Time may have worn away The Matrix's luster, but Dolby Cinema's 4K laser projectors restore its original brilliance.
Well, you just missed it, but The Matrix (1999) recently wrapped a brief 20th anniversary theatrical run in AMC Dolby cinemas. The limited engagements afforded an opportunity to revisit one of the most visually spectacular science fiction films of 20th century, projected for the first time in what may be the state-of-art system of the 21st century.
The experience was both uplifting and sobering. Time has chipped away at The Matrix's aura. In retrospect, the movie is not as profound as it aims to be, and what was innovative in 1999 has been rendered overly familiar by imitators and bad sequels. Nevertheless, The Matrix remains rousing entertainment two decades later thanks to impeccable craftsmanship, engaging performances, and the stylistic ambition of the writer-director team, the Wachowski siblings.
The Matrix Review: 20th Century Effects
Seen today, The Matrix does not look quite as unique as it did during its original release. This is pretty much the fate of all seminal films: they launch trends that turn their innovations into cliches. Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating artifact of 1990s science fiction cinema - an era when computer-generated imagery had improved special effects but not completely eclipsed other techniques.
For all of the spectacular imagery (including the "ooo, wow!" Bullet Time shots), the action The Matrix feel visceral and real, as if achieved largely in-camera, relying on practical effects, stunt work, and of course the amazing fight choreography of Yuen Woo-ping. Sure, much of what we see is clearly impossible, but it never feels like a cartoon in which anything can happen because, hey, what the hell - it's only a movie, right?
Instead, there is a sense of momentum that grounds the action in physical reality - which is quite ironic since the majority of the film takes place in a virtual computer simulation. This verisimilitude is what gives the flying leaps, freeze-fame kicks, and bullet-dodging their kick - only by establishing "reality" is it possible to jolt viewers with the violation of that reality.
My only major problem with the special effects relates not to the memorable fight scenes but to the film's depiction of the physical world outside the Matrix. Having established that most of the film takes place inside a computer program it makes sense to use computers to achieve the visual effects. But outside The Matrix, when the Nebuchadnezzar ship is attacked by the mechanical "squids" - the continued use of CGI mitigates against creating a stylistic separation between Virtual Reality and Physical Reality. The film truly would have benefited from shifting to miniatures and models for these sequences.
The Matrix Review: Philosophy 101
One sad point to note upon revisiting the film is that, since we all know what The Matrix is, the first half of the narrative is rather lethargic. The film jump-starts with a nice action scene featuring Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), which grabs our attention, but after that the process of bringing Neo (Keanu Reeves) into contact with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and filling him in on the prophecy about "The One" feels like a very long exposition dump, with very little actually happening.
To make matters worse, concepts that sounded amazing back in 1999 come across as a bit rudimentary now. The dialogue sometimes sounds as if it was written by a college freshman halfway through his first Philosophy 101 class. Piling on references from religion and mythology (Zion, Morpheus, etc) only exacerbates the sense of someone grasping for deeper meaning without really finding it. Probably the cleverest dialogue occurs in the early scenes, before we know what's happening, when characters keep saying dropping lines that foreshadow what's to come ("You're a savior," someone says to Neo upon purchasing an illicit computer program from him).
The emphasis on Fate and Prophecy creates an intriguing aura around Neo, and the script does a decent job of keeping us guessing (or at least trying to) about whether he is truly The One, but in the end, this is a story about someone who doesn't really need to do undergo any dramatic growth to achieve victory; he simply has to accept having greatness thrust upon him. Just as Luke Skywalker merely needs to use the force, so Neo merely needs to use his innate ability to override The Matrix's programming. Basically, this is "The Little Train That Could" ("I think I can, I think I can...I know I can, I know I can") dressed up on philosophical finery.
This is not to denigrate the rousing moment when Neo becomes The One - seeing an apparently ordinary person rise to heroic proportions is an effective narrative arc, and the film pulls this one off in such a spectacular fashion that I'm almost embarrassed about criticizing the movie. It's just that, in retrospect, it's not quite as profound as the film makes it out to be. And truth be told, since The Lego Movie did such a wonderful job spoofing this sort of story, it's a little bit harder to take seriously the hero-destined-to-fulfill-the-prophecy narrative while the woman who has been part of the resistance movement much longer gets shunted to the side because the hero has to be a man.
