Warner Bros. // 1999 // 136 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 17th, 2009
Free your mind.
A funny thing happened in 1999. While everyone eagerly awaited George Lucas' return to the Star Wars universe with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, another science fiction film (by Larry and Andy Wachowski, the young directors of the lesbian-themed thriller Bound, no less) was poised to take audiences by storm. The Phantom Menace was largely disappointing (though it hauled in a heap of box office cash), while The Matrix satisfied on all levels the way that Lucas' original Star Wars had back in 1977 -- by delivering a mélange of world mythologies, culturally resonant themes, intense action, groundbreaking special effects, and a feel-good finale. Simply put, The Matrix out-Star Wars'd The Phantom Menace.
The Matrix debuted in high definition in The Ultimate Matrix Collection HD-DVD set back in the days before Warner Brothers put a stake in that format's heart by abandoning it for Blu-ray. A BD port of the HD-DVD set was later released. This single-disc package is the first time that The Matrix has hit shelves as a stand-alone high definition release. Considering the movie's quality, tsunami-like cultural impact, and vast superiority to its two sequels, this disc is long overdue.
Dissatisfied with his career as a code monkey for a major software company, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves, Point Break) spends his nights practicing illegal hacking under the alias Neo. His world is turned upside down when a beautiful but mysterious woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, Memento) leads him to legendary hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, What's Love Got to Do with It). Neo learns from Morpheus that reality as he knows it is a fraud, a simulation created by sentient computers that have enslaved humanity. Morpheus believes that Neo is The One, a human being prophesied to shatter the false reality created by the computers and free humanity.
For a while there in the early oughts, The Matrix began to feel like a grossly overrated piece of pop culture drivel. That's what happens when a movie is so popular that its signature special effect ("bullet time") shows up in a slew of cheesy television commercials and music videos. But a decade down the line, time has been kind to The Matrix. It may have spawned a detached, hipster style that is borderline silly and countless crappy action flicks with stone-faced, trench coat-wearing anti-heroes who two-fist pistols and execute wire-fu in slow motion (I'm looking at you, Underworld flicks), but The Matrix still wears its style with a fresh energy and inventive, youthful verve. A smart and well-constructed action movie, it's not at all stale and derivative like its many, many imitators.
The Matrix isn't memorable because it brought something new to the pop culture table, but because it was a synthesis and summation of a number of styles floating through the late 20th century zeitgeist. The ultra-cool characters are pure Japanese manga and anime; the story is lifted from the cyberpunk literature of William Gibson with its use of film noir style and focus on Hegelian dialectics and the intersection of technology, philosophy, and mysticism; the gravity-defying action sequences owe a debt to American comic books and Hong Kong kung fu flicks. Add in references to everything from Christianity to Buddhism to Plato to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and there's a lot of subtext bubbling beneath the movie's action-packed plotline. Nearly every individual element of The Matrix was immediately familiar to anyone who'd been slurping the nerd-culture soup from which the Wachowski brothers drew their inspiration, but all of the styles and genres had never before been merged in such a cool and satisfying manner. The supplements in this set spend an inordinate amount of time gushing over the intelligence of The Matrix, the depth of the ideas with which it wrestles. In truth, though, the movie is smart because it raises big questions but is comfortable not answering them; it builds its story on a complex philosophical web, but doesn't let ideas get in the way of entertainment. It's unfortunate that The Matrix's fine-tuned balance of style and substance would elude the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, movies that failed because the brothers bought into all the hype about the philosophical brilliance of the The Matrix. It is the movie's ballsy action and casual comfort with light ambiguity, not its philosophical aspirations, which make it a modern classic.
In honor of The Matrix's tenth anniversary, Warner Brothers offers up this stand-alone Blu-ray in a stylish iridescent digibook package that includes a 37-page full color insert booklet with production photos, an essay about the film, trivia, and biographies for Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, the Wachowski brothers, and producer Joel Silver.
When it was originally released on DVD in the autumn of 1999, The Matrix quickly became the gold standard for the format (as well as its top seller). Its robust audio mix, in particular, made it a reference disc that geeks everywhere used to show off their surround sound systems. Though this Blu-ray isn't destined to become the disc by which all other Blu-rays are judged, it's still an impressive package. Jump to the movie's famed lobby shootout and you'll find that the techno score, gunshots, and shell casings clattering on the marble floor are even more impressive in Dolby TrueHD than they were in Dolby 5.1 surround. One can still tell that The Matrix is a decade old, however. As bombastic as the sound design is, the LFE doesn't rock nearly as hard as many modern action mixes. Still, there's plenty of volume, detail, and excellent use of directional panning. The audio mix holds up quite well despite its age.
