Defending the Matrix sequels
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The Matrix became a sensation almost from the moment it was released in spring 1999, for a number of reasons. One reason was the sheer novelty. Although Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski wowed some cinephiles with the stylish, sexy 1996 neo-noir Bound, the brothers still weren’t widely known, and The Matrix wasn’t based on any existing, market-tested property. But it had a hell of a trailer, with Keanu Reeves dodging bullets, and cool-looking characters practicing martial arts in mid-air. And since The Matrix came out during a thin stretch of the movie calendar, audiences turned out. And then they came back, weekend after weekend, bringing their friends to see something that wasn’t like any other movie out there at the time.
The second reason The Matrix did so well is that it’s very, very good. Even now, after two decades of other films aping its visual style and special effects, the original remains instantly hooky, with one grabby scene after another. And I’m not just talking about the action sequences, which actually have lost a little of their power to thrill, after so much repetition. The plot itself has a highly satisfying structure, first introducing super-hacker Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Reeves), then having Neo discover that there’s another layer of reality beneath what his conscious mind has always known. Once Neo learns that his real body is actually plugged into a machine in a dystopian future, there follows an unplugging, and then an extended training sequence, during which he learns to manipulate reality inside “The Matrix,” thus aiding the surviving humans in the rebellion against their mechanical oppressors. It’s a classic hero’s journey, bolstered by the feeling of true revelation—“Ah, so this is why the world feels so phony sometimes”—buoyed by the movie’s fairly sophisticated conversations about what “reality” and “destiny” mean.
I’m not sure exactly when the wild enthusiasm for The Matrix curdled into disgust for its two 2003 sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (released in May) and The Matrix Revolutions (released in November). My sense is that the darker, hokier, more thunderous Revolutions so depressed fans that the backlash dragged the reasonably well-received Reloaded down with it. But I do remember some grumblings when Reloaded was released, too—along the lines of, “This all better be headed somewhere amazing.” The relatively weak box-office take for the third film is another indicator that some were so put off by Reloaded that they didn’t even bother with the third act. Still… the reviews for Reloaded weren’t terrible. And neither is the movie, in my opinion.
Granted, I can’t contend that either Matrix sequel is as good as the original, which is one of the best films of its decade. I also can’t contend that The Matrix really needed a sequel—let alone two. As with Star Wars, The Matrix introduces a world and a history and hints that there’s more to be revealed, but it doesn’t really play like the first chapter of a story. If anything, one of the keys to The Matrix’s success is that it intentionally leaves so many questions unanswered about who Neo really is, and how the virtual world and the real world intersect. Fans were left to hash all that out among themselves—which at the time proved as diverting as the movie itself.
That said, The Matrix Reloaded honors the original’s inquisitive spirit and amped-up action. The movie is practically a setpiece-delivery device, from Neo fighting a multitude of the enforcer program known as “Agent Smith” to his cohorts Morpheus and Trinity zipping down a freeway while being chased by spectral twins. And between the eye-popping chase-and-fight scenes, there’s lots and lots of talk. Some of the winding, philosophical conversations in Reloaded appear to have been inspired by the Internet chatter and academic papers that bubbled up after the success of The Matrix. The characters confront whether The Oracle, who guides Neo, is really trustworthy, given that she’s only a program; and they discuss whether free will exists in relation to prophecy, and whether it’s necessary to understand how machines work in order to use them. Then Reloaded climaxes with another intense “everything you know is wrong” reveal, as Neo meets The Architect, who tells him that this whole rebellion scenario has played out multiple times before, and always ends the same, with the world being destroyed and recreated. The Matrix Reloaded rests in the tradition of trilogy fulcrums: It extends the mythology while hinting that the audience’s previous presumptions are off base. Reloaded is also the Matrix film with the most heart, linking Neo’s choices to his love for Trinity. Overall, the movie has high entertainment value.
Revolutions is a little harder to defend, because it isn’t as entertaining. It was shot consecutively with Reloaded, and the two films are meant to play as one long story, which means that Revolutions doesn’t work all that well as a film unto itself. The plot is essentially a one-act—one long, clamorous act. The machines attack Zion, the humans fight in vain to repel them, and Neo heads into the heart of Machine City to forge a truce, won by his defeat of the viral Agent Smith. And that’s pretty much it. Unlike the first two films, which had varied locations and action, Revolutions takes place almost entirely in a dark, stormy future, and is dominated by robots, spaceships, and big guns. Also, because the actress who played The Oracle (Gloria Foster) died before the trilogy could be completed and had to be replaced by another (Mary Alice), Revolutions seems more like a strained, after-the-fact cash-in than it was ever meant to be. Some of the big superheroic sequences come off as sillier this time, too—especially the scenes in which a blinded Neo waves his hands in the air to telekinetically dispel a Sentinel attack—and the structure of the story is such that Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity all disappear from the film for a long stretch. So yes, Revolutions is much cheesier—like a Matrix movie made for people not yet ready to unplug.
But again, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation. Like Reloaded, Revolutions grounds The Matrix’s “epic battle that’s gone on for generations” backdrop in specifics, showing the home lives of some weary rebels, along with the eerie beauty of the H.R. Giger-y machine world. Revolutions has plenty of memorable images and moments, especially toward the end, when Neo and Trinity ascend above the clouds surrounding Machine City and are awestruck by the natural sky, and when Neo speaks with the machines, who’ve formed into the shape of a face. I also love the final battle royal between Neo and Smith on a rainy street, flanked by other Smiths. The big finish completes the gradual transformation of The Matrix series from hard science fiction to a superhero story, and it brings the scattered philosophical musings of the previous films toward a fairly profound resolution.
