|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 21 September 1999|
This spring brought to theatres a genre-reinventing, good-grief-never-saw-that-before science-fiction blockbuster, ‘The Matrix.’ It has now reached DVD with more than the usual complement of bells and whistles, making it all the tastier.
Dark adventure in cyberspace has been around for awhile now -- on bookshelves, it’s a field unto itself, with William Gibson as the acknowledged king of the genre. However, previous efforts to dramatize such material (everything from ‘Tron’ to ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ to the recent ‘The 13th Floor’) have dropped the ball one way or another. Part of the problem has been giving the stories urgency -- how do you get a life-or-death situation out of something that’s only happening inside a computer program -- and another part has been lame characterizations and motivations.
Enter the Wachowski brothers, Andy & Larry, writers and directors of ‘The Matrix,’ their second film. Their first film, the low-budget thriller ‘Bound,’ proved that the Wachowskis have a handle on human idiosyncracies, intricate plotting and black humor. All of these come into play in ‘The Matrix,’ providing a touchstone for viewers to care about what’s happening beyond the considerable visual dazzle. The Wachowskis have also licked the virtual reality conundrum by giving the computer universe consistent, coherent rules and a clear, scary link to the flesh-and-blood realm. Their mythos is a cornucopia of conceptual nerviness, supported by groundbreaking special effects and stunt work.
While most DVD viewers of ‘The Matrix’ may already be familiar with its central plot twist, we won’t give it away here. Suffice to say the story follows computer programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who moonlights as a hacker with the nomme de web Neo. Neo is simultaneously recruited by two mysterious groups. One is led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a charismatic, enigmatic messiah type. The others are the Agents, whose chief rep is Smith (Hugo Weaving). Neo is fascinated by Morpheus, but he hasn’t got a clue what he’s in for when he agrees to let the other man show him "the truth." Suffice to say, computers have managed to mess things up a lot more than anyone has guessed.
Much of the charm of ‘The Matrix’ comes from its "wouldn’t this be cool?" factor. The movie mischievously proposes that it might be a positive thing to be able to simply pop in a diskette into one’s head to improve knowledge and coordination. (A highlight in Chapter 14 involves Neo instantaneously assimilating martial arts skills.) The film also has some wonderfully weird, creepy transformations and thrilling accelerated fight sequences, as well as a weapons-acquiring sequence that compares favorably with similar classic segments in films of the past. The Wachowskis also know that the best way to get the audience to care about the characters is by proving to us that the characters care about each other, which they do in a manner that is concise but dramatically compelling.
The look of ‘The Matrix’ alternates between subtle sterility, ‘Blade Runner’ murky urban grunge and Rene Magritte surrealism. Horror imagery is used sparingly but powerfully, with a couple of real eye-openers in Chapters 6, 7 and 9. The sound effects are terrific throughout (though some of the dialogue is arguably a bit low in the mix). Aural standouts are major firefights in Chapters 23-24 and 29-30, which are realistic, loud and intense enough to knock an unwary viewer over backwards.
The DVD is rich with supplemental material. The menu comes up before the film does, with Morpheus’ intriguing greeting, "Welcome to the real world." If no selection is made immediately, a mini-trailer, with major stunts and effects from the film, unspools while decisions are made. First-time ‘Matrix’ watchers are advised to watch the film through once before playing with the DVD’s many toys. This reviewer’s personal favorite is the "White Rabbit" version. This requires going into Special Features, clicking on the "Dream World" icon, then clicking on "continue," until reaching the "White Rabbit" option. Superficially, this is the same as what you get as the upfront "Play Movie," except that a little white rabbit pops up from time to time (inevitably in major effects sequences) in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. A click on the bunny will bring up a mini-documentary -- some of which last up to five minutes -- on the sequence at hand. These are excitingly scored and edited, but there is no narration -- we’re expected to figure out things for ourselves. The DVD then automatically returns to the exact moment where it departed the film.
The white rabbit first appears in Chapter 1, treating us to a how-to session on the heroine’s literally flying leaps. Chapter 10 demonstrates that what looks like a gooey, disgusting process in the story was pretty gross on set as well. Chapter 15 has some nifty martial arts sparring involving both the leads and a stunt team (one of whom goes through his paces wearing a neck brace). Chapter 24 captures a wonderful between-takes moment with the two directors and Fishburne, who jokes, "I’m tired. What’ve you got that’s easier?"
Other features are a more conventional but still entertaining "making of" documentary originally aired on HBO, two separate commentary tracks (one with actress Moss, the editor and the special-effects supervisor, one with the composer) and a separate mini-documentary on the effects.
For those who have DVD-ROM capability, there is still more material, including the film’s screenplay, storyboards, seven separate articles and weblinks. One mild word of caution: according to an article in the Oct. 6, 1999 issue of Daily Variety, certain DVD players are having problems with the disk, either failing to run the film at all, refusing to play the special features, or playing chapters more than once. Evidently, these sorts of difficulties at present sometimes accompany DVDs that are also DVD-ROMs. The article says that most manufacturers will provide upgrades and that help and advice is available from the PCfriendly.com website. The only glitch I experienced playing ‘The Matrix’ on my Philips Magnavox was in Chapter 33 on the "white rabbit" track. When the disk returned from the chapter’s mini-documentary and began running the film again, it stammered several times between two shots before smoothly resuming normal play.
‘The Matrix’ has great kinetic kick, characters we like, a mythos that bends our minds and enough odd, fascinating riffs to virtually (pun intended) require multiple viewings -- even before the glorious raft of DVD accessories come into play.