The video transfer is equally impressive. Detail is exemplary, revealing pores and beads of sweat on actors in close-up. Colors are accurate, maintaining the green-hued color timing that was added to the movie when it was remastered to better match the visual design of the two sequels. Black levels are solid and supple. The source print is pristine, yet displays a satisfying level of film grain that gives The Matrix a slightly grittier, real world, and more attractive look than the glossier and more sterile Reloaded and Revolutions.
Though this is a single-disc release, the dual-layered 50 gigabyte BD is stuffed to rafters with extras -- all of them identical to those included in the previously released DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray Ultimate Collection boxes. There are four commentaries. The tracks are accompanied by a written introduction by the Wachowskis, who explain why they wanted to offer up different (and sometimes antagonist) perspectives on the movie. The first track, by philosophy and mysticism writer Ken Wilber and Princeton religion professor Cornell West, dissects the movie's themes and ideas. The second, by film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers, and David Thomson (all of whom don't like the flick -- or at least the trilogy as a whole), examines The Matrix as a movie. The third is a more standard cast and crew commentary by Carrie-Anne Moss, editor Zach Staenberg, and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta. The final commentary is by composer Don Davis and is accompanied by a music-only soundtrack. The West-Wilber commentary is fascinating, but too bogged down with breathy pretention. The best of the tracks is the critics' commentary. McCarthy, Powers, and Thomson demonstrate a smart appreciation for the best qualities of The Matrix while rightly criticizing the Wachowskis' too-clever-by-half impulses that would take the series off the rails in the two sequels.
In addition to the commentaries, the disc is packed with a documentary and featurettes. The Matrix Revisited is an exhaustive documentary about the production of the two sequels, but spends plenty of time looking back at The Matrix. It runs just over two hours in length and includes contributions by the Wachowski brothers, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, producer Joel Silver, and many others. The documentary is fascinating, entertaining, and more than a little pretentious.
Behind The Matrix is a series of seven production featurettes that can be viewed individually or strung together via a Play All option. "Making the Matrix" (25:48) is a making-of featurette produced by HBO. "The Dance of the Master: Yuen Wo Ping's Blocking Tapes" (5:47) is about the stunts designed by famed Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. "The Bathroom Fight and Wet Wall" (3:15) dissects the shooting of Morpheus' stand-off against Agent Smith. "The Code of the Red Dress" (:46) is an ultra-brief vignette about the universally powerful iconography of a beautiful woman in a red dress. "The Old Exit: Wabash and Lake" (2:36) is about shooting Neo's extended flight from Agent Smith. "Agent Down" (1:32) provides a look at the hip injury suffered by Hugo Weaving during pre-production. "But Wait -- There's More" (3:09) is a light-hearted montage of production footage.
Follow the White Rabbit is a 23-minute collection of nine featurettes about the movie's action sequences: "Trinity Escapes" (1:04), "Pod" (2:24), "Kung Fu" (3:57), "The Wall" (2:04), "Bathroom Fight" (2:05), "Government Lobby" (4:07), "Government Roof" (2:34), "Helicopter" (1:02), and "Subway" (3:35).
Take the Red Pill contains a duo of featurettes. The first, "What is Bullet Time?" (6:15) is about the creation of the movie's most famous special effects shot. The second, "What is the Concept?" (11:26) explores the movie's central ideas and themes.
The documentary and featurettes are presented in non-anamorphic 480p standard definition.
"The Music Revisited" contains an indexed list of 41 tunes from the movie that play to a Matrix screensaver effect. There is also a Play All option. There's also a music video for "Rock Is Dead" by Marilyn Manson.
"In-Movie Experience" offers a picture-in-picture feature assembled from video interviews and production footage used in the documentary and featurettes.
Finally, the disc contains teaser and theatrical trailers for the film as well as eight TV spots.
Tucked into its own cardboard sleeve and sealed beneath the shrink wrap is a DVD containing a digital copy of the movie that can be downloaded to your PC or MAC.
This tenth anniversary Blu-ray release of The Matrix is perfect for fans like myself who'd just as soon pretend that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions never happened. With picture and sound exponentially better than the old DVD and enough extras to keep cyberpunk aficionados busy for days, this is the definitive release of a modern scifi-action classic. If you have a Blu-ray player and love The Matrix, there's no excuse not to upgrade.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* In-Movie Experience
* Music Video
* Digital Copy
* Insert Booklet