The Matrix is one of those end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it movies that wind up practicing what they preach against. This week's sermon involves the old man/machine split, machines having gotten the upper hand in the movie's future-shock setting. The thing is, machines seem to have gotten the upper hand in the movie's production as well--CGI machines that have provided directors Larry and Andy Wachowski with the very latest in cinematic whizbang. Futuristic kung-fu fighters fly through the air with the greatest of ease in The Matrix, landing like a cat or a Caterpillar truck. And the fact that those swing-kid Gap commercials on TV use the same special effect, bouncing to a Louis Prima beat? All the more reason to hail the Wachowski brothers as the new flavor of the month. Like all Hollywood visionaries, they steal from the best. Keanu Reeves is Neo, a computer hacker who senses there's something the real world isn't telling him. Turns out, the real world isn't the real world at all but a hyperreal world created by a race of artificial-intelligence machines. Apparently, the machines need humans, which they grow like crops, as an energy source. But some of the humans, led by Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus, have caught on to the fact that what seems like reality is a computer-generated fantasy known as The Matrix. And they're pretty sure that Neo is the prophesied Messiah who will redeem humankind--an idea that we might be able to put more stock in if Reeves' surfer-dude mannerisms, which still cling to him, like kelp, weren't turning the whole movie into one of Bill and Ted's Great Adventures. Artificial intelligence, indeed.
Of course, he looks great, and so does everybody else, the movie's fashion statement best described (with apologies to the cast's very few females) as Men in Black. The Wachowski brothers, who caught everybody by surprise with their first movie, Bound, have style to burn, and The Matrix is nothing if not stylish. But the dorm-room metaphysics--William Gibson meets Leo Buscaglia--turns the movie into so much eye candy. Packed with allusions, the script is all overtones and undertones, but with no melody of its own. And yet, the movie's almost always watchable, a comic book sprung to life. Ever since the invention of morphing, movies have tried to retrace that blurry line between reality and fantasy. Like last year's Dark City, The Matrix perfectly captures the line on film but has no idea what it really means.