If you’re going to treat yourself to a bit of a sci-fi binge and you also like some impressive action sequences then you really can’t go wrong with The Matrix franchise.
Okay, so it’s the first movie that stands proud as the jewel in the crown but revisiting the other movies (the two direct sequels and The Animatrix) provides plenty to entertain and keep you thinking. There was also a very cool videogame released that may not have been the best videogame ever but certainly felt like it when you went into “bullet time” mode. There was also a huge and ambitious online game that ran for a few years before eventually (and perhaps ironically?) having the plug pulled. The comic tie-ins and story developments were, as one character from the films would relish saying, “inevitable” and you can still find plenty of goodies online to satisfy the most ardent fan, from replica clothing and accesories to the new Blu-ray repackaging.
Whichever set you decide to go with (be it DVD or Blu-ray) do make sure that you get the editions loaded with great extras. I still love my 10-disc bumper package that includes all of the movies featured here plus commentaries from philosophers and critics on the live-action films, commentaries from the creators of The Animatrix, more featurettes than you can shake a non-existent spoon at and really everything you ever wanted to know about The Matrix. Ever.
The Matrix (1999)
There are plenty of things to do with The Matrix that can be argued over and debated. The origins of the “bullet time” technique are hotly disputed by many people who believe they got there first. The intelligence of the screenplay was refreshing until the sequels came along to upset people by adding more and more to the philosophical quandaries. Keanu Reeves will just never be an adequate leading man for some people (though I’ve always liked the guy). And fans of Ghost In The Shell will tell you that The Matrix did nothing but repackage that movie in a more palatable, mainstream form. But one thing that can’t be argued is just how impressive and influential The Matrix is. It’s an astonishing movie that mixes the cerebral with plenty of crowd-pleasing action moments and seems to do so effortlessly. Repeat viewings throw up wonderful little details and touches that foreshadow many events to come in the film and, indeed, in the entire series.
“The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into” a source of energy. That’s the best way to begin covering the premise here. A description of the world that our hero, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), finds himself stuck in before realising his full potential as the powerful and skilled Neo. He’s helped in his quest by a number of people, including the wise Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and the ass-kicking Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), but it’s only by believing in himself that he can eventually master his environment and start a fight back on behalf of the few humans not kept sleeping by the security of their computer-generated dream.
Written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers, The Matrix is up there with the best of intelligent popular entertainment. While weaving ideas and philosophies throughout the film (and setting up a lot that would be expanded upon in the sequels, much to the dismay of audiences who should have really seen it all coming), the visionary duo also ensure that nobody gets bored. We have plenty of action beats, a number of them remaining standout moments in mainstream cinema, and a build up to an extended climax sequence that produces grins, cheers and a yearning to punch the air. It’s THAT good.
The visual style is wonderful and all of the little touches throughout allow audiences to immerse themselves into the world that they’re viewing (The Matrix itself is tinged green, the real world isn’t, a training program in between has a yellow-amber hue) but, above and beyond that, every detail seems to be perfectly planned out. Not just for this movie either, but for the grand plan that the Wachowskis had for the overall story arch and philosophical explorations.
Watching the movie can allow you to choose from even more layers than any shown onscreen. Take it as a straightforward action flick, take it as a superhero origin tale, take it as a look at finding out what you need to know in order to arrive at a predestined time and space, take it as a study of intricate psychosis (what better excuse to break the rules of society and physics than to imagine yourself inside a computer program?). Just make sure that you take it all in.
