hong Kong, 1978) and Drunken Master (Hong Kong, 1978) turned Jackie Chan from a Bruce Lee clone to a rising star. On the screen The Matrix draws freely from Hong Kong in its kung fu, in its use of 'wire work' to allow the actors to perform leaps and tumbles smoothly, and in its choreographed gunplay. The sequence where Neo and Agent Smith find themselves each with an empty gun pointed at the other's head is pure John Woo. In genre terms The Matrix resembles what are sometimes known as 'manga in motion': live action renderings of Japanese comic books or anime - for instance, Yuen Kwai and David Lai's Saviour of the Soul (Hong Kong, 1991).

While the Wachowskis draw heavily on Hong Kong expertise and films, they bring a Hollywood budget and Silicon Valley technology to the process. This allowed them to present action in what they term 'bullet time' - which shows movement in ultra slow motion while the camera appears to move relative to the object. For instance, we see Neo avoiding bullets as the cameras move around him. This process is made possible by a combination of computer-generated effects and the technique pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s of using a series of still cameras to record objects in motion. If this is all that can be said about The Matrix, we would be faced with an action film that draws freely on technology and the techniques of Hong Kong cinema to produce a visually inventive entertainment, but the film has intellectual ambitions that go beyond those usual in the genre.

Early in the film Neo is visited in his room by a friend intent on buying some illicit software. He goes to retrieve the software and hide the money in a hollowed-out book; as he does so we glimpse the book's title: Simulcra and Simulation. This is a sly reference to a book by the French social theorist of the postmodern, Jean Baudrillard. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan, Baudrillard is notorious for his contention that, in a society dominated by electronic media, our notion of reality is transformed. What the media present to us is no longer a representation of an existing reality but a simulation that lacks a referent in the real world - that is, it is 'hyper-real' - more real than reality. Running through the film is the need - enunciated by Morpheus - for Neo to understand what is real and what is not real. In the final sequence of the film, Neo's ability to stop the bullets of the agents comes from the fact that he understands that they are not real. If there is explicit reference to Baudrillard, one can also detect the ideas of another social theorist at work - Karl Marx. Marx argued that all economic value comes from the labour of the workers. The Matrix portrays a society where workers no longer even sell labour; they are reduced to human batteries being fed and maintained in a state of utter passivity in exchange for their energy. They are maintained in this state through the power of the matrix. For Marx, one of the key elements in the dominance of the capitalist class was the fact that it controls the creation and dissemination of ideas and representations. In this reading of the film, the role of Morpheus and his companions is to restore the workers to consciousness. The resistance is what Lenin would recognise as a vanguard revolutionary party. Is the Matrix an allegory of a world dominated by media? Is it a call for the workers of the world to cast off their chains and seize the levers of power? It might be, but the problem is that they/we are too busy watching The Matrix on their/our DVD players.

From a budget of $63 million, the film has taken $203.6 million (non-USA) and $171,383 million (USA) at the theatrical box office alone. The value of sales in DVDs, videos, games and sunglasses can only be dreamed of. The Matrix is a fan thing. On the Internet Movie Database its 'User Rating' is 8.5/10 (from 44 418 votes), to give it a rating of 39th most popular film ever. It is hardly surprising that Matrix 2 (2002) and Matrix 3 (2003), directed by the brothers and with (largely) the same cast, are to follow.

Some Things to Watch for and Consider

• What would you recommend for further viewing on this film?

• Which would you suggest for further reading: Baudrillard and Bordieu, or DC comics? Both? Neither? What else?

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