In Short: Prepare to be amazed.
A few years back the Wachowski Brothers made their debut with “Bound”. I must admit, I stumbled into the theater not knowing what to expect from the film and walked out simply floored; “Bound” was, and still is, one of those films that you only see every so often. It rises above the level of simply a film; it’s a film that is experienced; a film that thrills every sense to the point of visual and sonic overload. “Bound” was a small film about two women who plan to steal two million dollars from the local mafia. It took place, for the most part, in one apartment. There wasn’t one moment, though, where I wasn’t exhilarated; there were moments of absolute tension, dark humor and visual thrills that left me amazed, exhausted and in awe at the detail of every frame. The sheer quality of the screenplay as well as the phenomenal performances were absolutely stunning coming from a directorial debut.
The brothers are back again with a far larger budget and a far bigger scope. They bring the detail and outstanding visuals that they were so successful with in directing “Bound”, but the screenplay, among other things, doesn’t always work. The story revolves around a computer programmer, Thomas Anderson(Keanu Reeves), who is a computer hacker named “Neo” during the night. Slowly though, his world begins to lose focus; he is approached by another hacker named Trinity(Carrie Anne Moss) at a local club and confronted with the question that has apparently driven not only him, but many others: “What is the Matrix?”. Watching over it all is Morpheus(Laurence Fishburne), a hacker who is leading the “resistance” against The Matrix. Neo and Morpheus are finally introduced as he teaches Neo that the world around him is not what he believes; in fact, it doesn’t even exist. The world around us is simply an artificial reality, while humans in reality are being harvested in the future to be part of The Matrix, which, when we see it, is breathtaking in scope and scale. It’s only a larger part of the overall excellence of the special effects work that went into the making of this film.
The first half of the film is solid set-up. Fishburne explaining to Reeves(as well as the audience) what the Matrix is, where it is, about where it came from, and on and on. Fishburne is perfect in the role, giving a solid performance with that perfect little smirk underneath the seriousness. The problem begins here, though. Fishburne is perfect reading through a whole lot of “technospeak” explaining the whole story. The problem is simply Keanu Reeves, who for the most part, looks simply confused during all of this opening dialogue. Not the good kind of confused either, where the character is working to figure out what is going on. The kind of confused where I expected the first word out of his mouth after Morpheus’s explanation would be over to be “huh?”. Or, “could you run that by me again?”. To keep the momentum going amidst all of this setup, we need an actor who we can be interested in and who seems to be at work trying to figure out what’s happening. Keanu Reeves looks simply so blank for most of the early going that it began to seem to like he was someplace else. I understand that the character was supposed to be this way, but Reeves takes the character to new levels of blankness, and that doesn’t help the first hour of the film, which is mainly story and after a while, it begins to slow down a bit too much.
We know where it’s headed though, and as the film begins to turn the corner into the second half, everything begins to come into focus and become far tighter. Even Keanu starts to look alive. Particularly fun to watch is an extended training sequence, where Keanu begins to learn the fighting skills that he’ll need to go up against the forces that the Matrix can bring to life. Things like the ability to walk up walls. There are definitely some major forces to contend with; the main opponents are the “agents”, deadly security programs brought to life by the Matrix. Dressed in grey jackets and firing at anything that moves, they are the perfect cold villians. And they’re lead by Agent Smith, played to perfection by Hugo Weaving. Weaving makes every sentence count, seemingly contemplating the wonder of his words as he spits them out in his low growl. Weaving’s performance is so perfect as the main villian, I frequently wished he’d had more scenes.
Of course, the rebels want to take apart the greater whole that keeps humanity as unknowing slaves, but the film isn’t quite always sure what to do. At first, it seems like the film is looking to explain the story as part of a deeper meaning, but as we turn the corner, exploration(and explanation) of just what the Matrix means seems to get forgotten about. Not that the second half isn’t visually phenomenal; once the film hits a pace in the second half, it really begins to throw the FX at you; most are absolutely thrilling and some have really never been seen before. To be honest, I would have liked the film to go deeper about the meanings of the Matrix, but the sheer quality of the action, the sheer detail and stunning images more than make up for it as the final act becomes an attack of immense and absolutely wild proportions.
