Back Issues [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Silver Surfer #1


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ve been spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Story Title: “The Origin of the Silver Surfer!”
Published: August 1968
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Buscema

The Background:
In 1961, comic readers everywhere were introduced to Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, the Fantastic Four. Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, and Ben Grimm/The Thing were characterised as a dysfunctional, but loving, family of superpowered scientists and adventurers and their creation was not only the first collaboration between the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but also the beginning of the unique “Marvel Method” of writer and artist collaboration. In 1966, the team faced their greatest challenge yet when they faced the God-like Galactus, who came to Earth looking to devourer it and satiate his unending hunger for worlds. When Kirby turned in his artwork for the story, he included a brand-new character that had not been part of his previous discussions with Lee; Kirby crafted a herald for the all-mighty being and, tired of drawing spaceships, had this silvery being ride a surfboard instead. Though initially hesitant, Lee ran with the idea and, following the conclusion of the Galactus arc, the Silver Surfer received his own self-titled series in 1968 that, while short-lived, was one of Lee’s favourites to work on. Since then, the Silver Surfer has appeared consistently within Marvel Comics; he’s been a part of the Defenders, joined and fought against his old master numerous times, and featured not only in the Fantastic Four’s animated and live-action adaptations but also received his own self-titled cartoon that ran for thirteen episodes in 1998.

The Review:
When he was introduced in the pages of The Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer was a mysterious and enigmatic cosmic entity about whom we learn very little; he was painted as Galactus’ obedient herald and servant, wielded vast and ill-defined cosmic powers, and was compelled to defy his master’s intentions to consume the Earth after a desperate plea from Alicia Masters. Having grown to care for the fate of the human race, if primarily out of pity, the price for the Silver Surfer’s defiance was to be forever (well, obviously not forever as nothing in comics is ever “forever”) banished to Earth by his master and, accordingly, The Silver Surfer #1 finds the cosmic entity still bound to the world he chose to save.

The conflict he encounters on Earth leads the troubled Silver Surfer to recall his own home world.

In the opening pages, the Silver Surfer immediately acts to save the life of Colonel Jameson, whose space capsule crash-lands in the ocean depths. Of course, for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, things such as water, air, and metal are of little concern and the Silver Surfer is easily able to dive beneath the ocean and rescue the Colonel. Despite returning the astronaut to a military vehicle, the Silver Surfer finds himself hounded by fighter jets and, similarly, as he streaks across the skies of the planet he now calls home, the Surfer is attacked by missiles and encounters only discord and war. Lamenting the foolishness of men that would seek to harm the lush and fertile world that has captured his heart and imagination, the Silver Surfer is compelled to recall his own home world, a planet far across the galaxy called Zenn-La which, unlike the Earth, had long ago eradicated war, crime, and disease after ten thousand centuries of conflict. Back then, the Silver Surfer was known as Norrin Radd and was simply a man who, though he lived in a virtual nirvana, was left despondent that his people and world no longer had any drive or ambition to achieve anything new. Having inherited the peace and advanced technology of their forefathers, Zenn-La’s inhabitants are largely happy to indulge in the luxuries and benefits of these; they have lost the spirit of adventure and seem content to simply allow technology to fulfil tasks they would have once sweated over.

Memories of his distant and recent past haunt the Silver Surfer and cause him much strife.

Restless and eager to understand why only he seems to find their utopia so stagnating, Norrin reviews the history of his world through advanced virtual reality and discovers that an age of enlightenment put an end to all conflict and that his people ventured far out into the universe before eventually settling on staying put on their home world. Back in the present, the Silver Surfer comments that the Earth is at a similar crossroads between destroying themselves through war and being united in a common cause; even while being randomly attacked by savage yetis, the Silver Surfer laments the innate sense of distrust and fear that touches the hearts of men and turns even beasts such as those (and Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, whom the Silver Surfer once hoped would be an ally as they have both been unfairly ostracised by humanity) into hate-filled barbarians. Similarly the Silver Surfer recalls how Doctor Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom easily duped him and briefly stole the mysterious “Power Cosmic” from him, an event that caused the Silver Surfer to never again trust another human lest their selfish and manipulative nature get the better of him.

Rejecting his society’s complacency, and despair, Norrin heads out to confront their invader.

Stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient civilisation now forever lost to the ravages of time and the elements, the troubled Silver Surfer is again haunted by his lost world, and his beloved Shalla Bal. Despite Shalla’s plea that he turn his focus back to the wonders offered by Zenn-La, Norrin finds himself alone in a world where indulgence is the norm, knowledge is simply gifted rather than earned, and the citizens want for nothing. However, Norrin’s lamentations and concerns for the stagnation of his people are interrupted when a gigantic spacecraft breaches the planet’s “nuclear defences” and the people are warned to prepare for an invasion; while Shalla weeps at the prospect of war, especially as Zenn-La has no space fleet or weapons to speak of, Norrin practically relishes the idea of such an event forcing his complacent people into action. With the people giving in to panic, Zenn-La’s computer system decrees only one course of action: the deployment of the “Weapon Supreme”, a solution that literally rips the neighbouring planetoids from their orbits and hurls them at the orbiting craft with such force that it devastates the entire infrastructure of Zenn-La. This devastating solution is ultimately futile, however, as the invading probe simply slipped into the fourth dimension to avoid being damaged and, having decimated their world and with no hope left, the entire planet gives in to despair. All, save for Norrin Rad who, fuelled by the spirits of his ancestors, urges the remnants of Zenn-La’s scientific community to craft him a ship so that he can commune with the craft as he refuses to lose hope.

To spare his world, Norrin volunteers to become Galactus’ herald and is reborn as the Silver Surfer!

Drawn within the mighty spherical craft, Norrin is overwhelmed by his insignificance next to the craft’s size and technology and is then driven to his knees by a blast from the ship’s owner and operator, all-mighty Galactus! Though he has no desire to, and takes no pleasure in, destroying Norrin’s people, the World Devourer is adamant that his quest cannot be assuaged as he is compelled to feed his unending hunger lest he be consumed by it. Harbouring no malice or ill-will, Galactus compares his mission to that of a man casually stepping on an ant hill and states that it simply is, but Norrin pleads with him to spare Zenn-La and instead feed upon a world devoid of sentient life. When Galactus laments that he has not the time to seek out such a world since even he is but one being, Norrin offers to become the World Devourer’s herald, to seek out lifeless worlds in order to appease Galactus’ hunger, and gladly sacrifices his personal well-being in order to be transformed by the all-mighty’s vast cosmic powers. Reborn as the Silver Surfer, Norrin is rendered immune to the ravages of space and gifted his trademark board with which he can swiftly travel the stars to seek out ne worlds for Galactus to consume. Thrilled to have a lifetime of adventure and exploration amongst the stars finally within his grasp, Norrin bids an emotional farewell to his beloved and departs Zenn-La fully committed to serve his new master, alone and haunted by Shalla’s face in every star and sun he comes across. The Silver Surfer finds his pain eased as he successfully spares worlds teeming with sentiment life from Galactus’ ravages but had no choice but to lead his master to Earth as the gnawing hunger grew unbearable for the God-like being. And it is there that his story ends, with Galactus stoically removing his herald’s ability to travel amongst the stars and the man once known as Norrin Rad left exiled to another world he hoped to spare from destruction.

The Summary:
“The Origin of the Silver Surfer!” is indicative of many of Marvel’s tales from back in the day; featuring a number of references, flashbacks, and cameos, the story is as much a recap of the Silver Surfer’s prior appearances as it is an exploration of his beginnings. Crucially, though, it’s not just the Silver Surfer’s unconquerable cosmic powers that separate him from other Marvel superheroes; the character is perhaps the most loquacious of Stan Lee’s comics characters (matched only by the verbose Dr. Doom) and probably the second most conflicted character he’s created next to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. But, whereas Dr. Doom boasts only of himself and his needs and Peter laments such day-to-day problems as money and relationships, the Silver Surfer’s concerns are with being denied access to the vast cosmic skies and observing the sheer animosity that threatens to consume his adopted world.

Norrin is one of the most loquacious and complex characters in Marvel’s line-up.

The Silver Surfer’s previous life as Norrin Rad was hardly a carefree existence either; while the inhabitants of Zenn-La were perfectly content to life stagnated lives where they wanted for nothing and had sacrificed ambition and advancement for peace and tranquillity, Norrin finds himself concerned for the long-term welfare and overall development of their society since they no longer need to apply themselves to do or achieve anything. Everything around them was left to them by previous generations; knowledge is simply downloaded directly into their brains and all of the thinking and decisions are made by advanced computer systems and a puppet government. Where once Zenn-La had fought tooth and nail for survival and reached out beyond the universe, now they were content to simply indulge their whims and life lives free from the burden of struggle or failure. Amongst the entire planet, only Norrin feels as though the world has lost its way and should strive for more and thus it is only he who has the temerity to face their would-be conqueror head on.

Galactus, though destructive, does not delight in his need to feast on worlds.

As is generally always the case, Galactus is presented as a force of nature; something unconquerable and inexorable and a force beyond any in the known universe, and certainly beyond the peaceful people of Zenn-La. Ironically, it isn’t Galactus that leaves Zenn-La in ruins but the people themselves as they decimate their world by tearing small planets out of their very orbit, making them, for all their enlightenment, no better than the World Devourer himself. Indeed, while Galactus doesn’t act out of any malice or emotion, the same can’t be said for Zenn-La’s people, who first react in violent fear and panic and then give in to despair entirely; Galactus takes no pleasure in his destructive existence but must consume worlds to survive and even he is willing to listen to reason. Galactus makes Norrin his herald not because he is won over by his desperate plea but simply because it makes logical sense for him to have a herald out there finding new worlds for him to consume and to spare lives from his nature because, while Galactus does consume inhabited worlds, it’s only because he is forced to by his great hunger.

Delving into the Silver Surfer’s past adds much more emotional depth to his decision to aid Earth.

In the end, this was a poignant and fascinated story; the Silver Surfer makes for one of the most emotionally complex and layered characters in all of Marveldom, especially in his earliest appearances where he is both captivated by the Earth and saddened by our propensity towards destruction and violence. Seeing Norrin Rad as a man dissatisfied with utopia and craving the thrill of scientific and societal advancement was an interesting twist and witnessing him sacrificing his very being and all he knows in order to spare his people only adds further context to the Silver Surfer’s somewhat abrupt decision to aid humanity in his debut arc. The comic is beautifully rendered by John Buscema, who perfectly evoked the grandeur of Jack Kirby’s artwork to deliver wondrous and imaginative technology and surroundings, to say nothing of his awesome rendition of the towering Galactus, who fittingly appears both fearsome and God-like in his regality. While I haven’t actually read a great deal of the Silver Surfer and can understand people having trouble connecting with him due to his near-limitless powers, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, especially his early appearances where he was exiled to Earth, and found this to be a captivating glimpse into his unique backstory.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever read Silver Surfer #1? If so, what did you think to the title character’s origin story? What did you think to Zenn-La and Norrin Rad’s troubles with his society? What did you think to Norrin Rad’s sacrifice to save his people? What are your thoughts on Galactus, his motivations and his characterisation? Are you a fan of the Silver Surfer? If so, what is it about him you like and, if not, why is that? Who would you like to see portray the Silver Surfer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Whatever you think about the Silver Surfer, leave a comment below and thanks for joining me for Sci-Fi Sunday.

