It's not easy competing with snarling mechanical octopuses 30 feet tall, the vision of a thousand fetuses growing in a thousand gleaming chrysalises, and some dazzling slow- and stop-motion, never-before-seen effects. But the Wachowski brothers did sign on a couple putative human stars. They are Speed merchant Keanu Reeves, who looks so pale and desiccated that you wonder how long he's been skipping breakfast, and former Othello Laurence Fishburne, burly and booming and always about to burst his skintight black leathers. They portray, respectively, an innocent computer hacker who calls himself Neo and a mysterious mentor named Morpheus, one of the only guys on earth who understands that the world is not what it seems. The world is, in fact, a vast illusion -- a virtual "Matrix" -- created by evil machine-monsters who have long since turned human beings into slaves.
This revelation will come as no surprise to anyone conversant with 1984, Brave New World, the assorted hallucinations of Franz Kafka, or, for that matter, scores of previous science fiction stories and scripts. We've already seen parallel universes aplenty and lots of cosmic mischief. We already know what paranoia is. What the technology-crazed Wachowskis manage to do in The Matrix is revive the old mumbo-jumbo in high style, using the latest lab techniques and giving full rein to their can-you-top-this sensibilities. Compared to the stuff in The Matrix, 2001 seems absolutely primitive, the slyest inventions of Face/Off like the-day-before-yesterday's gizmos.
Some of the witty, transcendent kung fu effects dreamed up here by the noted Hong Kong "wire-fighting" wizard Yuen Wo Ping, the Matrix press notes boast, weren't even possible six months ago. When Reeves' Neo and the main villain of the piece, Hugo Weaving's sinister morphmeister "Agent Smith," do battle, they defy all the laws of gravity and physical movement while happily wrecking the joint with fists, feet, and enough heavy artillery to stock the next three Schwarzenegger movies. It's a blast to watch.
The complex (sometimes opaque) cosmology of The Matrix borrows from Orwell and Heinlein, acknowledges Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and ransacks religious myth -- which means that devoted sci-fi buffs will probably take several weeks to deconstruct and detail it all. Good for them. Suffice to say that our man Neo, like many worthies before him, goes through the training program, then sets out for the Unknown to battle the forces of Evil in the name of Truth. This is the computer age, though, so he and his several sidekicks in Morpheus' platoon of rebels can get certain help whenever they want it: Neo turns into a super-Bruce Lee after downloading a martial arts program directly into his cerebral cortex; the heroine, who is called Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), learns to fly an assault helicopter in exactly five seconds because the boys back at the lab have that software at the ready, too.
Such technological miracles make things easy -- plotwise, anyway -- for the Wachowski brothers. But as they showed in their earlier, more earthbound movie -- a quirky women-against-the-Mob thriller called Bound -- they aren't averse to the purely human moment. In The Matrix my favorite was a beautifully written, thoroughly offbeat encounter between the young hero and a font of universal wisdom called, somewhat bombastically, "The Oracle." That their conversation takes place in the kitchen of a cramped apartment, and that the Oracle turns out to be an earthy grandmother who's just now taking her tray of cookies out of the oven, is a real stroke of genius. The Wachowskis seems to be saying that while state-of-the-art FX speak for themselves, loud and clear, there's still room amid all the kicking and shooting and shouting for the carefully observed human emotion.
Does Good also stare down Evil? Can Neo, the neophyte trained to become Morpheus' most crucial warrior, defeat "Agent Smith" and put the "Matrix" asunder? We're not saying. But only Kafka would bet against it.
Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving.