Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: though Christopher Nolan proves again with Inception that he's one of the most honorable directors in the field of creating alternative realities so bizarre that you can hardly even describe them in an ad, he's not alone.

"WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" In the first quarter of 1999, it was impossible to avoid that question, plastered all over the television, and on every billboard and bus, and mixed in with the trailers for just about every movie you saw in a theater. "WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" Brilliant hucksterism, raising enthusiasm for the movie based on very little other than the promise of a hellzapoppin' narrative hook married to the cool visuals that dribbled out a little at a time (in 1999, there was not such an advanced film culture on the internet outside of the realm of the truly geeky, and it was a great deal harder to learn every aspect of a film's production before it premiered. "WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" A self-assured pick-up line that got everyone I knew at the time curious, even if they were the sort of person who wouldn't give half a damn about the Matrix if they actually knew ahead of time what the Matrix was.

"WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" was a particularly canny way to advertise The Matrix, for answer that question was, in a sense, the only point driving the movie's narrative. Of course, you don't need me to tell you what the Matrix is, anymore: the film has become one of the holy icons of contemporary cinema, having been stolen from by more movies than I or any other one person could hope to count in the little more than a decade since it made its debut in March of '99, thereby ever-so-casually creating the idea of the Pre-Summer Movie, a high-concept, effects-heavy tentpole film that for whatever reason opens right around the first day of spring.

But for form's sake, I shall remind you: the Matrix is everything; it is a machine-created reality in the late 22nd Century that replicates Earth in the late 20th Century. The Matrix is a simulation designed to keep humans' minds docile while the machines use their bodies as organic batteries. The Matrix is a cage, in other words, but a few lucky souls have been able to escape, and are doing their best to free the rest of the slaves. There is a certain man named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who goes under the hacker pseudonym "Neo" online, who is just coming to be aware that his world isn't right, in some vague and unhelpful sense of "not right" - and this makes him tremendously useful to a freed human known as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of a hovercraft in the real world, who has made it his goal to free all people from the Matrix, with the help of "The One", a prophesied individual with the ability to manipulate the very code of the Matrix with just his mind. Since this is that kind of movie, Morpheus is pretty damn sure that Neo is the One, and the movie largely consists of all the free humans on Morpheus's ship teaching Neo all the ins and outs of the Matrix, which they are able to plug into and leave freely, though they are pursued by sentient programs called Agents, the most dogged of whom is codenamed Smith (Hugo Weaving).

Prior to this review, I hadn't watched The Matrix in a great many years - I never had the love affair with it that a lot of people did and do, and the atrociousness of its sequels did a lot to strangle what love I had - and it was rather amazing to me that after such a long span full of so many knock-offs, my biggest problem with the hellzapoppin' narrative hook remains fundamentally unaltered: the Matrix makes no fucking sense. In the first, it seems unreasonable that sentient machines wouldn't be able to come up with a better power source in two hundred years than the grossly inefficient human body; in the second, it makes even less sense that they'd need to devote so much energy to the creation of a gigantic virtual reality system housing presumably billions of avatars, when the human body produces the same amount of energy if you lobotomize it (and it must be observed that both of these objections are answered in the blink of an eye if the film uses the original concept, that the humans the nodes of a giant neural network - the machines' central computer, in essence - and I have never understood why the filmmakers elected not to employ that no-less-arcane and infinitely more coherent notion).

Everybody notices this; virtually nobody cares; the reason being that The Matrix exemplifies the idea that a sufficiently cool outcome justifies all of the tortured narrative it takes to get there. It's certainly a cool movie, though I have always harbored the idea that it's just a bit too proud of its own coolness for it to really work. But the coolness of the film's mise en scène, with all the leather dusters and custom sunglasses and physically audacious action sequences augmented with what was then bleeding-edge special effects technology is obvious enough that it's almost boring to talk about it, even beyond the fact that it has been copied outright so very many times. What I find rather more compelling is the storytelling mechanism by which all of this coolness is presented to us: indeed, just as much as bullet-time and slow-motion shots of people dressed in black striding away from explosions have become such an entrenched part of The Matrix's legacy, its narrative structure is just as influential, and frankly a great deal more revolutionary.

