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In Belated Sorta Praise Of… the Matrix (Ole!)

A few weeks ago, I was in a town square in Spain watching the Matrix.

The film started at 10.30 p.m., and was watched by about five hundred people, for free as part of the excellent Celcius 232 Festival, on green plastic chairs laid out before an inflatable screen in front of the historic town hall.  I wasn’t planning on watching it, as a) I didn’t remember particularly enjoying it when I first saw it and b) it was in Spanish.  A language I can’t speak in the slightest.

But!  I was with another writer and a newly-met friend, and we didn’t have to be up early, and the writer turned me and said “I’m just going to watch as far as ‘I know kung fu’,” one of cinema’s most implausibly immortal lines.  And I figured… oh what the hell.  Even my Spanish can probably run as far as that, and afterwards I’ll go into the hotel, which was literally next door, brush my teeth, and either go to bed or get something warmer to wear.

Sure enough, the line came, and we all cheered and punched the air, and almost immediately parted company in search of sleep/food/warmth, and I went upstairs, and brushed my teeth, and put my pyjamas on underneath my clothes and… came back outside to watch the rest of it.

By 00.15, our heroes were initiating a daring rescue attempt on an armed fortress, and it was starting to drizzle.  At the first touch of damp, 200 Spanish viewers stood up and walked away, while others held spare plastic chairs above their heads in defense against the weather.  The barely spitting, not at all especially wet rain.

By 00.35, we were on the verge of discovering if Neo understood anagrams and was, in fact, the One after all, and as he squared off against Agent Smith for the final punchup of destiny, it actually properly began to rain, and the projector lamped off.

Cue: collective groans and cries of dismay and pain amongst the audience.  And consequently, once I got back to Britain, I went straight to the local second-hand shop to buy a copy of the Matrix for 50p to watch the last 10 minutes of the film.  Because I had to knowEven though I’d already seen it.

So here we are, a few weeks later, and I have now watched 85% of the Matrix in Spanish, and 15% in English, and based upon this loose conclusion it is possible that I was a little harsh when I first saw the movie, over 15 years ago.

At the time, as a secondary school student, I decided to dislike it for the following reasons, some of which are still valid:

  1.  It’s hilariously pretentious.  ‘Welcome to the desert… of the real….’ proclaims Morpheus in one of the more laugh-out-loud moments of exposition.  It’s sorta Nietzsche meets the Tao Te Ching with added bass.  15 years has not changed this.  What 15 years has done, however, is demonstrate that if you’re gonna go down the philosophy-meets-kung-fu path, you just gotta do it with a straight face.  And the Matrix does.  It’s not afraid of itself, and by being not scared sorta achieves something which, while still funny, is also kinda beautiful.
  2. I was 14.  You are primed to dislike everything when you’re 14.  And my friend really fancied Keanu Reeves, and Westlife had recently broken up and she’d been crying in the toilets when that happened and all these things just combined to make me automatically suspicious of the world as a whole.
  3. It’s a Superman origin story.  But damnit, it doesn’t let you know that until the end, and that’s a real shame.  Once a guy can fly, just like with Superman, you’re gonna struggle with jeopardy….
  4. It was properly gory/scary in places.  Not blood-splatter gore, just body-horror – bugs, sown up mouths, brain-spikes etc..  I’d never seen anything like it, and was primed to be freaked out.

And I guess here’s a big part of my new-found sympathy: I had never seen anything like it before.

15 years later, watching it again, I realise that I’ve now seen 10,000 things exactly like it.  The fighting, the visual style, the ideas (which had never been done before on film, even if SF was all over that shit already) – they have been copied and replicated more times than Agent Smith in the bad, not-to-be-mentioned sequels.  The Matrix has entered our culture in more ways than I’d even bothered to think about, and yet in doing so still remains a significant stretch above the shoulders of those who seek to copy it.

Certain other things became apparent…

  1.  It’s visually beautiful.  The design is just lovely.  A timeless no-where that’s at once familiar and alien, every part of it is a joy to look at, even when it’s horrid or deliberately dull.  10/10.
  2. The fighting is fun.  Arguably there’s a lot of standing still trading blows, but who cares?  Both the Matrix and, in fairness to them, the next sequel (still a very bad film) took a great joy in mucking around with martial arts styles and throwing everything they had at a problem to make the fights sexy, energetic, prolonged without being full of too many spare bodies that just get knocked out at a single punch, and a joy to look at.  The Matrix also gave us a few fun things – such as the helicopter scene – which movies since have tried, and largely failed, to replicate effectively.  Again, all the kudos.
  3. It’s self-consciously cool and again, gets away with it by just going for it.  Fuck you with your sunglasses and black leather; I’ve got black leather coats on black leather tops with black leather underwear and more guns than you can count.  Many films have tried to be that cool, and failed, because arguably it’s too preposterous for words, and once you realise that, you probably can’t ever be as cool as the Matrix is ever again.
  4. For all that it is a deeply pretentious, wikipedia-level-philosophy movie, it does raise questions.  It answers those questions with a bazooka and a life-restoring kiss (another joyful participant in the catalogue of SF tropes – timely resuscitation via true love), but who cares?  Arguably the Truman Show raises similar questions, but in a totally different yet oddly more fulfilling way, but hell, that’s the Truman Show, which gets its own plinth of awesome.  If you have never thought about stuff before – reality, perception, observation, free will, sentience, mortality etc. – then at the very least there’ll probably be a ten minute bit down the pub afterwards where you go ‘yeah, so like, wow, maybe the world is like, just the sum of my flawed perceptions or something’ and hey, thinking about it, that’s a pretty mind-blowing thing.  With bazookas.  I don’t think we can accord it the status of soul-wrenching intellectual-classic, but let’s at least offer it this kudos: that compared to pretty much every major SF/martial arts film made since, it’s an intellectual dissertation of a movie.