Friday, June 6, 2003

Visions of reality: “The Matrix Reloaded” vs “The Invisibles”

Living up to the impossibly cool first ten minutes of “The Matrix” was always going to be a problem for the Matrix sequels: the tension, Carrie-Anne Moss’ stunning opening fight sequence, the first time Hugo Weaving says “your men are already dead” and its whole cyberpunk-lite sunglasses-at-night aesthetic. That sense of mystery, of an intriguing re-imagination of a genre. From there it was always going to slide downhill, unless the directors could continue to hint mysteriously, and not reveal everything in huge slabs of plot-exposition monologues.

Not a problem encountered in Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles”, which has improved over time and may be growing on me. Much as I like most British graphic-novel authors, I’ve always been ambivalent about Morrison. His blood-and-gore shock tactics are usually too Garth Ennis’ “Preacher” for me. The first volume of “The Invisibles” was also too sententious, obscure and heavy-handed in it’s “what is reality, really?” philosophy. The art was scribbly and the historical guest stars like Byron and De Sade didn’t gel.

Over the weekend I read “Counting to None” and “Kissing Mister Quimper” from the second series. Some think this was where it morphed into just another spy-action comic book. For me, it finally clicked.

“The Invisibles” is post-modern, self-parodying, science fiction. The back-story, slowly disclosed, involves a war between anarchist cells aligned with the Invisible College and forces serving the Outer Church. One represents chaos and creativity, the other order and conformity. The College and the Church, respectively, stand on the edges of concept-universes beyond human perception – where these two universes overlap they create our own, as overlapping images may create a hologram. The principle characters are literal freedom-fighters against forces of conformity, a combination of seventies spies, conspiracy theorists and new-age magicians. The range of references to science fiction, conspiracy theories, magic, religion and philosophy remain staggering, but more integrated and less in-your-face than his earlier work (or “The Matrix” films).

The “is this all a dream?” angle is heavily explored, the plot featuring: a double-agent so deep in cover she can no longer tell her original self from her fictitious persona(s); a time-traveller who wrote herself into a novel called “The Invisibles” which she now appears to be living; intimations it may all be a film (American cinema being presented as a dream-form); psychic projections allowing time-travel; and a theory that our entire universe is a complex equation of language. It leaves much to ponder and few clear answers.

Also, as the series progresses, the protagonists’ use of violence is problematised. Of the principal characters, only Gideon - a former horror novelist - has the action hero’s ability to gun down hundreds of faceless minions. His murders increasingly weigh on both his companions and the assassin himself, until he eventually throws the gun away – occasioning a further cinematic reference: “Bruce Lee never used a gun”.

I enjoyed “The Matrix Reloaded”, but it was flat cardboard plot next to Morrison’s origami. For those who can stomach even more from me on the topic, I’ve a few thoughts below. Yes, I enjoyed the fight sequences, and the freeway chase had me on the edge of my seat. Plot-exposition-by-speech though is a lame, tedious, overused device. Yes, the Matrix series throws up philosophical food for thought – in a ham-fisted, obvious way. The films are so gratified at making these references, that their relevance or plot integration is never considered. I am also faintly perturbed by the films’ basic failure to problematise the relationship between the protagonists and violence – though the heroes do now use guns less.

But yes, I had geeky fun and will see the three films back-to-back at the trilogy’s first marathon screening.

PS A thank-you to Jason for some of the Grant Morrison links.

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