Ever since I first read William Gibson’s novel "Neuromancer" novel, and since I had laid my hands on FASA’s "Shadowrun" role-playing games I had dreamed of a movie that takes the Cyberpunk world described in these works and puts it on the big screen. At the time it was literally impossible and I had discussed the possibilities many times with my friends from FASA directly. Technical limitations made an adequate representation of the core of these worlds impractical. With the rise of computer powered imagery this has changed. The time has come to take viewers into the core of Cyberpunk, into the Matrix. This summer Warner Brothers stunned audiences and critics alike with "The Matrix", just as Gibson had when he released his debut novel in 1984. The time was right for an edgy thriller set in people’s minds, in a world where humans and computers can melt into one at will, and where the mind alone rules over matter.
Highly anticipated, Warner Home Video has been preparing the DVD release of this box office smash hit film for a long time, keeping most details about the disc tightly under wraps for the longest time. Apart from "Titanic", I can hardly remember another DVD release that was so shrouded in secrecy and protected from curious eyes until very briefly before its actual release. Now Warner Home Video has sent the disc our way and I was eager to give it a close-up look.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a software engineer by day and a hacker by night. Under the nick "Neo" he is hacking into international networks, selling his information to everyone who’s willing to pay for it. On his virtual travels he has repeatedly come across something called "The Matrix" and is determined to find out what it is, when one day special agents take him into custody. With his track record in hand the agents tell him they are looking for one of his hacker contacts, the legendary decker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), for criminal charges, and when he decides to protect his source Anderson soon finds himself on the run.
Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), another hacker he met a few days before, picks him up and arranges a meeting with Morpheus, who wants to see Anderson. Not knowing what to expect, Anderson listens to what Morpheus has to tell him about a world that is taking place in people’s minds only. Morpheus has unraveled a secret, the truth about mankind, and it turns out that the world has been enslaved by machines who use neuro-biological stimuli to create a make-believe world we live in - the Matrix! According to a prophecy one man will break the reign of the machines and bring down the Matrix, and Morpheus is convinced that "Neo" is the One.
The film starts out with a furious sequence that gives viewers immediately a good taste for what to expect. Radical visual effects and heart stopping action, combined with the dark undertones of a thriller. The more you get into the movie and the more of the story unfolds, the more impressive and science-fictionesque the entire scenario becomes. When Neo is directly plugged into a computer to learn the truth all doubts whether this is possible or not are gone. We simply take this cyberworld for granted and start to float with it.
In their third feature film, brothers Andrew and Larry Wachowski pull all the stops, creating the first real Cyberpunk movie that legions of genre fans have been waiting for. Unfortunately the film is very dialogue-laden and appears overly dry at times. Although I know it is hard to explain Cyberpunk in general, the Matrix, Deckers and the neuro-biological material at hand to an unknowing audience, I had wished a more cinematic approach would have been chosen to fill in all the background. Especially for people familiar with the territory it would have certainly been more gratifying.
Fortunately the film makes up for all this through its daringness and creativity. The film’s story is so radical that it can easily become mind-boggling, raising and answering questions each and every one of us has had throughout our lives at one point or another. What is real? What makes things real? Can we really be assured of our senses?
Visually and artistically "The Matrix" owes a lot - and I mean A LOT - to Hong Kong Wire-Fu and fantasy films. What I find interesting is that many people who laugh at the flying fight sequences in films like "The Stormriders" or "Zu" undisputedly tolerate the flying fight scenes we see duplicated in "The Matrix". Much of the action in the film is similar to Hong Kong films, which makes it tricky to judge. Comparing the fluidity and elegance of real kung fu masters like Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan to actors with strictly rehearsed moves in "The Matrix" would not be fair to either. While stunt coordinator Woo Ping Yuen, one of Hong Kong’s best stunt choreographers and directors, does a great job choreographing the extraordinarily elaborate fight sequences in "The Matrix" the performances seem stiff and wooden at times.
Warner Home Video’s release of "The Matrix" has gotten a lot of attention and it is hardly surprising to find a number of bonus materials on the disc. The film itself is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio on this DVD in an anamorphic transfer. The quality is superb with a sharp image without looking over-enhanced and a high level of detail. Great shadow delineation and deep solid blacks help to give the image a dimensionality and depth. Highlights in the picture are very well balanced adding to the pleasing look of the film on this release. The film’s color reproduction is very faithful with naturally rendered fleshtones and strong, vibrant colors without bleeding or compression artifacts.
As expected the ponderous soundtrack that made "The Matrix" such an experience in theaters is nicely reproduced on this disc’s 5.1 channel Dolby Digital audio track. Boasting an impressive dynamic range the film’s soundtrack can shake your house to its foundation at time. The mix presented on this disc is very wide and engulfing with aggressive split surround use and a very low end that is sure to get your subwoofer going. The film needs to be listened at a rather high volume level for best effect however, otherwise some of the soft spoken dialogues are barely understandable. It is a decision I am sure has been consciously made by the filmmakers to give the many explosive effects additional punch. The film’s pounding soundtrack matches the images very well driving many of the scenes along at the right pace and creating tension at the right moments.
"The Matrix" contains a commentary track by actress Carrie-Anne Moss, editor Zach Staenberg and special effects supervisor John Gaeta. While it is an interesting commentary track it contains a number of gaps during the film, especially towards the end, and a number of private jokes and laughter that is left for the audience to guess about. It also contains an extensive documentary called "Making The Matrix" that features interviews with the cast and crew and explains some of the motives of the film and the characters.
There are also a few quasi-hidden featurettes on the disc that are quite interesting for the most part, but they all feel a bit unfocused. "What Is Bullet Time?" for example hardly explains to the point what it is and how these spectacular shots have been achieved, instead covering reams of technical details. Unless I hadn’t read about the actual execution of these shots somewhere else before, I guess I would still wouldn’t know.
The disc also contains a number of DVD-ROM supplements, most prominently the film’s screenplay and storyboards. The supplements on this part for the disc are very well put together covering a number of interesting aspects about the film, such as a comprehensive martial arts background.
"The Matrix" was a very cool experience and it is a very powerful film that finally introduced a new genre to film audiences. It is a well-crafted movie that warps reality and comes up with mind-bending, radical ideas about a computerized world in which humans are turned into negligible byproducts. Given the quality of this DVD I can only recommend you to go out and get this disc. It is one of the rare occasions where filmmakers have broken with convention and dared to go all the way to create something truly visionary and inspired.