High-Wire Act

I love The Matrix, as a film. Oh, sure, it’s a little heavy-handed on the religious imagery for my tastes, but it really managed to amalgamate a slew of varied influences into a coherent, artistically meritorious whole. In addition (and this is the part where I’m not so effusive in my praise), The Matrix has become the Blade Runner for this generation, the picture that radically changes the way subsequent films are made.

For the most part, this is not a good thing. The Matrix postulated a world in which people could do the impossible, where the physics of the environment permitted things no human could accomplish in the “real” world. Technically, this was accomplished by a (justifiably) Academy Award®-winning combination of digital effects, wire-suspended stunt work, and intelligent camera work. Within the scope of the story, it worked. But more importantly, within the scope of the picture, it worked: The film was shot in such a way as to never give away the fact that tricks were used. One of the hallmarks of wire work, for example, is that it’s easy to tell that people aren’t falling (or jumping, what have you) naturally; the eye automatically picks up the cues that deviate from real-world behavior. Andy and Larry Wachowski compensated for this by using slow-motion, unusual camera angles, and clever cutting to disguise their legerdemain.

But now, everybody’s trying to do the same thing, and I have yet to see anyone pull it off as well. The first in this modern crop was Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Lee gets a bit of a pass, in that the film is intended to be semimythical, but from a shooting standpoint, it’s glaringly obvious that it’s done with wires. Bryan Singer’s X-Men was a fantastic film, but lost points in a couple of the climactic fight scenes. Charlie’s Angels was absolutely atrocious in its use of wire work, and from the look of the sequel’s teaser trailer, McG plans to throw credibility completely out the window (beautifully shot, but I can’t bring myself to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy it). A couple of weeks ago I saw Daredevil, which, though otherwise a very good movie, again fell into the trap of depending too much on wire work to accomplish the impossible.

Now on that last, I’ll give director Mark Steven Johnson a lot of credit — the editing and cinematography did a much better job of disguising the wire work and digital trickery than the film’s trailers had, or than really any director has done of late. And granted, there’s a lot of pressure to maintain the over-the-top acrobatics of the character’s comic book origins. But it was still enough to pull me out of the film momentarily.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are being released this year, in May and November respectively. I’m hopeful that the Wachowskis will be able to show people how it’s supposed to be done, but I don’t know; there’s already at least one suspect shot in the latest trailer. In any case, I figure they’ve got a better shot of pulling it off than anyone else right now.

Judging by the success of all of the aforementioned films, the viewing public would probably accuse me of nitpicking, and to a degree, they’d have a valid point. But anything that detracts from the ability to escape into a film’s world is detrimental, especially when — as The Matrix demonstrates — it can be done correctly.


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