July 06, 2009

The Matrix

Welcome to another guest post on Heroine Content by our active commenter d, who previously reviewed Speed Racer. d has pulled together reviews of all three Matrix films to share with us, and then as a final installment on Monday the 13th, Grace and I will be sharing some of our favorite links on all things Matrixy. Please feel free to comment and let us know your take on the trilogy. Grace and I always learn a lot from our commenters, and I know that d truly enjoys the chance to discuss and learn from everyone as well.

"I hope The Oracle gave you some good news."

It's been 10 years since the first Matrix opened in theatres (yeah, I know. I can't believe it's been that long either). This makes it a perfect time to review not just the first film, but the whole trilogy. Discussions have already begun about The Matrix's visual and ideological impact. But I'll only touch upon those things when necessary. Don't get me wrong, bullet time is way cool! But even cooler, and rarely duplicated, is the incredibly powerful heroine content. It is truly a standard-bearer. So beware readers, the Matrix has you! But hopefully you won't want to wake up just yet.

This film revolves around the disaffected Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who by day works as a corporate IT programmer, and by night engages in all kinds of cyber piracy under the alias Neo. He's being chased both by the Feds, led by agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and a shadowy terrorist group led by a man known only as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).

As it turns out, the Feds are actually sentient programs created by a machine world that has conquered Earth and enslaved humanity by entrapping everyone inside a virtual computer program, fed directly into the brain. The terrorists are really human freedom fighters out to expose the truth: that people are now a factory-farmed commodity. They not only want Neo to join them in their battle, but some, Morpheus especially, believe that he is "The One": the person prophesied to end the war between humans and machines.

In case you were wondering, yup, that is a huge oversimplification of the plot. There are so many blessed layers I could write pages on each one: what is reality and how do you determine it; inevitability - of life, of the fulfillment of the true self, and what exactly is the true self (if there is such a thing)? The essence of existence, the power of love - all these things are played out, teased, and questioned by the film(s). And the glue that binds all these strands of thought together is radical revolution, which leads us very nicely to the Heroine Content (HC) factor - which is off the chain (figuratively as well as literally, hehe). Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski (the writing/directing team) use their heroine content to illuminate their vision of utopia. And while they give us a truckload of HC to sink our teeth into, I'll boil it down to four people who challenge and/or break away from the usual archetypes: Trinity, Switch, Morpheus and The Oracle.

hc trinity.jpg

It's hard for me to describe how preeminent Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is as a female protagonist. But she's so great that even though the story focuses on Neo's journey, it's Trinity, second in command under Morpheus, who owns the first five minutes of the story, and sets the pace for the rest of the film. Also, through Trinity, the Wachowskis display gender prejudice without it becoming the focal point. When the agents arrive to capture her, this is the wonderful exchange between the hardened city cop and Mr. Smith:

Smith: The orders were for your protection.

Lieutenant: (laughter) I think we can handle one little girl...I sent 2 units, they're bringin' her down now.

Smith: No lieutenant, your men are already dead.

This exchange is great because Smith regards Trinity as a serious threat, and he does so prior to what we see her do. And oh what she does! The rotating 'bird of prey' stance is now legendary, and that's an apt description of her fighting technique: terrible, violent, and beautiful. She ends the altercation not in the usual cutesy pose, but in an aggressive stance framed by the unconscious policemen she's defeated. This leads to a chase on the rooftops, where she jumps from building to building, becoming more amazing. The scene ends with Trinity running directly into the path of a truck, hoping to reach a telephone before she's mowed down... all this in the first five minutes!

If she was just a fighting machine, that alone might have done it for me, but she is also one of the most well-rounded and fleshed out heroines I've seen. She's also in much of the film, which is not very common these days. In addition, she's both comforting and militant. She has this great scene near the end where she excoriates Neo for ordering her to stay put while he goes on a suicide mission to save Morpheus; but yet she's also the one who patiently answers many of his questions. Lastly, many scenes solidify not just her courage, but her intelligence and skill - such as in this exchange with Neo when she first meets him:

Neo: Trinity...The Trinity...that cracked the IRS dbase.

Trinity: That was a long time ago.

Neo: Jesus.

Trinity: What?

Neo: I just thought, um... you were a guy.

Trinity: Most guys do.

Again, the benign sexism is called out, but the plot moves on. I also like how she acknowledges it's only guys who think this way, which brings me to Switch.

I missed how great she was in my first viewings. If Trinity's like Ripley (from the Alien saga) then Switch (Belinda McClory) is Vasquez. She's the point person in conflict, and one of the two enforcers of the team. The first time we see her, she is unabashedly pointing a gun at Neo (for the team's safety). In a later scene she coldly picks off men with single shots. We don't see much of her, but when we do it's enjoyable. She doesn't talk much with Trinity, but when they do, it's not with the usual competitive tone. Also, while Switch, a tad more butch than Trinity, sports a cropped cut, she is blond and wears somewhat revealing white attire (inside the Matrix). What I normally see is the visually darker woman (in hair color and/or ethnicity) being the more ambiguously dressed butch; the turnaround is refreshing.