Everything is helped immensely by the cast and every role is filled by someone who feels just right. Keanu Reeves brings a cockiness mixed with disbelief and even gets a ‘Ted’ Theodore Logan “whoa” moment that reminds viewers of just how difficult the situation is to get a grip on. Carrie-Ann Moss is strong, smart and sexy. Perfect. Laurence Fishburne is cool, wise and optimistic, perhaps because he feels that he has to be. Joe Pantoliano is always a joy to watch onscreen and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith almost steals the entire movie. His speech to Laurence Fishburne, before a sequence that has rightly gone down in action movie history, about how he has tried to categorise humans and what conclusion he has arrived at is mesmerising and every line he delivers is loaded with contempt for those who upset the grand plan. Despite no huge muscle mass, his presence is a very threatening one and he makes for a great nemesis (ably supported by Paul Goddard and Robert Taylor as two other agents). The late Gloria Foster is very good as Oracle and everyone else manages to fit perfectly into their role, whether onscreen for a long time or just passing through (yes, I mean the likes of Fiona Johnson as Woman In Red, Ada Nicodemou as “White Rabbit Girl” and Rowan Witt as the boy who gets to utter the classic “there is no spoon” line).
The Matrix has it all. Great action, plenty of wit, great actors, style to spare, a cracking soundtrack to accompany the amazing visuals and almost every scene a contender for any “top movie moments of the 1990s list”. A modern classic.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS
STARS: KEANU REEVES, CARRIE-ANN MOSS, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, HUGO WEAVING, JOE PANTOLIANO
RUNTIME: 136 MINS APPROX
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Following up a movie that many people can look back on and subsequently view as a “game-changer” is always going to be a thankless task. When The Matrix Reloaded was first released the only sound louder than the ringing of the cinema tills was the collective moaning of audiences who left the movie wondering just what they’d been sold. Where the first movie was slick and a fantastic mix of action and ideas, the second film seemed to want to hammer viewers over the head with philosophical ideas and extended monologues while they impatiently waited for the next big set-piece. The frustration grew when the, admittedly impressive, set-pieces turned out to be so FX-laden that there were times when watching the movie was truly just like watching a videogame.
But time has passed and we now all know that The Matrix Reloaded didn’t end up being the equal of the first movie. Putting aside the baggage it had to inevitably bring along with it, how does the movie stand up nowadays?
Say what you like about the mis-steps in the way that the material was handled here compared to how things were blended in the first movie but I still think that this sequel (and, indeed, The Matrix Revolutions) holds up as yet another great sci-fi action flick. The complaints mentioned above are still as pertinent but it’s worth remembering that these flaws are outweighed by the rest of the content; a movie even smarter and more intriguing than the first film with action spectacle on a grand scale.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) has to this time go on a quest that will lead him directly to The Source and perhaps end the great war. That’s the very basic explanation of a plot that also features 250,000 sentinels trying to burrow their way into Zion, an exploration of passageways in between The Matrix and the real world and a look at the biggest problem facing both Neo and the designer of The Matrix: choice.
With everyone, give or take, back in their main roles this is no place for newcomers to dip into. Start with the first movie and then make your way here, as standard protocol dictates. Then you can enjoy Reeves growing into the role of Neo, Carrie-Ann Moss kicking ass as Trinity, Laurence Fishburne as the unshakable Morpheus and Hugo Weaving alongside Hugo Weaving and Hugo Weaving and a whole crowd of Hugo Weavings as the replicating, and more dangerous than ever, Agent Smith. And the great Anthony Zerbe is the great Anthony Zerbe. Fact. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Gloria Foster returning for her very last onscreen role as The Oracle. The newcomers have mixed fortunes – Randall Duk Kim is okay as The Keymaker, Monica Bellucci is as sensuous as ever as Persephone but Lambert Wilson is pretty annoying as the overly playful Merovingian, Jada Pinkett Smith is someone I have never really enjoyed watching onscreen and does little to change my mind here with her performance of Niobe, Harry Lennix is almost as bad with his screentime, Neil Rayment and Adrian Rayment aren’t too bad as ghostly adversaries, Harold Perrineau is very good in the role of Link and poor Collin Chou gets to show off some great fight moves but also utters one of the worst lines in the entire series: “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.” He’s closely followed by Helmut Bakaitis, who has to spout some truly awful speeches as the verbose Architect.