The truth is that although I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, I was slightly dissapointed in areas. Although Reeves improves as the film goes on, his almost total lack of well, anything in the first half of the film slows the proceedings quite a bit. There are some fascinating ideas thrown out here and there, but the screenplay seems only content to skim the surface of any deeper meaning. Fishburne and Carrie Anne Moss, who plays Trinity, are quite good. I liked Moss quite a bit; she isn’t terribly animated either, but at least she has the cold, brutal strength about her that gave the performance life. In fact, her performance somewhat reminded me of Gina Gershon’s in “Bound”. “Bound” star Joe Pantoliano is also here, but I didn’t care for the character he plays. The truly great performance here is not by an actor; it’s by Bill Pope, who is definitely one of my favorite cinematographers. There are hundreds of images in this movie that are so absolutely memorable, strikingly cold and thrilling. Millions of bullet shells falling from the sky; lights from a SWAT team peering up from the darkness at the bottom of a staircase. Pope has been the cinematographer on everything from “Clueless” to “Bound” and he puts together compositions that are simply breathtaking. He is part of the reason why I see a lot of films now that I wouldn’t otherwise see: not for the stars, but because I am getting more and more familiar with some of the great cinematographers working today. The Brothers Wachowski have also brought other members of the “Bound” crew, such as editor Zach Staenberg and composer Don Davis, who both do an excellent job. That really sums up this film as well. Technically, it’s absolutely first rate. The screenplay doesn’t always work(some of the lines are a little silly) and the performances aren’t always top notch(ok, just Keanu Reeves isn’t). Overall though, there are far more positives and negatives. The Wachowski Brothers have made the leap to big budget filmmaking with a serious bang with a visually outstanding film and although the story doesn’t always work, it presents us with moments that present ideas that I found quite interesting and some(although not all) very well done performances. I’m not dissapointed because the film fell flat or didn’t try. I’m slightly dissapointed because this film had the potential to be a phenomenal combination of story, ideas and effects. It’s a great film overall, but it could have been so much more.
The DVD VIDEO: Although “The Matrix” may be built upon a foundation of bleak, futuristic tones of greys, blues and browns, colors look very natural and accurate on this DVD, exactly the same as they did in the theater. Detail is certainly impressive, and the picture is consistently clear and crisp throughout, up to the usual high standards that Warner Brothers gives to all new releases(and even most older films). The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Again, I wouldn’t want to see this film on anything but DVD- the VHS will be pan/scanned to fill the entire frame.
I did see a few instances of shimmering make themselves apparent, but nothing that I found highly distracting. There are no other instances of problematic elements other than that. What’s really nice about this transfer is how consistent it is throughout: whether in the dark subway tunnels or out on the streets in daylight, this is really a very well-defined image.
SOUND: An absolutely outstanding sound mix, and certainly a very, very powerful one as well. “The Matrix” provides some serious bass thunder, along with some amazing gunfights where action can be heard in detail coming from all around the room. Gunfire sounds very deep throughout. Especially awesome is the scene where Reeves’s character has the machine gun in the helicopter. Or the lobby shootout. Or the subway shootout. Or all of the effects that twirl around the room. There’s a whole lot to like here, and I think that a lot of people will be using this film to show off their sound systems. Dialogue sounds perfect throughout. No problems whatsoever.
MENUS: Although I complained a little bit about how Warner Brothers now uses an animated sequence to take us into the main menu(we can’t choose anything until it stops playing), the sequence that they’ve put together here to take us into the menu is just too cool. Really nicely done menus. Fun and easy to navigate. The DVD-ROM menus are really quite cool as well, very sharp and well designed.
Commentary: An enjoyable commentary from special effects supervisor John Gaeta, editor Zach Staenberg(who also was on the commentary for the Wachowski Brother’s first movie “Bound”) and actress Carrie Anne-Moss. I found what Gaeta and Staenberg had to say quite interesting, with the editor providing details on what it has been like to work with the directors for two movies now, and the effects supervisor provides some nice details on how the effects were produced. Moss doesn’t say much at all after the first few minutes. There are a few pauses on the track, but I think that overall, this is an enjoyable and informative track. I wish that the Wachowski Brothers would be included on the track, but they will actually be taking part in a live web event(accessable from the DVD-ROM) in November. I don’t know, I think that this track had more potential and I would have liked it to have included more people, but as it is, it’s certainly fine. Speaking of who I would like to have heard, I certainly would have liked cinematographer Bill Pope to be included, since he did such outstanding work here.
