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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/2/99

The Matrix
1999 (1999) - Warner Bros.

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Matrix Film Ratings: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/A+

Specs and Features

136 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:07:43, in chapter 21), Snapper case packaging, commentary track (with star Carrie-Anne Moss, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, and editor Zach Staenberg), music-only track (with intermittent commentary by composer Don Davis), HBO First Look: Making the Matrix (run time 25:52), Take the Red Pills to two hidden documentaries (What is the Concept? (run time: 11:26) is hidden in the Wachowski Brother filmography, and What is Bullet Time? (run time 6:15) in the Dream World section), Follow the White Rabbit (option to watch the film with 9 alternate angles to view scene specific behind-the-scenes footage), additional DVD-ROM options: screenplay with storyboards, stills and final footage, Are You the One? trivia game, Do You Know Kung Fu? (jump to fight scenes in the film), screensavers, seven original essays (including exclusive essays: From Strip to Screen, Everybody Loves Kung Fu Fighting, and Infinity and Beyond, theatrical trailers (The Matrix, Demolition Man, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Outland, The Road Warrior and Soldier), press articles, links to special websites and online chats, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (38 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 for the film, DD 2.0 for the soundtrack and commentary), subtitles: English, Close Captioned

When I first saw The Matrix, I wasn't quite as impressed as the rest of the audience I saw the film with. Let me clarify that: I was impressed, but the opening-night audience my wife and I saw it with, were just whooping and hollering like this was the second coming of Jurassic Park. I fully admit, the effects were incredible, and the fight scenes very well done, but essentially, it's nothing fans of Japanese cartoons and Hong Kong kung fu flicks haven't seen before. I have a pretty impressive collection of both, and I sat there watching the film the first time thinking, "I wish these people would shut up, so I can enjoy the darn movie." Hey, I'm no stick in the mud. But I swear -- at the beginning of the film, when Carrie-Anne Moss hangs suspended in mid-air ready to kick the cop in the face, people were on the edges of their seats, exclaiming at the top of their lungs. I couldn't see or hear a damn thing. It was quite annoying, and I have to say, it affected my feelings for the film. Thankfully, after having just had the opportunity to check it out again on DVD, I have to say that I'm now quite impressed, and I've become a born-again fan of this film.

The Matrix focuses on a mysterious man know as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and his search for someone known only as "The One". In his mind, he's found him in the person of Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker that goes by the name Neo, who is beginning to suspect there's more to things than meets the eye. When they finally meet, Morpheus gives Neo a choice: he can forget everything he knows about Morpheus, or he can learn everything he wants to know. Neo chooses to learn, and suddenly we're in for a serious ride.

You see, the secret that he's been trying to understand, is that the world we live in is merely a simulation called "the Matrix" -- a fabrication made by computers who have taken over the world of the far future, and who have harvested humanity as living batteries to power their machinery. Everything we see and experience, everything we are (except our knowledge and personality), is all a computer program running in our brains, as we lie in growth chambers, waiting unknowingly to be "picked" like fruit by the computers. Morpheus is dedicated to blowing the lid off this thing -- basically starting a revolution against the Matrix -- but he needs Neo's help. Along with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Tank (Marcus Chong), Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and others (many of whom are basically "deadmeat"), the crew must battle a squad of robot hunters tracking them down in the real world, and a team of mysterious "Agents" (aka Men in Black, in reality computer viruses) hunting them in the fabricated one.

The Matrix is one of those "simple-yet-complicated" stories, where everything just starts to make sense as you watch it. There's a lot going on here, but I don't want to say too much more about the concept or story. If you didn't see this film in theaters, you need to see it now on DVD, without my (or anyone else's) thoughts clouding your impressions. As for the cast, well... believe it or not, I think the cast is great (I never thought I'd say Keanu Reeves is perfect for anything, but he's perfect here). Carrie-Anne Moss is cool and sexy, and Joe Pantoliano is at his slimy best. The direction is wonderful -- the Wachowski Brothers knew what they wanted, and they got it. As stupid as this movie COULD have been, it ended up quite cool. The story really hangs itself out there, but the team who made this movie managed to sell it in a big way. But as cool as the story is, it's the stunts and effects that really make this movie. If you've seen the film, you were impressed. And if you've seen this film, you want this DVD.

So, how's the disc look? Well, the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and it looks pretty good... but it's not perfect. The brightly-lit shots (day shots) are pretty super, with crisp colors and solid flesh tones. The transfer looks very good in these scenes. But the darkly-lit scenes (night scenes) show a bit of obvious film grain on the print, which thus results in some MPEG-2 compression artifacting -- nothing that would disappoint anyone buying the disc, but evident enough that it should be pointed out... and it detracts just enough that this isn't reference quality. The sound however, really stands out here. It's not as subtle and well rounded as DreamWorks' Prince of Egypt disc, but it still packs a tremendous punch. And there are some great plays with directional effects in the surround mix that are really fun (the soundstage rotates in 360 degrees along with the picture during "bullet time" moments, for example). The disc's interactive menus are equally nice. The intro to the disc's main menu screen is super. My hats off to the people in charge of the design of this disc. The screens themselves are a nice melding of music from the film and some of the coolest images. All in all, it's a pretty sweet set-up.