I’ll get back to that profundity in a moment, but first, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that my household has a history with The Matrix. My wife Donna Bowman wrote an academic article on Gnosticism and Pauline theology in The Matrix Reloaded, and as a result was invited by the producers of the DVD box set to be interviewed for the featurette “The Roots Of The Matrix.” So in spring 2004, while on her way to Korea for an international conference on Whitehead—and while six months pregnant with our daughter—Donna stopped off at the Burlyman Entertainment offices in Venice Beach, and spent an afternoon talking about the series’ theological underpinnings.
I mention this because that fact alone might be enough for some people to discount my opinion of the Matrix sequels, which have become one of those pieces of popular culture that some folks seem to have a vested interest in discrediting. Like the Star Wars prequels, Coldplay, and three-camera sitcoms, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions have become shorthand for “crummy” in some circles. I think a lot of this has to do with how much—and why—people loved The Matrix. The first film was a zesty stew of cinematic and literary genres, emphasizing maximum action coupled with self-actualization. The next two are paunchier, and with more stress on emotion and human connection. As I’ve noted before with the reaction to the latter seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Lost, certain science-fiction/fantasy fans get irritable when a franchise that seemed to be about high thrills and mysteries suddenly takes a turn toward love and spirituality. Maybe that’s why some members of the fan community are so dedicated to controlling the critical narrative when it comes to geek-friendly TV shows and movies. They don’t want anyone to start thinking that this kind of sap is acceptable.
The irony, though, is that when it comes to The Matrix, the overarching message resists reductive either-or responses. Yes, the story begins with Neo choosing between a blue pill and a red pill, and yes, when Neo meets The Architect he has to pick between two doors—as befits the binary nature of a digital world. But by the end of the third film, it becomes clearer that this universe isn’t necessarily guided by yes/no propositions. What people choose is less important than that they choose. Neo is “The One,” not because he’s been divinely anointed, but because other people believe he can accomplish the impossible, and as a result he believes in himself. Yet even though The Matrix ends with Neo saying that he plans to spread the message that people can set themselves free, in the years that followed the movie’s release, many read it exclusively as the story of a lone savior in an all-or-nothing fight. So Reloaded and Revolutions are more explicit: Anyone could be Neo; and it isn’t necessary for either side in this war to “win.” There is no spoon, y’all.
Neither of the Matrix sequels are as tight as the original, which packed multiple reversals of fortune and narrow escapes into its two hours and 15 minutes, all while adding cast members and expanding the scope of the story with every reel. But the Wachowskis’ love—or theft, depending on your point of view—of kung-fu movies, comic books, science-fiction novels, and underground cool does persist into films two and three. Reloaded, especially, is a wonderland for genre buffs of all stripes, from Neo “doing his Superman thing” to the hidden passages and corridors in the lair of The Merovingian to the meeting with The Architect, which resembles the ending to the Cerebus storyline “Church & State.” (In that book, Cerebus learns that the great events he’s facilitating have happened before, over and over. And then he meets “The Judge,” who tells Cerebus the true origin of the universe and his own pathetic place in it.) Fans of comic-book writer Grant Morrison have accused the Wachowskis of ripping off Morrison’s series The Invisibles, but there are many, many other influences on display here, including Alan Moore’s Marvelman comics, the manga/anime Ghost In The Shell, the novels of William Gibson, the short stories of Harlan Ellison, caper movies, rave culture, and more.
What I like most about the entire series is that unlike so many blockbusters-by-committee, The Matrix movies feel like personal films. (It probably helps that the Wachowskis are so publicity-shy, and aren’t going around giving interviews revealing their intentions, or saying, “Nah, none of this means anything; we just like stuff that looks awesome.”) The brothers are superior stylists, as was proved by their underrated 2008 Speed Racer, which was almost all style. But the way they lavish loving attention on a bowl of chocolate-chip cookie dough in Revolutions, or on a sweaty dance party in Reloaded, backs up what Mouse says in The Matrix: “To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” There’s clearly a passion, a point of view, and a beating heart in all these movies, even if that heart beats more erratically as the series comes to its end.
That’s why my favorite moment in all of the Matrix series happens in the weakest film, Revolutions. It comes after Neo has defeated Agent Smith, by allowing himself to be absorbed by Smith before destroying him from within. (An elegant solution that condenses the arc of the entire series into one stroke.) Back at Zion, the Sentinels that were threatening the human enclave immediately withdraw, and it takes a moment before the survivors realize that the war is over. The decisive event has happened far away, out of view, and there’s no declaration of peace for the humans to react to. They have to interpret the moment for themselves. And once an awareness dawns, Morpheus says, “I have imagined this moment for so long. Is this real?”
For all the artificial razzle-dazzle and genre-mashing of the Matrix series, here’s a small, human moment, where the truth—powerful as it is—doesn’t match up with the fantasy. It’s such a fine distillation of so much of what these movies have been about, as well as an inadvertent commentary on the public reaction to them. Because of our expectations, we can’t always recognize when something phenomenal has occurred.