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Movies

Review: 'Matrix' offers tales from the cryptic

April 9, 1999
Web posted at: 2:50 p.m. EDT (1850 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Keanu Reeves stinks. We should establish that right at the start. If you're intending to see the new sci-fi extravaganza "The Matrix" because you think our boy is on the verge of wowing you with a sudden, unexpected leap to thespian competence, you might also consider making a stop at the golden arches on the way to the theater to pick up a McMignon burger. You're a lot more optimistic than I am.

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Keanu -- Hawaiian for "Shouts Dialogue Phonetically" -- is so vehemently semi-talented he's actually gotten to the point where he seems to be snickering at his own uncomprehending performances, right there in front of you. Lots of actors talk about feeling like frauds, fearing that the next picture will be the one where everyone figures out that they don't know what they're doing.

Well, Reeves doesn't have to worry about that; if you can't tell that he's faking it, you simply haven't seen him. He's like a cross between Patrick Swayze and Charlie McCarthy, minus the monocle.

Prudent script selection has allowed Reeves to establish a thriving career as an action star of sorts in recent years. (Let's face it, his most enjoyable work is in "Speed" because there's lots of fast, dangerous things happening, and all he has to do is stoically chew gum while they happen.) So he must've had some inkling that he'd be quickly lost in the murky monologues and groovy special effects while reading the script to "The Matrix."

Reminiscent of 'Dark City'

"The Matrix" is like last year's "Dark City." It lets you know early on that it won't be making a bit of sense, then repeatedly tries to convince you that the nonsense is actually deep and meaningful. It's a riddle within a riddle within a riddle within a surprisingly sluggish movie, and anything can happen at any time because up is down and black is white.

Right.

For the most part, it's actually just another reason to trot out the latest mind-boggling developments in special effects. I'm well aware that I'm supposed to feel differently by now, but that simply is not enough for my dollar when I walk into a theater.

To my never-ending chagrin, however, not much of anybody else really seems to mind. The film is making a ton of money, and that's the only goal today, even in the eyes of most audience members. "The Matrix" is an exhaustively conceived pinball machine that's raking in the dough, so that means it's a "movie."

If you get technologically aroused three or more times as it unspools, and it makes over $100 million, it's a "good movie." Character, intelligent dialogue, and that slippery quality called "heart" are relegated to the bleacher seats. You can occasionally catch a glimpse of them waving in the distance.

Reeves plays a brilliant computer hacker who, through the use of an extremely ponderous Laurence Fishburne and some truly amazing digital effects, is being convinced that he's actually some sort of cyber-Messiah. (Ridiculous Roles for Keanu poker: "I'll see your Buddha and raise you a brilliant cyber-Messiah.")

ALSO:
Meet the stars of 'Matrix,' where myth meets the Internet

Fishburne plays a guy named Morpheus who's the prime generator of most of the movie's cyber-philosophical horse manure. Half the movie consists of Reeves asking Fishburne straight questions, only to have Fishburne respond as cryptically as possible, like the know-it-all blind guy in "Kung-Fu."

There's even an excitingly choreographed kung-fu sequence. As I'm sure you know by now (what with TV commercials bombarding you with the idea every five minutes), "No one can tell you what the Matrix is; you just have to see it for yourself."

Well, that's true. But you probably won't know what it is after you see it either. According to Fishburne's character, the world that you and I inhabit is just a "world that's been pulled over your eyes." The reality is much darker and twistier and ... um ... more complexer (variations on up-is-down, left-is-right, blah-blah-blah.)

Effects compel you to watch

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I could be wrong, but I think the gist is that we're all actually living in a computer, and a superior race of some sort is trying to turn human beings into Duracell batteries. You just don't care after a while, but the effects compel you to keep watching. That's as safe as filmmakers can get when trying to sell a movie in the modern age.

There are generic bad guys who wear sunglasses and talk in a monotone, a la "Men in Black" and "The X-Files." There's lots of womb imagery and space goo ("Alien"). There's Fishburne leaping 100 feet in the air and landing on the building across the street (basically, only this movie). You're damn right it looks cool.

Here's the problem, though. You have to look not only at this movie, but the movies that it'll quickly spawn once the studios' money men do a detailed autopsy on the specifics of those grosses. "The Matrix" features that stroll-around-the-freeze-frame effect that's so great in those boogie-woogie Gap commercials, and you see it several times.

Get ready for the same effect in every third movie you see for the next 18 months. Beginning in about 4 months. If all you want are effects, then, by golly, that's what you'll get.

And I thought the first hour drug on like a Calculus exam. A drastically visual Calculus exam.


"The Matrix" is often more than a little gross. Reeves is actually reborn out of some kind of bio-mechanical uterus. It's awful sticky-drippy in a bio-mechanical uterus. (He said.) Computers are plugged into bloody sockets in people's heads. Reeves is unfortunate enough to have a digitally generated info-lizard enter him through his belly-button.

If David Cronenberg had come up with "Star Wars," we would have gotten this, only much better. Rated R. 136 minutes. Oh, it's directed (or refereed, depending on how you want to look at it) by Larry and Andy Wachowski.


RELATED STORIES:
'The Matrix' debuts atop box office
April 4, 1999
Myth meets Internet in 'Matrix'
March 31, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Official 'Matrix' site
Warner Bros. Movies
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