Back to the 90s: The Matrix


I can remember a day when no one knew what the hell The Matrix was, but GODDAMN did we all really want to!  There were cryptic ads on the radio in 1999 that ended with Morpheus’ line, “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” The television ads didn’t give too much away either, besides some short but sweet kung fu clips. So, there I was, a sixteen year old movie nerd, dying to know what kung fu, leather jackets, and Ted “Theodore” Logan all had to offer.

matrix-wb-logoThe movie opened with a green tinted, digital looking Warner Bros. logo.”THIS MOVIE MUST BE IMPORTANT!” I thought.  “Only Batman movies had had their own spin on the Warner Bros. logo.”  We were in for some shit! The next two hours and fifteen minutes were absolutely sublime. It had great philosophical dialogue, amazing action sequences, but most importantly, it was the first time I had been introduced to “bullet time.”

Bullet time is the technique used to show slow motion or a frozen image from multiple angles in a way that creates a fluid, three hundred and sixty degree shot. Here’s an example from the film:

Bullet time has its roots in nineteenth century photography, was developed further in 2D animation, but was brought out into the limelight by The Matrix. Movies like Lost in Space as well as some music videos had featured a more primitive usage of the technique and the first Max Payne video game utilized it in an even more sophisticated fashion. The Matrix, however, blew us all away with the first flawless live-action use of bullet time. To this day, I have not been as impressed with a special effect as I was that day. Sure, there have been monumental steps taken in the world of special effects since then, but none that truly surprised and elated me like this one did.

matrixfight

Besides the newfangled movie magic that The Matrix had to offer, I also thoroughly enjoyed the extensive use of good old fashioned “wire fu.” Wire fu is a simple use of harnesses and pulleys to make it seem as if characters have superhuman abilities like flying through the air and running up or across walls. It’s a technique that dates back to the “Toku” films of Japan but, once again, never as expertly carried out as in The Matrix. The addition of a green screen and bullet time to the wire fu scenes made for an awe-inspiring spectacle of sci fi and martial arts the likes of which had never been seen before.

I only saw the movie once in the theaters, but as soon as it was released on DVD, I got my hands on it quickly. A few more years, many more viewings, and a lower division college course later, I realized how much the premise of this film mirrors Plato’s Allegory of The Cave.  All of the people inside the Matrix with digital wool pulled over their eyes had a striking resemblance to those folks chained up in a cave, staring at a blank wall. The images that the Matrix system projected were not reality, but a distorted perception, much like the shadows Plato’s cave dwellers saw. As Neo learns from Morpheus in the movie, it isn’t simply manipulating his programmed training and taking what he saw inside the Matrix at face value that would give him his power. He had to understand, like Plato’s Theory of Forms, that what his senses could perceive could never be as powerful or as relevant as the strength of his own mind.

plato

The broader yet at the same time more specific understanding of the film’s message had now impressed me even further. I dug deeper and found that there was also some more recent Jean Baudrillard philosophy peppered in there which I never would have put together if it weren’t for a copy of his treatise Simulacra and Simulation cleverly placed in the scene where Morpheus is first schooling Neo in the Matrix simulator. Part of the message of this film is a statement about how current society has exchanged true reality and meaning with a bunch of signs and symbols. It’s interesting to know that the entire cast and some crew were required to read Simulacra and Simulation before they even got a copy of the film’s script. Even though it is a clever and meaningful message that The Matrix borrows, Baudrillard claims that the Wachowskis distorted his work beyond repair. I’m not surprised.  Almost every adapted work or idea is always viewed as inferior and perverted to the originator.

 

The Matrix took home four Academy Awards: Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing but was snubbed for even a Best Picture nomination. What took home the Oscar for Best Picture that year? American Beauty. I love depressing social dramas as much as the next person, but at least NOMINATE a film that set a new standard for sci fi and action films while maintaining a solid story with a unique perspective on a smattering of philosophical ideas… is all I’m saying.

What The Matrix lacked in Best Picture prowess, it made up for in box office numbers, sequels, and merchandising. It took in four hundred and sixty three million dollars worldwide. If you adjusted that for inflation, that matches up almost exactly with the domestic numbers for The Avengers. Not too shabby for a Rated R movie written and directed by a couple of regular dudes from Chicago. The film spawned two direct sequels (Reloaded and Revolutions… meh,) a collection of animated shorts (sweet), video games, comic books, lunch boxes- but not a flamethrower. Only Spaceballs had a flamethrower tie in. But I digress… The Matrix was and still is a phenomena of the highest caliber. If you haven’t seen this movie, just buy it.  Trust me. You won’t regret it.

Sean Moriarty – seanmo@nerdonomy.com