The Critics: Cinema: Travels in cyber-reality

The Matrix Director: The Wachowski Brothers Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss (89 mins; 18)

By now everyone ought to know what "dumbing down" means. However, just in case there's a reader out there who doesn't, it might be defined as the insidious and irreversible cretinisation of what was once a serious and (relatively) ambitious cultural medium. One could cite, as two especially blatant examples, the V&A advertising itself as "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached" and Classic FM's philistine policy of playing single symphonic movements as though they were detachably autonomous works.

Of late, though, there has also come to exist such a thing as "dumbing up". That, anyway, is my name for what happens when some innocuous and easily ignorable branch of pop culture begins to get ideas above its station. One example would be the self-aggrandising tendencies of certain schlocky bestselling novelists who, not content with huge sales and huger subsidiary rights, start angling wistfully after the Booker and even have the chutzpah to claim kinship with such masters of 19th-century narrative forms as Dickens and Thackeray. Another would be a movie like The Matrix.

What, as we're currently being asked on the sides of buses, is the Matrix? It's a computerised simulation of life as we know it, or as we imagine we know it. What the movie postulates is a version of virtual reality so vast and tentacular as to encompass the entire globe.

Or rather, not the entire globe. Holed up somewhere, hunted and haunted by a trio of coal-black-suited goons, a tiny, skeletal resistance cell awaits the apparition of a cyber-Saviour, some Attila the Hunk who will reveal to the enslaved world the illusory nature of the alternative reality that, as one of the resistants phrases it, "has been pulled over its eyes". (The action presumably takes place in the future but, unless I missed something of significance in the exposition, that detail is nowhere specified in the dialogue. It's almost as though, if we're not advised to the contrary, we are now expected to assume that practically every big splashy mainstream Hollywood film takes place in the future and that the few still set in the present should therefore be considered period films.)

In any case, the basic premise of The Matrix, such as I've outlined it, is a perfectly serviceable launching pad for a science-fiction movie, no better or worse than any other, if hardly original. Yet its two directors, the Wachowski brothers, have tarted it up with references to Lewis Carroll, Buddhism, Greek and Judeo-Christian mythology, numerology, and what one credulous critic has called "the wild world of philosophical surmise" (not to mention Blade Runner, the two Terminators, Men in Black, the films of Jackie Chan and the novels of William Gibson). "Tarted up", I should add, is not mere lazy journalistic shorthand. Not for an instant do these references enrich the textures of the narrative. They're simply planted on the characters, the way stolen goods might be planted on someone who's being set up. The three leads, for instance, are called Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Well, and so what?

The apogee of absurdity is attained in a shot that is likely to stand as a yardstick against which all subsequent specimens of dumbing up will be measured. Keanu Reeves, a geekish loner employed as a programmer for a software company (he's also, unbeknown to him, and I'm sure I'm not giving anything crucial away here, the awaited One), conceals his stash of drugs inside a book. In the shot I refer to, the Wachowskis carefully point their camera at this book, giving all of us time to register the fact that it's Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations, the Ur-text of cyber- anticipation and, whatever one thinks either of it or its author, no easy read. Now I'm prepared to suspend disbelief for long enough to accept that Keanu Reeves might once have read a book. But that he's read Baudrillard? Puh-lease.

Reeves is, as usual, terrible, but the Wachowskis can at least be credited with having devised an ingenious method for him to pass muster (more or less) as an actor: they surround him with actors who are even more terrible than he is. As the feminine interest, Carrie-Anne Moss looks terrific in itsy-bitsy dark glasses, which is, thank heaven, all she's required to do, and the delivery of the three goons, when they converse among one another, is so robotic and so very, very slow they make Hal, the computer in Kubrick's 2001, sound like Robin Williams.

As for the ubiquitous special effects, the movie's raison d'etre, they're both stupendous and, by this stage of film history, utterly without interest, without, in a word, effect. Even if the cinema is, as Orson Welles once famously claimed, the biggest electric train set anyone ever had to play with, it still should have live passengers aboard.

But what's the point, anyway, of reviewing a film as stupid - no, stoopid - as The Matrix? For several years now critics have been comparing big- budget Hollywood movies to video games but, with this one, the simile has collapsed in on itself and the immemorial middle-man of "like" has at last been rendered obsolete. The Matrix isn't like a video game, it is a video game. All it lacks is a remote control for the spectator, and one can't help feeling the Wachowskis have missed a trick here. If they had been real showmen, they would have had dummy remotes, like those dummy plastic telephones that tots enjoy sucking on, issued to spectators as they entered the cinema. Then the illusion really would have been complete.

As for me, my foot went to sleep after about half an hour. It got the picture before I did.

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