"The Matrix" from 1999 became one of the biggest-selling DVDs of all time and helped push the fledgling DVD industry into the big time. As a result, the film's writers and directors, the Wachowski brothers, did what practically all filmmakers do after producing a particularly successful movie: They made another one. And then another one. The "Matrix" trilogy made a fortune at the box office, but a lot of fans had lingering doubts that maybe the first one had been enough. The second and third installments seemed merely to pad out the original story and characters, providing hours of unnecessary CGI enhancement for the action but never actually developing the movie's characters or themes.
So it's not surprising that after issuing all three films in a big Blu-ray box, Warner Bros. figured there might be more than a few "Matrix" fans who just wanted the first movie in high definition and balked at having to buy it in an expensive multi-disc set. "The Matrix 10th Anniversary Blu-ray Book" fills that bill. It provides only the first movie disc from the BD "Ultimate Matrix Collection," this time packaged in a handsome Digibook case, along with a bonus digital copy. The movie with its new packaging feels better than ever.
Ever since "Jaws" set the trend, summer movies have been about action and adventure. When you can throw in fantasy and special effects, it's all the better. "The Matrix" comes in with all speakers firing, a sci-fi thriller that's short on logic but long on visual and visceral excitement. It's a futuristic film noir with big names like Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, big sets, big budget, and enough weirdness to ensure Blu-ray sales for years to come.
The premise is promising: We all live in a dream. Literally. Nothing around us is real. In the movie's future world, most of Earth's population are unknowingly curled up in little pods, millions upon millions of tiny pods all over the world, with each pod's inhabitant fed and nurtured by giant, insect-like machines. Our lives are merely sensory implants, cyber visions to keep us pacified, while the machines feed on our energy. It's a tempting idea, one that will have you looking at your own world in a slightly different way, but it's undermined by too much mundane explanation. According to the story line, we got ourselves into this situation when we built computers that became smarter than we were. They took over and enslaved us. Yes, it's yet another "smart-ass machines taking over the planet" plot. How about, millions of years ago higher intelligences colonized us, and this is how they left us? How about, this is the way it's always been since time immemorial, sans God, gods, or any higher intelligences? How about the whole world is in the mind of the main character, and nothing else exists? Oh, where is John Conner when you need him? Where is Big Arnold?
Anyway, a few humans have escaped this illusory world, this computer "Matrix" world, and are working in a resistance movement headed by a character played by Fishburne. He has the unlikely but mysterious-sounding name of Morpheus (in mythology Morpheus was the god of dreams, and so the symbolism begins). Their latest recruit is a young computer geek named Thomas Anderson, played by Reeves. Supposedly, his destiny is to be the world's savior, "the One" (not to be confused with Jet Li's "The One" a couple of years later). But first the resistance has to convince him that the Matrix business is all true, then they have to spring him from his pod and bring him into reality, and finally they have to train him to use his new super powers. Oh, I didn't mention the super powers this savior possesses? It's not an easy job for Anderson or his alter-ego "Neo" or the viewer to keep up with all this.
The movie's most obvious similarities are to "Blade Runner" for its dark, shadowy look; to "The Terminator" for its intellectual nucleus; and to "Dark City" for its overall feel. Unfortunately, "The Matrix" lacks the internal consistency of any of those films. Once "The Matrix" establishes its broad outlines, it turns almost exclusively to computer graphics, special effects, chases, and fights for its plot turns. The cold, dusky, metallic-green look of the sets and costumes, so reminiscent of every other postapocalyptic movie ever made (at least since "Mad Max"), becomes tiresome; as does the routine, often wooden acting of its stars, especially the cornball posturing from Fishburne and Reeves. It's also hard to take the villains seriously when they speak in such deliberate, melodramatic voices and wear getups straight out of "Men in Black"; or to take Anderson seriously when the villains "bug" him with an insect-looking implant. These are times when it strikes the viewer that the filmmakers must have intended the story as a parody of futuristic thrillers, but then the plot reverts to its more serious tone and rebuts the notion.
Of course, the film does succeed in presenting a bleak, gloomy future devoid of much human emotion, and, undeniably, parts of it are visually exciting, especially its several climactic showdowns. The special effects can at times be breathtaking, like the look of the giant squid-like mechanisms that constantly patrol the world. But a little of this goes a long way, and the plot too often bogs down in obscure complications that are hard to follow. The Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, wrote and directed the film, which costars Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano, among others.