Screen Time [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Outer Limits (1995): “The New Breed” (S1: E16)


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Season One, Episode 16: “The New Breed”

Air Date: 9 July 1995
Director: Mario Azzopardi
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Richard Thomas, Peter Outerbridge, and Tammy Isbell

The Background:
I never watched The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) as a kid; growing up, I was limited to the then-four channels of terrestrial television so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). Itself a revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series that was originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, rogue artificial intelligence, or other sci-fi, horror, or fantastical stories, though there were also a number of recurring themes, characters, and even semi-sequential stories to be found in the show’s long history. Considering my nostalgia and affection for the series, it is gratifying to see others also have a fondness for the show and I’ll be extremely interested to see if the planned revivals ever come to pass.

The Plot:
Doctor Stephen Ledbetter (Thomas) makes a technological and medical breakthrough when he creates a type of tiny machine, known as nanobots, capable of curing any disease or imperfections in the human body. However, when his dying friend, Doctor Andy Groenig (Outerbridge), injects himself with the experimental nanobots, his body starts to hideously mutate!

The Review:
“The New Breed” focuses on Dr. Stephen Ledbetter, a genius in nanotechnology whose research spell the potential end for life-threatening cancerous disease by rewriting the cellular structure of the bodies they are introduced to and removing malignant or destructive elements. A somewhat condescending and self-aggrandising scientist, Stephen fully believes in his work and is extremely proud of the level of intricacy and brilliance that has gone into their creation. However, like many phenomenally intelligent individuals, he is somewhat blinded by how miraculous his nanobots are, which are smart enough to replicate individually and operate independently to, in his words, improve the “flawed man”.

Stephen’s breakthrough nanobots spell the end for cancer but he is frustrated by regulations.

His grandiose claims to have surpassed God aggravate his colleague, Doctor Norman Meritt (L. Harvey Gold), who is not in the least bit amused at Stephen’s attitude and flamboyant disrespect for professional conduct. Meritt stresses that Stephen needs to play by the rules since the last time he bent them in his favour, he almost lost his job and caused the entire department to be shut down. As it’s the only way for his nanobots to see the light of day, Stephen begrudgingly agrees to play the game for the sake of his grant and the Board of Trustees despite being frustrated at having to wait for approval to begin live animal testing.

Andy’s whole world comes crashing down when he receives news of a malicious cancer.

His research and the potential of the nanobots excites Stephen’s friend and colleague, Dr. Andy Groenig, a far less egotistical and driven scientist who is not only dating Stephen’s younger sister, Judy Hudson (Isbell), but is engaged to marry her in a month’s time. Things are looking good for Andy, who also just got tenure, and Stephen is overjoyed at his good fortunes (showing hat, beneath his arrogance, there is a loyal and trustworthy human being). However, when he pays a visit to Doctor Katzman (Veena Sood) regarding an lingering pain in his back, Andy’s world comes crashing down at the news that he’s suffering from a malignant form of pelvic cancer that will either kill him in about a year or leave him without his lower limbs through surgery. Desperate for a solution to this horrifying news, he presses Stephen for more information about his nanobots and is dismayed to find that the Board would never allow human testing without stringent tests, not even on a willing volunteer, for fear of a potential lawsuit.

Desperate for a solution, Andy injects himself with the nanobots and is miraculously healed.

With Judy already enthusiastically planning out the rest of their married lives, and with literally nothing left to lose, Andy breaks into Stephen’s lab during the night and exposes injects the nanobots into his body. The results are almost instantaneous; within three days, his tumour has significantly reduced, giving him a whole new lease on life and virality. The benefits don’t end there, either, as Andy awakens one morning to find that he no longer requires glasses to improve his vision. Stephen, however, is aghast at Andy’s recklessness; despite his bold claims from earlier, Stephen is enraged that Andy would put himself and both of their lives and careers at risk. Afraid of what the nanobots could potentially do to Andy, Stephen immediately demands that they be shut off but, when Andy vehemently refuses, they reach a compromise and, together, run further tests to record the benefits and behaviours of the nanobots on the proviso that they deactivate the second anything starts to go wrong. Thanks to the nanobots, Andy is able to hold his breath underwater for at least seven minutes, read even near microscopic test from a greater distance, physically push himself faster and harder than ever before, and heal from horrific injuries in seconds.

Andy’s stamina overwhelms Judy but the nanobots soon take their programming a bit too far…

A sentimental goof, Andy is extremely grateful to the nanobots, and Stephen, for saving  and improving his life; however, his increased stamina and virility begin to cause concern for Judy, whom he inadvertently hurts during sex. Concerned that he’s on drugs, Judy is nevertheless exhausted and somewhat fearful of his newfound virility and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Andy awakens to find that the nanobots have “gifted” him with a set of gills to allow him to freely breath underwater. Both enthralled and horrified at this development, Stephen immediately attempts to expel the nanobots from Andy’s body; however, his attempts are met with unexpected failure as the nanobots believe that the “program run [is] not complete”. Consequently, Andy is absolutely horrified to find that the nanobots have grown him a new pair of eyes on the back of his head!

Andy chooses death to end his suffering but leaves a terrifying legacy behind…

Unable to shut the nanobots down in a conventional way, Stephen attempts to short them out using high-intensity electric shocks; unfortunately, though, he is again frustrated by failure and reluctant to subject Andy to further electric shocks out of fear of killing him. Andy, however, begins to think that dying wouldn’t be so bad at this point and his fears and desperation only grow as his hearing becomes superhumanly acute and the nanobots shield his body from both external and internal threats with an array of jellyfish-like nematocysts and additional ribs, respectively, in a conscious effort to stop Stephen’s efforts to drive them from Andy’s body. Angered at his current physical condition, Andy is equally dismayed at his inability to die as, no matter what either of them do, the nanobots continue to revive Andy. With no other option, the two sorrowfully agree to bombard Andy to a lethal dose of electrical current to destroy both him and the nanobots; heartbroken and dejected, Stephen destroys all evidence of the event, and his research, in a fire but the episode ends suggesting that Andy has passed at least a few of the nanobots on the Judy during their earlier coitus.

The Summary:
As the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway) sombrely tells us: “Man has long worked to stave off the diseases that can ravage us, but what can happen when the cure grows more fearsome than the disease? Over millions of years man has become the very paragon of animals, but we must take care not to alter what nature has taken so long to forge…or risk being burned by the very fires of creation”. The lesson here, as with many episodes of The Outer Limits and similar tales of man trying to either play God or expand the limits of scientific research, is to exercise caution, restraint, and humility when dabbling in the fantastical and the unknown.

A miraculous technology soon turns terrifying in this cautionary tale.

I’ve watched a lot of movies and television over the years, and many episodes of The Outer Limits, but “The New Breed” always stuck with me as a moving, terrifying, and poignant tale of the potential, and dangers, of science. Andy is facing his very real, and painful, death at the beginning of the episode and, as he puts it, “sells [his] soul” for another chance at life; this turns out to be more than apt as the nanobots very quickly begin to take their programming way too far. Although Andy assures Stephen on numerous occasions that he doesn’t blame him (as in Stephen) for the events of the episode, it can’t really be argued that the tests Stephen subjected Andy to were directly responsible for his gills, eyes, and other freakish enhancements. Had Andy not been so overjoyed at getting his second chance and so afraid for his cancer returning, Stephen may have been able to deactivate the nanobots before they set about further “improving” Andy’s physical condition but, instead, we’re left with a cautionary tale of the limits of science.

“The New Breed” is full of disturbing imagery and warnings of the potential danger of science.

These lessons, while commonplace in many similar science-fiction stories and which can be traced all the way back to the likes of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Shelley, 1818), are presented in a fascinating and terrifying way in “The New Breed”, one which left an indelible impression on me as a child. The shot of Andy’s new pair of eyes slowly, ominously blinking open through weeping pus alone is a nightmarish visual, as are the unnerving, gaping gills on his neck and the disgusting, twisted stingers that eventually cover his entire body and seem to be cocooning him for a further transformation by the end of the episode. Another comparison I could easily make would be to The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986), which is a similar tale of science at first improving a man and then quickly mutating him into some more gruesome and monstrous and my unapologetic fondness for that film may very explain my affection for “The New Breed”. Still, the episode remains as captivating and enthralling as ever (thanks also, it has to be said, to nostalgia and some intense sex scenes) and it’s just one of many strong episodes of the Outer Limits revival that I would point any self-respecting sci-fi fan to without hesitation.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever seen “The New Breed” or the 1995 revival of The Outer Limits? If so, what did you think to it and what were some of your favourite episodes? Did you enjoy the steady, gruesome escalation of the nanobots’ effect on Andy’s body? What are some other cautionary tales regarding science that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Ant-Man


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 17 July 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $130 to 169.3 million
Stars:
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Douglas

The Plot:
Petty thief Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to adapt to the straight and narrow after being released from prison. Determined to prove himself to his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson), he turns to stealing once more and unwittingly finds himself in possession of Doctor Hank Pym’s (Douglas) incredible Ant-Man suit. Gifted with a real opportunity to turn his life around, Scott trains with Pym and his stern daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), to master the suit’s ability to shrink and control ants in order to keep the conniving Doctor Darren Cross (Stoll) from perverting Pym’s life’s work into a weapon.

The Background:
When comic book readers were first introduced to Hank Pym/Ant-Man, he wasn’t quite the garishly-costumed Avenger would later help form the Avengers; instead, he was merely a scientist featured in the pages of Tales to Astonish #27. The creation of the legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was re-envisioned as a superhero eight issues later and would go on to be a consistent, if unstable, character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Crucially, however, Pym wasn’t the only character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man; one of Pym’s most notable successors was Scott Lang, a reformed criminal created by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Byrne, who took over the role in 1979. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang had featured in Marvel cartoons and videogames since their debut, but development of a live-action film can be traced back to the 1980s, when development was scuppered by a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989). The project finally started gaining traction in the early-2000s when Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a film treatment focusing on the Scott Lang version of the character for Artisan Entertainment, who held the film rights at the time.

Ant-Man is a mantle worn by many characters and the film took over ten years to develop.

Over the next ten years, the film was continually showcased and teased; the character was bumped from the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and eventually slotted in to debut in Phase Three. Sadly, Wright eventually left the project in 2014, right after both casting and the script had been finalised, due to “creative differences” between himself and Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed soon succeeded Wright as the director and worked closely with star Paul Rudd (who underwent a physical transformation for the role) and writer Adam McKay to rework and expand upon Wright’s script. Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s shrinking effects, with star Corey Stoll sporting a motion capture suit to bring the villainous Yellowjacket to life. Finally, after being in development for over ten years, Ant-Man released to a massive $519.3 million worldwide gross; the reviews were equally impressive, with critics praising the film’s family dynamic, performances, and the unique blend of humour and action that set it apart from other MCU films. The film performed so well that a sequel was produced in 2018, and a third instalment is due for release later this year, and only served to further bolster Rudd’s undeniable charm and charisma.

The Review:
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel superheroes that I’ve never really had strong feelings about one way or another. Like many, I mostly know the character as being an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who occasionally abuses his wife and has inferiority complexes, though I primarily associate the character with one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, Ultron. Consequently, while Ant-Man and the Wasp were instrumental in the formation of the Avengers in the comics, I can’t say that I was too disappointed to see the character miss out on the big screen debut of Marvel’s premier superhero team. However, by the time Ant-Man was produced, the MCU was really ramping up its scope; the Avengers had formed, we’d seen Gods and bleeding-edge technology and even space adventures and, while Ant-Man probably would have fit in nicely during the MCU’s first phase (although it probably would have been deemed too derivative), it was actually a surprising breath of fresh air to come back down to “ground level”, so to speak, before really getting balls deep into the Infinity Saga.

Years after Hank quit S.H.I.E.L.D., ex-con Scott tries his best to set a good example and rebuild his life.

