Saturday, April 3, 1999

The Matrix

I'm in awe. Larry and Andy Wachowski -- the screenwriting/directing band of brothers behind this thing -- hit it out of the park. This has got to be one of the best SF movies of all time. Though not the most original ...

The plot/premise is a distillation of Philip K. Dick’s brand of paranoid Gnosticism. Basically, “reality” is a virtual reality dream concocted by an "evil genius" – in this case, a network of AI entities who kicked humanity’s collective ass in a recent war and deleted most people's memory of that history. A few hundred years later, the mass of humanity parties like it’s 1999 – naively assuming that’s the real year and they’re living in the real world. But that’s a digital delusion pumped into their brains to keep them asleep. In reality, humanity is hooked up in a series of goo-filled cells. The machines have reduced the formerly proud human race to the status of batteries. We’re powering them; they use our body heat to generate electricity.

But a few rebels survive in an underground city called Zion. Every now and then, Zion sends out a team to wake up a sleeping human, unplug their body from the Matrix, and make them part of their revolution. They do this to a dude name Neo -- Keanu Reeves, in a whoa-filled performance. But Neo's more than just another dude. He’s the savior, Jesus and Buddha rolled into one.

Well, at least according to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of the band in the hovercraft that rescues Neo. Morpheus is convinced Neo's the savior -- aka "The One." (In practice, that means Neo can potentially bend the virtual reality world of the Martix to his will.) Joe Pantoliano plays the devilish Cypher (his first name is probably “Lou”)who plants the seeds of doubt. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, as an old man’s fancy and a young man’s dream in black leather) gives Neo her faith. Like Jesus in the garden, Neo wrestles with his divine destiny. Meanwhile back in the Matrix, the artificial “Agents” (led by Hugo Weaving's implacable, Joe Friday-like Agent Smith) who guard the dream world, do their best to track them down. But the good guys bring the battle to them. After a few switcheroos and plot reversals, Neo plugs back into the dream world for the final battle between good and evil.

The storytelling rocks – a nice mix of action flick and philosophical head-scratcher, liberally stealing, not only from poor dead Dick, but William Gibson's Neuromancer, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Alice in Wonderland – you name it – and, above all, Oshii's Ghost in the Shell. (The climactic shoot-out is basically a scene-for-scene remake.) But stealing’s fine with me.

In terms of special effects and cinematography, it rewrites the book. (And neatly solves the problem of improbable Kung Fu wire work. Hey, it's a dreamworld, right? Of course it breaks the laws of physics!) Some really sweet stuff, kids. See it.

As cinematic storytelling, The Matrix is purt’near perfect. As a science project, it’s not going to win any prizes.

OK, fanboys. Hate to drop a turd in the punchbowl, but nobody told Larry and Andy about the second law of thermodynamics. I.e., it’d take more energy to keep the sleeping humans alive than the humans would generate. And spare me the “combined with a form of fusion” – if you’ve got fusion power, why wire all of humanity together in a vast Rube Goldberg scheme to turn them into batteries? For that matter, why not use cows?

Who cares? It’s a movie, not a science lesson.

And, for all I know, the “human battery world" is just another illusion.

I'll wait for the sequel.

Above review is edited version of off-the-cuff thoughts I posted on alt.cyberpunk. I incorporated some helpful suggestions, deleted spoilers etc. I ignored less helpful suggestions. “Go fuck yourself,” “Eat shit and die,” etc. I stand by my original point …

This is not a cyberpunk movie. It’s a religious movie with cyberpunk furniture.
Sorry, kids.

As to the accusation of nitpicking – Jesus wept, that’s what I fucking do. I see a movie, especially an SF movie, I think about it, then I talk about it. SF movies are SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU THINK! I understand that science fiction – either filmed or written – depends on some necessary bullshit. It’s fiction; it’s humanly impossible to get all the science right and tell a ripping yarn. I dig, OK? SF has a simple job: create a believable world with self-consistent rules. “The Matrix” did that. But the shit about human batteries is bad science. I had to point it out.
My hunch is the Wachowski brothers know about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I suspect they fell in love with the symbolism of turning humans into batteries to feed the machines. They loved the image – the big revelation of the horror of it all. Powerful symbolism, bad science.

I also suspect the “human battery” bit was a nod to philosopher Gurdjieff who, like Dick, had his own weirdo brand of Gnosticism. In literal terms, Gurdjieff thought that Space Vampires living on the moon had trapped humanity in a world of delusion to feed off our psychic energies. (Most interpreters think that’s symbolic.) Again, powerful symbolism = bad science.

On the subject of bad science, according to Tank, the city of Zion is “deep underground, near the earth's core where it's still warm.” Actually, near the earth’s core, it’s 6650 degrees or so. Pretty warm. But Tank is, basically, a mechanic. No offense to Click and Clack, but it’s understandable if his character gets the science wrong.

The AIs set their virtual reality world to 1999 to keep humanity placid, deluded and asleep. That’s the premise, but setting the Matrix to a single year makes no sense. If Neo is 24, he would’ve been born in “1975.” After that, Neo’s subjective experience would have moved forward, year after year, until it became “1999.” The movie also strongly implies that everybody’s living in the same Matrix. (I.e., there isn’t one corner of the Matrix where it’s Roman World, another where it’s Edwardian England.) This implies the dreamworld is on a cycle. I.e.: time moves forward in the Matrix—for everybody. If that’s true, the machines will have to continually reset the Matrix. Otherwise, humanity will reach the point where it invents artificial intelligence and fights a war with the machines INSIDE THE MATRIX. And that’s just too damn confusing, even for machines.

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