It’s Keanu Reeves’s 50th birthday today, and to honor him, Nathaniel has selected the film that graduated that actor from punchline to somewhat plausible action movie hero for the 2014 finale of Hit Me with Your Best Shot: I refer of course to The Matrix, 15 years old this year and no less extravagantly influential than when it was still the hot new kid on the block. It’s a film that I last watched when I reviewed it in 2010, as part of the very first year of my now-annual Blockbuster History series; it was never a particular favorite of mine, and revisiting it four years later, I find that I’m less kindly inclined towards it then I was at the time of that not-especially-enthusiastic write-up. But the one thing that the film absolutely provides, of course, is plenty of cool, iconic imagery: it is, in fact, something of a cool, iconic imagery factory, thanks to its super-awesome visual effects and its even more super-awesome trench coats ‘n’ sunglasses costume scheme.
A superfluity of cool, iconic imagery makes it incredibly easy to assemble a list of possible candidates for my own favorite single image of the film; an urgent desire to take things a little less obvious after running straight to the most iconic shots I could imagine for the two Gone with the Wind weeks makes it rather harder, since all of the coolest, most iconic moments are among The Matrix‘s most famous scenes. So I elected, not without some sorrow, to eschew the trench coats and visual effects, though I did not also eschew the sunglasses.
In its most inelegantly simple form, The Matrix is about choosing between a life of comforting complacency and falseness, or a life of hard, dangerous truth. Though the fact that choosing hard, dangerous truth makes you like Superman only with even more overt Christ imagery tends to soften the difficulty of that choice. Anyway, my shot: it’s from the famous, oft-quoted “blue pill/red pill/rabbit hole” scene, where the mysterious and cool wiseman badass Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers hacker Neo (Reeves) that choice. It’s the moment where the film commits; everything that happens before leads up to this moment and everything that follows is its direct consequence. And here sits Neo, unable to rely on anyone to help him in this momentous decision besides himself: looking into Morpheus’s eyes, he can see himself divided in two, one version taking the blue pill and remaining comfortable, one version taking the red pill and learning the truth. It is, in essence, Neo witnessing all possible futures in one moment.
It is not a subtle visual metaphor – it is, in fact, the polar opposite of a subtle visual metaphor. But virtually nothing about The Matrix is subtle on any level. And it is (here comes the word!) “cool” – a shot that took a lot of effort to make look that way, and proud to show off once it has done so, with symbolism that’s not very hard to figure out but is expressed with enough flair that it can seem deep and challenging and clever to the kind of intellectually enthusiastic adolescents and young adults who make up the film’s natural target audience. It takes just enough work to unpack it that you can tell you’ve done the work afterward, which is exactly where The Matrix prefers to live. And as it thus embodies both the film’s themes and the consistent tone with which it states and explores those themes, it perfectly sums up what The Matrix is and how it is.
I would have been happier if it had guns. I will admit that. But we should not let perfection be the enemy of the good.