Ant-Man opens up in 1989 and by showcasing just how far de-aging technology has come as Hank Pym (digitally restored to match the time period) angrily confronts Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell made up to look noticeably older), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) after discovering the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’s (S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempts to replicate his Hank Particle technology. While Peggy is shocked at the revelation, Howard tries to impress upon Hank that his research could be put to far better, greater use than simply fuelling his efforts as Ant-Man. Already annoyed at being reduced to a glorified errand boy, Hank is pushed to the edge when Carson mocks his anger and brings up his late-wife, Janet, leading to Hank lashing out, breaking Carson’s nose, and quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Howard pleads with Hank to reconsider, Hank storms out, making an enemy of Carson in the process and establishing a few key plot points for the movie: Hank doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., seems a little unstable, and is highly protective of his research. The film then jumps ahead to then-present day to introduce us to Scott Lang right as he’s being released from prison; a former VistaCorp systems engineer, Scott is a veritable genius, holding a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering but is reduced to working a menial job at Baskins-Robbins in his desperate attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and set a good example for his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson). It’s crucial to note that that Scott wasn’t arrested for anything violent or threatening (indeed, he states that he hates violence); instead, he hacked into VistaCorp’s security system and redistributed misbegotten funds to their victims before exposing their misdeeds online, painting him as a sympathetic, almost Robin Hood-like figure right from the outset as he strives to do good deeds and has a clear moral compass but isn’t exactly the best at making responsible decisions. Although Scott has a strained relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new fiancé, cop Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he is extremely close to Hope, who is always excited to see him. He’s desperate to make up for lost time but faces nothing but an uphill battle to show that he’s changed and can be a responsible adult.

Luis’s enthusiasm is offset by Hanks’ cantankerous nature and Darren’s lust for power.

After his release, Scott is taken in by his former cellmate and best friend, Luis (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic, supportive, and incredibly friendly and optimistic former con who initially tries to coax Scott back into his former life. Luis is one of many highlights in Ant-Man; in many ways a predecessor to the colourful characters and banter we’d see in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Luis just exudes likeability and friendliness. Peña’s delivery and fast-talking cadence also provide one of the film’s most hilarious moments where Luis rapidly breaks down the particulars of a big-time score, which is fantastically realised with Peña’s voice playing over a number of other ancillary characters as he enthusiastically tells Scott how he came by this information. Luis sets Scott up at an apartment and introduces him to Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), both of whom are only too eager to assist with Scott’s heist into a rich old man’s house and make that big score. Scott doesn’t return to his cat burglar ways lightly, but believes he has no choice if he ever hopes to set himself up with an apartment, pay his child maintenance fees, and see his daughter again. In the interim years after the opening, Hank Pym has done pretty well for himself; he set up his own company, Hank Technologies, and is clearly quite wealthy from the research and technology developed there. However, he has slowly become more and more of a recluse and been pushed further away from his company; his protégé, Darren Cross, is in the final stages of assuming full control of Hank Technologies, renaming it Cross Technologies, and fully replicating the Hank Particle technology. Fascinated by Hank’s past as the shrunken secret agent superhero Ant-Man, Darren has developed a suit, the “Yellowjacket”, to reproduce the technology and sell it as a peacekeeping weapon for geo-political and military applications. Hank is frustrated by all of this, especially Darren’s insistence on reproducing the Ant-Man technology, but handicapped by his ability to do anything about it; prolonged exposure to the Hank Particles has left Hank physically unable to suit up again because of the risk of further (and permanent) damage to his mind and body but he is equally adamant that his estranged daughter, Hope, not take up the mantle because of the risk not only to her but also his lingering guilt and fear after losing his wife to that same technology.   

Darren is not just on the cusp of having everything he lusts for, but also completely going off the rails.

Although Darren is frustrated at his inability to shrink organic material, both Hank and Hope know that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the secret and begins manufacturing weaponised Ant-Man technology. Although Hank is reluctant to risk losing Hope, he’s more than happy to recruit Scott to his cause, having identified him as the perfect expendable candidate for their operation thanks to his intellect and skills as a cat burglar. I always found Hank’s reasoning here very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical; he won’t risk losing Hope so he brings in Scott, positioning him to a point where the former thief has little choice but to agree to become Ant-Man, but Scott has quite a lot to lose as well so it just goes to show that Hank, for all his morals and ethics, doesn’t necessarily have the most clean-cut of motivations. Anyway, Scott is initially disheartened to learn that all his efforts have resulted in only an old motorcycle suit and a funky helmet but, upon slipping into the outfit out of sheer curiosity, he is both excited and horrified to discover that it enables him to shrink down to near-microscopic proportions at the push of a button! Scott is naturally freaked out and attempts to return the suit, only to be arrested in the process and perfectly placed for Hank to exposit a truncated version of his life story and his troubles with Darren Cross. For a stereotypical, suit-wearing antagonist, Darren actually has a few things going for him that help him to break free of the corporate bad-guy trope I loathe so much. Of course he’s a smooth-talking, slick weasel and a sharp businessman, but he’s also a manipulative and sadistic asshole; he took full advantage of Hank’s trust and faith to gain a majority interest in Hank Technologies, leeched every bit of information and brilliance from his mentor he possibly could to advance his own career and self-interests, and has no qualms about killing those who get in his way using perverted Hank Particles to reduce them to a gooey residue. He’s a highly intelligent, and highly unstable, antagonist who oozes charm but also menace; you’re never really sure what he’s thinking and you can almost see the urge to lash out and go full crazy bubbling beneath the surface. In many ways, he’s a dark opposite for both Scott and Hank since he’s kind of like what Scott could have become if he’d gone down that path while also being on the verge of a full-on meltdown like Hank seems to be half the time. Both Darren and Scott also have eyes on Hope, but Darren’s lack of mortality and lust for power are what separate him from his rival.

Hope resents her father keeping things from her and stopping her from suiting up.

Hope and Hank have a strained relationship, to say the least; she resents her father for keeping the truth about what happened to her mother from her, and for picking Scott over her, however they come together when they realise how dangerously close Darren is to perfecting and weaponising the Ant-Man technology. Still, Hope is very abrasive to both Scott and her father, referring to him as “Hank” or “Dr. Pym” for much of the film and constantly annoyed at Scott’s ignorance. Familiar with both Darren’s research and personality, as well as the particulars of Hank’s technology, to say nothing of the company’s security measures and systems, Hope is also Scott’s physical superior in every way; she sees Scott as a bungling, naïve fool who’s in over his head and is greatly frustrated at her father’s apparent lack of trust in her. To be fair, Hank distrusts almost everyone; he resents both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the flamboyant nature of the Avengers, and sees this job as being more about subterfuge then barging in all guns blazing. Hank is also tortured at the loss of his wife, who joined him for his pint-sized adventures as the Wasp and was lost to him after she was forced to reduce herself down beyond the limits of the suit and got lost in the “Quantum Realm” as a result. Scott’s influence on the two is palpable; by sharing with Hope that Hank clearly loves her and doesn’t want to risk losing her, he not only learns the trick to communicating with Hank’s ants but also helps mend the rift between father and daughter, finally revealing the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s inability to cope with the grief of his greatest failure. Consequently, all three are forced to set aside their differences, and self-doubts, in order to redeem each other and keep Darren from potentially threatening the world for the next generation.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One thing that sets Ant-Man apart from other films in the MCU, particularly at the time it was made, was its strong emphasis towards humour; humour has always been a big part of the MCU, but Ant-Man is basically part-comedy and shines all the brighter for it. Paul Rudd impresses in the title role with his incredible screen charisma, likeability, and comedic timing and the film features not just the traditional snark and biting wit of the MCU but also some truly amusing gags relating to Baskin-Robbins (they always find out) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997), but also excellent use of sight gags and editing (the film consistently cuts away from the drama of Scott’s shrunken adventures to see him barely having an impact on the real world). Ant-Man also separates itself from other MCU movies by being as much a heist movie as it is a superhero affair; Scott and his crew undergo a great deal of preparation and planning before breaking into Hank’s house, which involves acquiring uniforms, cutting power lines, and communicating from a nondescript van. Once Scott is inside the house, we get to see just how capable and adaptable he is; he’s slick and agile, easily able to slip inside with barely a whisper, and cobbles together unique solutions to break into Hank’s antique vault using only household items. Whilst being trained in combat by Hope and the particulars to the suit by Hank, Scott lends his skills to planning the assault on Pym Technologies, which involves studying the layouts and the security systems and the defences surrounding the Yellowjacket suit. This requires a highly co-ordinated attack on all fronts, using every resource at their disposal, including not just Scott’s crew (much to Hank’s chagrin) and also an infiltrating into the Avengers compound. This leads to a brief scuffle between Ant-Man and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is the first true test of Scott’s newfound abilities, and additional opportunities for Luis and Scott’s amusing cohorts to shine with their hilarious shenanigans.

The suits look fantastic thanks to both excellent practical and digital effects.

Ant-Man absolutely excels in its visuals and presentation. The Ant-Man suit itself is a thing a beauty; fittingly drawing its influences from Scott Lang’s comic book adventures and more modern interpretations of the character, it’s not a mechanised suit of armour or made up of fancy nanotech and wis, instead, a very tangible and almost rudimentary costume that resembles a motorcycle outfit. It looks advanced, but not so advanced that it’s impossible to believe a genius like Hank Pym could have made it at home and with limited resources, and I love how it seems so functional and practical. The helmet is especially impressive, especially in this first outing for the character; rather then peeling back like nanotech, it flips up and is a largely practical prop, all of which works wonders for bringing this frankly ridiculous character to life. Darren’s Yellowjacket outfit is functionally similar, but noticeably different; for starters, it was brought to life using digital effects but I sure as hell couldn’t really tell that when watching the film. Yellowjacket has always been a bit of an absurd character, costume, and concept for me but the film presents the character as very menacing and technologically superior to Ant-Man in everyway. While it’s admittedly very “safe” for the film to wheel out the dark doppelgänger trope again, Yellowjacket can not only shrink and grow himself and other objects but he can also fly and sports stinger-like blasters on his back; this, coupled with the characters’ distinctive red and yellow colour schemes, really makes it much easier to distinguish the two in their climatic fight scene.

Ant-Man’s unique ability to shrink makes for some fun and innovative action sequences and visuals.

Naturally, Ant-Man’s most unique selling point is the character’s ability to shrink down to a near-microscopic level; this effect is rendered using digital technology and directly attributed to the suit and the Pym Particles, meaning that Scott must stay in the suit and the helmet at all times to stay alive when shrunken. Although minuscule in size, Scott retains his full-size strength and weight, effectively making him superhuman when he’s shrunk. However, the dangers surrounding him are many and varied; normal, everyday things such as a person entering a room, rats, and water are life-threatening hazards and the effect is, quite naturally, very disorientating for Scott for much of the first half of the film. Thanks to a lengthy (and amusing) montage sequence, Scott slowly learns to master the suit, which enables him to shrunk and grow in a fraction of a second to pass through the smallest openings, strike with near-superhuman speed, strength, and swiftness, and enlarge or reduce everyday objects to be used as weapons in combat. As versatile as the suit is, perhaps the greatest benefit of the suit is the ability to control ants using electromagnetic waves. Hank is obviously the absolute master of this; he controls flying ants to spirit Scott across the city, commands “Bullet Ants” to keep him subdued, and even directs drones to communicate and pass sugar cubes. While Hank is very clinical about this ability, preferring to number the ants rather than name them and grow attached to them, Scott is much more appreciative of their help and bonds with them like one would a pet. He names his flying ant “Anthony” and is devastated when it is killed near the finale, but also learns through his training of the particular differences and practical applications of each of the different types of ants at his disposal: “Crazy Ants” can conduct electricity to fry electronics, Bullet Ants deliver an excruciating sting, “Carpenter Ants” allow him to fly about at high speeds, and “Fire Ants” not only bite but also form bridges and pathways. By the finale, Scott has fully mastered the suit and the ants, and is able to shrink and grow in the blink of an eye to dodge bullets and take down entire groups of highly trained, armed men, leading to some of the MCU’s most unique action sequences as everyday locations are rendered exciting and action-packed thanks to Scott’s diminutive stature.

