The Matrix

dir. andy and larry wachowski
st. keanu reeves, laurence fishburne, hugo weaving, carrie-anne moss
USA 1999 136 mins (Aust & UK) 144 mins(US) rated R
now available on DVD & video

Well there's been some mixed reactions to this film, with most reviewers conceding it an excellent special effects film, a popular film, but lacking substance and a coherent narrative. Yet The Matrix is a particularly important and seminal film, for our generation and especially the aspiring filmmakers and critics of Australia.

There are some reasons why The Matrix has not been celebrated amongst the informed film-going elite. Most of the tenured film critics are not in the target market for this film. Have they read William Gibson or Bruce Sterling? Are they excited by the use of electronic music? Are they young enough to get off on the film's kinetic energy and film quotations? I don't think so. They may have a good time with it, but it strikes them as too contrived, too derivative, too science-fiction and too much concept. Yet it is exactly the concept that makes it art. The Matrix is going to be one of the film-texts of our time, a cultural signpost of lasting influence and importance, yet reviewers have shown great reluctance to describe it as anything other than eye-candy - a spectacle-driven commercial prospect.

although you try to discredit
ya still never edit
the needle, i'll thread it
radically poetic

right: a screen shot from Syndicate Wars
Senior critics writing for traditional media have noted that certain scenes are similar to computer games and comic books, but none of them have noted the irony of using Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up" to end the film. I suspect the established culture-vultures do not own Rage Against the Machine's anarchic 1992 album, and subsequently are not sensitive to the generational injokes of this movie and the electronic soundtrack which excites us as we wait in the wings. I doubt these professional writers own Playstations or have ever played Syndicate on a PC, and I doubt many of them will ever come across this review because they do not frequent the net except to send emails. It seems to me that few in the art establishment have a realistic view of where all this technology is taking us. Few outside the IT industry have prophesised film and television converging with the interactive game and communal web experience. Yet talk to anyone under 25 and they is little doubt that soon we'll be kissing passive, linear lightshows goodbye as we plug into our boxes. How long? Not long, because what you reap is what you sow. The Matrix, along with Cronenberg's Existenz, Bigelow's Strange Days, and the tv miniseries Wild Palms are the precursors to this paradigm shift.

Produced by Oliver Stone, Wild Palms had a cameo by William Gibson. Significantly, The Matrix lacks such an acknowledgement, which far from being a point of a criticism, is actually an inditement of the extent to which these ideas have been taken up by our generation, that distopian cyberpunk is a genre we are already familiar with whether we have read the books or not. We don't need to see William Gibson to know the filmmakers love the man and the genre he helped create, because these ideas are now taken for granted - to label them 'cyberpunk', 'postmodern' or 'Gibsonesque' is to state the bleeding obvious.

In addition to c-punk, video games and comic books, the Wachowski's have gleefully incorporated a potpourri of film references, such as the Peckinpah inspired gatling scene, the Bruce Lee/Kung Fu signature shots and John Woo/Chow Yun Fat gunfights (choreographed by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo Ping), the flight deck of the Millenium Falcon in the asteroid, the organic technology of Plasm (by Defiant comics), industrial terrain and micro-robots of City of Lost Children, the smashed sunglasses and invulnerable nature of the AI quoting Terminator 2 and many more.

In Projections 8, Peter Cowie, publishing director for Variety, laments that young people leaving film school today would much rather aspire to "Men in Black, the Usual Suspects or Seven than the cerebral cinema of Kieslowski, Bergman or Fassbinder." God forbid! The gulf between 'us' and 'them' is particularly evident in our celebration of The Matrix and the contrast it provides to their corrupt visions of the future as presented in the Fifth Element, Men in Black and the deplorable ID4. Like Southpark, Beavis and Butthead and hip-hop, most adults just don't get it ... and who can be bothered explaining it to them? The Matrix draws together disparate influences, demographic-specific quotations and references and attains a historical and social relevance greater than they realise. So be it. Just as Parker Lewis Can't Lose, time will show that these movies signify a new wave of filmmaking as exuberant and inspiring as any other - people will forget that they were once derided as rollercoaster rides, soulless FX, a cheapened artform.

And while there is product placement by Nokia, Fed Ex and various banks, the film hardly belongs to the league of big blockbusters that threaten national and boutique cinemas with their titanic marketing budgets and cross-over appeal. Shot in Sydney with a B-cast already says something about the budget constraints, as does the simple locations and unsophisticated furnishings eg. the city phone books, the 'marble' in the lobby shootout which wobbles like polypropylene when the girl headbutts a sheet whilst taking cover. Seeing Sydney on the screen was both gratifying and enervating. Constantly distracted by trying to locate the streets and buildings they had used, I was simultaneously riled that several locations I frequent have now been appropriated by Americans with the money with the tech - wynyard station alleyway, eddy ave central, anzac bridge. At least Alex Proyas (the Crow, Dark City) is Australian. These guys from Fox are stealing our landmarks and recasting them as American, populating this captured landscape with imported american cars, cops and payphones. The film co-opts Sydney as exotic scenery for America's consensual hallucination, reconstructing our territory as a virtual space, a matrix in itself. There were some shots taken of Martin Place, looking down from the MLC building, which was amusing if you knew that's where the American Consulate is located. Visiting filmmakers and studio bigwigs are often invited over for lunch in that boardroom with its amazing views.

Am I wrong to be irritated by our virtual colonisation? I don't know what the rules are on making films in Australia, but there seems to be some quota on usage of local talent. Hugo Weaving was astounding as a menacing AI agent, adopting this incredibly sharp articulation of words that suited his role as an imitation human, but he obviously had American accent written into his casting contract. The only Australian accent in the film belongs to one of the Oracle's potentials - a nice little piece of Orientalism in a half-pint white Aussie kid sitting in lotus position with a shaved head and kimono, spouting mystic easternisms like "Do not think of bending the spoon, but know that there is no spoon." Whatever happened to "my dad picks the fruit..."? I guess Cottees couldn't afford the product placement.

eugene chew
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