The visual style of The Matrix draws on its creators’ love for the comic book and Japanese animation traditions, as well as reflecting an affinity with video game culture. These stylistic elements include certain modes of framing and lighting, along with an emphasis on violence. Clearly the bulk of the films, and the bulk of their budgets, went into choreographing fight sequences. Over the course of the trilogy, fights take place in subway stations, in grand halls, on speeding eighteen-wheelers, in empty warehouses, in spaceships, in the ravaged real world, and even in the sky above the city as Neo and Agent Smith take to flying. Although the Matrix films reference a dizzying variety of philosophies and religions, the genre conventions of science fiction and action films tend to meld large questions about the human condition with the pure entertainment of fantastic spectacles.
The “bullet time” effect, for which the Matrix films are famous, gives the audience the vicarious visual thrill of omniscience, of being able to stop time and see an event from several points of view at once. This technique offers the audience a feeling of power over the temporal world of the film, as well as over the characters, since the audience experiences the luxury of seeing the most phenomenal events in slow motion and from more than one point of view. The characters are fantastically fast and powerful, and this method of presenting the action, rather than blinding or confusing the audience with too much speed, imparts a feeling of control to the audience, as if we have superpowers too.
The mise-en-scène (physical environment of a film) displays the strong sense of metaphor throughout the trilogy. The repetitive blandness of the grid in Thomas Anderson’s plain, cubicle-laden corporate office symbolizes the Matrix’s stifling system of control, and it visually illustrates the Matrix’s latitudinal/longitudinal weblike code that Neo finally sees at the end of The Matrix. The cylindrical Zion emphasizes the city’s communal nature, and the dark sweep of the Machine City suggests the strange and massive presence that might emit anything. The cold halls of the Nebuchadnezzar and the decks strewn with wires emphasize the ragtag, underdog nature of the crew, who build and repair the ship while on the run.
Finally, the world of The Matrix is appealing because it is a world of shortcuts. Scenes change at a dizzying pace. Cameras swoop in from every direction, cutting from the ground to the sky and piercing walls and panes of glass. Thousands of guns appear in an instant, summoned by a computer keystroke. Amazing skills are downloaded instantly, instead of learned through a long process, and philosophical ideas are suggested and referenced but not fully developed. Though comic books tend to emphasize serialization and multiple plotlines that gain depth and breadth over time, the books can also be flipped through and a new episode started on a whim. The quick, bite-size, transient spirit of comics matches the production philosophy of the Matrix trilogy at every level.
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