All style and no substance. So what?

"AM I A MAN DREAMING I'm a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I'm a man?" goes the Chinese proverb. Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus is a tad more prosaic—"How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?"—and so ultimately is the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix, a film that plays out like a sophisticated video game.

Keanu Reeves, man-boy of American cinema, is Neo, a techno-geek computer hacker nagged by the feeling that something is seriously wrong. As if to prove him right, mysterious phone callers whisper enigmatic dictums and superagents in black glasses and nondescript suits steal his face and torment him with a giant crawfish-like insect that crawls inside his belly. Black-leather-clad computer outlaw Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) lures him to the hacker underground, dangling the promise of "the truth" before disappearing. All of this nightmarish confluence revolves around the forbidden question: "What is the Matrix?"


directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski

starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne

opens April 2 at Metro, Northgate, others

Cyberguru Morpheus, a bald, commanding Larry Fishburne, his calm tenor carrying an edge of danger, offers Neo an answer. "Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." Actually, you can explain what it is, it's just not as much fun as showing off images borrowed from Metropolis and covers of Amazing Stories magazines. Simply put, life is a virtual-reality dream controlled by a master artificial intelligence, a computer ruling the world in the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. Morpheus is a rebel leader in the post-apocalyptic physical world of the future who staged guerrilla forays into the virtual world of the computer, and Neo is the hope, the future, the answer to a prophecy. Keanu Reeves as cybermessiah—God help us all.

Drawing on everything from Colossus: The Forbin Project to Tron to The Terminator, the Wachowski brothers proceed to turn the world as we know it into a virtual-reality landscape with a tech-noir look (lit with a sickly green hue, like the glow of an old IBM computer screen) and the physics of a video game. Morpheus, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi to Neo's Luke Skywalker, trains his prot駩 in the virtual world; they become kung fu masters in a cyberdojo in a marvelous sequence that combines the ballet elegance and furious moves of Hong Kong movies (courtesy of fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, a martial arts maestro and former Jackie Chan director) with computer effects and tricked-up camera work.

Clearly the Wachowskis are more interested in their cinematic toys than their story. With a nod to John Woo, they stage a bullet-riddled showdown that lovingly records every spent shell that spills to the ground in slow motion. Later, a helicopter crashes into a great glass skyscraper, and shock waves roll across the surface like a pulse across a sea of silver. They've obviously put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the film, and the result is a consistently handsome, often quite elegant action movie.

Would that they put that much thought into the story. The rules of the universe blur in the frenzy of bullets and kung fu fighting and all questions of fate and free will are cut loose. Reeves, his vacant expression and breathless surfer dude delivery still intact, reveals the Promised One to be a Zen master virtual-reality gamer. For all its half-baked philosophy and cyberpunk grounding, The Matrix is less a vision of cyberconspiracy dystopia than a really cool computer game. Given that, it's the most stylish, inventive, kinetically dynamic computer game to play across movie screens in a long time.

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