Monday, July 9, 2012

Enter The Matrix

A few months ago my wife and I saw "The Matrix", in my case for the first time in over ten years.  Last night we watched the sequel, which neither of us had seen before.

When I first saw "The Matrix" I was 17 years old, and in fact I didn't see it in a theater.  Even then my contrarian nature discouraged me from participating in the type of big "cultural event" that the film had become.  My policy then was that if Time Magazine featured something on its cover, that thing was probably shallow bullshit.  So I ended up seeing the film on video (perhaps it was even a new technology DVD as opposed to VHS) in a middle-class house in Hamburg.  I was in Hamburg on an exchange trip that Chicago Public Schools organized with a German high school there, and I didn't want to seem antisocial by not taking up an invitation a few kids had made to our group to go to that house and watch a movie.  That said, I arrived fashionably late and didn't catch the first part of the movie.

I don't remember my first impressions of "The Matrix" from 12 years ago.  I probably thought it was entertaining and raised some interesting questions, insofar as a blockbuster movie can actually raise interesting questions.  But beyond that I didn't give it much thought, and I didn't bother to see the sequels.

This year I decided to watch it again with my wife.  My father-in-law has an extensive film collection, with everything from obscure art films from Kurosawa and Bergman to silly mainstream flicks like "You've got Mail".  "The Matrix" trilogy had been sitting there beckoning to me for the months I lived at his house while my own house was under rehab, and it seemed to me that my earlier attitude of divorcing myself from these major cultural trends was mere hubris (though very few people even talk much about that trilogy these days, so maybe its cultural impact was more wide-reaching than profound), so one weekend I convinced my wife to watch the film with me.

On that second watching I was nonplussed by "The Matrix".  The premise was mildly interesting, in a sixth-grader-thinking-up-revolutionary-sci-fi kind of way, but to me the slick visuals and weak character development were a real turnoff.  All the actors are so busy looking cool, and the directors so busy making them look cool, that there is little humanity or reality to draw one in.  The film follows a budding romance between two of the main characters, Neo and Trinity, but given that their lines are all one-liners or expository monologues, and the "chemistry" shown between them consists mainly in their getting mutually horny in a bar once in an imaginary virtual reality world, I didn't find the romance at all believable, and certainly not interesting.  In a past blog post I even lumped in "The Matrix" with such tripe as "The Fifth Element" as breathless, vapid techno-orgies.

But recently I was thinking more about the film, and I have a more positive, charitable interpretation of it, which has been reinforced by watching the second film in the series.  Basically "The Matrix" is a critique and a warning of becoming too absorbed in the artificial online, in-cloud world.  It posits this matrix as unreal, a distraction that keeps humans in thrall to machines that suck our energy (which is improbable in terms of thermodynamics in a sunless world, but is a nice metaphor for the soulless companies that rule humanity by promoting mindless consumerism).  On the other hand, the real, off-matrix world shown in the film is grey and stark.  The unkempt, unbathed characters clad in dirty, rough-spun cotton rags are a far-cry from the sleek black S & M aesthetic they have when they plug into the matrix.  But the running message is that this outside world, while drab and bleak, is preferable to the stunning, cool world of the matrix, because knowing and living in reality is true freedom, and the matrix represents an no more than an enthralled, visually beautiful slavery.  This is a message I can really get on board with, and it's all the more impressive because the film creators were operating before the Internet had become widespread, before Blackberries and Kindles and cloud computing and constantly on-line people.  Amidst all this there is a constant vindication of humanity, of human feelings and qualities like hope and creativity, and especially of love (albeit through the clumsy, unrealistic "romance" of Neo and Trinity). 

At the same time as "The Matrix" is a damning critique of living in thrall to technology and a false, high-gloss world, it is ensconced in the aesthetic and attitudes of late-90s techno-fetishism.  There is lots of use of CGI graphics, lots of action, martial arts, gunfights, uber-cool costumes, and characters defined less by who they are than by how they look and move.  In the second film the directors even envision human religious celebrations of the future looking a lot like a late-90s warehouse rave, with people jumping around and sweating and orgasming on each other.  This envisioning of the future as a higher-tech version of the present is common to most science fiction, and in this case I see it not as a shortcoming but as a strength of the film, not in terms of cinematography but rather as a vehicle for disseminating an important message.  In other words, "The Matrix" condemns thoughtless, glossy, techno-dependent living in the same glossy vernacular of those who are most ensconced in it and most need to hear the message.  It uses the language of early-21st-century society to point out some of the gravest problems of that society.

If I look at it in this light, I can forgive the film and its sequel (I have yet to watch the final chapter) their weak character development, their alternating between endless sequences of martial arts and gunfights followed by stilted philosophical monologues on topics like choice, freedom, control, and destiny.  While watching the long action sequences my wife and I get bored, because we don't care much about the characters, plus we know that even within the films' own terms what is happening is not real but rather a simulation in the matrix.  And to us the spoken sequences in the films are boring and forced, with little dialogue and lots of St. Augustine-style pontificating.  Indeed, the whole premise of representing programs and computer functioning as personified characters seems a bit quaint and silly, like a redux of "Tron".  But we aren't the films' target audience, and I have to believe that the aspiration of the filmmakers was to draw in the vapid techno-oggling masses in order to transmit to them the valuable messages of the long monologue segments.

One last thing I like in the movies is the prevalence of black characters.  I would say that almost half of the cast is black.  Why the post-apocalyptic world would have more black people than does the present-day US (and for that matter, why most of the survivors in that world would talk and act like people from the US when our country only comprises some 6% of the world populace today) is never explained, and doesn't matter.  I just think it's cool that in an environment in which most films with more than 3 or 4 black characters are automatically relegated to the class of niche, "black movies", "The Matrix" can include a lot of black actors without making a big deal of it, and not dwelling too much on their blackness.  They're just part of the cast, no questions asked.

So my final verdict is that while I don't much enjoy watching it, I give "The Matrix" series props in terms of what it tries to do and how it does it.

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