Having seen the whole series now, it’s easier to appreciate what has been put in to this instalment but viewed before the conclusion of the trilogy it’s easy to pick apart a number of the weaker areas. The script, so well-defined and executed in the first film, meanders unnecessarily and threatens to tilt the whole endeavour into sleep-inducing territory. The action still contains moments of greatness but also contains moments seemingly full of nothing but CGI. The blend of ideas, with more being brought to the surface and other layers of thoughtfulness added to the material, just adds up to a bit too much for the film to carry.
Yet, despite so many weaknesses, the movie is still a triumph of visual style, design work, philosophical musings, kick-ass action and superb set-pieces. It’s a fantastic film that falls short of the first movie but, then again, few films would match up to the standard set by that film. And at least, in hindsight, we can easily see that the Wachowskis had their eyes on the bigger picture as well as the individual instalments.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS
STARS: KEANU REEVES, CARRIE-ANN MOSS, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, HUGO WEAVING, RANDALL DUK KIM, JADA PINKETT SMITH, LAMBERT WILSON, MONICA BELLUCCI, HELMUT BAKAITIS, ANTHONY ZERBE, HARRY LENNIX
RUNTIME: 138 MINS APPROX
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The final instalment of the series manages to make some amends for the bloated middle section and to end up a satisfying conclusion to a live action trilogy that remains flawed but never less than interesting.
Those 250,000 sentinels are still trying to get through to Zion while the people struggle to think of a plan that will defeat them. Neo seems to be in some kind of limbo (he’s not in The Matrix itself but neither is he in the real world) and Morpheus and Trinity know that they need him back by their side if they have any chance of ending the war. Meanwhile, Agent Smith continues to replicate and overwhelm The Matrix while Zion looks set to crumble.
Fans of the series may be disappointed to find few great moments in this film that are actually set in The Matrix itself but this provides a better mix than the preceding movie and still has plenty of choice action sequences to pick and choose from. The set-pieces within The Matrix are absolutely stunning and, often but not always, the CGI work is a step up. The action in the real world, as the sentinels attack Zion, is also impressive – grand in scale and fantastically rendered. With a conclusion to the storyline that almost goes back to the easy mix of smarts and energy that the first film had, this is a worthy end to an astounding series of movies.
The cast are back where they should be (with the exception of the late Gloria Foster – her death led to The Oracle being played this time by Mary Alice and a nice explanation is provided onscreen for the change of appearance). Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving, quite frankly, have managed to fit into their characters like gloves since their very first scenes and nothing changes here. Collin Chou gets to do a bit more as Seraph and makes a much better impression than he did in the last movie. Harry Lennix and Jada Pinkett Smith are as irritating here as they were the last time. Lambert Wilson and Monica Bellucci don’t get a lot of screentime, which suits me just fine (thanks to the irritating nature of the Merovingian character played by Wilson), and a new threat is brought into the mix in the form of Ian Bliss (playing Bane, a real-world man who Agent Smith has somehow managed to take over). Bliss is great, giving an edgy and slightly manic portrayal that also features the voice mannerisms and vocabulary of the character he has been taken over by.
A lot of the ongoing action in the real world moves quickly into the arena of the unbelievable but it’s all done with great FX work and a vast sense of size and scale. The highlights within The Matrix itself contain an amazing shootout in Club Hel and a final face-off between Neo and his constant nemesis that contains one or two overly-computerised moments but, overall, really ends the whole thing with the style and action and simple entertainment factor that it deserves.
If you hated the second film then you’re not going to be won round by this one but if, like me, you give them a chance and you look at the movies both as part of a bigger picture and as something more than simple sci-fi action then you’ll be rewarded with quite a unique cinematic experience that doesn’t once cop out and actually ends up making a lot of sense. Okay, so the religious overtones may get a bit heavy and obvious in this instalment but considering the themes of the entire series I can also forgive the occasional heavy-handed parallels and accept that almost every superhero story has such allegorical material.
