So I knew about the spoon, and the pills, and even the big secret, but I had never actually seen The Matrix until a day ago. Were I still in college, of course, I would have seen it about fifteen times by now — not because I was into sci-fi action films in college, since I wasn't, but because I took several classes that were all about pop-cultural reflections of fear and anxiety about technology and the organic, and I imagine that all those professors must have ruined their trousers watching this one. I cannot imagine this not appearing on every single one of those syllabi.
Is it actually any good, though? It's not terrible, but I can't say I'm a fan. I have three problems with it.
One is that its big twist is to declare that, ah-HA!, what you THOUGHT was real life, everything you accepted as familiar and comforting, is actually just an ILLUSION! — except the film doesn't give us anything familiar and comforting and so ripping it up has no impact. I was actually surprised to find that we were supposed to think the opening scenes took place in our world in 1999. Didn't look like our world in 1999. I don't recognize that city. I don't recognize a company called Metacortex. I don't recognize what Keanu Reeves is doing on his computer. No one's doing anything ordinary — they're running from government agents, or working in Kafkaesque nightmare corporations, or going to sci-fi nightclubs, but nothing to suggest this is meant to be the world outside my window. I thought this was supposed to be taking place, I dunno, thirty years in the future. Seeing it revealed as false had little impact on me since it already seemed alien and perfunctory.
And this isn't a new idea, after all. I've seen it done better. Heck, it was done better the first place I encountered it, in Fantastic Four #236. Admittedly, the real world in which the protagonist wakes up is impressively nightmarish: those vats were really, really creepy. But it would have been even more jolting after an hour of watching a richly drawn ordinary world slowly fraying at the edges. On the other hand, I don't know if I could have stood for a full hour of Keanu being cryptically ordered around, so it could have been a lot worse.
I think the opening half hour of "ooh, cryptic" was supposed to be cool. Indeed, The Matrix seems to be in large part a collection of stuff the filmmakers find cool: sunglasses, black leather, martial arts, automatic weapons, faux-religious overtones, computer networks, superpowers. As I disagree with them on most of these counts, I'm probably not their target audience. So that's problem number two.
But the thing is, much as I tend to be turned off by people kicking each other and show-offy CGI, these have been key elements in some of my favorites: Buffy the Vampire Slayer had plenty of both, for instance. The problem with The Matrix isn't so much the kicking and the shooting as it is that (and here's #3) there's no reason to care about the people doing the kicking and the shooting. The movie starts by delving into a numeral 0, which is appropriate because everyone in it is a cipher. Neo is a cipher. Trinity is a cipher. When we reach the climactic moment when Trinity declares her love for Neo it is laughable. What is there in him to love? What is there in her that can love? Neo's character arc is similarly flat. He started as a blank; he ends as an omnipotent blank. Nothing he does is as cool as Willow's eyes turning black, because Willow's a person and Neo's an action figure.
So, yeah, some cool imagery, some neat ideas — I liked the bits about racing to find a telephone — but The Matrix squanders these nifty elements by failing to flesh out either its characters or the world referred to in the title.
[Addendum: regarding that first point, about how it might have significantly improved the film to slowly unravel the initial world instead of ripping it away half an hour in... it occurred to me as I was watching that to an extent The Matrix is the flip side of The Truman Show, which did in fact draw out the suspense in this manner — except in the case of The Truman Show, the point was moot because the fricking ad campaign gave away the big secret that was revealed, what, halfway through the picture? More? The Matrix's ad campaign, by contrast, was good about not giving away the secret — I didn't learn what it was until the sequel came out and people started recapping the full plot of the original — but the movie itself was too impatient to reveal it and knocked over the house of cards after taking only a few of them out of the pack.]