Myth meets Internet in 'Matrix'
Keanu and company take English teachers on a wild ride
March 31, 1999
By Andy Culpepper
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- English teachers of America, meet Keanu Reeves et al. They may hold the key to your next lesson plan -- and give you the ability to reshape the imaginations of teen-agers everywhere.
I have been exposed to "The Matrix." And I'm here to tell you -- it's contagious. Not in the conventional sense, mind you, but catching, nonetheless.
"The Matrix," for the uninitiated, is the title of a new movie, a sci-fi thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne. It is written and directed by the brothers Wachowski -- Larry and Andy -- whom movie buffs will recall as the team behind the psycho-sexual caper film, "Bound," which starred Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.
"The Matrix" is set in the future -- and in the past.
Confusing? Of course it is. Would you expect anything less from something which takes its name from a matrix?
If you've seen the trailer -- those promotional spots running on television -- or the poster -- Keanu Reeves, cool incarnate, decked out in long leather coat and sunglasses, flanked by his equally bespectacled co-stars -- well, then, perhaps you had the same reaction that I did.
I was curious what "The Matrix" was all about.
It would be no great revelation for me to admit that I have never been much of a fan of the majority of Keanu Reeves' films. Still, in spite of the "Men in Black" stylings of that "Matrix" poster, I just had a hunch this was going to be something different.
I had no idea how different it would be.
Started innocently enough
My "Matrix" experience began with an invitation to a screening on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank. I knew nothing about the plotline when I showed up at the screening room. I was handed some print material -- production information -- which we entertainment journalists typically receive for each new film we're shown.
"The Matrix," it read on the front in big, bold letters. "There are two realities: one that consists of the life we live every day, and one that lies behind it. One is a dream. The other is The Matrix."
Without reading any more, I pondered those lines and settled into my seat. The movie began, and I was whisked into a fast-paced high-tech graphics display of opening titles that led me into the cinematic world of "The Matrix."
If I had any doubts about which demographic the folks at Warner Bros. were shooting for, they were dispatched post-haste moments into the film. Judging from the science fiction/action/thriller nature of the picture -- not to mention the soundtrack with its Marilyn Manson single -- this film definitely was not directed at baby-boomer types such as yours truly.
The former English teacher in me would be remiss, however, if he did not raise his scary head and point out what an intelligently crafted and literary -- yes, literary -- script "The Matrix" is taken from. Indeed, it is very much a film for adults.
On the surface, this movie presents a story about valiant rebels fighting to overcome an oppressive force intent on dominating and, ultimately, destroying mankind.
The good guys appear to be a small band of computer hackers who hold the secret knowledge that something is seriously out-of-whack with the world. These rebels travel at the speed of light through time and space over hardwired telephone lines and are engaged in cat-and-mouse guerilla warfare against a society of machines which have subjugated most of humanity through electronic illusion.
These bad guys have created an electronic universe controlling everything, including humans' perceptions of the reality around them. Manipulating the way things appear to be is at the heart of the Matrix, a system in place to dupe human beings too befuddled to know any better.
Could I explain it with any more clarity? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably not. It's a movie.
If you think my explanation is hard to follow, consider Tom Gilatto's review in the April 5 issue of People magazine. "The Matrix is tough to explain," he writes, "but then how much explaining does an amusement park ride require?" For the record, Gilatto concludes by calling it a "Top-notch laptop fantasy."
So why is this script so smart?
The Wachowski brothers have tapped into the zeitgeist of the '90s and have fashioned a story which -- simply put -- can be described as mythology meets the Internet.
At the same time, "The Matrix" gives a completely new twist to the concept of "going online." And teen-age boys may never know what hit them.
In the process of being exposed to "The Matrix" and its high-tech action, adolescent audience members will also be bombarded with enough allusions to mythology, lore -- even Judeo-Christian symbolism -- as to make the most battle-scarred educator smile with unrestrained glee.
Bizarre movie, odd interview
And it isn't by accident, as I confirmed during one of the most bizarre interview sessions in which I have ever participated.
Normally, when we entertainment journalists talk with the cast members and the filmmakers behind new projects, we do so at hotels where cameras are set up in advance to record our conversations. We talk to each person one-on-one -- usually -- for a few minutes, then take the tapes back and edit together our stories.
It should have been a clue, then, when I was told the interviews for "The Matrix" would be conducted on the studio lot. Moreover, had I known a female colleague had been advised to wear comfortable shoes, I would have been suspicious immediately.