Yellowjacket is defeated, Ant-Man returns from the Quantum Realm, and Hope finally earns her wings.

A particularly frosty confrontation between Hank and Darren sets Cross off and sees him beefing up security, leading to an escalation in Hank’s plans. Although he despairs of Scott’s friends, Hank begrudgingly accepts their help in causing distractions and infiltrating Pym Technology. While Ant-Man and his ants fry the servers and cause chaos to the security systems, Hank puts himself in considerable danger as Darren negotiates the selling of the Yellowjacket technology to Carson and his Hydra associates, and the two finally reveal their true faces as hated enemies. Although Hank is wounded in the fracas, the timely intervention of Hope allows Scott to escape when he’s captured; Hope’s pleas to Darren fall on deaf ears and, pushed to the edge by the destruction of his company, he dons the Yellowjacket suit for himself and fully embraces his hatred and lust for power. This leads to some fun and incredibly unique fight scenes as Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle not just on a damaged helicopter but also in a suitcase, bouncing about between packets of sweets, keys, and a mobile phone, and Ant-Man bats Yellowjacket into a fly zapper with a table tennis pad. Darren’s knowledge of Scott’s identity leads to him targeting Cassie, escalating their conflict significantly and leading to my favourite fight sequence of the film where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out on a toy train set and across Cassie’s bedroom, leading not just to an enlarged ant being set loose upon the city but a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine crashing out into the street! Yellowjacket’s titanium armour proves too tough for Ant-Man and, with his daughter at risk, Scott has no choice but to risk going sub-atomic in order to disrupt Darren’s suit and reduce him down into a twisted nothingness. Adrift in the Quantum Realm, Scott is disorientated and bombarded with bizarre visuals but holds on to his memories and love for Cassie and uses those emotions to force himself back to consciousness, repairing his regulator and returning to the real world. His heroic actions and self-sacrifice earn him not just his daughter’s adulation but Paxton’s respect, finally allowing him to be a part of Cassie’s life once more or for them to build a family unit. His return also gives Hank the hope that he might be able to retrieve his wife one day, and finally sees Scott and Hope act on their mutual attraction for each other. The film concludes with Luis (eventually) relating that the Falcon is actively seeking out Ant-Man for help with a much bigger problem that affects not just the superhero community, but the entire world, and Hank finally gifting Hope with her own Wasp suit for the next go-around.

The Summary:
I wasn’t expecting much when I went into Ant-Man; the MCU was growing and starting to veer away towards the cosmic and outlandish and it seemed like their days of doing more grounded, more human heroes were all but done but Ant-Man definitely set a precedent for diverse storytelling that the MCU continues to stick to. It’s amazing to me that even after expanding their scope towards Gods and the depths of space and hinting towards larger cosmic threats the MCU is still masterfully able to snap back to ground level with a character like Ant-Man, and Scott Lang was such a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Paul Rudd is so immediately likeable, and he brought a real comical, heartfelt performance to Scott Lang, and it’s largely thanks to him that I found myself actually caring about Ant-Man for the first time in…I think forever. The comedy and gags on offer were absolutely top notch, with Luis being an obvious highlight, but I also really enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance; he played a world weary, cranky, slightly unstable former superhero-come-mentor perfectly and brought so much presence to every scene he was in. He, like all of the actors in this, also seemed to be having a great time with the film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly incorporates elements of a heist movie to give it a unique flavour. While we see incredible cosmic visuals and escalating threats quite often in the MCU, Ant-Man’s shrinking sequences are still really impressive; I love how our senses are changed alongside Scott’s when he’s smaller and how everyday things we take for granted suddenly become a life-threatening obstacle for Ant-Man. It’s fun seeing Scott learn about the suit and what he can do, and seeing him bond with the different ants and work alongside his crew, and while I think Ant-Man probably would have been better placed in the MCU’s first phase, it was a much-needed palette-cleanser at the time and remains one of the most entertaining and unique entries in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Ant-Man? How did you think it compared to other films in the MCU? What did you think to the emphasis on comedy and heist elements and on Scott’s status as a struggling ex-con and father? Did you enjoy the film’s unique action sequences and shrinking effects? Were you disappointed that Yellowjacket ended up just being a dark mirror of Ant-Man or did you think Darren’s character stood out enough to justify it? Were you a fan of Ant-Man prior to this film and, if so, which iteration of the character was your favourite? Whatever you think about Ant-Man, sign up to drop a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Lawnmower Man: Director’s Cut


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 6 March 1992
Director: Brett Leonard
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $10 million
Stars: Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Mark Bringelson, and Austin O’Brien

The Plot:
Intellectually challenged Job Smith (Fahey) works as a lawnmower man, he is regularly abused and mistreated by townsfolk. However, when Doctor Lawrence Angelo’s (Brosnan) research into using psychoactive drugs and virtual reality to improve the intelligence of chimps dramatically increase’s Job’s intelligence, the once childlike Job transforms into a hyper intelligent being whose sanity soon begins to suffer as a result.

The Background:
The Lawnmower Man began life as a short story by my favourite author, Stephen King. First published in 1975, “The Lawnmower Man” told the story of a strange lawnmower man who was actually a satyr of the Greek God, Pan, and driven to kill a client in His name by telekinetically controlling a lawnmower. Quite how this translated into a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of virtual reality is beyond me but, regardless, this concept of digital worlds and the potential danger of technology was a popular one in the realms of science-fiction and clearly had a strong influence on the writing and production of this very loose adaptation. King was so incensed at the changes made to his original story that he sued to have his name removed from the film’s title and marketing, and the film received mostly mixed reviews, with the film’s special effects being a noteworthy highlight. The Lawnmower Man’s $32.1 million domestic box office made the film a moderate success, which justified the release of a far worse sequel about four years later and the release of a much longer and more intricate “Director’s Cut” on home media that I’ll be looking at today.

The Review:
Like something out of a 1950s sci-fi film, The Lawnmower Man opens with a piece of blurb warning about the dangers of virtual reality; the potential of this technology (and computers in general), which was seen as so new and limitless at the time, to be the source of both enlightenment and corruption, were rife back in the day and these themes permeate throughout The Lawnmower Man. Immediately, we’re shown the scary potential of virtual reality as Dr. Angelo’s research has been used, in conjunction with various drugs and stimulants, to turn an ordinary chimp into a deadly engine for war…largely against his wishes.

The Director’s Cut features a much longer opening following the chimp’s escape from V.S.I.

This sequence, largely framed as a dream sequence in the theatrical cut, is expanded upon significantly here in the Director’s Cut as we follow the chimp as he uses his increased intelligence to escape from captivity, acquire a gun, and shoot his way out of the Virtual Space Industries (V.S.I.) facility (which is under the administration of the mysterious and malevolent governmental body known as “The Shop”, a semi-recurring agency in King’s works). In the theatrical cut, the chimp is killed curing the escape but, here, he makes it all the way to the nearby town thanks to the guidance of his V.R. headset; it’s while seeking sanctuary that the chimp meets Job, the titular simple-minded lawnmower man who mistakes him for the comic book superhero “Cyboman”. This introduces us to Job a lot sooner than in the theatrical cut, showcases both his kind, naïve nature and his childlike demeanour, and recontextualises the introduction of his father-figure,  Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate), who is directly responsible for the Shop’s mercenaries finding and killing the chimp, which leaves Job distraught and Angelo incensed.

Angelo sees in Job the chance to use his research for something other than war.

A pacifist by nature, Angelo is frustrated by the Shop’s constant interference and insistence of twisting his research into a tool for war; he believes in the potential of virtual reality to improve the minds of men towards a higher calling, one far greater than conflict and death. Excited at how far the chimp came in its cognitive development and discouraged at his death, Angelo is driven to distraction by the potential of his research to help countless people just like Job. Even after taking a hiatus from work, Angelo refuses to focus on anything other than his work, which causes his relationship with his wife, Caroline Angelo (Colleen Coffey), to suffer. In the theatrical cut, she out-right leaves him part-way through the film but, here she acts far more aloof and instead goes out on the town with her friends, leaving Angelo in the basement with his work, his audio journal, and a bottle of Scotch.

Virtual reality transforms Job from a simpleton into a confident savant.

Angelo sees vast potential in Job to realise the full potential of virtual reality; skipping over the V.S.I. “aggression therapy” and concentrating purely on virtual reality and stimulating concoctions, he convinces Job to agree to a series of sessions where, over time, his mental capacity is dramatically increased. Beginning as a simple, child-like man who man in the town take advantage of (including Father McKeen, who regularly beats, berates, and mistreats Job) with little understanding about personal hygiene or reasoning, Job is a hardworking lawnmower man with a natural gift for fixing mechanical things but, thanks to Angelo’s experiments, he becomes an excitable and incredibly capable individual. He is soon able to surpass his young friend, Peter Parkette (O’Brien), at Angelo’s V.R. games, outgrows comic books, and seeks to feed his growing intellect with knowledge and input of all sorts, which transforms his mind and body into a far more competent and capable form.

While some treat Job terribly, others are incredibly loving and supportive towards him.

While Job runs afoul of the local town bully, the aggressive Jake Simpson (John Laughlin) and is regularly abused by McKeen for the smallest transgressions, Job actually has a couple of close friends who genuinely care about his well-being. Angelo likes him, for a start, and then there’s Peter, with whom Job shares a love of comic books and videogames. He’s also treated like a surrogate son by McKeen’s brother, Terry (Geoffrey Lewis), a local handyman and groundskeeper who employs Job and is one swig of booze away from becoming a full-blown alcoholic. In a nice twist, even as Job’s changes begin to negatively affect and overwhelm him, he never forgets those who have been kind to him and actively seeks out to punish those who have wronged him and others when he begins to develop awesome powers.

The malevolent Shop pay for their desire to exploit Job’s abilities.

The core of the film is Job’s descent under the weight of his newfound abilities but this only really comes about because of the intervention of Angelo’s supervisor at V.S.I., Sebastian Timms (Bringelson); although Timms begins the film as a straight-laced, corporate ass-kisser who, unlike Angelo, doesn’t have a problem with bowing to the whims of the Shop, he soon becomes a real cypher and sends the plot spiralling into destruction and tragedy. Eager to impress the authoritative Director (Dean Norris), Timms swaps out Angelo’s formula for the original “Project 5” samples so that they can see what the effect will be on a human being. The result is unprecedented to all, but especially Angelo, who comes to realise, with mounting horror, that Job has developed awesome, unstable abilities and suffered a psychotic break that devastates V.S.I.’s employees and leaves Timms to a truly horrific fate.

The Nitty-Gritty:
I’ve always been a fan of The Lawnmower Man and I was excited to watch the extended Director’s Cut when I bought the DVD. Unfortunately, though, much of the additional material kind of bogs the film down, especially the extended sequence with the chimp which only bloats the opening. I was surprised to see the natural of Angelo and Caroline’s relationship issues change but there were some nice new additions, too, such as Angelo having more interactions with Peter’s mother, Carla (Rosalee Mayeux), him asking Father McKeen for permission to take Job away from his duties at the church and with Terry to run his V.R. experiments, and some slightly longer scenes at V.S.I. showing Angelo trying to calm Job’s growing thirst for knowledge and input and Job experimenting with the limits of his powers to cause lesions to form on his skin. Another significant addition is Job using his psychic powers to manipulate Caroline into conflict against the Shop’s agents, thus causing her death, something which is entirely absent in the theatrical cut and goes a long way to show just how far gone Job is at that point.

