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Synthetic Cinema

[whitespace] The Matrix
Anti-Gravity: Keanu Reeves grapples manfully with a floating miscreant in 'The Matrix.'

Keanu Reeves, back in action

By Richard von Busack

IT'S THE NEAR FUTURE. You can tell because everyone is driving around in old cars. The idea of The Matrix is that intelligent machines have colonized the planet, putting forth a clever reproduction of the world in virtual reality form. The great computer hacker Anderson, a.k.a. "Neo" (Keanu Reeves), is recruited by the Underground, which resists the computer-made illusion. On the trail of the Underground are lethal Agents, played by a duplicated Hugo Weaving, who seems to be doing a Laurie Anderson imitation throughout. (This in itself may be meant as retro-future.) The Underground fighters hide in a submarine/helicopter in "the real world," namely, the sewers of a nuclear-winter-blasted city. The Matrix is built like an action picture, but it has a drippy, mystical side--Keanu isn't just a guerrilla, but the Messiah. One look at Joe Pantoliano as the cyber-guerrilla "Cypher" with his Fu Manchu mustache and you'll figure out who the Judas is.

The Matrix is directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who made the fine, tight thriller Bound. This is their first script and it's a slurry of other media. Mostly it's The Terminator, with a little bit of T2, Fantastic Voyage, Yellow Submarine, Dr. Strange comics, several William Gibson novels and a dozen different Hong Kong movies thrown in. The bald-headed sage Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) instructing Keanu in martial arts is straight out of kung fu pictures--surprise, Neo has to learn Zen to be able to fight better. When, at the finale, the Agent says--regarding an approaching train--"Hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability"--one wanted to protest that after the previous two hours one knew that sound of inevitability all too well.

As the hero, Reeves is supposed to be pretending to be Schwarzenegger, John Woo and Bruce Lee combined. Slower than Eastwood and not nearly as ironic, he paces through hallways in a leather duster and sunglasses. As always, he's a pipsqueak; he doesn't have a physical presence, the gravity to make himself look like the wrath of God.

It's hard to believe in the "real" world of the guerrilla fighters because of the limited wonders of digital effects. What may look great on a computer screen doesn't always translate to film. The problem with digital effects is that ambiance of whiteness around everything--an ivory-blue glow, like the eerie radiance of a slab of cream cheese under the refrigerator light. Whether it's the Titanic, the skies in Matrix or, unfortunately, the marching robot legions in the new Star Wars trailer, all these illusions have the same synthetic quality. Natural light never looks natural, and as a result, you have the impression that outdoor scenes are played under office fluorescent lights--perhaps the same lights under which the effects were composed in the first place? The finale of The Matrix, a redo of the helicopter climax of Supercop/Police Story 3, is especially ineffective because of this sterile glow of artificial light. The insistence from the actors here that you're about to see something you've never seen before seems to be part of the robot's delusion factory; maybe computers wrote and directed The Matrix.

The Matrix (R; 135 minutes), written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski and starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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