I was ushered over to one of the large sound stages typically used for shooting interior sequences on movies. Inside, I was led to an eerily lit mock-up of the inside of a hovercraft vehicle from the "Matrix" set.
Reclining in ship's crew jumpseats arranged in a tight semi-circle were several members of the cast -- Carrie-Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves, Joe Pantoliano (remember Guido the Killer Pimp from "Risky Business?"), and Lawrence Fishburne -- as well as the Wachowski brothers and the film's producer, Joel Silver.
Outside their semi-circle and closed off from their direct line of sight by a bank of monitors, a sort of command seat had been positioned. This was where the journalist -- meaning yours truly -- would pose questions aided by a touch-sensitive master monitor located directly in front of the pilot's seat.
I am to have 11 minutes -- not 10, nor 12 -- to talk to all of the assembled participants.
The English teacher in me began to sweat cold bullets. This was looking more and more like a video game arcade experience. I was prepared for anything but.
I had entered my own interview "Matrix." The illusion: I was there to talk about a thought-provoking film. The reality? I would be conducting an interview with all the finesse of a scene from "Battlestar Galactica."
A literary concoction
No matter. The truth -- as they say -- is out there. Allow me to share it with you.
The film's hero -- played by Keanu Reeves -- is a wily computer hacker named Thomas Anderson. He is thought to be "the one," the foretold leader by the name of Neo, and hence, he is the object of a search by Laurence Fishburne's character, Morpheus, the leader of the band of computer hacker rebels.
Morpheus' female lieutenant, Trinity, is played by actress Carrie-Anne Moss. She and Morpheus must convince Thomas that it is he who is destined to lead them to victory, even though Thomas doubts they are right.
It doesn't take a Harvard education to appreciate the symbolism. And so I ask Reeves about his character's name: a Thomas who is in doubt?
"You mean, 'Doubting Thomas?'" Reeves asks, referring to the Biblical figure Ditimus. The smile on his face tells me what I need to know. "Wow, you're good," says Pantoliano.
Score: former English teacher one, The Matrix, zip.
I am on to something beyond an amusement park ride, and the Wachowski brothers emphasize that fact.
"Well, you know, Neo means new, it means change," Larry Wachowski suggests. "All the names were chosen very deliberately, and we wanted to put as many things ... hidden in the movie, as many literary allusions ... we sort of think that makes it rich, more dense -- more stuff to think about and talk about."
And if Reeves' character is a savior, or Christ figure, then what of Fishburne's character, Morpheus?
"I think of him as almost a John the Baptist myself, actually," Fishburne says, referring to the Biblical holy man who traveled the countryside baptizing the faithful in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah.
Fishburne mentions re-examining myths and re-inventing myths and my inner English teacher considers joining the Keanu Reeves fan club while Wachowski picks up the theme about the importance of myth as a "mirror that is an archetype of our own time and our own life."
"I think it's important, " says Wachowski. "It's how we understand where we are and where we came from. It's a constant dialogue that happens in this sort of human consciousness, I guess."
Radical special effects
But, wait. Lest you think this movie is some kind of art film in search of a yawnfest, allow me to mention two words.
There are plenty. My inner English teacher was introduced to the Japanese animation technique called "anime," which breaks down action into components of time. The filmmakers used the technique in a radical new way on people during fight scenes to maximize the movements and speed of martial arts choreography.
Something else not to be overlooked is the use of wire stunt work perfected by Hong Kong stunt specialist Yuen Wo Ping. The opening scenes of the film capitalize on this technique with actress Moss, who performs a wall-walking maneuver you'd swear was computerized if you didn't know better.
Moss and the rest of the cast started training some four months before they arrived in Australia to begin work on the film. "First of all, I learned how to be just lifted on a wire," she explains. "Then I had to run against a padded wall and then they took the pads down, and I cried because I was afraid of the walls, and then I finally made it up the wall and then they added bullet hits at me...I had no idea what that would feel like."
The end result? "It was such a high to accomplish that task." Truthfully, words don't do it justice. You have to see it to believe it. Chances are teen-age boys will appreciate it all the more since this very superhuman maneuver is performed by a slightly-built female.
For certain, "The Matrix" is an amusement park ride. But as English teachers past and present might remind moviegoers, both young and otherwise: pay attention to the story. You never know what you may be mything.
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