Job’s new abilities allow him to wreck terrible revenge on those who have wronged him.

While The Lawnmower Man is only partially based on King’s original story, some of his traditional tropes still show up in full force; thankfully, there are no writers here but a couple of abusive, aggressive assholes show up in full force. There’s Jake, who I mentioned before, who routinely mocks and mistreats Job for his childlike demeanour and is angered into a fury when local hardbody Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) takes a shine to Job after he begins to show more confidence and physical appeal. There’s also Peter’s father, Harold (Ray Lykins), who regularly yells at and beats his wife and child. Both of these reprehensible individuals fall victim to Job’s wrath when he begins to exact his revenge upon those who have wronged him; it’s not entirely clear what Job does to Jake (though it seems to be implied that he made Jake a simpleton like he (as in Job) used to be) but he rips Harold to shreds with his lawnmower and daunting psychic powers in perhaps the only part of the film that is similar to the original story.

As Job’s intelligence increases, so does his mania and his mental abilities.

The Project 5 formulas are noted several times by Angelo to heighten a subject’s aggression, but they have an entirely unexpected additional effect on Jon; he gets splitting headaches and begins to pick up on the thoughts of those around him before developing telekinesis. His mind absorbs information and input “like a clean, hungry sponge”, allowing him to surpass Angelo’s intelligence at a rate that leaves Angelo speechless in fear. As these changes begin to take hold, Job suffers a serious of worrying seizures and struggles to adapt to his newfound abilities but soon suffers a psychotic break and comes to see himself as accessing powers and abilities lost to mankind generations ago; all but forcing Angelo to continue his experiments, Job begins to grow more and more unstable, turning to violence and hurting Marnie, reducing her to a gibbering wreck, as he begins to lose control of his abilities and sanity.

As his powers grow in cyberspace, Job is able to influence the real world.

Impressed with a demonstration of Job’s abilities, the Director orders him to be brought in to the Shop for further testing and study; angered at Timms’ betrayal and scared half to death at Job’s increasing instability and growing God complex, Angelo is unable to protect Job from the Shop’s mercenaries, which sees him projecting a digital version of himself into the real world and reduced them to pixelated atoms! Job’s wrath is only increased when an errant shot leaves Terry dead and, having dispatched all of V.S.I.’s security with a swarm of pixelated bees, he enters the facility unimpeded to put his insane plan into motion.

Job transforms himself into Cyber Christ, a being of pure digital energy!

Having come to regard himself as the bridge between reality and virtual reality, Job plans to upload his very consciousness into the virtual world, becoming a “Cyber Christ” in the process, and spread his influence across the entire world. Although Angelo believes all of this to be a psychotic delusion, Job is able to complete his plan, transforming himself into a being of pure energy and Angelo is forced to try, one last time, to appeal to the last remnants of Job’s humanity in cyberspace. Having trapped Job behind a computer virus, and threatening him with death from bombs he placed around the facility, Angelo is ultimately no match for Job’s awesome powers but, when he realises that Peter and Carla are also in danger, Job allows Angelo to leave before they all die in the explosion.

Fahey is fantastic in the film, masterfully portraying Job’s descent into psychotic mania.

Although it appears as though Job perished in the blast, he is finally able to crack Angelo’s lock and escapes at the very last minute, with the final shot of the film being his “birth cry” as very telephone around the world rings in union, ending the film on a semi-ambiguous note that, sadly, the sequel dropped the ball on following up on. Still, The Lawnmower Man continues to impress me; its effects and realisation of virtual reality and cyberspace may be wildly outdated and based in pure fantasy but I think they hold up pretty well and are indicative of the technology and fears/speculation of the time. What also bolsters the film, for me, are some captivating performances from both Brosnan and Fahey; beginning as a wise mentor whose admiration of Job’s progress soon turns to fear for his sanity, Angelo is an admirable idealist whose wishes to use V.R. for the betterment of mankind result only in destruction. Similarly, Fahey does a fantastic job portraying Job’s childlike innocence, his pain and confusion at his growing psychic powers, his thirst for knowledge, and his descent into both stoic, unnerving menace and aggressive, unstable insanity.

An under-rated sci-fi film that explores a fantastically horrific side of V.R.

Fahey delivers some truly awesome and memorable lines here, such as his gibbering, terrifying statement of “I saw God! I touched God!”, his later stoic declaration of him becoming “Cyber Christ”, and his eventual declaration when he has fulfilled this objective of “I am God here!” (not to discount Brosnan’s moving whisper of “”Oh, dear God…” when he realises how far off the deep end Job has gone), all of which tie into the additional themes regarding faith and religion. Such notions, which originally were used to keep Job in check and under threat of reprisal for his transgressions, quickly become redundant as Job begins to experiment with his abilities; free of all fear and boundaries, he sets Father McKeen ablaze, easily manipulates the minds of others, and soon transforms from a meek, mentally challenged man into a monstrous being both in and out of virtual reality.

The Summary:
I don’t see The Lawnmower Man talked about enough when the subject of sci-fi films comes up. Sure, it’s maybe not aged too well and is absolutely nothing like the story it’s based on but so what? Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) is nothing like the short story it’s based on and that didn’t hurt it; obviously, it’s not a fair comparison and Total Recall  is a much better film but my point is that debates about fidelity to the source material are often meaningless when the result is an enjoyable piece of media. By gearing the story into a cautionary tale regarding the unknown dangers and potential of technology ad virtual reality, The Lawnmower Man presents a truly unique twist on the concept of V.R. as a gateway into the untapped potential of the human mind. The effects are still pretty impressive for the time; it helps that the V.R. sequences are all entirely computer-generated rather than splicing humans into cyberspace and, for me, they hold up pretty well and tie into the overall plot of Job transforming into this digital tyrant. Some solid performances only bolster the film’s appeal for me and, while the Director’s Cut actually causes the runtime to drag a bit more compared to some others, I can never get enough of a good thing. For having a truly interesting premise and execution, some stellar performances by Brosnan and Fahey, and some chilling sequences involving Job’s wrath, The Lawnmower Man is an unfairly under-rated gem of a science-fiction romp and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre who are looking for something a little different.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever seen The Lawnmower Man? If so, what did you think to it and do you enjoy this longer cut of the film? What did you think to the film’s premise and the performances, particularly Brosnan and Fahey? Did you enjoy the film’s depiction of virtual reality and cyberspace or do you feel it’s a little too dated? Have you ever read the original story and, if so, would you have preferred that the film was closer to the source material? What is your favourite Stephen King adaptation and how are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day today? Whatever your thoughts on The Lawnmower Man, or sci-fi in general, be sure to leave a comment below.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Matrix Resurrections


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 22 December 2021
Director: Lana Wachowski
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $190 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jonathan Groff, and Neil Patrick Harris

The Plot:
Twenty years after the events of The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski Brothers, 2003) Neo (Reeves) lives a seemingly ordinary life as Thomas A. Anderson in San Francisco where his therapist prescribes him blue pills. However, when Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen II) offers him a red pill, Neo finds his mind reopened to the world of the Matrix.

The Background:
Andy and Larry Wachowski (as they were known then) hit upon their greatest and most notable success when they were able to sell Warner Brothers on The Matrix, a science-fiction film that was heavily influenced by manga and anime and made an instant and lasting impression on cinema by popularising “bullet time” and “wire-fu”. Produced for a paltry $63 million, The Matrix was a massive hit that is spawned not only two sequels but a whole slew of multimedia merchandise. However, neither of the sequels garnered quite the same critical reaction as the quasi-cult hit original; while the directors were content to allow the story to be continued, and ended, in The Matrix Online (Monolith Productions, 2005 to 2009), rumours continued to persist that a fourth film was being considered, with stars Reeves and Hugo Weaving both expressing interest in revisiting the franchise. Development of a continuation finally gained traction in 2017, when writer Zack Penn was confirmed to be working on a fourth instalment of some kind; although Lily Wachowski chose not to commit to such a large scale production, she gave her blessing and her sister, Lana, officially returned to direct the fourth film alongside returning stars Reeves and Cary-Anne Moss. Framed as a direct continuation of where the third film left off, fans were left confused when the first trailer dropped and Lawrence Fishburne announced that he was the only member of the original cast not asked to return. The movie also attracted undue criticism when filming damaged buildings and street lights in San Francisco, and was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but The Matrix Resurrections finally released and accrued a disappointing $15738 million at the box office. It was also met with largely mixed reviews; critics praised the film’s sentimental value and the return of its familiar characters while also criticising it as a redundant revisitation suffering from muddled execution.

The Review:
If you’ve read my review of the original film, you’ll know that The Matrix is one of my all-time favourite films and franchises; I was obsessed with the first film when it came out and watched it religiously on sleepovers with friends. The film was ground-breaking and endlessly alluring at the time and, while some elements haven’t aged too well, it remains a firm favourite of mine. I even really enjoy the blending of philosophy and high-octane action featured in the second film and, though I was disappointed by the third, I felt like the trilogy had been wrapped up decently enough and was somewhat annoyed to find that the franchise was going to be dusted off some twenty years later (twenty years! Man, do I feel old!) as I felt like the story had been told and it seemed like a cheap cash grab to me. But…it’s the Matrix, and I do love me some Keanu Reeves, so I was obligated to check it out if only to satisfy my own morbid curiosity and having been intrigued by the vague trailers and marketing.

Thing are not all they seem for Thomas Anderson, whose perception of reality is skewed by fragmented memories.

It’s a good job that I am such a fan of Keanu’s and the Matrix franchise as those elements ended up being some of the best parts of The Matrix Resurrections. Framed as a kind of re-quel, which treads over familiar ground (and even splices in footage of the original trilogy as flashbacks and dream sequences) while advanced the story twenty years after the last film. Despite apparently sacrificing his life to bring about peace between the machines and the humans of Zion, the man once known as Neo is alive and well in a new version of the Matrix, one without the green tint and grungy filter. Back in his original identity of Thomas A. Anderson, he is a successful videogame designer who found fame and fortune by creating an incredibly successful trilogy of (presumably virtual reality) videogames based on his disparate memories of the first three films. However, just as Anderson’s dreams and fragmented memories have created a virtual world for millions of players, so too have them plagued his sense of reality, and even drove him to try and leap off a rooftop in order to “fly away”. Following this apparent suicide attempt, his business partner, Smith (Groff), requests that he attend regular therapy sessions with the ominously named Analyst (Harris) and, thanks to a constant prescription of blue pills, Anderson is able to keep himself from suffering a psychotic break.

Anderson is captivated by Tiffany, whose visage stirs up memories of Trinity and he borrowed for his videogame.

Despite being deep into the production of a new videogame, Binary, for is company, Deus Ex Machina, Anderson is disturbed by Smith’s insistence that they work on a new Matrix videogame, leading to a montage sequence wherein Smith, Anderson, and his fellow programmers and stuff wax lyrical with some metatextual, on the nose commentary about big corporations mining familiar franchises just to make more money off previous successes. Sadly, this kind of fourth-wall-breaking discussion permeates a great deal of The Matrix Resurrections, with even Anderson himself being saddened to be taking a creative step backwards rather than trying something new and innovative. His only reprieve is his infatuation with Tiffany (Moss), a beautiful woman he sees on a consistent basis in a coffee house and who reminds him of Trinity, a woman from his dreams and whom he programmed into his videogame. When not struggling to strike up a conversation with her, or debating his sanity, or working on Binary, Anderson is running a singular module of The Matrix that recreates the iconic opening of the original film, but with a few alterations to mix things up, but for the most part is fairly convinced that he’s just a videogame designer with mental issues and a skewed sense of identity.

