What is the matrix? You won't find out here. The key to reviewing a movie like The Matrix is to avoid giving much away from the plot, and it's a measure of the excellence of something as derivative as this film that such a concern would exist at all. There is nothing here that hasn't popped up in science-fiction films of the past, but The Matrix presents its story with such steely conviction and vivid imagination that the staler elements of the story come off as almost revelatory. Written and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who made the curiously overrated neo-noir Bound, the film opens up a whole new world to the main character and audience to a such vivid degree that it almost warrants the term visionary. Almost, but not quite.
After an amazing opening chase scene that effectively poses more questions than it answers, Neo (Keanu Reeves), a loner software programmer who leads a double life as a computer hacker, gets his first taste of conventional explanation defied. It comes in the form of an improbably bizarre communication from Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who, as a legendary computer hacker and fugitive from justice, also happens to be a mysterious figure of fascination for Neo. Neo wants an answer from Morpheus, even though he isn't sure what the question may be. Morpheus happens to have something to tell Neo and, to a more earth-shattering degree, something to show. He claims to have that answer, and he promises and warns Neo that it will blow his mind.
And blow his mind it does. The Matrix is science fiction in the truest sense, in that it proposes a reality that is different, and in this case radically different, from the one we already know. It is a cut above most science fiction in that its alternate reality is not just an excuse for mind-numbingly busy action, but a thoroughly realized and considered universe unto itself, physicalized with a jaw-dropping application of special effects. Its vision of multiple realities and perceptive complexities (that isn't entirely without logic gaps of its own) makes it feel like the equivalent of a drug trip, though one that requires a great deal of focus and attention. Following exactly what is going on and, more importantly, how it is going on, is not an easy task in The Matrix. But with an exceptionally tight screenplay that allows the film to breeze along at a sprint despite the unusually heavy amount of exposition that must be doled out along the way, the task is so enthralling that concentration becomes nearly instinctual.
In the approach to the finish line, the screenplay gracefully bows off to the side, as most of the film's attention becomes dedicated not to reaching for new depths of visionary complexity, but to the choreography of a series of elaborate action scenes and fight scenes. All of which are, admittedly, pretty spectacular. Also, for some unfortunate reason, the filmmakers cannot resist the urge to let some woefully unearned character emotion disrupt the clinical sleekness of what preceded it. The Matrix has a lot of things going for it, but emotionally rich characters aren't one of them. Conviction is The Matrix's ballgame, and it is conviction that makes the fantastical nature of the story sing. An audience will be willing to believe anything from a film as long as it's apparent that the film believes it, and that belief can be found here in the audacity of its premise, in the thoroughness of its design, and in the intensity of the actors. Reeves makes for a finely tuned audience surrogate ridden with skepticism, while Fishburne's confident, self-assured manner is perfect for the character whose responsibility it is to knock that skepticism in the teeth. Also warranting praise are Carrie-Ann Moss as a partner of sorts with Morpheus, and the wonderful Hugo Weaving, whose infinitely interesting face graces the film as the most prominent member of 'the agents,' the villainous group dressed in Men in Black attire whose motives and identity remain enjoyably obscured for a large part of the film's duration. To experience The Matrix is to enjoy the work of filmmakers who know the effectiveness of obfuscation, who have the confidence to keep important information from the audience until they absolutely need it. If in full disclosure there is ultimately just a little bit less than meets the eye, it doesn't make the journey to get there any less enthralling.