“Why oh why…didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”
Do you remember what it was like watching The Matrix for the first time? After two sequels, infinite parodies, and maybe one too many stoner discussions on the movie’s philosphies and mechanics might sort of retroactively dull the thrill, but watching this movie for the first time in the theater was just unbelievable. The number of things I saw in that movie that I had just never seen before is basically unrivaled for me. And this was at the height of my movie snob phase, no less–thank god the movie got 3 1/2 out of 4 in the Inquirer, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have seen it until after the third one was out.
Even more impressive than how, well, impressive the movie was, was how unexpected the whole thing. Before the internet made critical and fan consensus hype virtually unavoidable, all I really had to go on at the time were the previews. And they were ridiculously enigmatic–purposefully so, I think, meant to build buzz the old-fashioned way through mystery and word of mouth. It’s an approach that works exactly one out of every 137 times a studio tries it, but it really worked here–going in, I had as little idea about what The Matrix was going to be like. No greater favor can be afforded a movie than low fan expectations, and The Matrix was brilliant to do so little to assuage them–especially since the movie more than spoke for itself.
So it was kind of cool that Neo’s indoctrination to the world of The Matrix sort of echoed that of the fans–unlike most movies of The Matrix‘s size, where you already know exactly what’s going to happen and just hope that getting there is kind of cool, you legitimately had absolutely no idea what was coming next watching this movie. A whole lot of weird shit happens to him in the first half-hour or so in the movie–his mouth grows shut, evil mechanical scorpions crawl into his belly button, and eventually he gets swallowed by a liquid mirror. All things considered, he handles it pretty well–better than 13-year-old me, anyway, who was freaking out at just about every moment. In a good way. As Neo swallows the Red Pill and prepares to have his mind blown, we’re suddenly bracing ourselves for anything and everything.
Enter Joe Pantoliano. Is there a more underrated pop cultural force from the last 25 years? It’s easy to call him a quintessential that guy–everyone knows his face, nobody knwos his name–but after enough hits, don’t you stop being a ____-hit wonder and start being a legitimate Greatest Hits act? I mean, c’mon, this is Ralphie Cifaretto we’re talking about! John G! Guido the Killer Pimp! Not to mention Midnight Run, Bound, The Fugitive, Bad Boys, Goonies–Al Pacino’s resume from the last two and a half decades isn’t even this impressive. Add in his turn here as cyberturncoat Cypher…you’ve got a veritable pop culture legend on your hands.
In just about all of these movies, Joey Pants’ characters hit that perfect mix of pity, disgust and dread, to inspire a blend of hatred and sympathy from viewers rivalled by few. You definitely don’t like him, but you kinda see where he’s coming from. I mean, who is this Neo guy anyway, and why does everyone love him so much? He doesn’t even wear an earring! Or have facial hair! He’s a Christ figure, and Christ figures have lousy senses of humor. He has no place for a sardonic wisecracker like Cypher in his revolution, or even in his social circle. Cypher’s betrayal was more of a pre-emptive strike than anything.
But before all that, before Keanu even goes down the rabbit hole, Cypher gives Neo a piece of advice that no one watching the movie could ever forget:
“Buckle your seat belt, Dorothy. Because Kansas–is going BYE BYE.”
Yeah, I know. It’s a terrible line. A truly epic piece of badness. My brother once hit the nail on the head: “It’s like it packs every bad action movie cliche ever into one line.” Yet–it works. Because that’s exactly what The Matrix felt like–that rollercoaster ride feel where you get that rare and unbelievably exciting feeling that you’re in uncharted cinematic territory. It’s totally right. Minus the badness.