No! Don't Take Both Pills!
As I've noted in the past, The Matrix is, at times, one of my favorite movies. The mix of sci-fi setting and superhero powers, the cool technology they used to make the film that gave it a style unlike anything before (and only poorly aped afterwards). It's just a very cool movie.
However, I really am not a fan of the sequels. I've always felt like the story they told doesn't really do anything for the original film and, if anything, just detracts from it when you go back and watch the first flick. After recently revising my list of Top Movies, I decided I needed to give the films a second chance and see if the sequels really were just as bad as I thought. So let's begin with the first flick and see how it all shakes out:
Follow the White Rabbit
Going back and watching these movies again, the first thing I noticed was that the original film really isn't much of an action flick. For all the hype about "Bullet Time" and the slo-mo effect the film perfected, The Matrix is less concerned with being a kung-fu action movie that a techno-thriller. After the initial prologue with Trinity (which is admittedly cool), the movie slows down and focuses on Neo as it steadily introduces concept about the Matrix. What is it? Why is everyone talking about it? We learn about our main character, Neo (aka Mr. Anderson), about the hackers, the Agents, and we start to see all the creepy crap the Agents will do in pursuit of the hackers. But at no point does this feel like an action flick.
I like this section a lot because it's all world building. I will fully admit that I didn't see any of the commercials for The Matrix before it was out in theaters. The only reason I even went to see it was because a friend of mine stated that it was bad-ass, but he wouldn't tell me anything about it. I went into the film blind and, seriously, that was probably the best way to see it the first time. You have no clue that people are going to be doing these cool, gravity-defying stunts, that there will be slo-mo gunplay, that there's a war going on between humans and machines. And the whole intro of the movie plays it like a big surprise. Everything that happens, everything that follows, builds on the slow reveals of the plot to keep viewers hooked. If you knew the plot going in that first time, none of the opening act would have nearly the impact it does.
I Know Kung Fu
The movie doesn't even try to work action into the plot, not really, until the mid-point. This is when Neo trains with ship operator, Tank. Here, after spending 10 hours in the simulation chair, Neo has absorbed just about ever kind of martial arts he can (downloaded right into his brain). Morpheus, ship captain and leader of the rag-tag band of hacker characters, then challenges Neo to a fight within the training simulation with two simple words: "show me."
This is when we really start to see the Hong Kong-style choreography at work, when the movie becomes less of a techno-thriller and starts to morph into a superhero film. This whole story is really about Neo, his origin story from everyday guy to eventual "Superman" (as it's put in the second film). The Matrix is a computer simulation and the free hackers, the humans, are allowed to bend and break the rules of the simulation because they know it's a simulation. And Neo, being the trope-ish "The One", is able to bend and break the rules more than anyone else.
Or, at least, that's the assumption everyone makes. Somehow The One is going to end the war with machines because he has powers in the Matrix no one else does.
Would You Have Broken It If I Hadn't Said Anything?
I think what works even better than the thriller vibe or the action-superhero sequences that follow, is the layering of foreshadowing. If you're paying attention, everything is told to you about what's going to happen. There shouldn't be any surprises but, instead of acting like spoilers, the little crumbs the movie feeds you become "ah ha" moments. You see what the creators were setting up after it happens, and that only brings you further into the movie (and gets you to come back to see it again and again).
After the first viewing, you'll know the sound of Cypher's voice (and that he ends up being a bad guy). Because of that, you'll already know the plot is in motion from the first scene when Trinity is on the phone with Cypher. Just hearing his voice you already start to doubt everything he says. Characters make comments (calling a character "coppertop" for one) that payoff later when you have all the information about the film (that the machines use humans as batteries for power, thus "coppertop batteries"). A character hints Neo won't just be able to dodge bullets (like the Agents do) because his powers mean he won't have to, and then to see just why (even if the characters didn't even know what it meant) is amazing.
And then there's the Oracle, the woman with the sight into the future that kicks the last act into motion. It's her foreshadowing of the events to come that both tell Neo he's not The One and, because of that, actually turn him into The One. When she tells Neo "don't worry about the vase" prompting him to knock over a vase, breaking it, she's already hinting to him that she's going to kick him in a new direction he wouldn't have gone on his own. She literally tells him nothing but the truth, but he (and we along with) don't really hear it the way it's intended. Only upon a repeat viewing do we see everything she set up and how Neo is guiding through the story by fate.
The Oracle Told Me This Would Happen
There are layers to the storytelling, repeated beats and new iterations that play with your expectations. It's a smart script made all the better by the fact that the world build and, yes, the action around it is so good. But while this is a movie with sci-fi, superhero, and action beats, it sells it short just to say it's an action movie. The film works because it's willing to screw with your expectations, to play within the rules it outlines but bend (and sometimes break) expectations.
Morpheus literally tells us that halfway in: "the rules of the Matrix can be bent. Others can be broken." We just didn't realize he was talking about the movie itself.
And, yes, damn it if the action isn't great. You'll wait for the big set-pieces until the end, when Neo finally embraces who he will be, but the pay off is amazing. Everything promised from the opening sequence, from the dojo fight halfway in, plays out like you want in the end. Neo climactically, amazingly, becomes The One and the movie slams into high gear.
He Is "The One"
Even now, going back and watching it again, The Matrix holds up. Yes, sure, I go in and see the Agents and know that two of them won't be back for the sequel because "something something upgrades". I know that whatever he might say in the last scene (and how cool that sequence is), the war with the machines isn't over. I can't divorce myself from the events that come later. The first film, though, is still a tour-de-force. It's amazing and still one of the coolest movies I've ever seen.
Now, let's hope that The Matrix Reloaded is better than I remember...