The Matrix (1999)

I admire The Matrix more than I enjoy it. This is not to slight the craft of the action or storytelling, in fact, it’s a testament to how strong the film is outside its action scenes. And yet, my issues outside the film have always fallen outside the realm of the action. As much as I enjoy the provoking questions The Matrix evokes, the film loses its philosophical allegory amid the slow motion and bullet action.

And this is the great source of my admiration. It’s one of the most exciting, well-crafted and engaging action films, but also a thought provoking series of discussions on the nature of reality, a fundamental philosophical question. Alongside such works as Plato’s The Cave, The Matrix has become yet another story people use to try to understand our universe.

And while I love that there’s a film that can entertain me as well as provoke questions I’m still not sure I’ve found the answer to, I can’t help but be a bit off put by the presentation. The languid conversations with Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) are intriguing to mull over, but in the midst of an sci-fi action film, the film feels like it indulges in these questions a bit too long and perhaps a bit too much on the front end of the picture.

It’s the action that solves the conflicts, the use of violence which seeks to resolve the rising obstacles that get in the way of Neo (Keanu Reeves). Philosophy is compartmentalized, placed away from the orgies of bullets and explosions. Don’t get me wrong, the action scenes some of the best, and I enjoy them a lot, but for a film that is built upon a deep philosophical problem, I wish that it found a way to weave that into the later sections of the film.

I must admit I also resent The Matrix a bit for being one of the films that is constantly put on lists of the most philosophical films of all time. Yes, it’s a philosophical film, but it’s hardly one of the best explorations of a philosophical concept in film. I think of films that never make such lists like The Thin Red Line and The Double Life of Veronique or films that end up on some of these lists, like Andrei Tarkovsky’s body of work. These films weave philosophy throughout the story, bringing up questions of identity and human nature through the dramatic conflict.

But I understand why it’s on this list. It’s a culturally important film and it’s clearly philosophical. It’s musings exists on a literal level, posed as direct questions to the characters and the audience. It’s a film that doesn’t force its audience to dig into the ether of authorial meaning in order to understand what it’s trying to say. The Matrix just says it.

This means that what you see is what you get in The Matrix. And what you get is an interesting philosophy lesson and a lot of fantastic action set-pieces. For some, that’s enough. I certainly enjoy the film a lot on that level and it is one of my favorite action films. But I don’t think it will ever be a favorite film for me.

I want a picture that strives to be philosophical to dig deeper, explore more and weave those ideas into the fabric of the conflict and the characters. Instead, I think The Matrix is a bit guilty of being of two minds. It’s still fantastic at accomplishing both, so I don’t begrudge it too much, but I certainly think it’s a film that had more potential that it delivered.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • I don’t think I’d really realized how polarized the two parts of the movie were before I read your review, great food for thought.

    • I didn’t either until a couple of rewatches. I still admire it a ton and would put it up against just about any action film made since.

  • Yeah, there’s damn good reason for it to be on such lists of philosophical films – it’s the most important one. And no, that doesn’t mean it’s the most philosophical (kind of a silly statement, isn’t it?), but its largeness combined with its relative amount of philosophy give it such a combined presence that it can’t be denied. The Thin Red Line might be your choice, and might even be a better representative, but the sheer inescapability of The Matrix takes it over the top.

    As for the unbalanced halves, you could make the argument that the setup of the film inherently excuses the orgy of bullets and violence. If we learn, as Neo does, that all humans are batteries living inside the matrix and it’s not real, then what is the true meaning of those bullets? Not much at all, and exponentially less when they’re aimed at agents. I don’t know if I believe that argument, but that doesn’t make it less valid.

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