The Matrix

The Matrix is, I’m given to understand, one of the best SF films that Hollywood has produced. Many of my film-going friends tell me this. It was up for the Hugo award for best science fiction dramatic presentation in 2000 (it was beaten by Galaxy Quest, in what is said to be a rather strong field). It’s currently (19-Aug-2001) #31 in the IMDB Top 250, with a rating of 8.5 out of 10.

My rants aren’t often going to extend into reviews; essentially never on books (I have a separate place where I talk about books), very rarely about movies or popular music or what-have-you. I don’t spend much of my time in “popular culture” land. However, when a head of steam gets built up, this is the place I built to discharge it, so every now and then….

This rant contains spoilers for the film The Matrix.


The film is beautiful. The concept that nearly everything we see is part of a computer-generated virtual reality gives the artistic director carte blanche, and they made very good use of it. Styles are drawn from mixed historical periods, lovingly combined in interesting ways. The ways things look means something, and since it’s all virtual, it’s all justifiable; you can’t ever wonder whether that combination of looks is reasonable. I noticed certain people driving older cars than made sense, for example, but one we know it’s all virtual, no problem.


The basic premise is a nice one

The basic premise, that nearly everybody is kept hooked up to tubes in pods, and never become conscious in their own bodies, only in the virtual reality of the matrix, is a nice one. The basic plot is action structured around a freedom-fighter group who wants us to be let out. Makes pretty good sense. The higher structure of the freedom fighters isn’t shown, though some bits are alluded to. That’s good theater, good story-telling; we don’t need to know the bits beyond our story, but some suggestions that there is something there are nice.

The action sequences and special effects are very nice. Again, the unreality of the situation is well used. It’s no longer wrong for somebody to leap straight into the air and kick the person in front of him across the room without moving backwards himself. It’s not even inherently wrong for an elevator, dropped to the bottom of its shaft, to send a fantastic roiling ball of flame through the lobby of the building, and shut down the power; it’s not real, it’s virtual, it’s okay for it to work that way. (I know lots of films do these things even though they are wrong. Perhaps I’m reading too much into what I saw, but it seemed to me that in this one, they felt freer to play with these things, and free to use them instead of simply display them.)

The acting is really quite good; I thought Laurence Fishburn as Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, and — damn, can’t pick the name out, and I don’t know actors; one of the henchmen on the ship, anyway, the one acting as operator through the important action at the end. Did particularly good jobs, I mean.

Some of you may, by now, be wondering why I feel the need to rant about this movie; so far everything I’ve said is good. Well. Here goes.

But do you know why the computers are keeping us in bottles? As an energy source. It says here that humans generate 120 volts and 50,000 BTUs.

Really. That’s what they say. The first may be true (but not in any useful sense). The second is complete nonsense (3.41 BTUs per watt, and a human is maybe 250 watts of heat energy; less in a resting state).

The movie says the computers are raising us for the energy. Never mind that what they have to feed us will be more than they get out of us. Never mind that keeping the whole matrix going costs additional energy. Never mind that there’s no reason to keep the matrix going; just suppress the cortex and keep us unconscious. Never mind that other animals have faster metabolisms.


Worst of all, it’s completely pointless

This is typical movie idiocy. It’s insulting to my intelligence. It makes me furiously angry. It throws me out of the story completely, fracturing the willing suspension of disbelief. It gets in the way of appreciating the rest of the movie. And, worst of all, it’s completely fucking pointless. It doesn’t let them do one single god-damned thing that they couldn’t do without it. It opens up no new avenues to explore, removes no restrictions, raises no curtains, diverts no suspicions (rather the reverse); cuts no ice. There are millions of possible three-sentence explanations of why the computers keep us in pods and have us live in the matrix. Only three of them are anywhere near this stupid. Most of them are at least vaguely believable. The exact reason isn’t crucial to the film, isn’t explained as it is.

But, as is completely typical of Hollywood science fiction, they went and chose the stupid one. And ruined big chunks of the movie. Why do they do this? I’ve always wondered. In the end, it has to come down to the fact that Hollywood doesn’t understand science fiction. The concept of people thinking about the film, analyzing what happens, wondering what other ways things could have gone, seems to be beyond them; at least, their films do not stand up to that kind of analysis.


Why introduce mysticism?

The whole business with “the oracle” was also offensively stupid. Set aside the fact that I have personal objections to the mystic bull-shit. How about the practical objections? All the humans from the resistance movement go to see this oracle at least once. The oracle lives in the matrix. So how come nobody notices and does something about it? No reason given. The oracle also doesn’t accomplish anything; just gives some people some conflicting stories which turn out to be what they need to talk themselves into achieving their potential. Perfectly fine plot twist, but why introduce mysticism that’s completely unexplained and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the movie? You could have any sort of character with insight deliver the same information.

So there you have it. Beautiful film. Good story. Hangs together really well. Except for two basic problems that are right at the root of everything, and pull the whole thing down on top of themselves.

Bah, humbug.

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