Can man create his own reality? Is the reality we know reality at all? Can artificial intelligence take on a life of its own, and if so, should that life be held with the same respect that we hold each other? These were all improbably difficult questions to answer at the time both films in this week’s Reel Rumbles were released, but as technologies advance, philosophies change, and life goes on, it’s as if fate is starting to force our hand for legitimate answers. No matter where you stand on either side of the moral conundrum, you have to admit that this week’s pairing asks questions of such depth that it is uncertain if the films themselves can adequately grasp the breadth of it all. But all philosophical meanderings aside, which of these sci-fi extravaganzas is the better film? Plug in, boot up, and sign on. It’s time for Blade Runner vs. The Matrix.
In Blade Runner (1982), Deckard (Harrison Ford) is part of a special police unit created to target and kill replicants. Replicants are hard to detect. On the surface, they seem like perfect copies of human intelligence. But Deckard is a professional, who knows how to root out these “skin jobs,” and dispatch them with swift effectiveness. The problem is he wants out. But when a dangerous crew of replicants hijack a space ship and return to earth, he will have to choose between a growing conscience and his sense of duty. Set against a darkly beautiful world that possesses stark contrasts between grit and glitz, Blade Runner continually blurs the vision of black-versus-white, good-versus-evil. Good guys aren’t always noble. Bad guys aren’t always evil. The portrayals are fair ones that question what it means to be human, and define the value of life.
The Matrix (1999) takes a different approach to the questions it asks the audience. Instead of viewing the world through the eyes of the individual, as does its competition, it defines who we are and why we are here based on a philosophical discussion of what reality really is. By day, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) works as a software programmer. It’s a thankless job that keeps him chained to his computer in a passionless, meaningless existence. By night, he is renowned computer hacker Neo, a man who sits at his monitor waiting for answers that never come. Then one day, he meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a beautiful secret agent from a world far beyond his imagination. It is a world where machines rule mankind, imprisoning their minds in the artificial reality known as The Matrix. Within this world, the legendary Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is a man looking for an answer of his own, and he hopes that Neo is that answer. To free mankind from the grip of the machines, and the ruthlessness of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Morpheus and the rebellion need a new messiah. And whether or not Neo fits the bill, he will have to learn fast and be ready for the challenge.
This is one round where The Matrix wins out. While there isn’t anything you could deem elementary about the story Blade Runner tells or the questions it poses, the premise is still as old as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. What The Matrix does is truly visionary. Through character and imagination, it presents an accurate metaphor, ten years ahead of its time, for the world of the future, anticipating both the horrors and the possibilities. As is so often the case when artists turn their eyes to the future, there is a lot of pessimism here, but it is all brightly underscored by a prevailing thought that technology can be harnessed for our greater good. While it is not always clear and concise with what it wants to say, it challenges viewers to decipher hidden but accessible meaning.
Advantage: The Matrix, 10-8.
While there is no denying the imagination of both films, thanks to the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix) and the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner), both screenplays have their share of annoyances. For Blade Runner, it is the surprising reality that the setting and the pulp-heavy dialog clash a bit too much, which may also have difficulty holding up in the years and imitations it has survived since. And, keep in mind that the more cooks there are in the kitchen — screenwriters Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, director Ridley Scott, the studios and their test screenings — the more likely things are to go awry, especially when there is little chemistry of vision, personal contact, and six known versions of the film to choose from. While the noir element to Blade Runner’s dialog is effective, it lacks a certain energy needed to successfully coexist with the world of Scott and crew’s creation. Likewise, The Matrix script suffers from heavy-handed religious symbolism; those canned “You are ‘The One’ moments, and a cringe-worthy exchange between Trinity and Neo’s lifeless body near the end of the film. All a bit too “God in the Machine”, which, though it seems to fit with what the film is trying to say, makes it no less a cop-out for what happens shortly thereafter. Luckily for The Matrix, the Wachowskis understand one another more thoroughly than Fancher and Peoples, and they enjoy the bonus of seeing their vision through completely from page to screen. It shows in comparison.
Advantage: The Matrix, 10-9.
Harrison Ford leads the troops into battle this round with a performance that hearkens back to the glory days of film noir, perhaps a tribute to the work of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage. Lending support are Rutger Hauer giving a standout creepy performance as lead replicant Roy Batty; Daryl Hannah showing what she can do with her grace, physicality, and raw sexuality, as Pris; Sean Young playing the meek and kind-hearted replicant Rachael (probably the biggest stretch); screen legends Edward James Olmos and M. Emmet Walsh; and veteran character actor Brion James. While The Matrix also benefits from strong support – Moss, Fishburne, Weaving, and the delightfully despicable Joe Pantoliano – it must, unfortunately, stake its hopes and dreams on another stick-horse performance from the always wooden Reeves. The only explanation I have for Reeves’ undeniable success is that he is one of the luckiest actors to ever come out of Hollywood. In his career, he has on rare occasion had the good fortune of stumbling into films that would have been fine with or without him – Speed (1994), The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Count The Matrix among that throng. Blade Runner, in contrast, is consistently good across the board, and thus takes this round, 10-9.
The Wachowski Brothers had very little experience prior to the film that still reigns supreme as a defining moment in their careers. They had penned 1995′s Assassins, an action vehicle for Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, as well as their directorial debut Bound (1996), which starred the steamy duo of Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. It wasn’t a lot to go on to earn the trust of their producers and a $63 million budget, but the Brothers delivered with a film that raked in a worldwide profit of over $400 million. Don’t think special effects played a small part in that success. Harnessing the power of CGI to create unique freeze-motion effects and fight scenes, the Wachowskis delivered an experience that inferior filmmakers wasted no time sledge-hammering into the ground. Many of the effects looked ridiculous at the time. Examples: the Cyber-Fu hand-to-hand combat moments; the building lobby shootout. But sprinkled into the mix are a handful of well orchestrated action scenes, the best of which comes near the film’s finale as Trinity pilots a chopper between skyscrapers, Neo and Morpheus hanging helplessly out of the bottom. Even after the abysmal finish, I remember turning to my buddy and saying, “That helicopter scene was worth the price of admission.” Blade Runner is a more subtle film, helmed by a master at the top of his game. For all the indecisiveness and weaknesses of the script, Ridley Scott holds this thing together like a true craftsman. Even though computers are but a small factor in his final vision, he manages to create a convincing future that is both frightening and gorgeous to look at, while balancing the performances of his stars with authority and vision. No, he doesn’t seem to possess the same level of energy as the Wachowskis, but he does manage to temper that energy with wisdom and experience. And no, this is not his best work. Advantage: Blade Runner, 10-9.
Both contestants are ambitious in what they set out to accomplish. They don’t always succeed in getting across their points in such a way that is also entertaining; nevertheless, what they are able to do is admirable, to say the least. Easy to see why many sci-fi nuts look to them as Bibles of sorts. But before the final bell, you must remember they are entertainment, and the ultimate question to answer is this: Which does a better job actually entertaining us? For me, it is the one that never loses its sense of fun. After two unnecessary sequels, the original remains untarnished:
The Matrix – SPLIT DECISION