The Matrix Review: Dolby
The 2019 re-release of The Matrix was limited to Dolby Cinemas, which are located inside AMC Theatres. Dolby Cinema is a method of presentation rather than a special film format - which is to say, movies are not shot in "Dolby"; they are projected in Dolby.
The process promises state-of-the-art sound and picture. The former is achieved with the Dolby Atmos sound system, which uses five speakers in the screen and forty-eight surround sound speakers (including a quartet on the ceiling), plus subwoofers for those pulse-pounding low tones. The latter is achieved with dual 4K laser projectors. The result is an immersive viewing experience: the sound can seem to surround you; the picture, projected on a very large screen, is sharp and clear, with an incredible range of contrast.
How this impacts your viewing experience depends on what you're watching. In the case of The Matrix, production took place twenty years ago, when movies were shot and projected on film, Dolby was merely a noise-reduction system, and a premium viewing experience consisted of 70mm film with six-track stereo. Thankfully, the film retains its shot-on-film look; it hasn't been digitally embalmed, and the colors haven't been boosted to make them "pop" on screen so that viewers feel they are getting something special to justify the $20 Dolby ticket price.
What we do get is a pristine picture that looks as good today - if not better than - it looked during the initial theatrical release. I thought I caught a trace of visible film grain but just barely - and only when I was looking for it. Otherwise, the image is perfectly clear and sharp.
Perhaps most significant for The Matrix is the advantage of Dolby's high-contrast capability, which includes black that are really black, not just dark gray (a problem inherent in projection, which works by throwing light on the screen). Consequently, the many dark scenes in the film, whether set at night or inside dimly lit rooms, look dark without losing details in shadows, and there's none of the graininess that could mar low-light photography in the film era.
Also notable is the ability of the 4K laser projectors to render fast-paced action with little or no motion blur. Old-fashioned film projection, at 24 frames per second, sometimes caused a stroboscopic effect when an object zipped quickly across the screen, but The Matrix's punches, kicks, and crashing helicopters are all smooth as silk even when not show in slow-motion.
One aspect that AMC Theatres oversell about Dolby Cinema is the recliner seats - which, though comfortable, are advertised as "pulsating with the action." Not billed as motion-simulation, this description suggests a Sensurround-type effect, with seats vibrating during explosions or bumpy rides. We felt no such effect during The Matrix. Perhaps IT: Chapter Two, which has replaced The Matrix in the Dolby Cinema at the AMC Promenade 16 in Burbank, will exploit this effect when the victims are stumbling through the Derry Funhouse.
In any case, though Dolby Cinema is not a special format like Cinerama or Screen-X, it did offer a great way to revisit The Matrix. Strangely, much as I enjoy the movie, I have seen it only three times: first when it was release, then on its 10th anniversary, and now on its 20th anniversary. I like to imagine some amazing new format will be available ten years from now (direct download into the brain) when I see the film again on its 30th anniversary.
The Matrix Review: Then
To get a sense of how my perception of The Matrix has changed (and hopefully to mollify anyone irritated by my negative comments above), here is the review I wrote for Cinefantastique magazine in 1999. It has been slightly updated to take into account the sequels that followed.
The surprise sleeper success of 1999, this ingenious science fiction thriller easily surpassed THE PHANTOM MENACE in imagination, action, acting, and effects – if not in box office. It also spawned two action-packed sequels that, unfortunately, illustrated the law of diminishing returns, as what once seemed fresh and original quickly decayed into repetitious formula.
Excellence can be easier to acknowledge than it is to explain, which is why writing favorable reviews can be more difficult than writing negative ones: a list of virtues is a harder to identify than a laundry list of faults. In the case of THE MATRIX, the film is filled with what sounds like a laundry list of typically brainless big-budget Hollywood excesses: a cyberpunk, virtual reality storyline; an ear-shattering soundtrack; numerous fight and chase scenes; and enough gunfire to turn a building into the concrete equivalent of Swiss cheese. Yet, somehow, these elements coalesce into a film that is much more than just another Joe Silver science-fiction free-for-all (a la DEMOLITION MAN). The Wachowski Brothers have actually written and directed a densely plotted, intriguing tale that reuses familiar material without ever surrendering to hackneyed clichés.
