The Matrix

Originally written April 20, 1999

The Matrix Too Much of a Maze

The Coen brothers really started something. Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer and director brother team whose credits include Raising Arizona and Fargo, blazed the trail for other brother teams to launch to stardom in Hollywood. Last year the Farrelly brothers gained fame with the smash hit There’s Something About Mary and in 1996 the Wachowski brothers hit it big with their debut, Bound.

Bound was a huge success for Andy and Larry Wachowski and that film’s critical kudos gave the pair free rein to push through a screenplay and idea they had been working on for years and was a pet project for the brothers. That pet project was called The Matrix.

If you’ve never believed in such a thing as a sophomore jinx, now you will. The problem with follow-up films for directors whose debuts are heralded so fiercely, is the expectations are so high there’s almost no way to duplicate the achievement. Think Steven Soderbergh, John Singleton and even Quentin Tarantino. The pressure is high when you’re touted to be the next big thing. So the tendency, the temptation, is to reach too far, strive too high and bite off too much. Studios are so excited to have the newest Spielberg that they almost give them carte blanche, knowing everyone will be looking to see what the new kids in town are doing next. So now these hot young directors, used to working on a shoestring and having to battle for anything and everything, from casting to costumes, have anything they want. It’s got to be seductive. And it usually turns out to be destructive.

The Matrix was the Wachowski’s baby. And in its original conception and incarnation in the minds of two struggling artists, it probably was an amazing thing. Because of the special effects needed to accomplish their vision, The Matrix could not have been their first film. After proving themselves with Bound, however, the brothers could then pursue the money to achieve their dream.

And The Matrix delivers, at least at the effects level. I’m hearing people say that this film will be looked at years from now as a truly groundbreaking achievement in effects and movie magic, and I’d have to say I believe it. There are some truly eye-popping effects and graphics that will blow you away. The mood and atmosphere of The Matrix is sci-fi heaven and fans of all science fiction, from Aliens to The X-Files, will find something for them in this film.

Except the Wachowski brothers fell into the other sophomore trap: they forgot to dance with who brought them. What made their debut film, Bound, so brilliant, was the craft of storytelling and the screenplay. Just the things The Matrix is missing.

What I’m imagining is two young and starving artists, sitting around in a college dorm room (who knows where they really were sitting, but this is what I imagine) thinking up a story of a world taken over by computers, man’s own self-created destruction. Into this world, called The Matrix, comes a savior, known as Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who is the only one who can rescue the human race from the computers. A small band of rebels (where have we seen this before) find this savior and train him to lead the revolution to free humanity.

That’s pretty heavy stuff. I can’t say that I blame the Wachowski brothers for not wanting one bit of their dream project to be tainted, edited or cut out. Which is why The Matrix, for all of its staggering effects and really cool stuff, fails. There’s just TOO MUCH cool stuff. There’s too much story, too much exposition, too many ideas, and too many concepts. This film gets so bogged down in trying to be deep and psychological that it loses the one thing that brought the brothers there in the first place: story. Rule #1: keep it simple. You’re there to entertain, first and foremost.

There’s nothing worse than a self-indulgent film and The Matrix will go down in history as one of the most self-indulgent films ever. You’ll probably still go see it because you’ve heard about the effects, and I’m even telling you they are amazing, and almost worth the price, but be prepared to sit there for an awfully long time through an awful lot of exposition waiting for those few precious effects. In fact, this entire film is exposition. I just wished they’d stopped trying to impress me with the depth of their vision and just get to the story. No movie should ever have to explain so much as this one does.

The Wachowski brothers are talented, no doubt. They have vision, talent, and imagination. What they needed on this film was someone to look over their shoulders and to stop them from themselves.

My rating: ** Worth matinee price