The Matrix: Still Around Us 20 Years Later

matrix poster

Twenty years ago, when I worked at Starlog, I was invited to a screening for a film few people had heard of, myself included. There was very little known about The Matrix prior to its release, just that it starred Keanu Reeves. The only clue I had was that early in 1999 I picked up a mini-mouse pad at a horror convention in New York. Its image was of Reeves’ Neo emerging from his Matrix chamber. To me it looked like some kind of horror movie that was possibly about cloning.

When I went to the screening, the producers and possibly the Warchowskis (I cannot remember anymore) were there and introduced us to The Matrix. The film was 99% complete with a couple of F/X shots missing. One of the producers set up the film and said it was their way of doing superhero films in a more plausible way and they hoped The Matrix would do well so they could do more films later. With that, the lights dimmed, and the film began.

Midway through the film, most of us attending instantly knew we were seeing something unique and groundbreaking when we saw The Matrix. Stating that the cyberpunk actioner was truly a revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece is not an understatement. About six weeks or so later, on March 31, the rest of the world beheld this revolutionary masterpiece.

There are so many, too many to list, reasons why this sci-fi film changed the cinematic landscape, but let’s try.

The Core of the Matrix

How about starting with the fact that this was the first cyberpunk film to strike a resonant chord with the general public. Yes, there were earlier cyberpunk films before The Matrix with similar themes, but this film was the one that hit the public zeitgeist. Every similar film that was released afterwards was inevitably compared to The Matrix, even its sequels.

The next and most obvious reason could be seen with its visual effects. CG had become a standard by 1999 but The Matrix used it in distinct ways to subvert the reality of its world. People defied the laws of gravity and physics, which was most famously witnessed in the iconic moment when the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves, who took the role after Will Smith turned it down) dodges bullet fire in sequenced dubbed bullet time. We witnessed his POV where time slowed down, but the cameras didn’t and we could see the trajectory of the bullets, which left vortexes. This pulse-pounding moment during the climatic third act was built up from the opening moments of The Matrix when we first see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) jump up and hang suspended in the air (a moment that was copied and parodied many times since), then run on the walls with ease like she was Spider-Woman.

The Matrix also boasts some of the most exciting fight scenes ever seen on film. In many of them, fighters spar by defying gravity, moving at superhuman speed and precision. The fight choreography was nearly flawless and framed expertly. The filmmakers were inspired by Asian martial arts films and the technique of Wire Fu, where performers carried out impossible physical feats thanks to wires.  It goes without saying that some fights are still considered the best ever shot on film. The standout has to be the climactic battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) as they fight throughout the city and subway. On a side note, Weaving should be lauded for his intimidating presence in the film as Smith, who was methodical, precise and ruthless. We could feel his disdain for humanity and growing frustration when dealing with Neo and his colleagues.

However, these dazzling effects and action set pieces wouldn’t mean anything without the story, subtexts and themes that formed the core of The Matrix. The film is stuffed with references and allegories to various religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, philosophical thought such as nihilism and existentialism, and finally literary works like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It explored the concept of reality and how we perceive it, as well as the concept of free will vs fate. Tied to the last theme is Neo himself, as he struggles with the notion that he is the actualization of a prophesy that he will free humanity.

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5 MCU Films To See Before Avengers: Endgame

Settle down folks, that means all of you celebrating or lamenting the X-Men and the Fantastic Four going to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We still have Avengers: Endgame to deal with and that monumental conclusion to the MCU Infinity Saga is just over a month away. It’s a given, Marvel Studios and Disney will have our hard-earned cash for the opening weekend and we’re all caught up with the 20+ MCU films. But what about our hapless dates and companions who we bring along to see Avengers: Endgame? What if they have no idea who Rocket Raccoon is or where Wakanda is located? The intricacies of the cinematic universe could be explained, but wouldn’t it be better if they see for themselves? Easier said than done, there are over 20 films to slog through, and not all of them are great. You’d be doing them a favor by suggesting just a few MCU films to watch before Avengers: Endgame, so at least they won’t be distracting you with annoying questions as the Avengers prepare for that final battle against Thanos.

Like last year when we presented 10 films to see before Avengers: Infinity War, here is another list and this time, let’s cut it down to the bone: five MCU films to see before Avengers: Endgame in alphabetical order. Some spoilers will follow.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018):

The concept of quantum realms was first introduced in this film’s predecessor, Ant-Man. But this sequel explores the mysterious realm much more. We learn that there are time vortexes within the miniscule dimension that Hank Pym explores in order to rescue his lost wife. Also, Ant-Man and the Wasp is directly linked to the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War as seen in the mid-credits sequence as the Wasp, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are victims of the Decimation or Thanos’ snap.