Allies old, new, and fundamentally changed work to bring Neo back to the real world.

All of that changes when he is suddenly met by a new incarnation of Morpheus, one seemingly pulled from his videogame world, who offers him a familiar choice: stay in his reality, or return to the real world. If you were wondering whether Lawrence Fishburne makes an appearance in this film, or his perhaps adopting a new avatar, you’ll be disappointed to find that Morpheus is long dead and only appears in archival footage; instead, where get this new version of Morpheus, one apparently spliced with elements of Neo’s old nemesis, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), to act as an agent within that loop. A far more mischievous version of the character, this new Morpheus is actually a sentient program, of sorts, who is able to communicate with and assist the heroes in the real world thanks to an advanced kind of nanotechnology, but he’s far from the wise mentor figure of his predecessor. Instead, he ‘s more like a necessary component to help convince Anderson to leave the Matrix and reclaim his identity as Neo, something he is largely reluctant to do thanks to the Analyst’s influence on his perception of the world. Still, Neo’s curiosity and familiarity with the words and images presented to him by Morpheus override his hesitation, and he’s soon joining Captain Bugs (Henwick) and the rest of her crew aboard the Mnemosyne hovercraft, sixty years after sacrificing himself to save Zion. Neo is disorientated and melancholy to find that his sacrifice didn’t appear to change much about the world, but Bugs takes him to the new Zion, Io, and reunites him with an elderly, cynical Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and learns that a peace does exist between man and machine. Shortly after the end of the war, the Matrix was purged of all former anomalies and blue-tinted machines helped the remnants of humanity to build a new haven and worked with them to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, while staving off attacks from the red-tinted, squid-like Sentinels that refused to abide by the peace treaty. The original Morpheus refused to believe that Neo’s sacrifice would fail, which led to Zion’s destruction, and a contingent of people have grown up idolising and even deifying Neo and Trinity for their actions, but Niobe’s primary concern is keeping her people safe, which leads to her reluctantly locking Neo up and pushing Bugs to defy her commander’s direct order and help spring Neo so that he can lead a desperate reinsertion into the Matrix to try and rescue Trinity.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If you’re a fan of the original film but haven’t really seen it in a while, then The Matrix Resurrections really has you covered, for the most part. It opens almost exactly like the original film, and the majority of its call-backs and references are to the ground-breaking original while repurposing some of the stronger elements of the sequels in new ways. One thing that is sadly largely absent from the film, however, is the kung-fu (or “wire-fu”, to be more accurate) fight scenes that so heavily influenced action cinema right up to present day. The first half of the film is a slow, introspective reintroduction to the world of the Matrix, one both familiar and disconcertingly different, as we follow Neo and try to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. Thanks to his fragmented memories and a skewed avatar, his sense of reality is more shot than ever, but he starts to piece his identity back together once he reawakens in the real world and is put through his paces by Morpheus. However, this isn’t really the all-powerful, full capable Neo we knew and loved; instead, he’s plagued by self-doubt and has no interest in fighting any more, especially after giving everything he had seemingly for nothing. While the world is noticeably better than the one he remembers, humanity is still somewhat divided; less and less people have been freed from the Matrix thanks to Niobe’s focus on keeping those who are free safe and the system of control he fought so hard against has simply been repurposed by a contingent of malevolent machines.

The new Smith offers little in the way of challenge for Neo, or interest to me as a viewer.

After his sacrifice, Neo’s body was taken away by the Analyst, who is revealed to basically have replaced the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) and is behind the stability of the Matrix’s new iteration and the resurrection of Neo and Trinity. Initially looking to study them, he patched them back together using a combination of the cloning technology used to grow humans and additional mechanic parts, only to find that their incredible bond threatened the very Matrix itself. However, when kept safely apart, their very presence in the Matrix vastly improved the energy output and acceptance of those plugged in, thus largely negating the peace Neo so desperately fought for. With Neo unplugged, the machines are on the brink and a new reboot of the system, something which Smith is adamant to prevent as it would mean he would once again be absorbed into the Matrix code. However, this is not my Smith; I’m sure Jonathan Groff is a great actor, and he’s clearly doing his best to channel Hugo Weaving at points, but he’s a faint shadow of Waving/Smith’s former greatness and I actually question including him at all. Had the filmmakers brought Weaving back and had Smith, like Neo, also suffer from fragmented memories and a new life, then maybe his inclusion would have been worthwhile but, instead, Smith feels very tacked on and largely inconsequential. There’s a moment where it seems like he and Neo would join forces this time around (and that does crop up again in the finale, with very little explanation), but it quickly gives way to a bust-up between the two that is one of the few highlights of the film, recalls their subway fight from the first film, and is spoiled only by the inexplicable and completely pointless insertion of the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his exiles.

While there are some good moments, it’s mostly an unnecessary retread of things done better in the previous films.

A great deal of the film’s emphasis is, instead, on reuniting Neo with Trinity; while their romance was severely lacking in chemistry in the original trilogy, save for a few choice moments, they seem much more comfortable at ease with each other here, arguably because of the Analyst’s efforts to bestow them with new lives and personalities. While still a troubled and largely stoic reluctant saviour, Neo has a few more moments of levity here than in the original films, where he rarely showed much emotion at all, but is still as blinded by his love for Trinity as ever as he risks the fragile peace between Io and the machines by leading a risk attempt to convince her to return to him and the real world. This involves Bugs and Morpheus infiltrating the machine city, where Trinity’s body is held, with the help of their machine allies and Neo bartering with the Analyst with everyone’s future on the line. This proves to be a risky proposition as Neo’s God-like powers are both neutered and noticeably different this time around; although he still knows kung-fu, he cannot yet fly and his more acrobatic feats come in bursts, but he can still stop bullets and even has much more emphasis on creating shields and blasting foes away. The Analyst, however, proves to be a formidable foe as he’s ability to manipulate the Matrix’s famed “bullet time” technique to slow even the One to a crawl, but in the end he’s undone thanks to a tricky plot that sees Neo get through to Trinity, Bugs swap out with her physical body, and Trinity randomly revealed to be a new incarnation of the One as she and Neo fend off the Analyst’s swarm of ‘bots and fly off with a promise (more like a threat) to rebuild the world free from the Analyst’s influence.

The Summary:
I was hesitant about The Matrix Resurrections; the trailers were questionably vague and trying a little too hard to be mysterious for my liking, something which has only led to disappointment where the Matrix is concerned in the past. They also made the film seem to be a retread of the original, but over twenty years later and with some cast members inexplicably returning or absent. I feel like I could have maybe understood the need for a new Matrix movie if we’d had an entirely new cast, with maybe only Keanu returning, or seen the One reborn within the Matrix but in Keanu’s body once again (confirming a long-held theory of mine that the One always looks like Neo) rather than finding a pretty weak excuse to bring both Neo and Trinity back. It was pretty great seeing Neo back onscreen and revisiting the Matrix lore after the third movie to see where things had progressed, but I think the film played things a little too safe; not much has really changed thanks to the contingent of machines still warring against humanity, and I would have preferred to see humans and machines living and working together without any major discord and maybe have some the rogue faction be a more prominent plot point. So much of the film is focused on reintroducing Neo and the Matrix to us, which would probably be interesting for anyone who hasn’t seen the original films, but I’d wager that the vast majority of the audience has so I kind of wanted to get things moving, or maybe spend more time seeing how the Analyst was screwing with Neo’s mind rather than retreading the same old ground again but with different actors. In the end, it was an interesting enough epilogue to one of cinema’s most influential trilogies, but I honestly dread to think where the story will go when Warner Bros. greenlight an inevitable follow-up.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Have you seen The Matrix Resurrections? If so, what did you think to it? Did you enjoy the direction the story took Neo and how it handled his and Trinity’s resurrections or would you have preferred to see the franchise stay dormant? Which of the new was your favourite and did you like seeing how the relationship between humanity and the machines had progressed? Were you disappointed by the lack of Lawrence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, and proper fight scenes? Which of the other Matrix sequels or spin-offs was your favourite? How are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day today? Whatever you think about The Matrix Resurrections, sign up to leave your thoughts below or drop a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for more sci-fi content!

Talking Movies: Westworld

Talking Movies

Released: 17 August 1973
Director: Michael Crichton
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Budget: $1.2 million
Stars: Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner, and Alan Oppenheimer

The Plot:
Following a messy divorce, Peter Martin (Benjamin) is treated to a much-needed vacation by his friend, John Blane (Brolin). The two journey to Westworld, a Wild West-themed amusement park populated by sophisticated androids, and indulge in a number of fantasies. However, when the machines begin to not just break down but go on a murderous rampage, the two find themselves fighting for their lives against the machines, in particular the aggressive Gunslinger (Brynner).

The Background:
Many years before he came a household name thanks to Jurassic Park (Crichton, 1990), Michael Crichton had already achieved significant success as a writer and had even directed a television film. Wanting to break into the Hollywood mainstream, Critchton produced an original screenplay for his feature-film directorial debut. The result was Westworld, a film that was ahead of its time in many ways, being one of the first examples of a computer virus driving robots or machines into a murderous frenzy, and pioneered several unique filmmaking techniques despite the tight budget, rushed production schedule, and interference from the film studio. Still, Westworld went on to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest box office success of that year; it also received high praise at the time, particularly for its effects and Brynner’s chillingly menacing performance. A favourite of mine since childhood, and a clear precursor to science-fiction greats like The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Westworld inspired both a critically-panned sequel in 1976, an obscure television series that ran for five episodes in 1980, and, after years of speculation regarding a modern-day reboot, an extremely well-received and award winning HBO series that is part-reboot, part-sequel. Considering today is the day that HAL 9000 first came into being in Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal work 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this seems like a great opportunity to talk about other instances of A.I. and machinery gaining sentiency and running amok against their human masters.

The Review:
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Westerns; I often find them to be slow and dull and boring to look at as there’s a lot of arid locations and I’ve just never really connected with them. Westworld, though, cuts through that bias thanks in large part to its infusion of science-fiction elements. The film spends quite a bit of time selling us on its premise, which was obviously very new and unique at the time, literally opening with quite a long-winded, if amusing, sequence wherein spokesman Ed Wren (Robert Hogan) introduces the concept of Delos and their android-populated theme parks. He interviews a few random visitors to sell the unique concept of highly sophisticated and realistic robots offering a fully immersive experience and the confidence Delos has in the excitement, safety, customer satisfaction, and appeal of their theme parks

Pete and John make for charismatic and likeable protagonists.

If you’ve seen any sci-fi film before, much of this will be easily absorbed but, while this opening scene may drag a little bit, it’s pretty effective at establishing that Delos is fully confident in their facilities and we’re soon introduced to our extremely likeable protagonists, Pete and John. Benjamin and Brolin are two immediately amiable guys who have good chemistry and believable banter together; John is the expert as he’s paid a thousand dollars a day to visit Westworld before but, as it’s his first time, Pete’s conveniently full of questions and scepticism.

To John’s chagrin, it takes Pete a little time to immerse himself in Westworld’s fiction.

Clearly the more highly strung of the two, it takes Pete a little while to acclimatise himself to the whole experience, which annoys and frustrates John who just wants him to relax and have a good time, but it’s a great way to sell Pete as an audience surrogate since it’s our first time, too, and he quickly becomes immersed in the unique experience Westworld has to offer. While listening to Delos’ introductory video package, we are sold the idea that Delos’ attractions offer a completely immersive, but completely safe, experience; they’ve “spared no expense” to recreate each World and ensure the visitors that “There are no rules” and that “Nothing can go wrong” on a continuous loop which…well, if that’s not a pretty glaring red flag then I don’t know what is!

