The Matrix – 20 Years On

The Matrix – Twenty Years On.

By Andrew McKissock

Upon discovering that The Matrix is twenty years old in 2019, I was reminiscent of protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he learns he’s been living inside a computer simulation. He panics, shouting “I don’t believe it. I want out!” before eventually vomiting. As Neo’s world unravels, so do my attempts to cling to my youth.

So what’s behind the longevity of The Matrix? The story can be read allegorically in ways which remain relevant today. You could interpret the machines turning humanity into batteries as a metaphor for mankind being enslaved by capitalism. There’s also the notion that Neo’s awakening is an analogy for transitioning – Lana and Lilly Wachowski both came out as trans after the trilogy released.

The opening five minutes of the film set the scene perfectly; Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) runs along walls, jumps impossible distances and swats two police units aside before fleeing in terror from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his cohorts. She’s demonstrably capable of remarkable actions and yet she doesn’t entertain the thought of attempting to battle the Agents, which establishes their threat. She escapes by answering a ringing phone before Smith smashes a truck into it. The action is jaw dropping – whilst hinting at a greater, more complex threat.

That threat is the Matrix itself. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) and Trinity attempt to free Neo, the man they believe to be the saviour of humanity, Smith and the system race to prevent them. When Smith arrests and interrogates Neo, the allegory for transitioning starts to take shape. He denies any future for Neo if he refuses to return to his life as Thomas Anderson, a part of the status quo. This evokes parallels of refusing to acknowledge trans identity, instead choosing to identity them by their deadname – a theme which continues through to Neo’s final confrontation with Smith.

We later learn that the Agents can manifest themselves in anybody plugged into the Matrix. If we continue to apply a trans reading and the Agents represent transphobia, it suggests that anyone plugged into the system is a potential threat to Neo and his comrades’ existence – that fear and hatred can appear when you least expect it.

As Morpheus teaches Neo about the simulations origins, he reveals that humans are now grown – serving as a power source for the Matrix. Humans are born into bondage with the system, propping it up with little reward and are easily replaceable. Oxfam recently revealed that the 26 richest people in the world own as much as 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. It’s easy to see the similarities between populations sustaining two systems, capitalism and the Matrix, with scant reward for their enormous contribution.

Whilst strands of religious symbolism, morality and philosophical questions are woven seamlessly into the film, it’s possible that The Matrix still resonates because it’s a kick ass movie bursting with slick fight scenes that ooze style rarely matches in the modern films it helped inspire. As Neo and Trinity attempt to save Morpheus, Neo reveals to security guards that he’s armed to the teeth under his leather overcoat. It’s as iconic a moment as the slow motion ‘bullet time’ battle which follows.

The film’s climax is a masterclass in tension. Everything the film sets up in the first two acts are paid off in the final as Neo faces off against Agent Smith in the Matrix, whilst Morpheus and Trinity battle machines in the real world. The Wachowskis consistently blend moments of levity with outrageous action and high concept philosophy. They manage to package them into something easily digestible for the audience; something which, twenty years later, few sci-fi movies readily achieve.

In celebration of its twentieth anniversary The Matrix is being screened at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival on February 22nd. Tickets are still available, offering moviegoers the chance to free their mind at the Argyll Street Arches, with the promise of an after party to unplug – hopefully without the threat of Agents crashing by.

Let’s Talk About Oscar Categories

We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene.

Recently the Academy’s decision to introduce the award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film sparked fierce debate about which honours belong at Tinsel Town’s showpiece event. As it’s the season of goodwill, it’s only fair that we put together a list of awards categories which have been neglected for too long.

The Award for Best Cinematic Universe, in which the only candidate is the Fast and the Furious franchise. The Award for Best Donald Glover Performance; is it for acting, writing or soundtrack? Probably all three. How about an award for actors and actresses cursed by being typecast? Yes, I am trying to find a legitimate award for Mark Hamill, but I’m also looking at you, Meg Ryan.

We’ve got an award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, but what about the Best Unoriginal Screenplay? Let’s hear it for the reboot of the remake of the movie adapted from the book, adapted from the fairytale. Robin Hood has recently returned to the big screen and if there’s one thing we’ve been begging for it’s an updated take on the notorious outlaw in order to ask: which will be more vacant? The script or the cinema? You’d have to travel all the way back to the distant year of 2010 for the previous adaptation, released alongside films such as Alice in Wonderland. Don’t even think about it, Hollywood.

Remarkably, one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes has yet to receive an awards category. I present to you the Award for Outstanding Age Difference between co-stars. It’s commonly known that men are allowed to age in the film industry whilst women seem to ridiculously pass their sell-by date by forty – if they’re lucky. We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene. Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence and Brie Larson are some of the many lucky women to embark upon this rite of passage.

Sticking with age, it’s high time the Oscars introduced the The Liv Tyler Lifetime Achievement Award for Women. If movies have taught us anything it’s that when a woman’s fuckability expires, she might as well start a trendy smoothie company. As San Diego State University’s recent study shows, only 29% of women over forty star in mainstream movies. This award would help the next batch of actresses in their late thirties transition into the next stage of their career: network television, subpar Netflix movies and relative obscurity.