Meanwhile, unaware of how directly involved he is now with the universe-spanning event, Ant-Man is trapped in the quantum realm and his time spent there will most likely hold the key to victory for the Avengers as teased in the trailers for Avengers: Endgame. Needless to mention, that the plucky Ant-Man will be a critical player in the coming film.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015):

It’s not the best MCU film, but it’s proving to be a vital nexus for what happens in the Marvel Cinematic Universe afterwards. There are some plot points that are relevant to the other Avengers and MCU films, which include heroes become obsessed with upcoming threats. Iron Man has visions of Earth doomed by cosmic forces, which leads to his ill-advised creation of Ultron and fractures his relationship with Captain America. Meanwhile, Thor learns about the Infinity Stones and leaves the team to search for them, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Captain America’s visions of his lost love, Peggy Carter, imply his soul is still haunted by their separation by time and as hinted at in Avengers: Endgame, perhaps this will be addressed. We also discover that Hawkeye has a loving family and the latest trailer implies that they are victims of the Decimation. This explains why he takes on the persona of Ronin in the film. It should be noted that there are rumors that the villainous android, Ultron, will return in Avengers: Endgame.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018):

Well, duh! It’s the Avengers film right before Endgame! The fourth Avengers film is a direct follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War and explores the aftermath of the devastating events shown in the third Avengers film. Viewers learn about Thanos, his twisted motivation and fiendish plan to snuff out half of all life in the universe.

What’s fun to watch are the interactions, appearances of and team ups with the MCU’s finest, from Spider-Man to Doctor Strange to the Guardians of the Galaxy. This was a true epic crossover film that ends with Thanos triumphant and half of the MCU heroes turned to dust. It only makes sense to see this film before Avengers: Endgame to at least see the set up before the fourth Avengers film and understand the high stakes for the surviving heroes.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011):

The first Captain America film has one of the earliest appearance of one of the Infinity Stones, the Space Stone and of course, features the star-spangled debut of Captain America, aka Steve Rogers. As shown in the Avengers: Endgame trailer, unlike the last Avengers film, he will be more vital to the film’s main plot.

Just as important, Captain America: The First Avenger explores the relationship between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. The tragedy of their budding romance is that it was never fulfilled, something that haunts Rogers (see Avengers: Age of Ultron and the other Cap films). As hinted in some Avengers: Endgame trailers, this lost relationship could be a major plot for Captain America in the film. Perhaps, a clue to his final destiny?

MFing Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014):

As stated in last year’s post, this film not only boasts the fabulous debut of everyone’s favorite cosmic misfits, but clearly explains the Infinity Stones and the background to the Infinity Saga. Rocket Raccoon, the anthropomorphic and snarky raccoon, debuts here and is one of the main heroes in Endgame as the sole surviving member of the Guardians. In addition to introducing viewers to the Guardians of the Galaxy, this film has the first full appearance of Thanos, who appears as a background boss, but already exuded a malevolent presence.

Guardians of the Galaxy also debuts Nebula, who is Thanos’ daughter. We learn of her complicated relationship with her adopted father and sister, Gamora, and why she wants to kill her father. This obviously will be her main driving force in Endgame, which is only natural after she saw firsthand the effects of the Decimation.

avengers first team up

Miscellaneous:

See these films if time permits. They are not crucial to watch and didn’t make the list of five essential films to see before Avengers: Endgame, but do add information and context about the beloved characters and situations of the MCU.

Ant-Man (2015) is the first MCU film to feature quantum realms and other dimensions and of course, debuts Ant-Man, a major character in Avengers: Endgame.

The Avengers (2012) introduces the superhero team and how they get along with each other, while featuring two of the Infinity Stones. Bonus point: Thanos makes his first appearance in the MCU in a cameo.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) is more of a prerequisite for Avengers: Infinity War. In this film, we see how the fragile relationships between the members of the Avengers, especially Iron Man and Captain America, come apart. The dissolution of the team is why the heroes lose in Avengers: Infinity War.

Captain Marvel (2019) of course, features Captain Marvel, who will be one of the major characters in Endgame as seen in the film’s mid-credits scene.

Doctor Strange (2016) has the Time Stone, possibly important to the fourth Avengers film since the film’s plot is rumored to involve time travel.

Iron Man 3 (2013) explores Tony Stark’s fragile psyche in the aftermath of the cosmic events of The Avengers. It helps us understand his state of mind in future films, culminating in Endgame.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) heavily features the cosmic side of the MCU and Nebula, a key player in Avengers: Endgame, as she transitions from a villain to an anti-hero.

Thor (2011) marks the first MCU appearance of aliens, the cosmic portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the God of Thunder himself.

