I don't usually rent from Blockbuster, but last Thursday I was racing the clock, the store was close by, and I wanted to see The Matrix with my son. It was his first time. Now it's a week later and I have to return the thing. Time doesn't so much fly as make quantum leaps.
The Matrix-- the first one, mind you-- struck me the first, second, third, and again this time as being a work of talented, inspired, and hard-working imagination. This impression began smaller because at first, like Neo (Keanu Reeves), I was just trying to understand the story. But by this viewing I was appreciating the little things, such as the shape of the little green ideograms that make up the Matrix's cascading computer code.
Or, for example, the decision to bring in the Wal-Mart gun selection for the final battle by whooshing it in like twenty parallel rows of freight trains (I had first seen that on a cars.com commercial, and marveled at its originality, not knowing it was a ripoff from the movie).
On one hand, The Matrix follows a recognizable pattern, that of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey-- or at least, the pattern of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars. A young man is plucked out of ordinary life into an extraordinary calling. He learns from mentors, has various trials and wins a great triumph, then returns to his community with the power to make it better.
But that part is a skeleton and something of a red herring. It's not the pattern that makes the story good, but how the story is fleshed out. It's in the brilliant idea of using the answering of a phone as a means of escape; in the perfect placement of the Power of Romantic Love; in the inflection in the voice of Joe Pantoliano as he betrays all he's worked for. And it's in the loopy speech of Agent Smith, one of the computer generated villains, played by Hugo Weaving:
I hate this place-- this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it. I can't stand it anymore. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink, and everyone time I do I feel I've been infected by it. It's repulsive, isn't it? I must get out of here. I must get free.
Just the idea of a machine being driven crazy by a phenomenon natural to animals-- the sense of smell-- that isn't really there, makes me go "How did they come up with this?"
It is the particulars of a story that make it good. The Hero's Journey pattern aligns with our American brains, and gives the story a better possibility of doing well. But unless the story is told well in its details, it won't matter how closely it hews to a set of plot and character points.
Besides, I always thought the ultimate model for the Matrix was Plato's Myth of Er. Another post for another day.