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The Matrix

Favourite Films on Friday: #05, The Matrix

What is the Matrix? I remember seeing that question everywhere when I was 10. It was at the forefront of the marketing, efficiently creating mystery in a mere four words. What? is? the? Matrix? (If that’s a question you don’t know the answer to, I believe I am required to say two things. First, to make the traditional asinine comment about your head being buried in a shoebox under the crust of the Earth for the last decade. Second, to warn you: do not read this. Do not. You are a very lucky person. Go and find The Matrix on DVD, now. Your mind is purest white snow, before the first muddy footprint. Don’t read the back of the box, don’t do anything, just watch.) What was the Matrix? I had no idea. Working off the snippets I’d seen on TV, I did exactly what you’d expect a 10 year old boy’s mind to do, I extrapolated. Somewhere in the recesses of my young mind are elaborate answers, whole imagined films. None of which, I am sure, bore any resemble to The Matrix. I don’t remember first seeing it, or how much of the answer I’d picked up by then, but it was a couple of years later, on a fuzzy VHS, and it immediately became my favourite film. Released in 1999, it hit the zeitgeist perfectly enough that it still felt brand new when I saw it then, so much it still seems convincing now. The Matrix is set in a future extrapolated from the end of the 20th Century, and all the stuff that seemed important and futuristic then: the internet, the idea of avatars and the fluid identity they brought, AI… And, for most of the film, that is the setting: a slightly tweaked version of 1999, and the technology available then, in all its clunky analogue glory. Modem-punk, if you will. (I love the way that the Matrix-specific technology they sneak in – the bug the Agents put in Neo’s stomach, and the big vacuum cleaner Trinity uses to get it out – don’t quite fit with the smooth modern aesthetic. Like they can’t quite be constructed from the simulated-1999 vocabulary of the Matrix, and have to be cobbled together from odd bits and pieces.) Everything manages to look more-or-less plausibly real. It helps how recognisable the inside of the Matrix is: the freedom fighters are just guys in trenchcoats and shades, exits are landline telephones, world-changing glitches are just moments of déjà vu. Its props belong to our world, just slightly twisted. All of which allows it to go on flights of fancy. Primarily, in those action scenes full of impossible spectacle. I would’ve expected time – all the copies and parodies and rewatches – to dilute the balletic grace of the fights. But no, they’re still awe-inspiring. The way they move is how I imagine I’m moving when I’m really, perfectly drunk and dancing to my favourite song. Then suddenly gravity is being bent and the fight is in the air, on the walls… But again it’s grounded: in how clearly it’s really the actors, not stunt men, and they are really doing really beautiful kung-fu. In the perfect intimate body-horror connection of… well, those connections. Things are always penetrating: the bug’s journey into, and out of, Neo’s belly button. The umbilical -giving that are pulled out when Neo wakes up. Syringes into bare flesh. Most of all, that big spiky ethernet cable sliding into the place where skull meets spine. The most horrifying deaths aren’t by machine gun, or helicopter explosion, or kung fu. It’s Apoch and Switch, comatose, having their connectors pulled out and tumbling down dead inside the Matrix. But… oh, those fight scenes. This film is the reason now, as a sort-of grown-up, I don’t accept the oh, it’s just a dumb action film argument. This is not a matter of meeting quotas. The Matrix has action scenes that go beyond watchability, beyond the mathematics of x bodycount, y explosions and z headshots. They are beautiful and grounded in a real and present threat – and when that’s not enough, the Wachowskis are clever enough to pile on a threat in the other world, too, one that’s been neatly set up an hour before. But then on top of that it piles other stuff: symbolism and references and and callbacks structure and all of that – this is after all, a film that reaches its climax in the same motel room it opened in. And a sense of humour and a plot and human characters and most of all, constant cool ideas. It’s sci-fi as it should be- just about plausible enough to have you questioning the stuff that matters, but more importantly never letting up, never catching its breath. As full of ideas as it is full of action. I saw this film when I was 12 years old. I’ve been metabolising it, on and off, ever since. And then, we’re a decade on, and you give me Transformers 2? You feed me that and you expect me to be satisfied?