Westworld‘s machines are so realistic that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans.

Delos has gone to immense lengths to recreate the details of each World down to the smallest detail, offering visitors period-specific costumes, weapons, and accessories. Their machines are so lifelike that it is pretty much impossible to tell them apart from humans or other lifeforms except for their hands, which “haven’t been perfected [yet]”. Accordingly, they talk, act, and even bleed like a human, making the experience all the more realistic.

Delos’ technicians control every aspect of the resort from their sophisticated bunker.

To mix things up a bit, the film continuously cuts away to the engineers and puppet masters behind each World, who toil in a hot, highly sophisticated bunker of sorts. Using massively complicated computers, they control and dictate the routines and activities in each World, including the machines. They clean up the dead bodies once night has fallen (conveniently there’s apparently not much of an external nightlife in Delos’ resorts), program infidelity into the Queen (Victoria Shaw), cause bar fights to happen, and pretty much have their fingers in every aspect of the resort from their elaborate control room.

The guns won’t fire at a target with a high body temperature but what about the swords…?

Delos have, however been smart enough to program a safety feature into the revolvers of Westworld; they will only fire if the target has a low body temperature, ensuring guests don’t accidentally kill each other. How this works in the sword-based Medievalworld is not explained, however, and the virus that ends up spreading from machine to machine also ends up overriding this safety feature.

The bar fight scene is a particular highlight of the film’s humour.

If there’s one negative to Westworld, however, it’s the pacing; being a product of the seventies, the film isn’t exactly action-packed from the get-go and it likes to take its time explaining or establishing its concept and its world and acclimatising the audience to the fiction it is presenting. This isn’t really a bad thing; it’s much faster than 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) or Alien (Scott, 1979), for example, and it leads to some fun scenes like Pete’s liaison with a robot prostitute, a few looks at how Delos run their operation behind the scenes, and an extremely amusing and exciting bar fight where Pete and John lackadaisically sit and play cards until their game is ruined. Plus, once the robots start running amok and the film’s climactic chase kicks in, Westworld really steps up and becomes this incredibly tense and engaging quasi-horror film.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Delos’ Chief Supervisor (Oppenheimer) explains that their machines are so sophisticated that even the technicians don’t fully understand them; many of them are built by other machines and are so advanced that their internal mechanisms are something of a mystery. He is horrified when a robotic snake manages to injure John despite it (and, presumably, all the machines) being programmed not to cause physical harm to the guests. He suggests, to chagrin of his peers, that the machines could not only have a degree of autonomy outside of their control but also that a virus is spreading throughout the resort, affecting each machine in turn. These days, that’s a well-accepted concept but, here, it is met with ridicule and scorn and seen as a mysterious, unknown enemy threatening the safety and security of their facilities. Quite how it comes about isn’t explained and is somewhat irrelevant once the machines go crazy and start killing mercilessly until they eventual break/shut down.

No matter how many times he’s put down, the Gunslinger keeps coming back for more.

Pete first runs afoul of the Gunslinger while choking down a whiskey at the local bar; dressed exactly like Chris Adams, his famous character from The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), Brynner delivers a cold, inhuman performance and speaks in blunt, antagonistic tones. Pete easily bests him in their first encounter, only for the machine to be fixed up and return to accost John later in the film. Again, Pete is able to put him down and the Delos scientists equip him with a few experimental upgrades to improve his performance. It surely breaks the immersion, somewhat, to have the same machines return to the resort after being “killed” and it’s left somewhat ambiguous whether the Gunslinger has been programmed to seek revenge or whether he is doing so of his own free will since, of all the machines, save the Black Knight (Michael Mikler), the Gunslinger is the only one to hold a grudge and specifically target a particular guest.

The Gunslinger toys with Pete and chases him across the resort.

As a result, when the Gunslinger shows up after the machines have started running amok, he immediately confronts Pete and John once more rather than joining his fellow machines in their rampage. He guns down John in cold blood and a lengthy, intense chase scene takes up the majority of the film’s final act as the Gunslinger toys with Pete, chasing him across the resort and dragging out his kill while Pete stumbles across the dead bodies of other guests and the inert forms of the machines.

The Terminator clearly owes a debt to the Gunslinger’s relentless persistence.

This is where Brynner’s performance really shines; he exudes a stoic, fittingly-machine-like demeanour that clearly set the standard for performances in the Terminator movies (Various, 1984 to 2019). Relentless and persistent, the Gunslinger pursues Pete on horseback or at a measured, leisurely pace; terrified out of his mind, Pete is unable to compose himself enough to get a clean shot at the Gunslinger and is forced to turn to more practical means, such as tossing caustic acid in his face and finally setting him on fire. Seeing Brynner’s features melt and his human façade break away to reveal his gruesome metallic insides is a truly chilling moment and when the Gunslinger finally collapses in a smouldering heap of sparks and fire, it’s easy to feel the same sense of grief, relief, and shock that Benjamin’s expression and body language display.

The Black Knight’s murderous actions kick-start the robot rampage.

As mentioned, the Gunslinger isn’t the only mechanical menace in this film; one of the other guests (Norman Bartold) sets himself up as a Lord of the castle in Medievalworld and, as a result, is forced into a duel with the Black Knight. From what we see of the Delos technicians, this is a pretty standard storyline for Medievalworld as they program the fight to always go in favour of the guest and look forward to watching it go down. This time, however, the Black Knight lands a killing blow and the Chief Supervisor immediately orders all the machines to be shut down. By this point, however, it’s too late; the virus has progressed so far that not only are the machines beyond the control of the technicians but they are locked in their bunker as all the doors as magnetically sealed. As a result, for their hubris they are left to slowly suffocate and die, powerless to save themselves or the guests from the robot rampage occurring across the resort.

The Summary:
The idea of a themed resort where guests can indulge their every whim and which is populated by advanced robots is extremely unique and interesting and Westworld does just enough with the concept to sell you on the potential and scope of this world appearing, at first, to be little more than sci-fi buddy comedy/action film of sorts and then descending into a horrifying tale of man versus machine for its incredibly tense finale. Many of Westworld’s concepts have since been perfected elsewhere or improved upon by numerous other films, videogames, books, comic books, and television shows but none of that dilutes the impact that Westworld still makes thanks to the unique way it presents these elements. The idea of a computer virus making machines go nuts might have been new and somewhat awkward to convey at the time but the film does a masterful job of showcasing it without really having to delve into the exact specifics of how and why it occurs; it’s a mystery, one that quickly escalates to become so dangerous and deadly that the only thing that matters is surviving rather than trying to figure out the how and the why of it all.

Fantastic use of practical and ground-breaking digital effects only add to Westworld‘s appeal.

Even better is the fact that the film’s effects are obviously all achieved through practical methods; while they would obviously be perfected over the years, it’s still admirable to see the lengths Crichton went to render the machines’ thermal vision through early digital effects and the horrifying, skull-like, almost alien inner workings of the machines once the Gunslinger’s face is dislodged. Punctuating the film’s simple but effective cinematography and presentation is a pretty engaging soundtrack; from a suitably Western theme to a highly effective, pseudo-synthetic score that really sells the tension and desperation of the film’s big chase scene, Fred Karlin’s fantastic score is always used to great effect to sell whatever’s happening onscreen and, for me, really helps to keep Westworld as appealing today as it was when I first saw it all those years ago as a kid.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Have you ever seen Westworld? What did you think of it and how do you feel it holds up today? Perhaps you’re more a fan of the recent television show; if so, what are some of your favourite moments? How are you celebrating the birth of HAL 9000 today? Whatever you think about Westworld, or if you have other examples of A.I. going rogue, feel free to drop a comment below.

Talking Movies: The Matrix

Talking Movies
MatrixLogo

Released: March 1999
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Budget: $63 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano

The Plot:
Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves) is a nobody; by day, he sits in a cubicle and works a monotonous job as a software developer but, in his spare time, he has crafted a reputation under his hacker alias “Neo”. When he is targeted by Agent Smith (Weaving), Neo is brought to the enigmatic Morpheus (Fishburne) and offered both a startling truth and a destiny he could never have suspected.

The Background:
After managing to sell their script for Assassins (Donner, 1995) and the success of Bound (The Wachowski Brothers, 1996), Andy and Larry Wachowski (as they were known then) were able to sell Warner Brothers on another of their scripts: The Matrix. Featuring an impressive mixture of martial arts, philosophy, and science-fiction not often seen in major Hollywood releases and heavily influenced by manga and anime, particularly Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995), The Matrix made an instant and lasting impression not just on the science-fiction and action genres but on cinema as a whole. The film both popularised the concept of “bullet time” and wire-assisted kung fu (or “wire-fu”) in movies and cemented Keanu Reeves as an action star. Suddenly, parodies were everywhere and movie heroes were all sporting long dark coats, shades, and flipping all over the place and it was all largely thanks to The Matrix. When I was a kid, The Matrix as a big, big deal. My friends and I watched the film constantly, eating up the action sequences and the cool aesthetic and soundtrack. Produced on a paltry budget of $63 million, The Matrix was a massive commercial and critical hit, making over nearly $500 million worldwide. So great was The Matrix’s success that is spawned not only two sequels but a whole slew of multimedia merchandise, including comic books and videogames. While the sequels may not have garnered quite the same critical reaction as the quasi-cult hit original, The Matrix’s important at the time (and today) cannot be understated and a fourth film is currently in production, proving that The Matrix still has an enduring legacy in cinema. Considering today is “National Science Fiction Day”, this seems the perfect opportunity to look back at this classic piece of cyberpunk cinema.

The Review:
The Matrix has a pretty simple concept, one that has been done before and since in cinema, but complicates it with musings on fate, destiny, and the sense of identity and reality. At its core, the plot is incredibly simple, though: the world as we know it is merely a computer-generated construct, a form of virtual reality in which we have been enslaved by a race of machines in a post-apocalyptic world. Amidst this, though, we have themes regarding providence, choice, and some of the most impression action and fight sequences put to cinema.

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Apathetic to his everyday life, Anderson has far more prominence as “Neo”.

Our window into The Matrix is Thomas A. Anderson (or “Neo”, as he is known throughout the hacking community), a bored program developer who has lived most of his life with a feeling that there’s something not quite right with the world. Thanks to his illicit activities, he is acutely aware of the legendary Morpheus, a charismatic and prophet-like figure in Neo’s circles, and “the Matrix”, an undefined concept that is enough to rouse Neo’s curiosity. Keanu Reeves makes for a perfect audience surrogate; you instantly buy into the idea of him as an isolated, distracted hacker who is unfulfilled in his mundane life and eager for change but not quite confident enough to really buck the system more than showing up late for work or being generally apathetic. Once he meets Trinity (Moss), though, and is set on the path towards Morpheus and answers concerning the Matrix, Neo’s outlook begins to change; he was too afraid of plummeting to his death when trying to escape Smith and his cohorts but, once captured, is defiant enough to give them the finger and, after being reminded of the poor choices he’s made in life that have kept him stagnant, resolves to follow Trinity and her teammates towards an uncertain future.

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Agent Smith is a chilling, complex villain.

Opposing Neo is the aforementioned Agent Smith; in this movie, he’s just one of a number of men in black who target our heroes and are meant to be indistinguishable from each other. As the de facto leader, and the most charismatic of the three, Smith’s personality is revealed over time and in layers; he goes from a monotonous, fittingly robotic agent of the system to being wracked with personal animosity for Neo and being overcome by his own pride and hubris. Weaving is excellent in the role, exuding both menace and charm with the subtlest of movements and the merest of words and seeing him break out of his shell and reveal just how layered Smith is beneath his cold exterior is both captivating and terrifying at the same time.

