By following up their debut thriller Bound with the 1999 box-office smash The Matrix, the codirecting Wachowski brothers--Andy and Larry--annihilated any suggestion of a sophomore jinx, crafting one of the most exhilarating sci-fi/action movies of the 1990s. Set in the not too distant future in an insipid, characterless city, we find a young man named Neo (Keanu Reeves). A software techie by day and a computer hacker by night, he sits alone at home by his monitor, waiting for a sign, a signal--from what or whom he doesn't know--until one night, a mysterious woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) seeks him out and introduces him to that faceless character he has been waiting for: Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). A messiah of sorts, Morpheus presents Neo with the truth about his world by shedding light on the dark secrets that have troubled him for so long: "You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad." Ultimately, Morpheus illustrates to Neo what the Matrix is--a reality beyond reality that controls all of their lives, in a way that Neo can barely comprehend.
Neo thus embarks on an adventure that is both terrifying and enthralling. Pitted against an enemy that transcends human concepts of evil, Morpheus and his team must train Neo to believe that he is the chosen champion of their fight. With mind-boggling, technically innovative special effects and a thought-provoking script that owes a debt of inspiration to the legacy of cyberpunk fiction, this is much more than an out-and-out action yarn; it's a thinking man's journey into the realm of futuristic fantasy, a dreamscape full of eye candy that will satisfy sci-fi, kung fu, action, and adventure fans alike. Although the film is headlined by Reeves and Fishburne--who both turn in fine performances--much of the fun and excitement should be attributed to Moss, who flawlessly mixes vulnerability with immense strength, making other contemporary female heroines look timid by comparison. And if we were going to cast a vote for most dastardly movie villain of 1999, it would have to go to Hugo Weaving, who plays the feckless, semipsychotic Agent Smith with panache and edginess. As the film's box-office profits soared, the Wachowski brothers announced that The Matrix is merely the first chapter in a cinematically dazzling franchise--a chapter that is arguably superior to the other sci-fi smash of 1999 (you know... the one starring Jar Jar Binks). --Jeremy Storey
The Matrix Reloaded
Considering the lofty expectations that preceded it, The Matrix Reloaded triumphs where most sequels fail. It would be impossible to match the fresh audacity that made The Matrix a global phenomenon in 1999, but in continuing the exploits of rebellious Neo (Keanu Reeves), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) as they struggle to save the human sanctuary of Zion from invading machines, the codirecting Wachowski brothers have their priorities well in order. They offer the obligatory bigger and better highlights (including the impressive "Burly Brawl" and freeway chase sequences) while remaining focused on cleverly plotting the middle of a brain-teasing trilogy that ends with The Matrix Revolutions. The metaphysical underpinnings can be dismissed or scrutinized, and choosing the latter course (this is, after all, an epic about choice and free will) leads to astonishing repercussions that made Reloaded an explosive hit with critics and hardcore fans alike. As the centerpiece of a multimedia franchise, this dynamic sequel ends with a cliffhanger that virtually guarantees a mind-blowing conclusion. --Jeff Shannon
The Matrix Revolutions
Despite the inevitable law of diminishing returns, The Matrix Revolutions is quite satisfying as an adrenalized action epic, marking yet another milestone in the exponential evolution of computer-generated special effects. That may not be enough to satisfy hardcore Matrix fans who turned the Wachowski Brothers' hacker mythology into a quasi-religious pop-cultural phenomenon, but there's no denying that the trilogy goes out with a cosmic bang instead of the whimper that many expected. Picking up precisely where The Matrix Reloaded left off, this 130-minute finale finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) at a virtual junction, defending the besieged human enclave of Zion by confronting the attacking machines on their home turf, while humans combat swarms of tentacled mechanical sentinels as Zion's fate lies in the balance. It all amounts to a blaze of CGI glory, devoid of all but the shallowest emotions, and so full of metaphysical hokum that the trilogy's detractors can gloat with I-told-you-so sarcasm. And yet, Revolutions still succeeds as a slick, exciting hybrid of cinema and video game, operating by its own internal logic with enough forward momentum to make the whole trilogy seem like a thrilling, magnificent dream. -- Jeff Shannon