Ninety-nine was to be a huge year for science fiction. A movie event was on the way that was about to blow the metaphorical socks off of just about everyone and define a new generation of movie geeks. There was just one little surprise. That movie turned out not to be George Lucas' return to the Star Wars mythos, The Phantom Menace, but a strange cyber thriller called The Matrix.
The Matrix as an immediate proposition isn't easy to grasp (indeed, intuitively, the marketeers made a boon of its ambiguity with a teasing "What is The Matrix?" campaign). Reality is virtual reality, a monstrous programme called The Matrix generated by an evil empire of man-built artificial intelligences who rule the dystopian horror of the real world. Mankind's entire existence is being hardwired directly into human brains, while the machines imprison them in womblike pods, tapping their neural cortex for battery power.
There is, though, a band of rebels who have broken free and are intent on liberating humanity from their unsuspected bondage by downloading themselves into the manufactured dreamworld. What they need is a messiah. Enter Thomas "Neo" Anderson (Keanu Reeves) — the archetypal reluctant hero who may, if he can be convinced, have just the cyberchops to undo The Matrix. Former construction workers, the brothers Wachowski harboured their vision for five and a half years, working their way through 14 drafts of the screenplay and, as comic freaks, projected their vision onto 500 elaborate storyboards.
After the witty slice of lesbian noir (now: there's a genre) Bound, they looked to be hotshot tyros for the future. However, no one could have foreseen the hyperspace jump that was to be their cinematic vision for The Matrix. With the concept sly enough to allow almost anything — this reality is virtual — superpowers are permissible (leaping from tall buildings, dodging bullets, hyper-kinetic kung fu). To represent this, they tapped an emergent visual technology known as flo-mo, a process which allows a seemingly impossible time-jamming graphic where Keanu freezes mid kick while the camera rotates dizzyingly around him. Dazzlingly versatile, it presented an entirely new type of visual lexicon. The Matrix looked like nothing you'd ever seen before at the movies.
Reeves' Neo is a reactionary part, but it plays on his sculpted beauty, and dressed up in patent leather and designer shades he evokes an effortless cool. The burden of explanation falls to Lawrence Fisburne's Morpheus, the man is a well of gravitas and no matter how ludicrous his expounding it still rings with an ironclad conviction. The bad guy fraternity (all MiB in suits and the obligatory shades) are defensive programmes led by the unearthly clipped tones of Hugo Weaving — also able to toy with the fabric of The Matrix.
And entirely on the surface — a grim noir sheen somewhere between a Depeche Mode video and Blade Runner's retrofitted near future — the movie operates satisfactorily as a good against insurmountable odds of bad axis. But if you think The Matrix is just brainless action, think again. Beyond the gawping pleasures of its flo-mo prowess and the more obviously reverential stylistic nods (Alien, Blade Runner, Film Noir, German Expressionism, Star Wars, 2001) the Wachowski's script is a labyrinth of classical references melting into William Gibson's cyberpunk milieu.
Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is broadly expressed (the whole film an ironic reversal of Alice's adventures: Neo passes from safe, reassuring virtual reality into a bizarre, unpredictable real world). Elsewhere you can tot up the clever-cleverness of Marx, Kafka, Zen, and Homer's Odyssey. Quite deliberately, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's sizzling page-turner Simulacra And Simulation can be seen lying open at the "On Nihilism" chapter in Neo's apartment. The becapped Wachowski brothers are clearly into Baudrillard's influential theories of postmodern theology, terrorism and hyper reality.
Just a Keanu-in-shades-kicks-arse movie? Don't think so. And then things get really fun — try The Matrix as Christ allegory.
It works. It was first released in Easter 1999. Reeves' character's full name is Thomas "Neo" Anderson — Thomas as in Doubting Thomas; Anderson means "son of man"; Neo means "new" or "change" and is an anagram of "One". Then there is the rebel team as disciples (with Joe Pantoliano's duplicitous Cypher as Judas) and the fact that Neo "dies" for 72 seconds on screen (translate that into 72 hours and it's three days) before being born again by the power of Trinity (Anne Moss)'s love. Hogwash, perhaps, but it grants The Matrix a measure of analysis that is hard to deny.
