Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, and Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix (1999)


(directors/writers: Andy Wachowski/Larry Wachowski; cinematography: Bill Pope; editor: Zach Staenberg; cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo/Thomas Anderson), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Gloria Foster (Oracle), Joe Pantoliano (Cypher), Marcus Chong (Tank); Runtime: 136; Warner Brothers; 1999)
“The film ends with Neo looking like Clark Kent, as he is stepping out of a telephone booth.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

How do you like to see Christ depicted in films? The Wachowski brothers, refugees from Marvel comic books, with one critically acclaimed lesbian noir film under their belt, Bound, have chosen as their hero for this film a guy who works for a legitimate software company by day, Thomas Anderson (Reeves), but at night works feverishly alone in his room as a hacker. He is known as Neo and has broken every law in the book against computer misuse. He is their Christ-figure; the star of the film.

The Wachowski brothers must think they hit upon something really important to convey, in a film that goes way over two hours in length. It has earmarked the young literate computer-age audience to buy into their intellectual sci-fi’er, as they flatter them by telling them that it is only at a young age that one can develop the ability to have a chance of understanding the message delivered here.

Neo will soon learn of an evil force out there, called The Matrix, that not everyone is aware of, that is an all-encompassing virtual-reality program overseen by omnipotent computers. The filmmakers get involved in their little pseudo-philosophy game of what’s real and what isn’t by promising those with an open mind a chance to be unplugged, to find out what is real. I think what they really believe is that those who will get unplugged, do so because they had the good sense to pay money to see the movie.

What the Wachowski brothers are good at is mixing style and visuals, and what we see on the screen is groundbreaking and fun to watch. There is the exhilarating camera work from the opening sequence onwards, there are the kung-fu and sci-fi schmaltz sequences, which are as entertaining as they are pretentious.

A computer hacker named Trinity (Moss) is a take off on Mary Magdalene, which is why there is no sex between her and Neo. There is just intent eye contact. She uses her kung-fu and super-natural skills just like it’s done in the comics, to escape from a police trap. Arriving on the scene, just a bit late, are the ultra-serious and menacing Agents, created from artificial intelligence. They are skilled in kung-fu, clad in uniforms of dark suits and sunglasses, and are led by Agent Smith (Hugo). He is well aware of the group that Trinity belongs to, and is optimistic that he will get that renegade group and their leader Morpheus (Fishburne). Morpheus is depicted as a John the Baptist type. The police informer has, also, tipped them off about a hacker named Neo, who is about to be recruited into Morpheus’s group. The action now centers around the police’s capture of Neo and we see how they bug him, and I mean literally bug him. When he escapes from the police, it is just as thrilling to see how Morpheus’s crew debugs him.

The action scenes are the virtue in this movie.

We get to see Morpheus on board his time traveling hovercraft USS Nebuchadnezzar, with his small crew of believers. He is depicted as the true believer, who believes what he is doing is best for the world and should be accepted on faith alone. We are in deep pedantic trouble at this juncture of the film, as we all must be lectured to. All that talk, all those explanations, every bit of pseudo-philosophical occultism is pulled out of the hat to make the story plausible. But the more rationally it is explained by the group’s leader, Morpheus, the more holes in his story are opened up. The Judas in his group, who only wants to return to the matrix in his old job at the factory, is tired of all this hype after nine-years of eating the same slop. He is played by Cypher (Joe), now eating a juicy steak with the Agents and declaring ignorance is bliss. This seems to make as much sense as the mumbo-jumbo Morpheus is talking about. As Morpheus explains all this to Neo, the chosen One. If you just take one look at Neo, no one in his right mind would mistake him for even one second as “The One.” But Morpheus is convinced he is “The One,” as he fills his head with programs a young and up-and-coming Christ needs. No more pacifism here, but plenty of kung-fu warrior stuff, as he prepares to take him to the oracle for a private consultation. Evidently, she has insights into things even the true believers and the next Christ don’t even know. At last a voice in appreciation for the muses, arises.

This is a high tech movie, whose action scenes are for the most part humorless. This film’s only really playful gestures come about as the chase takes place between the bad guys who can’t die, as depicted onscreen with splendid computer imagery. We see those who represent the unnamed governments as lawful Agents who try to round up this group of hackers, who also can’t die. All those action scenes get supplanted by the very human and humorous scene of Neo and the oracle, played with grace and dignity by Gloria Foster. He asks her if he is Christ, as she answers him indirectly: “If you are in love, you don’t need anyone to tell you that.”

So now we have a hero who has doubts, he has already learned from Morpheus that the world he is living in is false. But he can’t return to normalcy because he chose the red pill instead of the blue pill that Morpheus so dramatically gave him, when he told him that there is no going back once you choose the kind of world you want to live in. And now he is stuck searching for the truth. I don’t think he even has time to go out and see an escapist sci-fi film, just for kicks. It is serious business saving the world, with not many people even willing to thank you for your effort. But he, at least, found Morpheus, the one he was searching for. As an interesting twist in the story, it was Morpheus who was looking for him.

The film ends with Neo looking like Clark Kent, as he is stepping out of a telephone booth. This gives the film the full comic book flavor it deserves: It is as if Superman is there, already in place, ready to stop the bad guys.

You will only get questions in this film, not answers. In an interview with the directors in the ‘zine American Cinematographer, The Wachowski brothers freely talked about what kind of film they were trying to make and who influenced them. For the film’s point of reference to anything resembling theology and theory, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation that was used as reference material, referring to his take on Ecclesiastics. That was the book Neo had in his room when his computer friends came by to pick up their pirated program. He is the modern French philosopher who states time is unreal. He also has a critique of hyperreality, and states how the truth can’t be reached but violence can.

This is not exactly a biblical film (though if you are looking for this to be a spiritual film instead, there are plenty of symbols in the film to allude to). In my opinion, this is really a computer-age film, that questions if we have just become batteries for our computers who have evolved past us in their knowledge of the world. We can see how Neo is now free of the illusions he has lived with, but this only leads us to wonder how he will handle this new found experience. It will also lead to sequels.

The only other intellectual question we may be left to ask ourselves if we take the new myth presented here seriously, is who needs Christ when we got Superman? Or, do we need neither or both, or do we just need a Christ-figure?