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fulfil Dreams.

It was a relationship that turned sour quickly. I’d looked at her from across the party, knew her reputation: fun but promiscuous, a quick fling. I’d heard the rumours of violence. A real femme fatale.But dammit if I didn’t want to dress up as Batman, so I rented her. It all turned out exactly the way I’d imagined. Okay, the initial thrills were giddier than I’d ever really considered- laughing maniacally at the complete disdain for physics, that ridiculous ‘hai-hai-hai’ noise Liu Kang makes as he flying-kicks across the screen. Carried away into the night chatting about the crazy beautiful stupidity of superheroes and fighting games.When the lows came, they were deep and dark. I found myself alone, sinking unsatisfying hours into the ‘Story’ mode, grinding towards the one unlockable character I was interested in. But even now, having denounced MK vs DC, I can’t forget the first few games together, where I got to play as Batman. I love Batman. All the gadgets and gruffness, pitched against the sci-fi-mentalist world he lives in. I love the childish escapism of it all, both for me and him. I love the Batcave, its giant penny and an unexplained T-Rex. I’ve never understood those particular parts of the Batman mythos, but damn if I don’t love them.So obviously he was the first character I took for a spin. As I discovered each new move, I giggled with delight. I peered into the background of the Batcave level, murmuring approvingly at any recognisable details. I beat up my friends’ assorted choices of fighter (seriously, who plays as a MK character when you’ve got a load of superheroes at your disposal?) and that was fun, but it wasn’t till we were left alone that the thrill of Being Batman really clicked. Looking back, at the way the gruff interior monologue filled my head and how satisfying each avenged punch felt, I worry about myself. I consider myself a (reasonably) balanced human being, never really been the type for role-playing of any type, yet here I was pretending to be Batman. It wasn’t the game- MKvsDC‘s quite a mechanical affair, stiff, not the kind of fighter you’d ever forget you were playing a game with. It’s just the strength of fantasy (and, I suppose, the simple iconography I was given to project on). I remember being young and naive and dreaming about being able to finally do all the impossible acrobatics and kung-fu-moves I’d seen in The Matrix. Enter the Matrix arrived and, looking back, it was a disappointed. But at the time I consumed it hungrily, playing it over and over again and it fulfilled everything I wanted to do- running from unfightable Agents, backflipping off walls and watching bullet tear that wobbly path through air-turned-to-treacle. It was the same with The Punisher game- although I’ll still defend that game today, if only for the bit where you get to pop out of the coffin in the middle of a funeral and mow down half the mob with an M60. I was in the midst of Garth Ennis’ classic work on the Punisher comic when I bought it and with the game being based on Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank, I was able to summon Frank’s gritty caption-box voice as I tore through enemy after enemy. I felt no pleasure as I forced thugs’ heads under saws, and threw them into woodchippers. It just needed to be done. There are hundreds of other examples- I remember replaying the first Max Payne over and over, in the style of whatever action hero I’d seen that week- slow and steady like the Terminator, or dashing through the level without stopping or worrying about damage. Swinging around New York as Spider-man. (Which felt subtly different to swinging around as Ultimate Spider-man.) Downloading skins of my favourite characters for The Sims. They always seem to tend towards the geekier end of my interests- I’ve never felt the urge to play an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind game, or dress up as Kilgore Trout. I suppose its that simple iconography that the geeky-media tends to provide you with. It’s easy to project on but, frankly, of course I’d want to be the man dressed as a bat, beating up clowns. Surprise surprise, I cannot wait for the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game. I’m already piecing it together in my head, how I’ll hide in the shadows, spooking out the criminals one by one, then pulling them into the darkness. Just like the start of the Tim Burton film, or Old Batman’s comeback in Dark Knight Returns. I’ll be that Batman, and file it alongside my time as the four-coloured square-jawed crusader, punching gods and spacemen in MKvsDC, and I’ll already about fantasising about the next Batman I get to be. (Confessions: I say I’ve quit MKvsDC forever, but the disc is still waiting to be sent back. And, inelegantly, more-or-less unwittingly, I stole the relationship metaphor from the always elegant chewingpixels.)