Keanu Reeves' acting style has often been called "wooden," "vapid," or "insipid"even worse, the actor himself has been variously described as being "brainless," "awfully stupid," and "dumber than a bucket of hair." Indeed, with his perpetual blank-eyed expression and barely restrained Bill & Ted accent, Reeves doesn't so much lead a movie as decorate it. After his dazed and confused performances in such jumbled sci-fi fare as Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction, it's no wonder he's become something of a laughingstock among heartless movie critics.
Which makes it all the more amazing that The Matrix, his latest foray into the troublesome world of cyberspace adventure, is the smartest example of pure science fiction filmmaking in yearsone with an actual theme.
These days, any movie that features spaceships, slavering creatures, or a Federation is deemed "sci fi"but few of these movies really offer true science fiction concepts. Star Wars, for all its cultural omnipotence, is really just fantasyput the characters on top of dragons and trade their light sabers for magic wands, and the story wouldn't change one whit. Likewise, all the umptillion Alien rip-offs just boil down to sticking characters into air ducts so they can get their heads lopped off. And as for the never-ending Star Trek sequels, their screenwriters seem more concerned with keeping all the cast members occupied and providing a big explosion at the end than with presenting any new ideas. Really, the last genuine science fiction movieone that provides a speculative concept intrinsic to its storywas the genetic cleansing nightmare of the tastefully dull Gattaca.
But here come the writing and directing Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy (Bound), who've taken what could've been a flat retread of a plotthat we're all unknowingly stuck in a virtual realityand have crafted an original humdinger that's equal parts cerebral musing and action-adventure. And, amazing as it may seem, they've managed to bring out a strong performance from Reeves, using his constant look of amazement to the character's advantage.
Reeves plays a computer hacker dubbed Neo who gets a mysterious message from a legendary rebel hacker named Morpheusthat government agents are after him and only Morpheus can save him. And, in fact, agents do indeed capture Neo and take him into custody, threatening him with prison unless he leads them to Morpheus. After he's released, the rebel minions take Neo to meet Morpheus (a mannered Laurence Fishburne), who tells Neo that everything that he believes in is a lie, that reality as he knows it does not truly exist. He offers Neo a drug that will open his eyes to the truth, which he takes, and (here's the kicker; don't read it if you want to see it for yourself) suddenly wakes up to find himself floating in a womb-like pod. Scrambling out, he discovers that he's actually one of millions of people plugged into a matrix, with cords leading directly into his brainstemthis is reality.
That's just the barest gist of a huge amount of exposition that the Wachowskis manage to cram into the film in a relatively painless manner. But the upshot is that Neo must save the human race, and to do this he must figure out how to manipulate the Matrix's virtual world and wake up his fellow humans. Trying to kill him and Morpheus are sentient programs called the Agents (who look like rogue Secret Service personnel) led by the coldly calculating Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, in a big departure from his Priscilla, Queen of the Desert days). If the Agents can "kill" the rebels while they're in the Matrix, then their bodies will flatline in real-life as well, their brains kaput.
The Wachowskis use the virtual reality/cyberspace gimmick to allow Neo to become something of a super herohe can instantly master Kung Fu, fly through the air, dodge bullets, etc. Employing some marvelous special effects that freeze motion (a la the Gap Khaki's Cam) as well as Hong Kong-style fight choreography, The Matrix provides the same visceral, blood-pumping action of any Arnold exercise (particularly when Neo straps an armory to his body and goes to the Agents' HQ). But more importantly, The Matrix does have a bigger picture than just cascading bullet roundsits story questions how we enslave ourselves to our own perceptions of reality. One of Neo's victories is purely mental rather than physical when he reaches a Zen-like epiphany: reality doesn't shape youit's really the other way around.
Despite Reeves' sometimes vacuous presence, The Matrix is nevertheless intriguing from beginning to end, carefully avoiding any number of cornball tangents. And while their script does leave a few loose threads (I'm still not sure why the only way to leave the virtual Matrix world is to accept a "call" only from certain hard-to-reach "telephones"), the Wachowskis weave together a hardcore science fiction story that owes little to the accepted templates or clichés of modern sci-fi movie success.