The Matrix and more
Andy and Larry Wachowski
Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburn, Hugo Weaving
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 31 Mar 1999 (General release); 1999)
It’s tough to convey how much The Matrix meant to me, as a 12-year-old sci-fi nerd, when it came out ten years ago. Until that point, my experiences with science fiction had been solitary ones, unshared with my peers; in the early ‘90s, sci-fi was not cool. Star Wars, and the mania associated with it, was 15 years in the past. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the main sci-fi touchstone of the era, and indeed I went on the air (as it were) on the same day as “Encounter at Farpoint”. I have fond memories of reading Robert Heinlein and watching Babylon 5 as a child, but in all of them I’m alone, and throughout my youth I kept very quiet about my obsession with all things futuristic.
The Matrix was not a particularly original film. Its story was equal parts Ghost in the Shell and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with a dash of Philip K. Dick thrown in for good measure; its cinematic style was mostly borrowed (read: ripped-off) from kung-fu films and from John Woo. Nor was it a particularly intelligent film. Despite all of its philosophical pretensions and its absolutely serious attitude, there were plot holes in the film big enough to drive a Mack truck through. (“I thought you said it wasn’t real,” Neo says after exiting a training program, touching his lip and coming away with blood on his fingers. “The mind makes it real,” Morpheus responds. Um, how does that work, exactly?)
But The Matrix was, for all that, an intrinsically, almost effortlessly cool film. Dark without being disturbing, thrilling without being distressing, The Matrix existed for no reason other than to excite. And by succeeding so wildly it made a lasting impact on both film and science fiction, redefining what a sci-fi film could be and to whom it could appeal. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without The Matrix, films like Minority Report, Children of Men, and The Dark Knight simply would not exist.
The film itself holds up surprisingly well, a decade down the road. The “bullet-time” sequences, despite the countless imitators they inspired, still have a sort of strange and entrancing beauty to them. The fake world is beautifully shot, green-tinted and sleek, but the special effects applied to the real world—especially the spider-like Sentinels—are just as impressive. And the shoot-out in the skyscraper lobby remains one of the greatest gun-fight sequences of all time, pure excellence from the moment that Neo opens his jacket to reveal his personal arsenal (the security guard’s reaction—“Holy shit!”—was my favorite line from a movie for most of high school) to the slow, techno-scored fight to the way that Trinity’s boots slide on the polished marble floor when the bullets have stopped flying. That scene, more than any other, made the film, and watching it now, it’s easy to see why.
The Matrix also remains, 10 years on, the highest achievement of almost everyone involved. Joel Silver, who prepped for The Matrix by producing genuinely great films like Lethal Weapon 4 and Predator, has in the years since confined himself to titles like Thir13en Ghosts and House of Wax. The Wachowski Brothers adapted V for Vendetta, a reasonable accomplishment, but were also responsible for the two regrettable Matrix sequels and last summer’s Speed Racer. Laurence Fishbourne is now on CSI; Hugo Weaving spent much of the last decade speaking Elvish to Liv Tyler; Carrie-Anne Moss hasn’t been heard from since Memento wrapped in 2000; and Keanu Reeves (his work in The Replacements notwithstanding) has become an easy punch-line. Call it the curse of The Matrix, if you like, but the film still looms, unsurpassed, over the careers of those who made it. Kyle Deas
Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew, Scott Wolf, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, William Fichtner, Jane Krakowski
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Apr 1999; 1999)
Ronna: The Heart
It’s a Christmas movie that could never become a Christmas tradition. It’s about kids in their late teens without a high school or college in sight. It revolves around an epic rave, but has somehow aged with grace. It’s unexpected.
Go is 1999’s follow-up to Doug Liman’s cult hit Swingers. Like its predecessor, the movie’s personality is built around a musical genre. Unlike Swingers’ hip neo-swing atmosphere, Go is spirited by the frenetic chaos of electronic dance music. There is a pulse to this movie. It starts out simple: grocery clerks in their late teens working far too long on a Christmas Eve. But over the course of three acts and an epilogue, the pace and complexity ramp up until the narrative—like the soundtrack—is barreling through itself.
Simon: The Banter
In developing an “Alice in Ecstasy-land” concept to this multi-narrative full-length debut, screenwriter John August exhibits a command of craft. It’s an intricately-twisted formalist construction under a free-spirited guise. There are hints of Tarantino or Kevin Smith: dialogue centered on storytelling, the casual shooting-of-shit to develop characters. Yet it’s not Tarantino or Smith, as nearly every exchange explicitly drives the plot, highlighting elements which become obstacles or agencies as the plot bends back over itself. Take the inclusion of Simon’s story: an ill-fated action- and titty-packed Las Vegas romp that’s removed from the movie’s main thread. Pulling Simon out of the primary scenario allows Ronna to unwittingly fox her way into his predicament: in the reticules of Adam and Zack, two movie stars recruited for a sting operation on Simon.
But, throughout Simon’s act, John August’s seemingly carefree chatter is at its most immediately functional. A comment about one character’s yellow jacket sets up a toss of Ferrari keys into his hands near a casino’s valet stand. A brief conversation about iodine-infused shrimp explains two of the characters’ exit via illness from the story’s travels. Simon uses a borrowed credit card to secure a room and fund a lap dance. That same card—left behind in the strip club after a minor shootout—gives a pair of smalltime mobsters enough info to call and confirm Simon’s room number with the bedridden, diarrhea-stricken characters, and give chase.
It’s like a steel roller coaster, constantly looping and twisting but always a smooth ride. Sometimes we see turns coming, sometimes we don’t, but it’s fun throughout.
Adam and Zack: The Stars
Costing under $7 million to produce, Go is an improbable juncture of careers caught at just the right time. August would go on to write a series of high profile Tim Burton films, including Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Liman became attached to the Bourne franchise.
And the cast is essentially the Minnesota Twins of cinema: no superstars, but fresh talent of varying levels all giving banner performances. At the core is Sarah Polley, whose career is marked by deliberate steps away from almost being famous, including dropping out of the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous in favor of a Canadian indie (Polley most recently wrote and directed the award-winning Away from Her). Surrounding her are Timothy Olyphant (Live Free or Die Hard), Katie Holmes (Dawson’s Creek and that whole Tom Cruise thing), Jay Mohr (SNL, Last Comic Standing), Scott Wolf (Party of Five), William Fichtner (Prison Break), and even quick bits from Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal, 30 Rock) and Meghan McCarthy (Gilmore Girls). It’s a whirling combination that gives just enough screen time to each character.
Visually, Go is saturated with holiday imagery, but every spritely decoration has a worn, weary, or flat-out sleazy underbelly. There’s a man in a Santa suit, but he’s critically injured. There’s a Santa hat, but on a bare-chested drug dealer. It reflects a spirit of giving that fuels the film’s actions, but that generosity is always with reluctance.
And that sums up Go: a modestly budgeted film that comes across as a bigger picture. One that came out of nowhere, but at a natural place in many careers. Mike Martens