I’m sure I’ll be accused of blasphemy, but I call ’em as I see ’em. Reeves, a horrible actor if there ever was one, achieved “passable” status in Chain Reaction and Speed. Does Reeves ascend to new heights in The Matrix? As his legion of fans (hullo, girls!) will attest, the answer is a definitive “yes.”
WARNING: This review may include spoilers!
You’ve probably read the Book, so why not go see the science fiction version of the story? I dare say that the origins of The Matrix storyline whooshed like an airplane over the heads of the vast majority of the American movie-going public. Indeed, since it’s not necessary to grasp the subtext in order to really dig this flick on either a special effects “wow” or a “gee, what a neat philosophical concept” level, I’m sure that teenage slacker hackers who saw this movie and did both were undoubtedly self-congratulatory despite missing the point. And that point is this: The Matrix is nothing more than the Christ story retold. Several characters are merged, but the references are numerous and as plain as day.
Happily, regardless of that fascinating element, The Matrix is a brilliant movie. Certainly the plot is juicy science fiction: A computer hacker named Neo finds himself in the center of a struggle between governmental agents and hacker rebels, and as he learns more, he begins to question his perception of reality. It is on this intriguing framework that the Messianic storyline is hung.
Keanu Reeves, one of American cinema’s most successful and least talented actors, is extraordinarily well-directed by the brothers Wachowski (Larry and Andy). As the protagonist, Neo (meaning “new” and an anagram for “One”), his role’s major emotional requirement is one of disbelief and astonishment. (I picture Reeves’ entire screen test being Keanu saying, “Whoa” over and over.) Add to this a hardy kung-fu physicality, and Reeves has found his ideal character. Neo’s “real life” (and boy is that a phrase to be used loosely) alter-ego is Thomas Anderson (aka Doubting Thomas/”Son of Man”), a mild-mannered business suit flunky in everyday corporate America. Reeves is good here too, though primarily because he isn’t required to create Anderson as a fully separate entity from Neo.
John the Bapitist/God the Father (aka “Morpheus”) is played by the superb Laurence Fishburne. He’s a dominant, imposing presence on-screen, and displays a terrific emotional range and counterpoint to Reeves’ relatively flat Neo. This point is further driven home when one realizes that Morpheus is a static character—he doesn’t change at all in this movie. Fishburne is that good.
The Holy Spirit (aka “Trinity”) is brought to life by Carrie-Anne Moss, who gets one of the best lines of the movie when Neo says that he thought Trinity was a guy. “Most guys do,” she replies. Put in youthfully exuberant terms, Moss is a babe blessed with great physical talent. Watch her walk up walls and flip around, and see if you don’t agree. She’s not a scene stealer, but the camera clearly likes her, and if you don’t find yourself staring in her general direction whenever she’s on the screen, you’re clearly not paying enough attention. Trinity’s emotional attachment to Neo isn’t developed as well as I’d like, but the Spirit moves in mysterious ways, so perhaps it’s better left underwritten.
Lucifer/Judas (aka “Cypher”) comes in the form of Joe Pantoliano (“Renfro” in The Fugitive). I wasn’t really taken with Pantoliano’s performance: Give that man a head of hair and some ethics, and look, you’ve got Renfro again. That may come off as something more of a condemnation than I intend, because Pantoliano was more than adequate and it wasn’t like his version of Cypher was simply “Renfro in Space.” I just couldn’t help thinking that there might have been a better casting choice, that’s all.
But the acting and even the special effects are second fiddle in this plot-driven story. And what I find most interesting about the plot is that despite all the biblical references, the central element of The Matrix storyline—that all physical reality is purely a mental construct—is, in fact, a Buddhist notion. How’s this for irony? In a science fiction film of the Christ story, the dominant story element comes from an Eastern religion.
And if you want to really go over-the-top, consider that Reeves, not exactly a high wattage bulb in the bright lights of intellect, stars in a movie that is philosophically deeper than most anything that’s arrived on the big screen this year.
“Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” said Morpheus. Well, I like to pretend I have a well-developed sense of irony, too. So here’s to a brilliant movie called The Matrix, the film that finally let me say “Keanu Reeves is God” and mean it.