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In this episode: The Matrix | A Bit o' Futurama

Part Terminator, part Alien, part Dark City, part Borg, part Men In Black, part anything by Caro & Jeunet, part Hong Kong action flick... You'd think such a Frankenstein of parts would be just as gruesome as said monster, but oh, no no no. The Matrix is really quite something. It is the good parts, all come together to create a complex, visually brain-snapping tale of futuristic woe and human struggle.

I saw the previews, thought them incredibly cool, and knew I would end up going to see the movie. I knew Keanu Reeves was in it, and that he usually sucks. I predicted my excitement would be instantly shattered as I watched another Johnny Mnemonic unfold, gangly and unwatchable, before my eyes. But then reviews started coming in. Good reviews, filled with a sort of reluctant praise. My hopes rose, and by the time I was sitting in The Village Theater on Friday night, I was dangerously eager. As the trailers finished, I was going to appreciate coming no matter how The Matrix played. Why? They showed the Star Wars I trailer. On the huge screen. Now that's how to see it! The audience, of course, erupted with joy. Except the woman next to me. She was obviously just there with her boyfriend as payment for him going with her to see Message in a Bottle. Poor girl.

I don't know how to describe The Matrix without giving much away, so I'll just be vague. Sven, who also saw it Friday, didn't know anything about it and said he liked watching it that way because it was a surprise. But if you've read any reviews at all, you'll know the basics and can follow along. I'll just try to give you a feeling of what the movie's like.

First thing's first. Keanu. Whew. He does fine here. His raving moronicity doesn't shine through like usual. He just gets to mope around, let the other characters control his actions, and be generally stunned at the world and the Matrix as it is revealed to him. There's even a very funny moment when one of the characters makes a relaxed, almost warmhearted crack at what we all know Keanu to be: cute but dumb. Keanu is in fact perfectly suited for this role. It's sort of nice to see him all shaved and gooed and "accessorized" as a human slave, mindless and inert. He goes from human nothing to, oh, the single most important person ever, and that alone is worth a huge laugh. I think the Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed this movie, knew we'd all get a big kick out of that one.

The Matrix as a movie is more stylish than 4,000 Mod Squads. It is cold but funny, hip but self-aware, intelligent but base. There may be moments where there's lots of guns going off and plaster and stuff exploding from walls, but insert into this the balletic motions of people jump-hovering in the air and running effortlessly up walls and you have something more than a shoot-'em-up. What is even more impressive about the movie is how perfectly these strange physical actions are shot, directed, and edited. Let's face it, people running up walls is hokey stuff. I watched something called Chinese Ghost Story this weekend on video, and it's got people flying all over the place—floating, bouncing, twirling—and it's all cheesy as hell. Yes, it's that typical kinetic Chinese chopsocky style, but it's still incredibly ridiculous. (David is reading this now thinking I'm faking knowing what I'm talking about, but really I'm not. Really!) The Wachowskis, on the other hand, make the bending of the laws of nature seem natural, expected, and very, very exciting. People don't just run up walls, they run around them, still following arcs determined by physics. People don't just jump from one sky scraper to another, defying gravity completely, but they jump logically, just lessening gravity enough to get them across. This is all demonstrated in the choice of shots, the choice of film speed, editing rhythms, and choreography. And once you understand what the Matrix is and how it works, the "realism" is heightened. You go, "Of course."

The downfall of any sci-fi movie that takes itself even half-way seriously is a denial of reality. By that I mean the fantastic has to be coupled with an anchor to reality. People will only accept so much before giving up on a movie. As I've said before, sci-fi is a daring combination of reality and imagination. Star Trek. There's a fine example. The modern Star Trek shows and movies are full of bogus and hokey elements: shapeshifting entities, mind-reading and psychokinesis, omniscient beings, particles of time, space jellyfish. But add a Federation, a fleet of ships, treaties and wars, human struggle, and the hokey can be palatable. (Except the space jellyfish. That's just stupid no matter what you do.) And using transitional elements like DNA sequencing and cloning, miniaturization of technology, or even space travel itself—all which were once thought of as fantastical—can bridge the "real" and the "fake" even more. Another obvious example: Star Wars. The only reason any of us in 1977 bought those little ships flying around in space is because they looked mechanically real, like something that could actually exist. The Death Star could only have been built by something as oppressive, frightening, and recognizable as the Empire. And Droids? All we need now is AI.