It's all in the way that the siblign writer-directors, the Wachowskis, explain the universe, and there's a lot of explanation. Really, The Matrix contains absolutely nothing but exposition: it's something that never struck me before, but there really isn't any dramatic conflict underpinning the whole film. Pretend for the moment that there was never The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions (which you should always pretend, anyway), and then describe the plot of The Matrix in terms of one player opposing another. There are a few possibilities, but none of them fit: "Morpheus and crew want to destroy the Matrix" doesn't work, since that plot never comes remotely close to a resolution, "Agent Smith wants to capture Morpheus" requires ignoring the self-evident fact that Neo is the film's protagonist, "Agent Smith wants to kill Neo" only incidentally describes Smith's motivations. The true plot is best summed up as "Morpheus teaches Neo about the Matrix and his role as the One", and virtually every moment up to the subway battle between Neo and Smith is in some way about Neo learning a new facet of how the Matrix works.

Nothing but exposition, I repeat: Neo is our surrogate, and Neo spends the whole movie learning about the Matrix, as we spend the whole movie learning about the Matrix. That sounds like a phenomenally boring way to spend a 136-minute action movie, and it easily could be: Reloaded certainly falls into the ugly pattern of a gigantic action scene followed by a deadly exposition dump that makes it feel a solid hour longer than its predecessor, even though it's only 138 minutes (and with longer end credits, it's functionally shorter than the first one).

What makes The Matrix special - what makes it functional at all, in fact - is the way the exposition is rolled into incident. The rule of cinema is typically said to be "show, don't tell", but a little bit of telling is plainly necessary in a scenario as esoteric as this. The Wachowskis' genius lies in showing and telling simultaneously: as Neo learns by doing, we learn by watching. Every one of the showy setpieces (except for the famous lobby shoot-out, which despite its fame has never been my favorite part of the movie - it feels like it was cut using a Cuisinart) is both a kinetic feast of cool and a demonstration of some concept. It is this clever way of explaining on the run that makes learning about the Matrix so much fun, and it was in losing sight of this that Wachowskis guaranteed that the sequels would be nowhere near as watchable - that, and buying way too much into the bullshit cod-Buddhist philosophy that keeps poking its snoot into The Matrix but never overwhelms it.

By making the needed exposition so painless and easy to comprehend, the Wachowskis free the audience to enjoy the fantasy world they've created: and despite my unabashed respect for the world-building in The Matrix, I must confess to being a little bit unmoved by the alleged coolness involved. The world-building is honestly what fascinates me; I'd love to know more about how life in the Matrix works (we can assume that it's always the late '90s, and people's memories of time before that are fabrications, but I have always wanted to see that in action, for example), more of the technology in general. Then again, having seen how dreadfully wrong it went when the filmmakers indeed tried to explain more about the world, we're probably better off.

Still, there's something a bit chilly about the movie that we're given. Stunningly achieved fight choreography, beyond a shadow of a doubt; and Bill Pope's ugly green cinematography within the Matrix and sickly blue cinematography in the real world give the film a defining look that serves it well. The effects hold up better than movies made years later; and as much as anyone might want to mock, the leather dusters and sunglasses are cool. There's just nothing human about it whatsoever: all spectacle, no substance. Plenty of delightful movies have borne the same weight, so it's not fair to single out The Matrix, except that it seems to be convinced that it is substantial: that Neo (courtesy of Reeves's determinedly un-inflected performance) is a sort of Everyman, whose journey from bored drone to hero of all humanity is a potent bit of wish-fulfillment, and that Morpheus's cryptic spirituality speaks to something profound. Honestly, the film would have been better off jettisoning those ineffective feints towards seriousness: the sight of people spinning in midair, coupled with the unoriginal but richly detailed "fake reality" concept, would have been more than enough to make the movie a real barnburner of a popcorn masterpiece. Basically, I wish it appeared to be as much fun to be in The Matrix as it is to watch The Matrix; there are some places where solemnity has no merit, and this is definitely one of them.

Reviews in this series
The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)
The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowskis, 2003)
The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowskis, 2003)