Saving the best for last, I think we’d all welcome the Matt Damon Medal of Commendation award. It’s been a rough year for all the ‘good guys’ in Hollywood – isn’t it time for them to get some recognition? Last year Damon bemoaned the lack of attention on those in Hollywood who don’t partake in sexual misconduct and are in fact decent human beings. It’s time we gave those men the respect they deserve on the back of a difficult year for them. Keep holding those doors open you chivalrous champions!

High Brow Horror

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence.

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)? 

We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.

Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche. 

In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).

This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.  

This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.

Great Movie Scenes – Part 1

Sounding the spoiler claxon nice and early here.

‘Interstellar’ (2014) – Docking

Christopher Nolan’s space epic is a favourite of mine. Arriving after his Batman Trilogy and before recent critical hit Dunkirk, Interstellar‘s reception was a little more lukewarm. Its run time clocks in around 3 hours, dives into black holes and time dilation and ties it all together with love and family. There are several spectacular scenes (Miller’s Planet and just about any involving the Black Hole named Gargantua) but the most unforgettable is the Docking sequence.

Starting with the explosion in space without sound is haunting, it puts us in a moment – following from Dr Mann’s last piece of dialogue – and a moment is all Cooper needs to consider his options. The visual of the Endurance spinning, the ticking clock sound underpinning the score, debris scattering above the Ice Planet below, combined with the Organ striking up and thrusting us into the do or die attempt at docking is a perfect build of tension. The track features a grander, stretched out version of the motif which runs throughout Hans Zimmer’s score. It helps emphasise the strain on Cooper and the struggle as he attempts to dock the ship –  failure to do so will see them stranded or sucked back onto the Ice Planet below; their mission and mankind, in ruin.

’28 Days Later’ (2002) – Opening

I’m still holding out hope for the final movie in the 28 Days/Weeks series. It’s a forlorn and fruitless hope, I’ll only be disappointed as it seems the chances are almost as remote as surviving in the post-apocalyptic world built by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. The film rejuvenated the Zombie genre, despite technically not being a zombie film. It’s such a bleak setting, but that only serves to make the few glimmers of hope so beautiful.

YouTube doesn’t have the full opening scene, but it gives a flavor of it. Sadly it skips the part where Cillian Murphy wakes up ‘bawz oot’, but that’s not hard to find. The empty London streets, usually smothered in people, houses only scattered souvenirs. The slow build of the music helps to elevate the unease and yet despite this, it’s an oddly personal scene. We’re questioning everything just as Jim is, where the fuck is everyone? What happened? His simple screams of ‘Hello’ which echo, unanswered, are haunting. I’m sure on reflection I can think of a better opening to a film, but as I write this I think this is probably my favourite. Also, as YouTube neglected to give us the whole opening here is another favourite: “World’s worst place to get a flat”

‘Jaws’ (1975) – Indianapolis Speech

Nothing really needs to be said about how iconic Jaws is so let’s just get into the scene:

The trio of Brody, Hooper and Flint enjoy a fractious relationship in the early stages of their journey. This scene is an absolute masterclass. The visual build up as Flint and Hooper compare injuries which grow as they go on competing gives us a false sense of camaraderie before the tension sets in and Flint recounts the aftermath of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The jovial atmosphere of the scene evaporates. We’re granted an insight into the tragic backstory of Flint, who initially comes off a unhinged, and we share the shock, discomfort and yet an element of sympathy and understanding which Brody and Hooper feel. Flint suddenly seems vulnerable, more human and relatable. It’s a wonderful way of humanising a character who initially appears as a bit of a lunatic and of course foreshadows what’s to come.

‘Baby Driver’ (2017) – Coffee Run

I’ve got some serious love for Baby Driver and I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright – though I’m not a huge fan of his movies. I went into Baby Driver not knowing what to expect, but not really expecting much either. What I got was a captivating experience, one of the most stylised movies I’ve ever seen which deserves all the praise it got and more for some incredible sound editing. This isn’t necessarily my favourite scene in the movie but it demonstrates everything the movie does well.

Each scene in the film features a track and it’s designed to match it. Actions meet the rhythm and beat in the soundtrack. It’s more apparent in the action orientated scenes but the coffee run scene manages to capture the subtlety and the more obvious moments of cohesion. The graffiti matches the song lyrics perfectly, see 0:40-0:45 “whole lotta” is graffitied behind dancers and “soul” appears on the lamp post Baby shimmies around. Baby slides to the left as a passerby barges past, just as the lyric commands, quickly transitioning into him playing the trumpet positioned in a shop window – it’s film making at the highest level. Managing to capture such synchronicity with subtle moments in a near 3 minute tracking shot so effectively is such a great technical achievement, it adds an extra layer to a film which already oozes style.

I’ll leave it here for just now but I’ll try and fill Part 2 with less tension orientated scenes. (and I’ll probably fail at doing so)

Okay… let’s leave it with some fun to counter the serious scenes: