"Nobody can be told what the matrix is," says Laurence Fishburne in the enigmatic movie trailer. "You have to see it for yourself."
How true. The complex, intelligent plot of The Matrix can't be summed up in a simple sci-fi phrase like "alien invasion" or "apocalyptic future."
No, the heart of The Matrix is real science fiction - the essence of the genre. It's more Ray Bradbury than it is Independence Day. It's more Phillip K. Dick than it is Men in Black. It's more akin to the vision of Rod Serling than it is to The Fifth Element or to Armageddon.
Larry and Andy Wachowski, The Matrix's co-creators/writers/directors, realize what the best sci-fi writers already know: that the essence of the genre lies in creating a fictional world just one step removed from our own. In other words, robots or aliens aren't a necessity for sci-fi. All that's needed is a world scientifically extrapolated from this one.
The Matrix accomplishes this perfectly. Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, we start off as much in the dark as our protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves). Then we share in his disbelief as the run-of-the-mill world around him unravels and turns out to be a lot weirder and nastier than he ever imagined.
Classifying The Matrix as a special-effects movie is a mistake, because it doesn't sacrifice plot or thematic development. With that in mind, though, the special effects are simply incredible, a valid reason for seeing the film more than once. The fast-moving Kung-Fu action scenes are even more impressive knowing the actors did all of their own stunts. Technically, several new effects make their debut here, most notably a slow-motion, camera-spinning sensation that ups the ante on The Gap's popular dancing teens commercials. The effect makes bullets float in mid-air and the actors move in mechanical, off-beat rhythms that fit with the film's theme and setting - the matrix itself.
Much of the fun of the movie is in finding out what the matrix is. Unlike many recent dumbed-down sci-fi films, this one doesn't condescend. The premise of the film is complex and convoluted, and unravels as the movie progresses. Nuances in the "rules" of how the matrix works are left for the viewer to figure out, though the intuitive, fast-moving storyline makes sense even if you don't overanalyze it.
The spectacular premise and shocking special effects overshadow some of the lifeless acting on the part of Reeves and his co-stars. The Matrix uses the classic sci-fi theme of humanity vs. machinery, so its main character - like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey - should embody human nature at its most basic and emotional, full of fears, doubts, and pain. But while Fishburne brings depth, subtlety, and wit to his role as Morpheus, Reeves and the other actors come off as cool and calculating as the computer they're battling against. They mimic their artificially intelligent pursuers, right down to the black outfits and dark sunglasses. A little more contrast would have worked well with the grandiose themes running through the film.
Fortunately, there's so much going on in The Matrix that Reeve's monotone and dazed glare aren't that distracting. The special effects, combined with a unique, unified, and utterly creative art direction and artistic vision, leave you plenty to look at. The intelligent sci-fi premise will intrigue you before you see the film and will leave a frightening thought implanted in the back of your head long after the movie's over. I won't spoil it here - if you haven't seen the film, you'll just have to wait a little longer before you discover what the matrix is. Like the trailer says, you have to see it for yourself.