Thor: The Dark World (2013) is one of the weaker MCU films, but has one of the Infinity Stones, the Reality Stone, a major macguffin in the second Thor film.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) sets up Avengers: Infinity War towards its end and provides context for Thor’s state of mind in the final Avengers films.

José Soto

 

The Challenge of Alita: Battle Angel

As people flock to theaters to see Captain Marvel and rave or criticize the film, there is another woman-centric sci-fi film that has caught the admiration of many others. But that film is not pulling in the box office dollars of the MCU film. That is not an indication of its quality, however. In fact, many who have seen Alita: Battle Angel have come away convinced it is the better film that deserved a better fate.

Right now, even though the Robert Rodriguez film has been out for over a month, it is too soon to declare Alita: Battle Angel a box office disappointment. To date it has grossed nearly $400 million dollars. Sure that is peanuts to what other films have pulled in, but it is not that bad. The film’s supposed budget was $170 million, so technically it made its money back and has a tiny profit. So, is that enough to get a sequel?

Fans of the cult film (and that is what Alita: Battle Angel is at this point, though it is worthy of that honor) are clamoring for a sequel, especially given how the film sets up future films. The problem is that the amount of money it has earned probably won’t be enough for a sequel to be greenlit. There is also the fact, that as of two days from now, 20th Century Fox, the film studio that released Alita: Battle Angel, will belong to Disney. Who knows if the House of the Mouse will be interested in pursuing a followup film. They have other properties that will generate more money for them.

Then again, we have seen cult favorites build enough of a following to convince studios to take another crack at the property. One recent example is Pacific Rim. That film was released in 2013 and was not a hit film, but it quickly developed a fan base, not unlike Alita. As the film did well in home media, it picked up more fans and demands for a sequel increased. Last year, a sequel was finally released, Pacific Rim: Uprising. Although the film was way inferior to the first Pacific Rim, it did demonstrate that we can always hold out hope for followups to non-hit films. This has happened with John Wick, The Boondock Saints, and others.

Bear in mind that this is not a guarantee. Films like Serenity and Dredd had devoted fans that tried to push awareness of the films so that sequels could be made, but they never came to be. Plus, while it is important to see the James Cameron-produced film in theaters now, it is equally, if not more important to buy the film when it is available in home media. That would demonstrate the lasting appeal of the cyberpunk action film, which is surprisingly faithful in spirit to the manga that inspired it. That would be a critical challenge for Alita: Battle Angel. The fan base has to be persistent and vocal. Then there is the matter of getting James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Rosa Salazar, and others to return to the stunning futuristic world that they created. Another issue is that if a sequel is commissioned will it get the same care and budget of the original? An easier way to convince execs to finance a sequel is if its budget can be controlled. That might mean that Alita’s next adventure might have to take place in the floating city of Zalem, which would look eerily like modern-day society. It might work given the decrepit state of the world below shown in Alita. In that case can it be as faithful to the manga as the original?

This is all speculation at this point. Go see the film if it is still playing. Despite its narrative flaws Alita: Battle Angel is a stunning cinematic experience that better captures a hero’s journey much better than the other superhero film out now in theaters.

Captain Marvel Is A Solid MCU Entry

Captain Marvel is here at last, satisfying our desire for new content from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), being that it’s been several months since we had anything from the famed MCU. At the same time, the latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe sets us up for next month’s Avengers: Endgame.

As many know, Captain Marvel, based on the Marvel Comics character, has been mired in controversy lately thanks to Internet trolls and people with their own agendas. It’s a shame really, because all this noise is distracting from the film itself. It’s bad enough that so much is expected from an MCU film these days that unless the film is an absolute epic, it is bound to disappoint. With all this going on it may be difficult to judge Captain Marvel on its own merit.

Looking at the film objectively, it does have its faults but it’s not a disaster at all. In fact, on the whole, Captain Marvel is a solid entry to the MCU and has so much to enjoy. Part sci-fi space adventure, part fish-out-of-water story, part mystery and part buddy cop yarn, the film bridges the cosmic part of the MCU with the Earth-based part. It introduces us to Vers (Brie Larson), who lives on the Kree homeplanet Hala and is part of the Starforce, dedicated to peacekeeping throughout the Kree Empire. She and her squad routinely hunt the Kree’s mortal enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Early in the film, Vers crash lands on Earth in 1995 and meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson sporting some amazing deaging CG). The two team up to find out why the Skrulls are infiltrating Earth until she is recovered by Starforce. Along the way, she has flashbacks that reveal she is actually Carol Danvers, a human test pilot and this revelation has her questioning her allegiance to the Kree.

