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July 22, 1999


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Revised reality

Rajeev Srinivasan

Exploring the meaning of reality -- subjective and objective -- has always made for interesting film. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashmon is the epitome of the genre, where the same event -- the murder of a nobleman and the molestation of his wife in a medieval Japanese forest -- is shown from four different perspectives, all of which may seem equally plausible.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan explored the same theme in his superb Anantaram -- a disturbed young man tells the story of his life, first as he would like others to see him; and secondly as it probably would be told by a more neutral and objective third party.

Science fiction has made good use of this as well -- for instance, in The Lathe of Heaven, based on an Ursula K LeGuin story, the world may have ceased to exist, except as dreamt by a young man, who is essentially keeping the world alive by dreaming.

This idea is similar to what is at the core of The Matrix -- that 'reality' as seen by people is in fact a manufactured reality. It is set in a dystopia, which looks contemporary, but we learn that it is some 200 years into the future. Young computer hacker Neo is a programmer in a large software firm. The world seems to be a tightly controlled place, often policed by secret agents (sinister CIA-types) who have enormous information and intelligence.

Through a set of implausible but believable events, Neo comes in contact with a rebel leader, Morpheus, who keeps just one step beyond the grasp of the secret agents. Morpheus tells him a remarkable story -- it appears that the world as Neo knows it is in fact an illusion, an elaborate illusion created by a race of highly-evolved computers.

Behind this illusion, which is in fact the Matrix, humans are trapped in a mechanism to support the energy needs of the computers. What appears to be a near-normal life is in fact a charade, maintained by sophisticated software. In fact, the secret agents are based on, in a nice little pun, 'agent' software that has been inserted into the Matrix to manage the inevitable conflicts that arise.

This is an interesting premise; and in the course of a couple of hours, Neo, helped generously by superb special effects, takes on the agents. The action sequences -- of which there are many -- are quite spectacular, even if they are rather loud. There isn't a great deal of gore and violence, and some of the stunts are truly superlative.

Of course, for all practical purposes, this is a Western, with the evil cattle-rustlers replaced by the dark-suited agents. In fact, the chief agent, rather Nixon-like, has the best line in the film, when he suggests that humans are unlike all other mammals, in that they do not adjust to their environments, but rather use up and destroy their surroundings. Viruses, he says dryly, are the only other life form that does the same.

My favourite among the dystopic-futures-with-hero-up-against-sinister-goons genre remains the Mad Max series that launched Mel Gibson to superstardom. Neo does not engage the viewer enough to want to root for him to the same extent that Mad Max managed to do. Neo is not quite as endearing as Max or as laconic as the original (what now appears unbelievably cliche-ridden) hero in Shane, the much-copied Western.

Apart from the interesting story line, the best thing about the film is the special effects. I believe some Hong Kong-based director, known for his kung-fu beat-'em-up films, created these. Despite the dubious premise that skills at hand-to-hand combat are what will help Neo lead the resistance against god-like robots, I have to admit that the heavily choreograped kung-fu or ju-jitsu or whatever sequences are very entertaining.

The pulsating sound-track and some of the outfits -- long, sinister black overcoats, for instance -- are quite pleasing. The mechanisms that keep humans in captivity, and the ferocious search-and-destroy devices -- mechanical jellyfish -- that attack Morpheus' pirate hovercraft, are pretty good hardware.

There is some talk of an EMP -- an electromagnetic pulse -- to disable these attackers, but it is unclear how the hovercraft itself escapes the effect of the small nuclear blast that would be necessary for an EMP.

The other little technical detail I liked was the idea that human personae could be transported in and out of the Matrix via telephone lines -- the equivalent of Star Trek's "Beam me up, Scotty!". And physical damage to the Matrix persona would reflect in damage to the real body, as well. Rather an interesting idea, and it fits in neatly with the current rage for connectedness -- in other words, is the real you your net identity or your physical body?

The story-line itself is thought-provoking, as it is similar to the ancient Hindu-Buddhist idea of Maya, illusion. It is an intellectually appealing idea that things are not quite as they seem and that there are mysterious forces in the background. In contrast to the strict non-duality between man and God that the idea of Maya supports, here it is of course a strict duality -- us versus them, humans versus intelligent computers. And of course, the neat philosophical idea is reduced to psycho-babble.

Film clearly has a way of mirroring the paranoias of society; and so Matrix gives voice to our inchoate fear that we humans are becoming redundant, and that increasingly clever machines will be able to run the planet quite nicely without much help or interference from humans.

With the clever special effects, this is well worth the two hours in terms of entertainment. However, it does not come anywhere near those masterpieces of science fiction, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner or even Brazil.

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