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The Matrix (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 1999 / 136 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: March 31, 2009
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, March 26, 2009
She jumped in the air and the camera swirled around her. At that one moment, everything about big-budget moviemaking changed. While many late-1990s science fiction films such as 'Dark City' and 'Strange Days' embraced a similar grim, urban aesthetic, 'The Matrix' absorbed it, internalized it, and expanded upon it. The original film would be seminal in stretching the boundaries of computer-generated imagery -- literally. Characters run along walls before delivering a kick. Bullets visibly ripple through the air, moving slowly enough for their intended targets to move out of the way. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), wearing black trench coats and black sunglasses, shoot their way through an office lobby leaving heroic amounts of shattered concrete and dead bodies. By the time it was over, audiences had a new benchmark for what constituted cool.
It's been nearly a decade since 'The Matrix' first ripped through the pop culture consciousness, and two sequels and over a billion dollars in worldwide box office later, the dust has finally settled long enough that it's possible to look back and better assess the film's place in the sci-fi cinematic pantheon. It's clear now that the writing and directing team of Larry and Andy Wachowski were not content to just drape everyone in black and call it style. Nor did they simply rely on their extraordinary visual sense. 'The Matrix' depends on obvious religious parallels (Neo has been interpreted to be a spiritual stand-in for everyone from Jesus Christ to Buddha) to give it a familiar, universal feel and a philosophical bent.
But, like the outlet embedded in the back of Neo's head, the real power of 'The Matrix' is its ability to plug into the psyche of its target audience: young males. The idea that our world is an elaborate simulation meant to divert us from the knowledge that our bodies are being enslaved and harvested for energy by sentient computers is at once heady, ridiculous and supremely clever. As such, it played right into the hearts and minds of a generation. Much as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' introduced mainstream American audiences to the Chinese martial arts films, 'The Matrix' introduced us to the kinetic visuals of Japanimation, John Woo-inspired violence and the Cyberpunk ethos pioneered in the novels of William Gibson.
Though the first 'Matrix' is undoubtedly a classic of its genre and a highly-influential blockbuster, its cross to bear is its two sequels. After the first film grossed over $500 million worldwide to become the sleeper sensation of 1999, it was inevitable that there would be follow-ups. And so the Wachowskis and Warner devised back-to-back sequels, shot over a period of year and to be released six months apart in the spring and fall of 2003. 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' would form a trilogy with the original 'Matrix,' and gargantuan box office seemed inevitable. Indeed, 'Reloaded' opened huge, but the sequels seemed to quickly suffer from the law of diminishing returns. It is impossible now to look back on 'The Matrix' phenomenon and not see the kinks in the armor -- namely, that 'Reloaded' and particularly 'Revolutions' disappointed not just the mainstream but also the franchise's massive legion of devoted followers. Not since the 'Star Wars' prequels has a sure-fire sci-fi franchise suffered such a steep drop-off in cultural relevance.
Yet we still have a lot to be thankful for in 'The Matrix.' At its core, it embodies a delicious paradox: using state-of-the-art technology, it tells its story of mankind's near destruction brought about by our reliance on state-of-the-art technology. In the dark ages of the late 1990s, with society reaching a point of no return in its dependence upon the internet, cell phones and global positioning systems, 'The Matrix' asked moviegoers to think about the implications -- and to never underestimate the power of black leather.
'The Matrix' first hit Blu-ray as part of 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection' last year, itself the second high-def incarnation of the series following an HD DVD release in 2007. That set came with considerable expectations, which for me were met. This stand-alone Blu-ray of the first 'Matrix' offers nothing new -- it's simply the same BD-50 dual-layer disc repackage, complete with identical 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.39:1).
Warner's work on the high-def master, which was minted for the original HD DVD release, was a clear step up from the standard-def DVD, which received mixed notices from critics at the time of its release. A direct compare of 'The Matrix' transfer from the original DVD makes the results immediately obvious. Though the previous DVD certainly looked good, all the black-on-black of the 'Matrix's trend-setting visual aesthetic often faded into inky mush in standard-def. The high-def version fixes this wrong. For example, during the scene when Neo and Trinity blast their way into the bank, the supple details of the clothes and the shiny black leather is excellent. One other compare was particularly revealing -- there is a push-in shot through a grill that the cops are ensconced behind, and on the DVD, it looks pixilated and jagged -- but on the Blu-ray, I never saw a single moment where the image broke up or looked stair-stepped. This is the kind of three-dimensional, picture-perfect image high-def is all about.
The intended color palette of 'The Matrix' has come under much debate from fans. The dominant hue is clearly green. Though there are many uses of deep purple and occasional splashes of incredibly vivid reds, the colors have been obviously skewed. Yet I remain impressed with the level of detail and "naturalism" (albeit highly stylized) that remained despite the tint shift. And all things considered, fleshtones are as accurate as possible. I was also relieved that Warner did not overpump or oversaturate the transfers -- there's no bleeding or chroma noise, and again, consistency is excellent.
'The Matrix' is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks (48kHz/16-bit). It remains a superlative soundtrack, and demo-worthy for any home theater.
Dynamics are top-notch. Just as "bullet time" revolutionized modern special effects, the sound design here was pioneering. In hindsight, it shouldn't have been a surprise that the original 'Matrix' swept most of the 1999 Oscars given for tech categories over 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.' The use of extended low bass, and the way the mingling of natural and mechanical effects and tones to create a chilling, suspended-animation-like aural effect is fantastic. The airtight extension goes all the way down to the lowest frequencies. Mid- and high-range is also wonderfully clear and free from irritating harshness.