Captain Marvel is an enjoyable film with some interesting twists and character moments. Some plot developments can be seen light years away but they’re well executed and the film is highlighted by the cast who are quite good, especially Jackson, who portrays a less jaded version of Nick Fury, and Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, the main Skrull in the film. Talos is an unexpectedly complex character and Mendelsohn’s acting is exceptionally good here as he is able to emote so effortlessly through the heavy Skrull makeup.

As for Brie Larson, her performance is rather stoic and comes off as a largely unemotional hero and not very interesting despite her personal dilemma. Larson is OK as Danvers/Captain Marvel. but one has to wonder if anyone else could have done the role better. This could be a problem because she is supposed to be a major player from here on out. But there is room for growth and Larson is a talented actor. She does have some good banter and chemistry with Jackson, but Jackson is the more charismatic of the two. Larson’s performance is just part of the problem the film has. It’s slickly made and has many fun moments, but the direction is bland at times and some pivotal scenes are poorly lit, which detracts from their impact. Marvel Studios has a penchant for hiring largely inexperienced, but talented directors and this usually works. In this situation, perhaps the film studio should have gone with someone other than Ann Boden and Ryan Fleck. The two don’t seem to have distinctive voices like James Gunn or Taika Waititi.

The film is not bad by all means, its merits easily outweigh its problems. It’s quite awesome with dazzling special effects, a great ’90s soundtrack,and hits most of its marks. Plus, the mystery behind Danvers’ identity and what happened to her are done well. Despite what some trolls are proclaiming it doesn’t have some kind of feminist agenda. It’s a straight up superhero adventure. Also, Captain Marvel is an important entry of the MCU because it explains how many aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to being. Plus, its post-credits scene is vital to Avengers: Endgame. On the whole, Captain Marvel is a respectable, flashy high-middle tier entry of the MCU that adds new wrinkles to the ever-growing film universe.

Prejudging Dark Phoenix Before Its Release

20th Century Fox has released a new trailer for the last, proper X-Men film, Dark Phoenix. What is most interesting and disturbing, depending on one’s point of view, about the trailer’s release is the reaction from fans. While some enjoy it, and look forward to the X-Men film, others are reacting with indifference or downright negativity. This is somewhat baffling to witness and is evidence of how divided fans and our culture at large has become. We’re seeing this everywhere with vitriol hurled at Star Wars, Doctor Who, Star Trek, DC, the MCU and other franchises for many reasons. But the negativity towards Dark Phoenix before the film has come out is just going overboard.

There are many reasons to be skeptical for the upcoming superhero film and it’s not just because the director is a newbie. The film essentially retells a major subplot from X-Men: The Last Stand, which adapted parts of the famous and beloved Dark Phoenix story from the comics. However, the film was subpar and the trailer to Dark Phoenix uncomfortably reminds some of that film. While this is unavoidable, the new film will focus on the Dark Phoenix story and Jean Grey’s struggle. True, it won’t be a beat-by-beat adaptation of the comic book story, but what live-action adaptation of a comic book story is completely faithful? A couple of them are considered among the best superhero films of all time.

Then there is the anger that some have towards Fox for being neglectful towards the X-Men franchise. Fox’s track record with the X-Men films is admittedly mixed. For every Logan there is an X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The last X-Men film, X-Men: Apocalypse was not received well, though personally, I thought it was enjoyable and had an epic tone in its last act. The poor reaction to X-Men: Apocalypse has fed the negativity toward X-Men films going forward.

But we have to give the studio some credit. If not for them, the superhero films as we know it would not exist. Kevin Feige, the Marvel Studios guru, got his start in superhero films with the Fox X-Men films. He gained valuable insight and experience that helped him launch the successful MCU. Also, Fox released high-quality productions like Logan, Deadpool and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Still, many feel that the Fox X-Men films have run their course and a much-needed break is due. Or rather a radical reboot that is faithful to the comic books, which Marvel Studios can only produce.

As we all know, Marvel Studios will reboot the X-Men films since Disney has acquired the film rights to the X-Men. At this point, many are more than ready to move on from the Fox version of the X-Men and are eager to see how Marvel Studios reimagines and recasts the X-Men films. For them, Dark Phoenix feels redundant and think “what’s the point?” of this film since the Fox X-Men franchise is coming to an end. Some are angered that based on what is known about Dark Phoenix and some negative early screening reactions that the film is destined to be a stinker and don’t feel the need to see it.

This is unfair towards the film and the efforts of the cast and crew. In the end, it may wind up being as bad as many believe and a terrible way to end the Fox X-Men films. However, it’s best to keep an open mind and being objective towards this film. Hopefully, it can be a decent wrap up of the X-Men saga. After all, it will be the last X-Men film for a while given Marvel Studios’ crowded plate.