So, back to the question: Is life an illusion? "The Matrix" answers this age-old philosophical query in straightforward Hollywood fashion: Yes, it says, and machines are responsible! Well, at least the movie offers greater novelty than that provided by most other Tinseltown flicks. But there's still more surface here than substance, intriguing though that substance may be. OK, enough of this nit-picking. The film is still fun to watch, especially in high definition, which is all we really expect from it. In that regard, count "The Matrix" a success.
For those viewers with the right setup, the video quality could hardly be better. The VC-1, BD50 Blu-ray transfer is the same one Warners used for their HD DVD and BD "Ultimate Matrix" editions, and it is everything one could ask for. The widescreen picture size measures as before, a generous 2.40:1 ratio, the image nicely detailed, well defined, and almost totally free of grain, except that which was inherent to the original print, sometimes noticeable in wide expanses of white and helping the film to look more realistic than some of its all-digital cousins.
The Wachowskis chose an oddball color palette that runs high to shades of green and yellow, so it's a little hard to tell just how "natural" the colors are. I'd say, though, that everything is in order and in fairly sharp relief. And even though the black levels are intensely strong, darker areas of the screen allow one to see deeply and clearly into them.
To complement the picture quality, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound are excellent in most every way, coming into their own in the last third of the movie during the rescue and fight scenes. The sonic range is wide, especially in terms of bass and dynamic contrasts, and the channel separation is clearly distinct from all six speakers. If you can, choose the TrueHD track. It is the wider-ranging, more cleanly focused of the two English tracks. Switching back and forth between TrueHD and regular DD reveals a more open sound stage in TrueHD, with a slightly smoother overall response and a tauter bass. Trust me, you'll like it. The DD track, while very good, is a bit brighter and lighter by comparison.
Note: Remember to turn on the TrueHD track at start-up. Don't be like me and continue to forget making the switch until fifteen or twenty minutes into the movie. I wish all studios would make the higher audio formats the default; if a user's audio system can't handle them, the system will switch automatically to the regular, lossy tracks in any case.
The dual-layer BD50 contains the feature film and, as before, a whole slew of additional items. First up, there's an "In-Movie Experience," providing coverage from the cast and filmmakers, accompanied by picture-in-picture inserts to illustrate its points. Next, we get a theatrical trailer, a teaser trailer, and several TV spots. After those, there are four separate audio commentaries. Who could listen to all of them? The first commentary is with philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber, a track my colleague Eddie Feng thought was overkill, trying to make more of the film's philosophy than what was there. The second commentary is with film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers, and David Thomson, who do their best to analyze the film's content and delivery. The third commentary features costar Carrie-Anne Moss, visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, and film editor Zach Staenberg. And the fourth commentary track is with composer Dan Davis, who speaks over an isolated music-only track that allows him to comment on the music without dialogue or sound effects getting in the way. Not enough? There is also a written introduction by the Wachowskis. Next, the disc contains a sequence of seven featurettes, forty-three minutes in all, called "Behind the Matrix"; a music video, "Rock Is Dead," by Marilyn Manson; and a series of music tracks.
Still not enough? Things continue with a feature-length documentary, "The Matrix Revisited," about two hours long; plus two more galleries of featurettes, "Follow the White Rabbit," twenty-three minutes, and "Take the Red Pill," seventeen minutes. Frankly, after watching a few minutes of each of these segments, I felt as though I had had about enough of "The Matrix" and all it had to offer. But I suppose the true believer cannot get enough of this stuff.
To wrap things up, we get a standard-definition, DVD digital copy of "The Matrix" compatible with iTunes and Windows media devices; thirty-eight scene selections, with bookmarks; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The main movie disc (although not the digital copy, which is separate) comes housed in a Digibook package, a hardbound book containing not only the film but thirty-seven pages of essays, actor and filmmaker biographies, and photos. It's quite handsome.
The original "Matrix" stands perfectly well on its own, despite the fact that the filmmakers went on with second and third episodes. The overall premise of "The Matrix" is fascinating enough, the stunts exciting enough, and the Blu-ray picture and sound good enough to enjoy the movie over and over again.
Naturally, if you already own the "Ultimate Matrix Collection" on Blu-ray, there is no need for this Digibook edition of the first film. I'm sure Warners intended this new, single-disc BD edition for people who either don't want the other two movies or can't afford them.