It is fitting that The Matrix is about the limits of human perception because it's a film whose good reputation is basically due to a very common cognitive error. Before I explain what I mean by that I should give a bit of backstory for those of you who weren't alive or awake at the end of the 90s: The Matrix is a very popular and well regarded film about a seemingly normal man named Neo whose life is turned upside down after two freedom fighters named Morpheus and Trinity tell him that he's spent his entire life plugged into a computer simulation and that there is, in fact, a real world out there that he has never seen. Once Neo verifies that Morpheus and Trinity were telling him the truth, he teams up with them to fight back against the Matrix, which is the computer program that is duping the whole human race. However, before he can be an effective soldier he has to learn how to use his mind to manipulate the rules of the computer's fake world, and he has to discover if the is "The One" - the prophesized leader who could singlehandedly win the war for mankind's future.
Like a lot of people, I remember the first Matrix fondly, and there's a good reason why: it is very enjoyable... in parts. You see, I think this film actually earned it's reputation because the human brain is very much prone to the serial positioning effect, a cognitive bias where we place more emphasis on information we receive at the beginning or the end of a process than we do on what happens in the middle. It makes sense that so many of us remember The Matrix fondly because it starts well and it ends well - but unfortunately it's middle chunk is very uneven, and occasionally it's even actively bad.
Let's do the logical thing and start at the beginning: The Matrix's first half hour is incredibly solid. The movie kicks off with some cops trying to arrest Trinity, who immediately destroys them all with crazy kung fu moves before teleporting into a telephone line. This gets the movie going with a bang, not just because it involves a cool action sequence, but because it establishes a compelling mystery. Her entrance is staged so well that I caught myself wondering: who is this woman and how can she do that? even though I already knew the answers to those questions.
Shortly thereafter we meet Neo for the first time, and his appearance adds another layer of mystery to the story, because at this point he is basically an anonymous office drone, but he's being followed by the same mysterious cops for reasons he doesn't understand. Who are they? Why are they after Neo? All of The Matrix's first act is built around these sort of enigmatic questions. Not only do we not know what's going on, the main character doesn't know what's going on, and his need to understand becomes our need to understand.
It's not just the movie's metaphysical backstory we don't know at this point - we don't even know know basic background facts like when all of this is taking place. At one point Trinity picks Neo up in a car that's so old it should have tail fins, but once he's inside the car she uses a futuristic machine to remove a cybernetic tracking device that's been implanted in his stomach. The whole aesthetic is hard to pin down - the buildings look like they were taken out a 1940s gangster flick, but there are also hackers, raves and cellphones. This gives the movie a sci-fi-meets-noir tone that works surprisingly well, because even though those two genres seem very different on the surface, the Matrix finds their common ground: their fascination with the tough-but-sexy femme fatale, the creeping sense of hidden menace, the emphasis on dramatic visual framing, etc.
Now that we've covered the opening, let's jump ahead a bit: The Matrix's last half hour is also extremely good, but for completely different reasons. The film's third act doesn't feel either like a sci-fi film or a noir - it feels like a straight up action film. There is still some of the teleporting-via-phone-lines stuff, but for the most part it's a bunch of scenes where dudes with guns are shooting at other dudes with guns, and the little futuristic touches that the film continues to highlight wouldn't be too out of place in your average blockbuster; while it might still have sci-fi elements, it no longer has a particularly sci-fi-ish tone. But that doesn't mean that it's generic. In fact, the film's conclusion still has an innovative and unique feel since it combines the sort of "that helicopter is about to crash into that skyscraper!" larger than life visuals that you would expect from a loud American film with the sort of intimate mano-y-mano kung fu battles you would expect from a Hong Kong martial arts classic. It's fighting-in-broad-daylight conclusion might be the polar opposite of it's running-away-at-night opening, but The Matrix's alpha and omega scenes still make sense when you compare them to each other because both of them manage to juggle different tones and balance personal stories against big backdrops.
Unfortunately, the film's middle is not nearly as successful as it's opening or it's ending, and that is in large part because it's middle is far too devoted to the big backdrop. Most of The Matrix's second act is built around exposition: explaining to Neo what the Matrix is, how it works, how to fight it. You can tell that the Wachowskis (who wrote and directed the movie) find these parts of the story to be incredibly intriguing, but honestly, the film would be better off with less backstory because each answer they provide actually makes the waters murkier, not clearer. If you can instantly learn kung-fu by uploading a computer program into your brain why do you still need to practice? If you can learn kung fu that way why can't you learn to fly the same way? What keeps this completely artificial and mostly malleable world from turning into one gigantic game of Calvinball where the computer just starts to invent new rules as it goes along? I'm sure the Wachowskis have answers to these questions, but I'm not sure that their answers really make sense, and I'm definitely sure that I don't care. The scenario they are describing is too impractical for me to want to invest a lot of time and energy into exploring it.
I suppose part of the reason why the film's middle bugged me so much was that it signaled a sickness that was yet to come: I haven't seen either of the two Matrix sequels since they were in theaters, but I do not remember them fondly at all, in large part because I thought they were overly dominated by the Wachowski's faux-highbrow mythology that never made any sense to me. In a way, the first Matrix is a victim of the misinformation effect, which is when humans use post-event information to color their memories of that event. Perhaps it's unfair to shackle this movie to the sin's of it's sequels - but then again, it's also very fitting, because The Matrix is, after all, a movie that's all about how our everyday lives are full of fake memories and wrong perceptions.