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The Matrix (1999)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

[Preface: "Long ago" I edited a print newsletter for the Libertarian Party of Dane County. Each month I would have the chore of choosing reasonable articles from what was then available on the web and local submissions, get them all to fit into a format that resembled a “church bulletin,” then copy and distribute them. It was a large chore. I stopped doing it for several reasons, however, before I stopped editing that newsletter I wrote a few movie reviews for it. Occasionally they were picked up by the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin’s (LPWI) periodical: The Wisconsin Libertarian. This is one of the last movie reviews I wrote for those defunct periodicals. The LPWI again has a newsletter, but the Dane County affiliate newsletter hasn’t been issued in almost five years. This is how my review of The Matrix appeared in the Wisconsin Libertarian. There will be an afterword at the end too.]

{Reprinted from the Dane County Libertarian}

“What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” —Morpheus, from The Matrix

Last month I noted I was recommending movies two months in a row [first: Antz, then The Truman Show]. This month makes it three. The movie review column is now a regular feature. There are many movies lately with individualist and libertarian themes. Movies are popular culture that can be used to promote liberty.

Last month I reviewed The Truman Show. This month’s recommendation shares thematic substance with The Truman Show. In fact, I recently told someone The Truman Show was a “kinder, gentler Matrix.” Both movies use metaphor and symbolism to advance their themes which are focused on how we perceive the world and our place in that world as individuals. In most other aspects the movies are very different. The Truman Show is an inventive form of drama with clever plot elements. The Matrix is a science fiction, action/adventure, kung fu thriller with stunning special effects and great cinematography.

The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving. Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, an employee of a major software firm with an alter ego of Neo: a computer hacker. Reeves does a surprisingly good job as Neo / Anderson. He is contacted mysteriously through his computer and told to “follow the white rabbit.” The white rabbit appears as a tattoo on a black market customer’s shoulder and Neo dutifully follows it to a night spot where he meets Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. Trinity makes the film worth the entry price for people who like to see skintight patent leather clothing on a form that makes it look just right.

In Neo and Trinity’s first verbal exchange one learns that she “broke the IRS dbase.” Hmm, brains too. From the opening scene I was fairly certain I was going to like this movie but with one of the protagonists breaking IRS databases almost all doubt left. Neo discovers that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of Trinity’s resistance group, wants to meet with him. The next morning, after being chewed out at work for tardiness, Anderson receives delivery of a cell-phone that promptly rings while he is removing it from the package. The caller, Morpheus, informs Neo that “they” (the baddies) have come for him. Morpheus seems to know everything that is happening in Anderson’s office. He guides Neo out of the office via phone, but Neo is eventually captured. After a surreal meeting with the baddies, Neo is swept by events to an eventual meeting with Morpheus where many of his questions are answered. The action in this film is very fast - no dull moments. The Wachowski brothers know what it takes to keep an audience’s interest and they have constructed a complex story with something for almost any moviegoer.

When they meet, after the quote at the top of the review, Morpheus also tells Neo “You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he expects to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth.” He is told about the matrix which Morpheus describes as “...the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Neo finds that a malevolent artificial intelligence has enslaved mankind to farm them for their electrical energy. Morpheus asks “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” The matrix is the virtual reality “dream world” in which most humans live.

The movie has quasi-religious aspects with religious allusions throughout. Neo is considered something of a messianic type, “the One,” by Morpheus.
Hugo Weaving shines playing the periodontally challenged and terrifically sinister main villain: Agent Smith.

On the surface of the movie, it is an impressive visual experience. It has a gothic feel that darkens the atmosphere throughout. The movie is reminiscent of Dark City, Batman and sometimes Blade Runner. It does well as science fiction, but also has action and martial arts elements broadening its appeal. The Matrix takes advantage of the theatre, your VCR won’t deliver the same experience unless you happen to have a leading edge home theatre set up. The film uses TH/X and DTS technology like nothing I’ve seen before. There are lurking spoilers in the rest of the review.

There is more to The Matrix than the surface. The science fiction plot plays a Trojan horse for the deeper theme of anti-statism. Humans don’t produce enough electrical energy to make them worthwhile as batteries, so what does that aspect of the plot really mean? Hint: didn’t Trinity break the IRS dbase? What is artificial and parasitic living off the energy of most humans? The answer: the State. If that isn’t enough evidence, the “bad guys” are visually depicted as black suited, sunglassed, ear-jacked federal goons called “agents.” That ought to be enough, but if it still isn’t, the matrix, which is the virtual reality of the science fiction plot, is described by Morpheus as being what you see when you look out the window, watch your TV, go to work, go to church and pay your taxes. Those choices aren’t random. The matrix is the world created by the state: the establishment - the world in which the unaware (sleeping) citizen lives.

The movie ends on an uplifting libertarianish note when Neo contacts those running the matrix, who’re now scared, and tells them that he plans on showing fellow humans a world “without controls, without borders and boundaries, where anything is possible.” I expect a sequel, unless there is a large-scale outbreak of censorship in the United States.

I found The Matrix to be a very entertaining movie. It is also one of the movies most often mentioned as being violent and in need of censorship in the wake of post-Littleton hand-wringing fits. Odd that “they” wouldn’t like the movie described in the last paragraph, isn’t it?

When Neo is preparing for a long odds mission against “agents” one of the other resistance characters asks him: “So what do you need? Besides a miracle.” Neo answers. “Guns. Lots of guns.” Gun aficionados may like this movie as guns are key elements used to defeat evil.

The Matrix was a gigantic box office success at its opening and is still showing in theatres. It will continue in theatres for a while. The video won’t be the same. Consider seeing The Matrix in a theatre. I have, three times so far.

[Afterword: Home theatre has become more common and affordable. DVDs and cable/DBS deliver a fair approximation of the good aspects of a theatre experience. I was correct about there being sequels. However, I did not find that the sequels continued the intriguing nature of the original. It would be difficult to blame that on outright censorship, but perhaps it was harder to continue "slipping in" the almost subliminal anti-statist message of the first movie after the "disguise" was blown. The sequels, although they are still concerned with the central characters of the first movie, do not seem to me to have the depth of the original movie. As science fiction and eye candy they are as good as the first film, but the dialog in the sequels has far less to say and hint at than Morpheus speaking to Neo had in the original. So a set of sequels was a disappointment (in my opinion, others disagree). That is certainly true of many Hollywood sequelized productions.]

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