Forget what you've heard about the special effects, the walking up and down walls, the slo-mo leaps across great spaces. "The Matrix," which was written and directed by the Chicago-based brother team of Andy and Larry Wachowski, is actually a pretty good science fiction movie, and all the mumbo jumbo about time and reality that clutter it up are just minor distractions in the plot, which is quite simple: At the beginning of the 21st century, men invented artificial intelligence machines, which learned to breed, and by the 22nd they controlled the world -- all except, and stop me if you've heard this one, a small group of rebels led by Laurence Fishburne, who are fighting for freedom, justice, and the -- no, wait. To restore humanity to its rightful place atop the food chain is probably more accurate.
However, in order to accomplish this, it's necessary to do something dreadful, in this case making Keanu Reeves the messiah. Reeves, who has turned passivity into his life's work (think 'Little Buddha') and could be the poster boy for an anti-catatonia campaign, here plays the slow-witted yet statuesque computer programmer (hacker name Neo) who's recruited to save the world. Oddly, it's everybody else in the little group who's done all the hard work; what Reeves has to do here is just follow instructions.
The plot, which is not terribly difficult to follow, involves trying to kill the head AI machine before it locates and kills the rebels. The machine, which in human form is played by Hugo Weaving, wearing Tommy Lee Jones's old outfit from 'Men in Black,' including the shades, proves very hard to kill, and many times it and its henchmen, also wearing the same outfits, come close to spoiling everything.
There's a bit of old 'Frankenstein,' with people wandering through huge Tesla coils, there's instant transport to and from the rebel base, which appears to be a little starship mired in the goo somewhere, there's, natch, a traitor in the midst, and a beautiful rebel named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who falls in love with our hero.
Fishburne teaches Reeves everything he needs to know, and then dies for him, but is miraculously brought back to life by the power vested in Neo, the head machine is finally killed, and street life in Chicago is restored to normal.
There are some expert special effects and lighting, and the photography by Bill Pope is superb, as is the music. One extremely queasy moment comes when the bad guys insert a tracer in the shape of a scorpion into Reeves, via the bellybutton. Innies beware.
On the other hand, there are, how to put this nicely, some defects in the writing that in other circumstances would be mortifying. The scene in which Neo is introduced to the rebels, one by one, is right out of the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker film 'Top Secret,' where Val Kilmer learns the names of those rebels in the same way: "This is Déja Vu." "'Aven't we met somewhere before?'" There's also, believe it or not, the line: "Right now, there's only one rule. Our way or the highway." I mean, they couldn't even get that one right. In spite of all, though, the film survives and ends up as worth seeing.