But HC comprises both gender and ethnicity. So let's start off with Morpheus. He runs the show as captain of the Nebuchadnezzar. His crew members believe in him, fight for him, and risk their lives for him. The only one who doesn't is shown to be quite villainous. Morpheus has wisdom in spades, which we know because he has the coolest lines! He also doesn't convey the stereotypical behaviors I see in many African American male characters. He's not loud, he's quite eloquent, and he's often gentle, applying just enough pressure to get the job done, or convey truth. He deftly dodges the magical negro stereotype because his desire to find and assist Neo serves the greater purpose of ending the war, not helping Neo for Neo's sake. I also thought it was interesting that Morpheus's character, according to Wikipedia, is partly inspired by Neil Gaiman's Morpheus of the famed Sandman series. Now Gaiman's Morpheus looks white, and is quite thin. But the Wachowskis were so committed to Lawrence (who looks nothing like that) for the role, that they were willing to walk when the producers wanted to use another actor. I'm making an intuitive leap here, but I wonder if part of their hesitancy was because of Fishburne's ethnicity. If so, then it's nice to know that the Wachowskis can envision other ethnicities for roles not specifically designed for them.

Lastly, I want to talk about the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster). Many of the sages we see in film are old white men - Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandalf are a couple of examples. But what about an old black woman? Moreover, an old black woman living in a run-down project, with a Latin phrase over her kitchen door who chain smokes and bakes cookies? Well, now! You can see the confusion all over Neo's face, which The Oracle confirms when she says "Not quite what you were expecting, right?" She isn't like any sage I've seen of either gender. She's humorous and sarcastic; and you're never really sure whether she's telling you the truth. I also like how she conveys cultural traits of an African American grandma, but the traits don't overwhelm to the point of caricature. To say she's unique is an understatement.

There are so many things other than the HC, which makes this a must-see film in my opinion. The film is shot with a gorgeous film noir palette, and many of the even momentary frames are works of art. The visual effects are unparalleled even today, with marble clouds and bullets falling like rain. There are bits of whimsy woven into the plot, like when the entire crew race like children to watch Neo and Morpheus spar. Heck for being this dystopic nightmare, the film has a lot of fun moments. This film boasts not 1 but 2 of the most sympathetic and human antagonists I've seen. We could devote an entry on Neo alone. When Keanu read the script, he said he didn't know who the role was offered to, but he 'got' Neo. I believe him. Say what you will about his other roles, I can't imagine anyone else playing our cyber savior (and oh what a list that is!). The relationship between Neo and Trinity displays some subtle and not so subtle gender reversals, and is thankfully devoid of much of the baggage usually attached to action film couples.

So with all this going for it, I give it 2 stars.

I'm kidding of course! Four Stars.

I would love to tell you more, but you know what they say? Unfortunately no one can be told what The Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.

5 Comments

Good review. I'm looking forward to the discussion of Reloaded.

I liked it more than most in part because I think it went beyond just neutralizing the magical black guy aspect of Morpheus to actively subverting it, since the prophecy and focus on Neo turned out to be a tool of the system.

Hi Greg! Thanks for the read. You bring up an excellent point - it makes me think about an aspect of it I hadn't previously - which I always enjoy.

Part of me wants to say that the reality of the one was real, but it was only truly real perhaps to the Oracle (besides the believers); and for her, in a sense it is also another tool, just a more pro-human one.

And since we see in her room a diverse group of 'potentials' (not just a room of white American boys), we know a variety of people can hold that position. And all that makes Morpheus & Neo true equals, working toward a common cause - I hope I'm understanding that correctly. Let me know if I'm not.

There are also a few other, more on the nose, ways in which the 'magical negro' label is avoided, but they become apparent later in the trilogy. I think I spoke about them, but if I didn't I'll be happy to add them later.

thx, d

Little moments make a difference, like the elevator scene: most scenes with a man and woman on a cable or rope will have the man holding onto the rope and the woman holding onto the man; but Trinity holds onto the rope.

I so agree with you there, Nick. In fact she seems a tad more sure about it than he does. The scene that comes to my mind when I see it is the famous Star Wars rope scene (really the first one, rather episode IV, and Return of the Jedi a little). And even back then I thought it was better than what was in other films, but this knocks it out the park.

I also am with you on the fact that little moments, when you catch them, make the film all the better. One of my favorite little scenes (and it is quite little!) is the one inside the Oracle's apartment, and the two little girls - one noticeably ethnic and one not - are sharing the blocks with one another with what seems like tk. It made me smile.

thx.

"The only one who doesn't is shown to be quite villainous."

Yea, but him not believing Morpheus and him being villainous is quite independent of each other, as shown in the sequels (although it didn't need to be).

The characters that disbelieve him are all reasonable people, they have every right to. It is "faith" after all (how it's based on evidence is hardly discussed by anyone, so let's just go with it).
It's made fairly obvious that Morpheus was a bit manipulative and dishonest while "recuiting" Neo, even without Cypher lampshading it, and a lot of his "wisdoms" are tied to his delusions and false beliefs - notice how he drops the woolly act and becomes much more grounded in the 3rd movie.

In fact, that's one of the cool things about these movies - they contain lots of "hokey" deep-sounding dialogue and monologue that can be called gratuitous or maybe even not quite logical... but it's always coming from characters that are either dishonest, self-aggrandizing and theatralic, deluded or otherwise unreliable.


I doubt this casts any shadow on his character in terms of how "a black man/person is portrayed", although unfortunate implications (religious black guy, black mentor has to be saved by white hero; black mentor was wrong and whitey figures it out himself while the black ex-mentor thankfully gazes into the sky, embracing his also black girlfriend) can always be read into it I guess.

But it's all color-blind character, and it's just his character arc - Locke from Lost was white, and had a comparable one.

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