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Trinity is a capable, if underwhelming, character.

Luckily, Neo is not alone in his journey; Trinity is his main link to Morpheus’s world and serves as his eventual love interest. Yet, while Carrie-Anne Moss is acceptable in the role and more than capable at holding her own in her fight scenes, I never really bought into the attraction between the two characters. People like to rag on Keanu for being “wooden” but I’ve always enjoyed his work and found him very charismatic and that’s no different in The Matrix, where’s he’s able to showcase a variety of emotions and character quirks. Trinity, however, is a very guarded and reserved character through and through; some of this is due in part to the way those awakened to the truth of the Matrix tend to be more emotionless and reserved, especially inside the Matrix, but it’s also because of her reluctance to admit her feelings to Neo out of the fear that he isn’t who she thinks he is and the fear that he is what she thinks, as it means a dramatic change for the world if true.

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Morpheus is easily my favourite character (…after Neo, of course).

Morpheus, however, fully believes in Neo from start to finish and never once does his belief falter. Morpheus is the enigmatic captain of the Nebuchadnezzar and is regarded as a legendary figure not only by Neo but his crew as well. Years ago, the Oracle (Gloria Foster) prophesised the return of “the One”, a man born inside the Matrix who would be able to manipulate it in superhuman ways and spell the end of humanity’s subjugation, and Morpheus has dedicated his entire life to finding the One. For whatever reason (it’s not really explained how or why), Morpheus believes that Neo is the One and actively seeks him out, shows him the truth, and pushes him to break beyond what he has been conditioned to know. Never once does Morpheus’s conviction falter and Fishburne makes for a very fitting mentor and father figure; he anchors the film, offering exposition, and is the heart and soul of The Matrix. Subsequent sequels may have ruined (or spoiled) Morpheus’s mystique somewhat but it’s captivating in The Matrix as he seems so infallible and believable that you can’t help but be sucked in by his words.

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Most of the rest of the crew is largely expendable and inconsequential.

The rest of Morpheus’s crew is largely one-note and expendable; Switch (Belinda McClory) and Apoch (Julian Arahanga) are pretty forgettable and have maybe three lines between them and Mouse (Matt Doran) is the young, naïve crew member whose death is meant to be heartbreaking because of his youth but ends up falling a little flat as his characterisation amounts to “enthusiastic/annoying kid”. Tank (Marcus Chong) and Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker) stand out a little more thanks to Tank acting as the team’s operator (when inside the Matrix, he directs them, uploads additional training material and resources, and provides them with a way to dial out) and their status as brothers born naturally in the real world.

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Cypher was an insufferable prick but he did have a point…

Luckily, we also have Cypher (Pantoliano), the more outspoken and neurotic of the crew who takes an instant dislike to Neo thanks to his largely jaded attitude. Cypher is, if his name and Pantoliano’s scenery-chewing acting didn’t make it clear, the ultimate betrayer of the crew as he has grown disillusioned with Morpheus’s teachings and the reality of the real world and therefore deceives his crewmates, killing three of them and leaving Morpheus in the hands of Smith and the other agents. Cypher’s motivations are entirely believable, however, as the real world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but it’s still extremely cathartic to see that smug smile blown off his face after his heel turn.

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The fights are varied and grow in intensity.

Of course, as good as the majority of the cast and characters are, the film’s main draw is its extensive action and fight scenes. Thanks to a combination of computer-generated imagery (CGI), wire work, and an extensive training regime, the film’s fights are high intensity and a spectacle to see; the film begins with Trinity performing that iconic leaping kick in slow motion as the camera pans around her, includes a playfully enjoyable sparring session between Neo and Morpheus, emphasises the aggression and nigh-unstoppable nature of the agents when Morpheus is effortlessly pummelled by Smith, and ends with a long, multi-layered fistfight between Neo and Smith. Unlike the majority of action films, The Matrix presented a world where characters don’t need to appear athletically competent to perform superhuman feats as knowledge and techniques are literally downloaded into their minds, instantly turning them into a master of the arts when plugged into the Matrix.

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While the sets and practical effects look great, some of the CGI hasn’t aged too well.

Unfortunately, the special effects falter a bit in the real world; the sets and interiors are great, with the film favouring the “lived in” look of similar movies like Event Horizon (Anderson, 1997) and made popular by the Aliens movies (Various, 1979 to 2017), but the CGI elements haven’t aged too well. The squid-like Sentinels, especially, look particularly cartoony these days and most of the sequences involving them and the Nebuchadnezzar don’t quite hold up to the more practical effects of the film. Similarly, some fight scenes, particularly those using bullet time or other camera tricks, can result in the actors taking on a rubbery appearance but, when they’re inside the Matrix, I feel this effect actually works better and serves to highlight the falseness of that reality.

The Nitty-Gritty:
The Matrix still holds up very well to this day thanks to its enduring themes and the intensity of its otherwise over-the-top fight sequences. There are, of course, a few plot holes and questions raised by the film’s concept that are either not answered in subsequent sequels or poorly addressed. First and foremost for me is the question of how, exactly, child birth happens when humans are simply grown in endless fields. The idea of the fields themselves seems to suggest that the machines are cloning humans, but this isn’t really addressed; neither is how the awakened humans built their ship and other equipment, where their food and clothes come from, or how they don’t simply freeze to death under the scorched skies that blanket the real world.

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The machines grow and harvest humans to use them as a power source.

Most of these questions are left intentionally unanswered in this film; we’re told (briefly) about Zion, the last human city, and given snippets of information regarding their war against the machines but nothing concrete. This adds to the mystery of what exactly happened to turn the world into a post apocalyptic hellhole ruled by machines and is completely believable; if all of humanity were blasted to smithereens, why would we have any specific information some one hundred years later? Truthfully, the real world is of little consequence in The Matrix; it’s there and a stark contrast to the artificial world of the Matrix but is never portrayed as being preferable. Instead, the idea is that the truth and the concept of being free from the machines’ control is preferable to being a slave, a literal biological battery, to the will of the machines. As a result, any human awakened to the truth is immediately drafted into the resistance effort but Morpheus is explicitly honest about their chances:

MORPHEUS:
They are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys, which means that, sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them.

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The agents are the nigh-unstoppable arms of the system itself.

The agents embody this philosophy; practically nameless and faceless, the agents are able to possess (more like overwrite) any person currently plugged into the Matrix, effectively allowing them to endlessly respawn even in the rare instances that they are defeated or incapacitated. Yet, Morpheus also states that everyone who has ever tried to fight an agent has died, which isn’t that surprising considering that, as computer programs, they are faster, stronger, and far more durable than a mere human. In a reflection of Morpheus’s conviction, though, he doesn’t hesitate to take on Smith in hand-to-hand combat to allow Neo to escape; Morpheus, previously portrayed as calm, collected, and a severely disciplined fighter, is absolutely dominated in this fight. His near infallibility is then tested to the limit when the agents subject him to a concoction of drugs, torture, and questioning to try and obtain access codes to the Zion mainframe. Morpheus resists, however, and retains enough of his strength (both physical and mental) to break his bonds once Neo and Trinity affect their action-packed rescue plan and, throughout the entire movie, maintains a quiet confidence that, in time, Neo will see the truth about himself. It is therefore heartbreaking when Neo is executed by Smith, leaving Morpheus so distraught that he doesn’t even care about living any more.

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As the One, Neo effortlessly stops bullets and parries Smith’s attacks with one arm.

In the wake of Neo’s death, Trinity finds the resolve to finally admit her feelings for him and, with a kiss, restores Neo to life. As cliché as this sounds, it’s actually one of the most affecting scenes in the film; previously, the Oracle said that Neo was “waiting for something”, specifically suggesting that “something” was his next life, and Neo’s resurrection sees him assume the confident, God-like status of the One at last. His wounds healed, the speed and power of Smith is as nothing; Neo easily blocks and parries Smith’s attacks with one arm, looking hilariously and awesomely bored by the conflict, and easily dispatches the agent by blasting him to pieces. Now able to view the complex code of the Matrix itself, Neo ends the film fully able to manipulate and alert the environment as he blasts off to the sky to the sounds of Rage Against the Machine (a fitting band if there ever was one).

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The film is not without a few logistical concerns regarding its world.

This ending is as exhilarating and cathartic as you could hope for; all throughout the film, Neo has struggled with the destiny Morpheus has laid out for him and seeing him grow in confidence and ability leads to some of the film’s more impressive action and fight sequences. The gunfight between him and Trinity and a bunch of guards is worth the price of admission alone but seeing Neo effortlessly take out Smith, especially after the gruelling physical battle they went through previously, never fails to get my blood pumping. That’s not to say that the film isn’t without a few flaws, though. Chief among them, for me, is the “bug” that Smith implants into Neo; it makes sense, as he wants Neo to lead him to Morpheus, and it’s a nightmarish sequence, but it’s rendered immediately mute when Trinity pulls it out of Neo in the very next scene. Ironically, if Smith had simply just waited outside Neo’s apartment building he would have been led right to Morpheus but…no, apparently the bug is more efficient. Additionally, the scene where Neo is awakened is a bit confusing; he swallows a pill to help the crew find him in the real world, randomly gets smothered by liquid glass with no explanation, and when he does wake up the Nebuchadnezzar isn’t even there to retrieve him until he is literally flushed away. Finally, while I like that the film addresses that Neo’s eyes and muscles would have suffered atrophy, I would argue that the plugged in humans would be next to useless in the real world, especially upon being unplugged.

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The Matrix raised many questions, some which ended up with disappointing answers.

The Matrix’s philosophical musings are far less as explicit as in its sequels; here, exposition is delivered in snippets that are easy to digest and understand. There’s no double talk or complicated words here; we’re simply told as much information as these characters know and even Morpheus explicitly says that he (and even the Oracle) doesn’t have all the answers for Neo’s (or our) questions. Clearly, the film is left with many questions still to be answered but, unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out that the Wachowski’s were capable of delivering interesting answers to those questions. As a result, as much as I enjoy the sequels, neither are on the same level as the original, which is still one of the most compelling and original movies ever made that never fails to deliver despite a few flaws.

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The Summary:
The Matrix still holds up really well even after all this time; sure, some of the effects aren’t as impressive as they once were and a lot of the tricks popularised in this film have been done bigger and better since then, but it’s still a great piece of cyberpunk cinema. The sequels may have somewhat tarnished the legacy of the first film, and retroactively raise more questions than answers, but the concept and action on display in The Matrix is just as exhilarating as ever.

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The Matrix has some flaws but they’re far outweighed by the positives.

The film is also full of some strong performances; Keanu Reeves proved with this film that he was a competent leading man in Hollywood, Laurence Fishburne set himself up for similar mentor roles in the future, and the film all but launched Carrie-Anne Moss’s career and put Hugo Weaving on the map. It’s not a flawless film, or even a perfect one, but it’s still highly enjoyable from start to finish; effectively a live-action anime, The Matrix is a perfect example of a strong, original concept bringing new life into tried and tested ideas we’ve seen executed in previous films and media. Ahead of its time in many ways, The Matrix set the scene for the slew of action and superhero movies that followed and built upon many of the techniques on display here and its legacy still holds up to this day.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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What did you think of The Matrix when it first came out? Did you enjoy the sequels or do you feel they spoilt the concept of the first movie? Which of the film’s characters or many spin-offs was your favourite? Are you excited for the upcoming fourth movie or do you feel it’s maybe best to let the franchise lie? How are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day? Whatever you think about The Matrix, or sci-fi in general, drop a comment below.