Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Matrix

Thanks to Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience for choosing one of teenage me's favorite films for the finale of this season of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!

I remember so much about going to see The Matrix for the first time. I was 15 years old, and was wholly entranced by the unbelievably cool marketing campaign: "What Is The Matrix?" all the ads asked, accompanied by the coolest WTF-did-I-just-see visuals anyone had seen (you could make a case for 1999 as the greatest year for movie marketing ever, between this and The Blair Witch Project, and I'm sure there's more). My best friend and I were pushing really hard to go, and finally our parents relented. Except that the theater wouldn't let my mom just buy the tickets for us, she had to actually go in and watch it with us.

This should have been mortifying, but my mom stuck herself in the back row and didn't bother us one bit. When the movie was over, all of us - even my mom - walked out with our mouths open, the only words coming out being, "THAT WAS SO COOL!"

The Matrix then became the unlikeliest of bonding experiences for me and my mom. We went to see both sequels in the theater together (despite the diminishing returns, although I still argue that Reloaded is one of the best action films of the past twenty years), something that previously had only been the realm of Star Wars. Which is fitting, I guess, because in many ways The Matrix was like Star Wars for my generation. The Gen-X philosophizing, the black trenchcoats, the very concept of "the matrix", "I know kung fu", and of course, the stylistic flourish that the film is probably most known for today: Bullet time.

I keep trying to remember when I knew that The Matrix was special, a film that I would love for quite a long time, and I'm pretty sure it's in that very first scene. Very few films open as strongly as The Matrix, with a mysterious phone call as we watch a trace program locate the phone number, followed by police agents moving in on a mysterious woman.
Carrie-Ann Moss is so incredibly badass as Trinity - even in this first shot of her face when she's raising her hands in surrender. You know right away that this is NOT someone you want to piss off, someone who you engage at your own risk. It's an incredible performance, made even better by the flashes of panic and doubt Moss allows to creep in to her statue-like face at various points later in this scene - she paints a remarkably full character portarait in four minutes with almost no dialogue. And then, after Hugo Weaving tells us exactly what we've already suspected of her, this happens:
Best Shot Runner-Up
It's the film's first use of bullet time, but in this context you wouldn't recognize it as such. In fact, it took me a couple of viewings of The Matrix to even realize that the camera isn't moving around a frozen image - Trinity's legs keep rising throughout the shot. It also comes out of nowhere, before any real action has even started. It kicks the movie into high gear and delivers the first of many iconic images from cinematographer Bill Pope. There's even a bit of mystery to it - is she stopping time? Is she supernaturally strong and fast? Who is this badass, black-leather-clad women?

But that's not the moment. Not for me.

For me, the moment that most excited me, that made me go "HOLY SHIT" first, was this one:
I mean, COME ON. She jumps in slow-motion, from roof to roof, ACROSS A CITY STREET. Like I said: BAD. ASS. It's also perfectly set up earlier in the chase sequence, when we see Trinity, the Agent chasing her, and the police officers following him all jump over a much smaller space between rooftops, from the bottom... and one of the cops almost doesn't make it. This is the moment that first scene has been building towards, even though it continues for another minute or so and ends with another iconic image: Trinity in a phone booth, hand against the glass, as if pushing away the truck coming barreling toward her.

After 15 years and countless rewatches, The Matrix still excites. That the (Oscar-winning) visual effects still hold up is a huge reason why; bullet time may have been over-spoofed in the years since, but it hasn't ever been as effective as it was here. Plus, it's not the only trick The Matrix has up its sleeve. The superb construction of its action sequences, the simple yet effective world-building, and the easy yet serious performances all contribute. For me, anyway, this movie's luster hasn't faded one bit.

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This post could be retitled "An Appreciation of Carrie-Ann Moss! I didn't plan on writing almost exclusively about Trinity when I started writing this, but she's the first character we meet in The Matrix, and she makes an indelible impression in one of the film's best sequences. And it's a really great performance.