In the film from which there is no escape and no going back, The Matrix, the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski presented a grim choice between truth and illusion. The truth: We are born and die as captives on a despoiled Earth, where intelligent machines keep us drugged and confined so they may tap our bioenergy. The illusion: We wake to an alarm clock, then drive to a tall building and work from 9 till 5, after which we return home and watch TV till bedtime–all of which is a mere computer simulation, wired into our nervous systems by the machines so we won’t wither too soon.
On the one hand, a nightmarish reality; on the other, a deadly boring dream. Had The Matrix shown these to be life’s only choices, I doubt that moviedom would now be supine beneath the boots of its sequel. But the Wachowski brothers offered audiences a third, winning possibility: being cool. They imagined that a small band of adventurers–the cool are always few–had learned to pass back and forth between the dismal, industrial horror of the real world and the pristine Vancouverishness of the simulation. I will give The Matrix this much credit: It defined coolness precisely as a matter of this crossing over, shucking both the agonies of creatural life and the time-killing daydreams of social routine.
Of course, coolness is also a matter of style and attitude. In The Matrix, the performers’ fallback pose was studiously unexpressive–or unstudiously so, in the case of Keanu Reeves–in the manner of people who feign indifference even to their own disaffection. Dark sunglasses added to the masklike effect. (To cite a deep student of the subject, Norman Mailer: The person who wears shades is signaling, “I can look at you, but you have no right to look at me.” Or, in Matrix terms: “I’m just passing through your lousy idea of reality.”) The clothes were African-American in inspiration–lots of black leather and tight black vinyl–and the fisticuffs Chinese, showing that cool people take an interest in a variety of cultures. (I mean, they enjoy turning ethnic associations into mix-‘n’-match fashion statements.) The firepower? Cool to the extreme.
Lastly, I mention the special effects, about which I’ll need to give some history. In spring 1998, The Gap startled television viewers with its “Khaki’s Swing” commercial, featuring a 180-degree pan around jitterbug dancers who stopped motionless in midair. A full year later, The Matrix was released, making prominent use of this same so-called stereoscopic freeze. Considering the lengthiness of movie production schedules, I would guess this was coincidence, not copycatting. The Wachowskis must have been composing their effect when “Khaki Swings” first aired and were perhaps upset to have been scooped–but that’s what can happen when a new technology becomes available and different companies find purposes for it. The innovators in this case, who deserve credit for the public breakthrough, were The Gap’s then-creative director, Lisa Prisco, and commercial director Matthew Rolston; but it was the latecomers who developed the more influential use of the technique. Before you could blink, the Wachowskis’ stereoscopic freeze was being imitated, even in Shrek.
I make this point merely to exorcise the technological determinism that haunts so much writing about film, whether in magazine articles or in the publicity handouts on which they’re based. To grasp the appeal of The Matrix–as you should, since Nation people are among the most uncool on the planet–you ought to understand that this particular effect in the film dazzled people not just for its novelty but also for its meaning. Here was a computer simulation of utterly free movement, achieved within the fiction of a neurodigital prison. Like the characters’ leather-clad, sunglass-guarded detachment, the stereoscopic freeze boldly dramatized the state of being neither inside nor outside a situation–more specifically, of being able to employ a technology while owing nothing to its principal controllers. An untenable fantasy, when you examine it; and the Wachowskis chose not to do so, until now.