The Matrix works thanks to this real/unreal concept. The movie does at times almost get away from itself and make you think, "Uh, yeah. Whatever." But it always catches itself, usually by calling attention to the silliness.

The story of course is also very important. Story is what failed Lost in Space so miserably last year (along with the space monkey, which, believe it or not, is more pathetic than the space jellyfish). The Matrix has a solid story. It is not new, though. It is cobbled together from other sources; thus the part Terminator, part Alien, part etcetera. There's your band of rebels. There's your machines run amok. There's the love saves the day thing. There's the humans struggling to survive stuff. But it all works! The Wachowskis know that they're stealing, and they comment on it several times with visual puns and asides. Even the world of the Matrix is itself a commentary on these clichés. I mean, why else would the bad guys wear shades and drab suits and sport secret-service-type earphones? Why model "it" after 1999? It all works together and makes The Matrix very enjoyable and even thrilling.

The effects are not seamless, but most of the time the effects' effects are successful enough for one to overlook this. That field of mechanical monstrosities harvesting saccules looks completely CG, but the image is so well-imagined it ends up creeping you out too much to really care. There's the CG alteration of people, helping them to walk on walls and jump over huge gaps and move faster than the eye can see. This latter effect is shown cleverly by the Wachowskis not in a super-speedy silent film manner or a simple slo-mo Six Million Dollar Man manner, but rather using a weird CG slo-mo/multiple image hybrid style. Limbs blur and seem to branch, like you're seeing double, triple, or quadruple. A couple examples of this are shown in the trailer. Of course, some of the floating and jumping is done with good old-fashioned wires, too. Machines will never take over completely. Ha ha.

As for the other characters, they are all interesting and mostly well-acted. Laurence Fishburne is the mysterious Morpheus, the one who pulls Keanu into the Matrix (or, actually, out of the Matrix) to fulfill a prophecy. Laurence, affecting the style of the whole film, plays things very, very cool, but he's also got a hint of smart ass in him. Like the movie knows it's being cool, Morpheus knows he's being cool. Despite the weight of his "task," Morpheus definitely enjoys playing around in the Matrix, bending them rules. And Laurence enjoys playing Morpheus, it seems.

The other hero worth mentioning is Carrie-Anne Moss. This is kick-ass woman done right. Carrie-Anne's Trinity is every bit as rebel chic as the rest of her cohorts. Usually when this happens with women characters, some kind of overt cliché of femininity is thrown in to remind all the hormones in the audience that she's a woman. (Or they have to die.) Trinity, though, gets her femininity just by being a kick-ass in a tight suit. She gets to blow bad guys away and kick them in the head. She gets to give icy stares. And she even gets the movie's one-liner, a fantastically satisfying one-liner that, coupled with the imagery immediately previous and following, put a huge smile on my face. Trinity never lets her hair down (it's short anyway), never screams or needs rescuing, and doesn't have any harrowing encounters while wearing only her panties. Kick ass. Definitely.

I've said more than enough. If you have even a passing interest in seeing this movie, I suggest you do so. If you hate it, you can mail your ticket stub to me so I can keep it in my Jar of Rejects. If you like it, just send me a nice Hawaiian Punch. Oh, and don't wait for video. This is a movie theater movie if ever there was one. It'll lose a lot of impact on the TV screen.

Well, I've seen two episodes of Futurama, and I have to say it's great. It's Simpsonsy, but different. Very Matt Groening. For a solid laugh, check it out. It starts on its regular night tonight (Tuesday). And beware the Futurama theme. It's been going through my head for over a week now!




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz