Terrific intellectual jigsaw of 'The Matrix' becomes one long, over-produced action sequence
About half way through "The Matrix," the ostensibly intellectual and certainly expensive virtual reality sci-fi thriller starring Keanu Reeves as a genius hacker, the movie turns suddenly simple, as if a Warner Bros. exec showed up on the set and said "I don't get it. You're gonna have to dumb this down for me."
The writing-directing team of brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski complied, and once the movie peels away the mystery of the world in which it takes place -- which happens about 40 minutes into the story -- it becomes little more than wildly over-produced string of action sequences, pausing only for the obligatory smarmy remarks made between barrages of fancy weapons fire.
It's a shame, too, because that first 40 minutes is a terrific jigsaw.
Reeves plays Neo, an extremely wired computer programmer who, as the film opens, is starting to piece together tidbits of information he's glommed from here and there that point to something being spectacularly amiss with reality. All he knows for sure is at the center of it all is something called the Matrix.
He becomes the target of a band of nefarious, monotoned Men In Black types but is rescued by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of an underground revolution against the artificial intelligence that has taken over the world and sustains the human race only as a source of energy, keeping us in suspended animation where we dream the world we see around us.
Pulled out of what he thought was reality, Neo emerges from his womb-like pod and is told the Matrix is the virtual reality computer program that sustains this mammoth illusion.
Brimming early on with high-concept cerebral abstractions and heavy-duty emblemism (Neo is a none-too-subtle messiah figure), "The Matrix" has such a surreal, European flavor it seems at first amazing that an American studio would throw $60 million at this thing.
But for all its psychological and symbolic posturing, "The Matrix" is ultimately way, way more style than substance. Before long, almost every frame is saturated with admittedly amazing CGI sequences -- from the already trite (thanks to The Gap commercials) freeze-and-pivot camera gimmick to spectacular slow-motion uber-shootouts between the MiB guys and a now super-human Reeves, who has joined the resistance and learned that since the world is merely a video game the laws of physics don't apply to him.
Reeves is well-cast as a super-hacker who says "Whoa!" Fishburne, a great actor who gets stuck playing his trademark cucumber-cool-in-shades thing, is exactly right for the part of the leader of the small human rebellion who thinks Neo has been sent to deliver them to freedom.
Carrie-Anne Moss is the ambiguously lesbian, vinyl-clad, kick-boxing betty who, when the film degrades the furthest, actually kisses Keanu back to life after he's been shot. And Joe Pantoliano, the best catch-phrase delivery guy in the business, is another freedom fighter who gets to say "Buckle your seat belt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye" when he first unplugs Neo from the Matrix.
An amalgam of "Hackers" and last year's ingenious "Pi," with ample doses of "The X-Files," "The Terminator" and later-day "Star Trek" tossed in, "The Matrix" wasn't a bad idea, and it looks spectacular. But it's no "Dark City," the singularly distinctive picture that was the genesis of this current trend of what-is-reality? themed sci-fi thrillers.
(There are two more similarly plotted pictures on the horizon -- "The 13th Floor" and David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ.")
The Wachowski brothers -- who were themselves responsible for a recent stroke of pure genius in the form of 1996's stylish mob double-cross flick "Bound" -- ultimately doom the intellectual part of "The Matrix" by laying all their cards on the table early in the second act. Once we know what the Matrix is, the suspense is shot and the only thing to do for the next 100 minutes is to crank up the effects and pass the ammo.
"The Matrix" is a curiosity, and it's definitely a good ride. It's a handsome picture with extremely slick photography, computer-enhanced stunts and neo-goth atmosphere. The problem is it could have been so much more.