Where Dark City is visual escapism, The Matrix is testosterone brain candy!
Cyberpunk has had its ups (Blade Runner) and downs (Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers). It isn’t an easy genre to convey on screen. As with most styles, cyberpunk has gotten a facelift from some new talent as well as contributions from postmodern fantasy fare.
There’s never been a better time for science fiction, and especially this type. A few years ago, a little movie called Jurassic Park shattered the boundaries of special effects realism and ushered in a new era of computer generated images (CGI), much the same way Star Wars did with its motion control camera in the 70s. Since then, we’ve had delicious cinematic treats that have made going to the movies just as fun as seeing them.
The Knights of Noir
Film noir has a welcome home in science fiction; dark seedy characters and grimy desolate landscapes seem an appropriate vision of the future. These were what put Alien and Blade Runner on the map as precedents for a new generation of sci-fi.
Both of these films sport some of the freshest directorial faces among a tired crop of orthodox sci-fi makers. Matrix was the result of the directing and writing team of the brothers Wachowski, Larry and Andy. The same dynamic duo wrote and directed Bound, a post-Hitchcockian noir thriller. While there’s some remote similarities in camera angles, the Wachowski brothers have made an incredible leap with Matrix. I’d say they’ve come a long way indeed.
City was scribed by its Egyptian director Alex Proyas, and David S. Goyer. Proyas directed the goth cult hit The Crow, while Goyer wrote its sequel as well as Blade and its upcoming sequel. Goyer’s keen sense for the Goth is the only significant difference between City and Matrix.
- Masculine gun-fest versus dark gothic vision
Although the two look very much alike, Matrix takes a slightly different turn with it’s heroes. Never mind that Mr. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer software engineer by day. He’s Neo, the world-class hacker, by night. He and his newfound allies (Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, and others) don floor-length leather trench coats, black sunglasses in the middle of the night, and bags of assorted guns. Nerds never had it so good on the Silver Screen!
This may be sounding vaguely familiar. If you saw Goyer’s Blade earlier this year, you’d recognize this portion of Matrix. Both have the stereotypical “male” action flick label written all over them. But, man, is it fun?! Blade was smart enough to not take itself too seriously (vampires with lots of leather killing each other with big guns?). Matrix not only has the same exaggerated violence, but it was smart enough to make it all seem plausible. Most of the acrobatic violence has a rational explanation. There’s as much substance as there is style.
Meanwhile City‘s hero, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), is an average Joe that can’t seem to remember much about his past. He doesn’t bear any arms, just his brains and the help of a sympathetic doctor (Kiefer Sutherland). City maintains its premise of pure science fantasy without firing near as many bullets and still delivers a taut and original sci-fi.
Where Matrix is loud techno brain-candy, City is pure visual escapism — and vice versa. Oddly, they at times are interchangeable. Both wax philosophical futurisms like stories William Gibson never wrote, yet both have their moments of high adrenaline.
- Surreal photography
- Original plot lines involving unreality
- Reluctant messianic heroes
What both Matrix and City share is some truly great photography. Take a look at the first scene of City in which Murdoch is sleeping in his bathtub. Proyas uses a vertical shot looking down at the tub. The hanging incandescent bulb is swinging silently, casting an eerie green glow in the room. It was a great way to introduce the mood of the film.
Then watch a similar scene in Matrix as Neo is being interrogated. At first we are seeing the scene through the eye of a security camera positioned in the corner of the room’s ceiling. The room is painted in soft green interlaced glow. The effect is cold and mechanical. The Wachowski’s also make great use of vertical shots, like a bottom view of a helicopter, upon which Keanu is feverishly shooting a 50 caliber cannon. The audience sees a steady stream of bullet casings falling toward us from above. Very imaginative.
They also effectively use a lot of slow motion and the latest in freeze photography. It’s a new film technique called “Flo-Mo” which utilizes an array of cameras arranged in an arc around an actor. Then the actor is shot doing some action like a kick or a leap. Finally, the separate shots are concatenated and the result is a scene that can be frozen in time, while the “virtual” camera pans around the perfectly 3D image of the actor frozen in space. The same technique has been used in Enemy of the State and in the recent Wing Commander.
On one side, Matrix has its roots in Tron, the nearly 20-year old landmark Disney sci-fi. In Tron, the characters jacked into a computer-generated virtual world where hostile computer programs, represented by tangible humans, hunted the good guys. In Matrix, the Orwellian law enforcement are called “Agents” and reminded me of Terminator 2‘s liquid terminator with their relentless pursuit and regeneration. Matrix is everything that Virtuosity should have been and much more. On the other side, Matrix leans heavily on Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. The actors even trained for months with legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to get their moves down right. John Woo would be proud.
Rather than ripping off all these genres, the Wachowski’s have paid probably the best homage to them. City, too, is not without its inspiration. Its dark, postmodern cityscape is definitely reminiscent of Blade Runner with its ominous set design and haunting visuals. Yet, as with Matrix, City goes beyond setting and creates an original fantastic world.
At the heart of both films is a keen appreciation of illusion and unreality. (Incidentally, it’s interesting to note the amount of CGI unreality in each movie that creates the plot of alternate reality). Always a popular theme — the upcoming The 13th Floor is a virtual reality flick — Matrix and City wield it well.
“Like a splinter in (his) mind,” Neo has a nagging suspicion that all is not as it seems. He becomes a hacker, selling digital contraband that he hides in a hollowed out volume of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, the French postmodern handbook. In his search to answer the question “what is the Matrix?,” Neo comes into contact with Morpheus (Fishburne) who is sure that Neo is “The One” prophesied to free the human race. Morpheus (Fishburne) helps him to realize that “knowing the path and walking the path aren’t always the same thing.”
John Murdoch is equally special. He quickly learns with the help of Doctor Schreber (Sutherland) that the world has been taken over by a race of aliens known only as the “Strangers.” This race has harnessed the ultimate technology: the ability to change physical reality with only their thoughts, a technique they call “tuning.” But John is special, and is immune to the Strangers’ cacophonic experimentation. Schreber tries to convince John that he can use his tuning gift to free mankind as well.
All I can say is Keanu has completely redeemed himself since Johnny Mnemonic, and Mr. Sewell is a welcome face to sci-fi. So… just what is the Matrix and who are their Agents? Who are the Strangers? Don’t let me ruin it any more for you. Go rent and be amazed for yourself.