As loud as this soundtrack gets, I never felt bombarded with treble, which is can be a problem with high-impact soundtracks, where it often seems like the sound mixers simply crank everything up to eleven. Dialogue also is accurately balanced in the mix -- Keanu Reeves' now-famous utterance of "Whoa!" is (for better or for worse) perfectly intelligible.
For this stand-alone 10th anniversary release of 'The Matrix,' Warner has simply extracted the single disc from the 'Ultimate Matrix Collection' box set and repurposed it with new packaging. Fans will find nothing new here, save for the "DigiBook" casing and a nifty collectible booklet. Also as before, all video-based bonus materials are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only.
- Introduction - Things kick off with the "Written Introduction by the Wachowski Brothers." It's fine enough, if offering nothing of great depth.
- Audio Commentaries - The original 'The Matrix' includes a crazy number of audio commentaries. There is a "Philosopher's Commentary" featuring Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber, and a "Critics Commentary" with noted cinema journalists Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson. I sampled about thirty minutes of each, and found both groups of participants fascinating and often humorous. Granted, the "Philosophers" at times seem to stretch the significance of the later installments in the series a bit, but it only serves to make the "Critics" commentaries that much more hilarious by comparison -- Warner allowed them free reign to totally rip on the sequels, and their often pointed criticisms on the apparent self-indulgence of the Wachowski Brothers and the ever-more-ludicrous plot contrivances is highly entertaining. (God, how I wish George Lucas would allow something similar to be put on the DVDs of his 'Star Wars' prequels!)
Carried over from the very first DVD release of the film is another track with effects personnel Zach Staenberg and John Gaeta, plus actress Carrie-Anne Moss, as well as a music-only track (in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1) featuring comments from composer Don Davis (which are inserted in the silent passages, in between cues). The cast and crew track was certainly informative back before Warner re-issued the film so many times, but now it is easily eclipsed by the copious video material. As such, best to leave this one off your checklist. The isolated score, however, is great to have, and it's also wonderful to hear from the composer as they're so often overlooked, even on box sets as expansive as this.
- "The Music Revisited" - A very cool feature. This is an exhaustive catalog of no less than forty-one(!) audio-only music cues from the film. This was originally included as an easter egg on the original DVD set, but is now very easy to access right from the Extras menu.
- Documentary: "The Matrix Revisited" - 'The Matrix Revisited' was first released as a stand-alone DVD, but has been integrated here in its original, complete form. It runs 122 minutes, and is quite exhaustive. Chronicling the entire production from November 1997 (the beginning of pre-production) to April 2000 (as preparation for the first sequel commenced), this is a thorough, exciting video diary that alone would have been enough coverage for me on the making of 'The Matrix.' What's great about taking this return trip is recognizing how few people involved even understood the movie the Wachowskis were making. Yet all took a leap of faith, from the cast (all interviewed here) to the effects crew, all endeavoring to create something never before seen, no matter how seemingly incomprehensible. 'The Matrix Revisited' is excellent, and for me is easily the highlight of all of the 'Matrix' extras.
- Vignettes - Also included are the now-famous "Take the Red Pill" and "Follow the White Rabbit" vignettes that were presented as branching segments on the original DVD release. The material runs about 40 minutes, and each vignette is a narration-free, you-are-there look at a specific action sequence or other key scene. "Take the Red Pill" includes: "What is Bullet Time?" (6 min.) and "What is the Concept" (11 min.); "Follow the White Rabbit" includes: "Trinity Escapes" (1 min.), "Pod" (2 min.), "Kung Fu" (4 min.), "Wall" (2 min.), "Bathroom Fight" (2 min.), "Government Lobby" (4 min.), "Government Roof" (1 min.), "Helicopter" (1 min.) and "Subway" (4 min.).
- Promotional Gallery - The disc ends with 'The Matrix' original Theatrical Teaser and Trailer, eight TV spots, and a music video for Marilyn Manson's "Rock is Dead."
- Collectible Booklet - The only real new extra on this stand-alone Blu-ray, we get nifty DigiBook packaging, and this booklet, which has some basic production and cast info, nice photos and a few words from the Wachowski Brothers.
Warner also includes the exclusive content from the 'Ultimate Matrix Collection,' which boasts a single picture-in-picture video commentary.
- Picture-in-Picture - Given the abundance of bonus material on the disc, I found this PIP track a godsend for fans like myself who are intrigued by the 'Matrix' mythology, but looking for a more concise, general overview of their making. It is worth noting that there is no new material here, per se. Neither the Wachowski brothers, nor any other of the cast and crew have been reassembled to record new intros or other content. Instead, the video commentary simply compile the best bits from all of the existing documentary material, organizing it around the framework of each film. For me, that's what is so welcome -- it's like the perfect highlight reel of the extras on the disc that are, quite frankly, rather time consuming.
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'The Matrix' remains a sci-fi classic and one of the biggest blockbusters of the '90s. It's still influential, if a bit dulled by its two inferior sequels. This stand-alone Blu-ray release won't surprise fans -- it's just a single-disc extracted from the previous 'Ultimate Matrix Collection' box set. But it's great to be able to buy the first 'Matrix' without having to pony up for the sequels, so if you've been waiting to own 'The Matrix' but didn't want to spend all the cash for the big box, now's your chance.