Let's talk about the special features, 'cause I know that's what most of us are interested in The Matrix disc for anyway. I have to say, the extras alone are worth getting the disc. This is a PACKED special edition. There are three behind-the-scenes documentaries, two of which are hidden in the special features section as "red pills" that you have to highlight. One of them (What is the Concept?) is a look at the production art, paintings and digital effects put to music, and progressively shows how each scene was done. All the footage looks great, with only a few moments of noise, when Geof Darrow's incredibly detailed drawings are on screen (there's just too much detail for NTSC to handle). Another documentary (What is Bullet Time?) focuses on the "how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?" aspect of "bullet time" (hosted by visual effects supervisor John Gaeta). John is very technical, and although I think I know how they did these effects now, I didn't understand one word that came out of his mouth. Gaeta is a tech-head to the nth degree, but as long as he keeps coming up with visual effects like this, God bless him. The third (and most easily found) documentary, is a more comprehensive look at the making of the film itself (as originally seen on HBO), showing the writer/director team of the Wachowski Brothers, the special effects and stunt stuff, and the training of the cast by famed HK director (and master of "wire" fu) Yuen Wu Ping.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg -- there's even more. There's a full-length commentary track with Carrie-Anne Moss, John Gaeta and editor Zach Staenberg. I know a lot of people would rather have the Brothers Wachowski, Keanu, and Laurence, but I think these three are just as important (and in a serious way, more important). Yes, without the Wachowski Brothers there wouldn't be a movie, but their contributions were obvious - they wrote, concepted and directed. Gaeta, Moss and Staenberg all pretty much make the movie. Moss came into her own as a full blown action star here, and it's HER opening scene that drags the audience into the story. She pretty much rocked this movie. Gaeta's visual effects are mind-blowingly incredible, and WILL change how films are made from this point forward. And Staenberg's editing is top-notch (for further proof, look at the other Wachowski flick Bound). He puts all these parts together expertly. Hearing this team talk is great, and they turn in a fine example of how commentary tracks should be done (well, maybe with less gaps in the talking, but that's a hazard for all tracks). These three seem to like each other, are experts on what they did in the film, resulting in a welcome and different approach to a commentary track. Also included is the film's isolated score, with intermittent commentary by composer Don Davis (whose comments are minimal to non-existent). It's a super-cool score, and I was initially pissed when I couldn't find a soundtrack CD with the music. Now I have it, and better still, I get to watch these sweet images on the screen as I listen.

But the coolest extra (in my opinion) is something Warner calls Follow the White Rabbit. It's an alternate angle feature, that allows you to watch the film, and then go to a special behind-the-scenes featurette, whenever a little white rabbit logo pops up on your screen (Don't worry -- the rabbit only pops up when you choose to watch the film with this feature enabled). The behind-the-scenes footage is scene specific, and there are only nine of them, but they are very cool and definitely worth checking out. I guess it's important to note that they cause a pause when you switch over -- it's not linear -- and when the behind-the-scenes footage is over, you go right back to the exact point you left the film, which resumes playing.

The rest of the special edition footage is DVD-ROM based, and it's basically hours and hours of personal enjoyment stuff. You can read the screenplay, and compare scenes in it to their storyboards, concept art, or final shots -- all pretty much seen in the White Rabbit stage, or the vast amount of special documentary footage. You have access to six theatrical trailers from Warner's other "future-based" films. There's a trivia game that, if solved, will allow you into a special website with even more SE stuff. And the list just goes on and on: websites, screensavers -- it's all here. You even get links to access special live chats and web events (to be announced). The one negative I found in all of this, is that you need the a ROM drive to access the Trailers. I would have liked to see the trailers on my TV -- I really liked the trailer and teaser for The Matrix, and without them on the DVD-Video side of the disc, I feel a little gypped. But I'll get over it.

Warner's put out a truly incredible DVD of The Matrix folks, no doubt about it. The movie is presented pretty well, the sound rocks, and with all this SE content, you'll be playing with this disc for half a day at least. Run -- don't walk -- to your nearest DVD provider and get this disc the day it comes out (street date 9/21). If you liked the movie -- hell, if you just like to see how movies are made -- you'll love this DVD. I can't wait to see what Warner does with The Matrix 2 when it comes to DVD. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Todd Doogan
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