It’s a grand finale, fit for both the characters and the audience members.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS
STARS: KEANU REEVES, CARRIE-ANN MOSS, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, HUGO WEAVING, IAN BLISS, MARY ALICE, COLLIN CHOU, JADA PINKETT SMITH, HARRY LENNIX, ANTHONY ZERBE, LAMBERT WILSON, MONICA BELLUCCI
RUNTIME: 129 MINS APPROX
The Animatrix (2003)
Why not put this in the middle of the other movies, where it probably should be in terms of the chronological order of release? After all, there is one animated piece here entitled “Final Flight Of The Osiris” that feeds into the events kick-starting The Matrix Reloaded. Yet The Animatrix is very much a companion piece to the live-action films. It’s a superb companion piece, and one that I highly recommend to fans of The Matrix universe, but it’s also a companion piece that can be viewed as a separate entity at your leisure and is not required viewing if you’re simply wanting the original trilogy and nothing more.
Consisting of nine animated tales all connected to The Matrix in some way (The Wachowski Brothers obviously oversaw the project but were only responsible for writing four of the tales and allowed the animators to just get on with each segment in their own style), it’s probably best to review The Animatrix by first recapping each tale (in the order that they appear on the DVD).
“Final Flight Of The Osiris” – The crew of The Osiris find out that something big is happening, sentinels are swarming en masse and look intent on drilling down to Zion. Someone needs to go into The Matrix to pass a message along that will warn others. While it’s not the best of the tales, “Final Flight Of The Osiris” is beautifully animated and aims for a realism and natural style that the other instalments don’t attempt. It stands up as a nice display piece, if nothing else.
“The Second Renaissance” – Listed here just as the one story, this is actually split into two parts and basically shows how things went from good to bad to worse between humans and machines. It’s got some fantastic moments throughout, is nicely animated and provides more on the backstory of just why men chose to block out their sun.
“Kid’s Story” – Remember the awkward kid who was such a fan of Neo at the start of The Matrix Reloaded? This is the story of how he came to escape from The Matrix. It’s got a crude animation style but also a great energy and features voice cameos by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss, as well as having Clayton Watson (who played “the kid” in the live-action movies) in the central role.
“Program” – A wonderful little piece of animation that mixes action with gorgeous visuals and ends on a nice punchline. The basic premise concerns someone enjoying a fight simulation until her training partner explains that he can get them back into The Matrix with no memory of the hardships they have endured.
“World Record” – It starts off slow but this tale develops into something truly rivetting as viewers are shown just how strong the human will can be and what it can do for those trapped in The Matrix.
“Beyond” – A lightweight, fun episode that looks at what people can get up to when there’s an unresolved glitch in The Matrix. A bunch of kids experiment with defying the laws of physics.
“A Detective Story” – The Matrix goes noir in this enjoyable tale that shows a detective hired to catch up with the elusive Trinity (voiced by Carrie-Ann Moss). A fun story that keeps some cool aspects of the universe but also feels very different thanks to the noir genre trappings.
“Matriculated” – An enemy robot is captured and reprogrammed in this wonderful final tale, a lush and surreal episode that mixes standard animation stylings with some beautiful CGI.
While it’s certainly not essential viewing, The Animatrix is quite a treasure trove of delights for those who love the stories and ideas that the live action movies provided. Like any anthology, if you’re not a big fan of one episode then another comes along quickly enough to try and win you over. Individually critiquing every director and actor involved would take far too long so I’ll just say that every animated section has at least something going for it (be it a great central idea or some amazing visuals) and that this has become something brief and stylish I find myself revisiting more than the full movies that they complement.
DIRECTOR: ANDREW R. JONES, MAHIRO MAEDA, SHINICHIRO WATANABE, YOSHIAKI KAWAJIRI, TAKESHI KOIKE, KOJI MORIMOTO, PETER CHUNG
WRITER: THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS, YOSHIAKI KAWAJIRI, KOJI MORIMOTO, SHINICHIRO WATANABE, PETER CHUNG
STARS: CLAYTON WATSON, KEANU REEVES, CARRIE-ANN MOSS, MELINDA CLARKE, JAMES ARNOLD TAYLOR, DWIGHT SCHULTZ, VICTOR WILLIAMS, HEDY BURRESS
RUNTIME: 102 MINS APPROX