"The Matrix"

Curious to know about the genesis of this surprise superhit? If only a Wachowski or two were there to tell us.

Published August 23, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Matrix"
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne
Warner Studios; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Cast and crew commentary, soundtrack, making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage

There's a good reason "The Matrix" kicked butt over "The Phantom Menace" at the last Academy Awards. The special effects and visual texture of the former are light-years ahead of anything that had come before, and for sheer coolness there's simply no comparison. "The Matrix" tells the story of a computer hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who, like Alice, gets sucked down a cyber-rabbit hole into a world where nothing is as it seems. That world -- if you don't know by now, where the hell have you been? -- is a computer-generated illusion intended to keep the remnants of human society passive as their very life force is sucked away to power a conquering army of machines. Joining a band of renegades led by proto-hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo must battle his way through some of the hottest action sequences ever conceived to discover whether he is The One: the Christ figure who will deliver humankind to the promised land.

As directed and written by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, "The Matrix" is a masterful blending of cockeyed Japanese anime angles and Hong Kong chop-socky, and a whole acid trip full of what-is-reality mind games. Sci-fi filmmakers will be imitating its distinctive style and layers of intricacy for years to come.

Which is why the DVD version comes as such a profound disappointment. With so much back story and plot nuance to explore, not to mention the execution of all those shoot'em-ups, it's nothing less than astonishing that neither Wachowski provides commentary on the goings-on. Without their input, the genesis of virtually the entire film remains a matter of second-guessing and interpretation. Nor does Reeves offer his perspective on the picture, which would arguably be the single best use of his one-note acting skills. Instead, viewers of the DVD must be content with the scattered musings of Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity in the film), visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta and editor Zach Staenberg. With Moss silent for all but her own scenes, the commentary focuses almost exclusively on technical rather than conceptual matters, and will try the patience of all but the most rabid film buffs.

The DVD also offers a "Follow the White Rabbit" feature, allowing viewers to check out behind-the-scenes footage of the major sequences by clicking a rabbit icon. But this can't be done simultaneously with the commentary, which means you have to view the movie repeatedly to enjoy the entire package. Better to stick with the perfectly adequate making-of documentary that accompanies the disk, originally produced as a promo for HBO. Parts 2 and 3 of a "Matrix" trilogy will soon begin shooting back to back in Australia. As the story grows even more complex, let's hope a Wachowski or two will lend their views to future DVD installments.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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