In the end, though, the Wachowski's triumph is a much more immediate, much more visceral one. They've amalgamated comic book morality, the Hong Kong action tradition (orchestrated by guru Yuen Wo Ping), a prime chunk of Hollywood star, cyberpunk paranoia and a visual effects revolution to creatre a new brand of movie.
Buy now on Amazon.
In the clearest sense of the term The Matrix is a classic, not only a great movie, but a film that simultaneously redefined its own medium. Forever.
As a rule, the best places to start for reviews of current (within the last 10 years) feature films or television programs are the Academic Search Complete (EBSCO), ProQuest, and Lexis/Nexis Academic.
Academic Search Complete includes coverage of such popular and general interest publications as Newsweek, Time, The Nation, New Republic, and The New Yorker--all of which have regular movie review features. The index also covers major film-related journals, such as Journal of Film and Video, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Literature/Film Quarterly, and Cineaste. [For a complete listing of film journals covered, see Film Reviews and Film Criticism Resources
ProQuest and Lexis/Nexis Academic can help you locate current reviews and movie industry information appearing in national newspapers such as The New York Timesand The Washington Post, as well as national and trade magazines.
The web offers an amazing abundance of film review sources, but in entering this cyber-territory, the searcher must beware. In surfing for reviews, it's particularly important to consider the source of the review. A large portion of web reviews are basically film industry promotional pieces, the opinions of fans, or too short to be of any real academic use. The best all-around engine for locating full-text reviews on the web is The Movie Review Query Engine. The MRQ is more useful in finding reviews for more recent films than for older ones, but with 28,000+ reviews on board, it's always worth a try. The engine turns up reviews in national and regional newspapers and magazines, newsletters and e-zines, use groups, and sundry other weird venues (Mutant Reviewers From Hell...really!)
Other web-based review resources are listed on a separate page
An extensive listing on resources for finding historical reviews and criticism is provided on a separate page.
For reviews of films in magazines older than 15 years, it's best to start with The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature Retrospective Index . The Readers Guide goes back to the turn of the 19th Century and covers many of the same journals as are indexed in Expanded Academic Index (note that Readers Guide does not provide full-text).
For reviews of films older than 10 years in newspapers, it's best to start with Historical Newspapers (Proquest), which indexes and provides some full-text of articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times & Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times Film reviews from the Times from 1913-1970 are also indexed in a separate print publication, The New York Times Film Reviews (located in the Doe Library reference room: PN1995 .N4).
Film Review Index, a print source in the Media Resources Center, is a good bet for locating reviews of older films (1882-1985). It indexes publications ranging from popular periodicals, to the New York Times and The Village Voice, to relevant chapters in selected film books.
Other printed indexes to older reviews and criticism are discussed on a separate page.
As discussed above, the Academic Search Complete indexes a solid core of serious film journals and publications related to the study of popular culture--not a bad place to start a search for more scholarly or focused film literature.
The International Index to Film/TV Periodicals is currently perhaps the most comprehensive online index devoted exclusively film and television. Articles in international film journals are indexed from 1972 to present, and television journals from 1979 to present.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) Bibliography would be a good second place to look. The MLA Bibliography indexes an exceptionally wide range of journals which are broadly concerned with literature, folklore, theatre, and other performing arts--including film. This source also has the benefit of indexing relevant chapters in books, doctoral dissertations, conference proceedings, and other resources useful to the study of film.
International Index to the Performing Arts is another excellent source for film analysis and criticism. Content of the index is drawn from more than 210 scholarly and popular performing arts periodicals; and also indexes a variety of documents such as biographical profiles; conference papers; obituaries; interviews; discographies; reviews and events. Full-text is provided for 34 of the titles indexed.
An excellent resource to consult for articles related to film and American culture and history is the online index America History and Life. AHL indexes both important film journals (most of which are indexed in other sources discussed above and below) and a broad range of international journals devoted to American history, politics, and culture.
One of the best sources for tracking down criticism and analysis in international film journals is the Film Literature Index, a print resource which covers 153 film and TV-related publications from 1973 to present (the index is located in the Media Resources Center and the Main Library Information Center). One caution in using this index is the fact that UCB Library does not own a fair number of the smaller journals indexed.
The publications discussed above represent only a portion of the print and online resources available to assist the researcher in tracking down film literature. A more comprehensive listing of resources in the UCB Library is provided at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/filmstudies/reviewslist.html