In a nutshell, Neo (Reeves) discovers that his life in 1999 is an illusion; he’s really just an organic battery supplying energy to a 22nd-century world run by machines that keep humanity blissfully unaware of their true existence via the Matrix, a cyberspace recreation of 1999. With the help of Morpheus (Fishburne), Neo’s mind escapes from its link-up to the Matrix, and Neo learns the mental skills necessary to go back in and defeat the Agents (artificial intelligence characters) who patrol humanity. Also, Neo learns that he may be “The One,” a character prophesied by an oracle, who will be able to see through the illusion of the Matrix and thus completely overcome its programming for physical laws (like gravity) that actually don’t exist in cyberspace.
There’s a lot of story to tell, and it is told in a thrilling way, often on the run, seldom slowing down, but never leaving us behind. The action never distances us from the characters, never spills over into sloppy excess. It’s a mark of the careful construction that, over an hour into the running time, as Neo is heading to rescue Morpheus from the Agents, there is a palpable sense of anticipation for the big shoot out we know is coming. The reason is obvious: we’ve seen lots of martial arts, special effects, and action by this time, but gunfire has been kept to a relative minimum, the Wachowskis having saved up this big set piece for an appropriate dramatic moment (this is the first time that Neo, who has spent most of the film learning and being led, must make a decision and take action without the guidance of Morpheus).
Technical credits are superb. Especially exciting is the martial arts choreography: the over-the-top action will be familiar to fans of Hong Kong film, but in this case the unreality is justified, because it takes place in an unreal world. The special effects are also noteworthy for enhancing the impact of the action, reminding us of the cyberspace setting with impossible 3-D camera moves amidst ultra-slow-motion as characters seem suspended in mid-air during flying kung fu leaps. Amazingly, this approach never succumbs to the obvious pitfall: the dangers seems more profound, not less, even though we know they are not “real” in the physical sense.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Reeves erases any bad memories of JOHNNY MNEMONIC, even playing off his Bill-and-Ted image to humorous effect. Fishburne is a model voice of wisdom, and Carrie Anne Moss makes for an exciting femme fatale. Special kudos go to Hugo Weaving for somehow managing to make Agent Smith both mechanical and malevolent (almost as if Jack Webb had been possessed by the devil).
If there is any failure on the part of the Wachowskis, it is that they use the intriguing world they’ve invented only as a pretext for plot, without really disturbing us on the level of ideas (unlike DARK CITY last year). The film is filled with concepts that are scarcely explored (such as the home base of the human resistance movement, which is mentioned but not shown). Fortunately, the first MATRIX film does not fall prey to the standard plot structure of futuristic freedom fighter movies, wherein the hero conveniently joins the rebels just when the big battle is about to be fought that will overthrow the totalitarian regime and restore peace to the world. Instead, THE MATRIX builds up to the point where Neo finally proves that he is The One, capable of fighting the Matrix and its agents.
That battle, along with lots of complications, served as the basis of the subsequent films; unfortunately, the intriguing concepts introduced here were explored without ever really being resolved in a satisfying way. Instead, the later two films wandered right into the trap that the first one had avoided. Nevertheless, the original MATRIX remains one of the most exciting, intelligent, and imaginative genre films of the 1990s. Filled with images that amaze without overwhelming the story, THE MATRIX tackled the growing computer/cyberspace/VR sub-genre of films that includes duds and disappointments like HACKERS, THE NET, VIRTUOSITY, and WILD PALMS. Just when you thought you never wanted to see another, along came one that was absolutely astounding.
This portion of the review is copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski.
The Matrix (1999) Rating
THE MATRIX (Warner Bros, 1999). Rated R. 136 minutes.
- Written and directed by Larry & Andy Wachowski
- Produced by Joel Silver
- Music by Don Davis
- Edited by Zach Staenberg
- Keanu Reeves as Neo/The One
- Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus
- Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity
- Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith
- Gloria Foster as The Oracle
- Joe Pantoliano as Cypher
- ‘Marcus Chong as Tank
- Julian Arahanga as Apoc
- Matt Doran as Mouse
- Belinda McClory as Switch
- Anthony Ray Parker as Dozer
- Paul Goddard as Agent Brown
- Robert Taylor as Agent Jones