Isolated Score: This track is an isolated music score with commentary by composer Don Davis during the times when music isn’t pl aying. He talks about his ideas and concepts for how he brought music to the movie, and what it has been like to work with the Wachowski Brothers on another film after “Bound”.
White Rabbit: If you select the film to play with this option, when the icon comes up on screen, select it and it will take the viewer to an alternate sequence where you can watch a little featurette on how they made the special effects work for this scene. After you’re done watching each little featurette, it takes you right back to where you were in the movie. Awesome.
Red Pills Click on the red pills and you will be taken to additional documentaries on the effects. The trick is: you have to find the pills throughout the menus. Here are the documentaries:
“What Is Bullet Time?”: A documentary where effects supervisor John Gaeta takes us through how the “Bullet Time” effect was produced. Very cool, but pretty technical. This documentary runs about 5 minutes and 30 seconds.
“What Is The Concept?”:(This “pill” can be found in the cast/crew bios for the Wachowski Brothers) This documentary takes you though a comparison of the conceptual art and the final scenes. Really nicely put together with cool background music. This documentary runs about 11 minutes.
“Making The Matrix”: This is the biggest documentary on the disc. It includes interviews with pretty much everyone involved, from Keanu Reeves to producer Joel Silver to the Wachowski Brothers. Even better though, this takes us through all of the physical training that the actors had to go through for their stunt work. There’s some really nice behind-the-scenes footage as we watch the production film. This is a really well-done documentary: it’s not just a series of interviews, I think it’s really informative as well as entertaining about all of the effects and work that went into making this film happen. This documentary runs about 25 minutes or so and is highly recommended.
Storyboard To Screenplay: This is a really well set-up area of the DVD-ROM content where you can see the storyboards for quite a few scenes of the movie and read the script for that area of the film at the same time. There are tons of boards for each chapter. I looked through these for quite a while, not only because it was interesting to see the original concepts, but because whoever drew these did a magnificent job. Whoever put together this section did a great job as well- it’s very, very easy to navigate to the next chapter, or to the next storyboard in the chapter.
Do You Know Kung-Fu?: This section allows the user to jump directly to any of the major Kung-Fu scenes in the movie.
“Alternate Realities”: 7 Essays inspired by “The Matrix”. Makes for interesting reading.
Trailers: Now here’s where I ran into a little problem. The trailers for Demolition Man, Outland, Soldier, Mad Max and The Road Warrior are included here. That’s fine. What I didn’t quite like was that, instead of including the trailer for “The Matrix” on the actual DVD-video part of the disc, it’s on the DVD-ROM part of the disc. If this wasn’t a real great trailer, I may not have minded as much, but “The Matrix” has what I consider to be one of the best trailers of the past year, if not the past few years. I would have liked to have seen it on my TV instead of on my computer.
“Are You The One?”: Here’s where I ran into a little technical problem. I don’t know why, but this section froze up my computer. Maybe others will have more luck with it. What it is is a trivia game where you’re given clues from the movie.
Also: The original website(as of June ’99) and other cool web links.
Final Thoughts: I think that Warner Brothers has done it again and made a really strong DVD effort at a very nice price(suggested retail $24.98, but will probably be less in most stores). Although there were a few things that I would have liked to have seen done differently(such as having the trailer for “The Matrix” on the DVD-video portion), this is a really excellent disc in terms of audio(actually, I’d call the audio outstanding) and video and I think that most people, and definitely those who were fans of the film, will be very pleased with DVD. There’s quite a few nice things for those who have DVD-ROM drives on their computer as well.
The Film: 91/A = (455/500 possible points)
Video: 95/A = (380/400 possible points)
Audio: 98/A = (392/400 possible points)
Extras: 92/A = (276/300 possible points)
Menus: 94/A = (188/200 possible points)
Value: 95/A = (285/300 possible points)