Film: Please, show me the way out

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture
THE MATRIX (15) DIRECTOR: WACHOWSKI BROS

STARRING: KEANU REEVES, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, CARRIE-ANNE MOSS

136 MINUTES

Stumbling out of The Matrix, I was seized by an urge to do two things: a) make a beeline for the nearest stiff drink; and b) write one of those more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger laments for the decline of a great 20th-century art form. Well, I enjoyed the drink; and a consoling chat with a friend, who'd also just sat through the film, persuaded me that the o tempora, o mores stuff could wait for another day. It's just a movie, after all. I wonder if anyone else will feel so aggrieved on emerging from the experience.

The Matrix has been bolstered by such an eager whispering campaign that there's every chance people will queue for it expecting something fabulous - and indeed there are some eye-catching things tucked inside its 136- minute length. It's directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who previously made the stylish indy heist-thriller-cum-lesbian romance, Bound. Evidently determined to top this genre-busting feat, the brothers Wachowski have now cooked up a hi-tech kung fu fantasia with extra-special effects on the side. Don't be surprised if their next film is a serial-killer musical set in outer space.

In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a computer hacker who is being chased around town by a government agent (Hugo Weaving) and his two goons, attired in a shades and skinny tie combo borrowed from Men in Black. Neo thinks he's living in the 20th century, doing an averagely tedious job; then he learns, courtesy of rebel guerrillas Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), that he's actually trapped inside an illusory computer-generated reality called The Matrix. It's a construct designed by the powers that be to keep humankind enslaved. What's more, an oracle has intimated that Neo is "the one", the saviour who will liberate earthlings from the prison of The Matrix. Though the oracle isn't exact on the details, he will do this while sporting cool Ray-Bans, an ankle- length black coat and a small arsenal of automatic weapons.

How he comes to assume this anointed role is the burden, in both senses - of the movie. Having escaped the clutches of Weaving and co, who in a scene of Cronenbergian horror insert a techno-insect (you find a word for it) through his belly-button, Neo is plunged through a tunnel of primal goo en route to the rebel stronghold. Somebody compares his trip to Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole, though the experience is more powerfully reminiscent of the viscous, traumatic squelch of Ewan McGregor nosediving into the toilet bowl in Trainspotting. People have been rhapsodising about the production design of the movie, which strikes me as curious. Its dripping noir look doesn't seem very different from Blade Runner: the idea is to make everything look like it's come from a hi-tech garage sale. The costume design follows suit - on the rebel spaceship everyone wears fancily distressed knitwear that's plainly in need of a scrub. It makes you wonder: what kind of people can punch holes through the space-time continuum, yet can't even get organised to install a washing machine?

More significantly, it throws into question the dichotomy on which the film hinges: is the reality of a poky space module (which looks like a Goth hangout) actually more desirable than the evil chimera of The Matrix? Personally, I was with the guy who chooses the latter on the grounds that they still serve a good steak. In the end, it boils down to some quasi- mystical noodling on the theme of faith: if Neo believes he is "the one", then he can save the world and we can all go home. Unfortunately, the film takes a veritable aeon to get round to his Big Moment of Truth, dawdling in first gear through passages of startlingly dull exposition, a paradise for techno-geeks, presumably, but in terms of narrative momentum, a dead weight. For long stretches, its only movement is lateral - I mean, matrix, schmatrix, can we please get on with it?

Things aren't helped a great deal by the ridiculous mannerism of certain performances. Hugo Weaving, engagingly spiky and cynical as the blind man in Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof, is unwatchable, or rather unlistenable, as the force of darkness, drawing out his vowels in an approximation of hell knows what - an Iggy Pop single played at 33rpm - but it convinces neither as human nor alien. Laurence Fishburne delivers his lines with portentous exactitude, oblivious to their second-hand, comic-book cheesiness.

Advocates of the film will point to the special effects, and certainly fans of super-fast mid-air kung fu will not leave disappointed. It's like Jackie Chan speeded up, but with the laughs removed. Once the guns come out, the visual flourishes become even more spectacular, though how much they will impress the adolescent target audience is uncertain - I imagine the sight of Keanu Reeves somersaulting out of reach of machine-gun fire will seem rather passe to the video arcade crowd. There's a lovely slo- mo shot of shell cases cascading from a rifle, and another of bullets slowing down as they approach Neo, whose force- field of goodness (or whatever it is) enables him to pluck them individually from mid-air, like a magician pulling coins out of nowhere. So there are moments of poetry, even amidst the meaningless barrage of action set-pieces.

Yet what is left once the film's technical artifice is stripped away? Is there a character, an idea, a single line of dialogue that will make the smallest impression on your mental geography? Just like The Matrix itself, the film feels like a put-up job. We go to the movies seeking an illusion of life, and, if we're lucky, an intensification of it. The Matrix offers only an illusion of what life might be like in a movie - a loud, boring, pompous, violent sort of movie.

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