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November 09, 2003

The Matrix: Revolting

Slate nails what went wrong with "The Matrix Revolutions" about as well as anyone can, considering the broad swaths of ground fertile for loathing it and its co-sequel cleared:

"It seems that, in conceiving their pair of sequels to The Matrix, the writing and directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski overestimated the profundity of the original's philosophical musings. The resulting ponderousness might have been excusable, except that they disastrously misidentified which of those musings was most important to the original -- namely, the Matrix itself."

The piece concerns itself with the areas where the sequels fell apart in terms of their world view and general philosophical thrust. I agree with a lot of the author's discontent, but I'm still contending with the real source of my disappointment, which is either in the content, as identified by the Slate author, or the form, which is flayed with some accuracy by James Berardinelli.

I was left as non-plussed by "Revolutions" as I was "Underworld," which is a shocking comment on how far things degenerated between the original and its sequels. Perhaps all the Wachowskis were ever really up for were the twin moments of Trinity's first fight in the opening scene and the moment when Neo is awakened in his pod. What has come after hasn't come near the impact of those moments, and as a certified member of the "Neo can stop the sentinels because 'the real world' isn't," club I'd say they dropped the one good opportunity they had to recreate those moments in the sequels.

As it is things fall flat and come off, somehow, as listless and by-the-numbers. Some of that is the unfortunate division into several plot lines: Neo's trip to the machine city and battle with Agent Smith, Niobe and Morpheus' flight to Zion, and the defense of Zion.

Niobe's story could have been discarded altogether with little lost except a chase scene, and with the gain of reclaiming Morpheus for a more useful thread. Until Neo came into his own, Morpheus was the badass of the original cast, and in "Revolutions" he's reduced to sitting around and co-piloting. Not only is there a sense that narrative economy has been squandered to squeeze in a chase scene, there's a sense that one of the more interesting players was needlessly sidelined to enhance our sense of investment in that chase.

The defense of Zion, while rousing at points by dint of its sheer volume, ate screen time with special effects of such improbable magnitude that I was yanked out of the moment time and time again. As several reviewers have noted, the battle sequences felt more like video game tie-in opportunities than things that were intrinsic to the plot, since it's almost immediately clear that regardless of how well Zion defends itself, its survival will depend on Neo's actions.

Neo's story, in which he receives the last bits of knowledge he needs to complete his transformation from clueless nerd to messiah, had the most potential, but it was reduced, in the end, to a big fist fight with Agent Smith, who's still spending most of his time complaining about smelly humans. While Smith was a great foil in the first movie, it seems wrong to turn him into the putative Satan of an allegory wrapped up in the idea that evil lies not in the functionaries ("the woman in the red dress" training sequence in the first movie made that point), but in the very "matrix" in which good and evil contend.

But wondering if Agent Smith is properly used begins crossing me into the territory of issues with the content of the film as opposed to its form, and I'm still not sure if better content would have helped me overcome the generic and confused form, or if that troubled form would have dulled some of the joy good content would have brought.

Considering my enjoyment of "The Animatrix," which involved several simple stories that further explored the dynamics of the world in which The Matrix exists, I'm inclined to say they could have botched the mechanics quite a bit and gotten away with it, if those nagging issues of content had been dealt with better. But they didn't, and I'm a little surprised to note that my disappointment is less the angry seething of a fan betrayed and more the dull indifference of an audience member taken for yet another ride by the Hollywood hype machine.

Posted by mph at November 9, 2003 03:42 PM


Nicely said.

Posted by: Sven at November 10, 2003 08:07 AM

Best to put it behind you like the load of wank it was.

But buck up, son: The Two Towers extended edition comes out next Tuesday.

Posted by: pk at November 10, 2003 10:14 AM

Yup! I'm all about "The Lord of the Rings" at this point. Yeah... I've got some fannish nits to pick, but I've walked out of each installment pleased that I paid my money and looking forward to the next.

I certainly haven't had the "Oh my god, I think this sucks," moment I had in "The Matrix Reloaded" in either LotR installment, even when the divergence from source became too much to ignore in the name of filmic narrative necessity.

Almost everyone on rec.art.books.tolkien disagrees. :-)

Posted by: Michael Hall at November 10, 2003 10:24 AM

I think that Andy and Larry Wachowski simply got in over their heads. Which is easy to do as Lucas so elegantly pointed out to us starting with Episode Six. Like a fifteen year old boy with his first sexual encounter, they got too out of control wanting to tell us really nifty things - even at the cost of the characters or the enviroment.

You could almost see the oricle speaking to the brothers : "It's your choice to see how much you want to put into the movie. You could go the route of simple elegance or overload the movie with what you want to say. But you already know what choice you two are going to make, don't you? Even I can't tell you how it will turn out..."

Reading Michael Hall's post caught a point for me that much more sad than Morphius being side-lined was the that that the entire Matrix was side-lined in the prusuit of the brothers saying "Wait, wait! There's more we want to tell you!"

As Bryan Singer Christopher McQuarrie showed us with The Usual Suspects, you can have loads of complexity and characters intertwine. I think that the Brothers, while having an explosive idea, missed the mark on execution...

What I can say about the Wachowskis is that regardless of how they performed in M2 and M3, they did give us a fully realized world for lots of other folks to explore either via writing or RPGs. I think that's certainly cool and worth some credit.

Posted by: Michael P. Burton at November 10, 2003 12:51 PM

Quoth Michael B.:

>>>What I can say about the Wachowskis is that regardless of how they performed in M2 and M3, they did give us a fully realized world for lots of other folks to explore either via writing or RPGs. I think that's certainly cool and worth some credit.

Close enough to "fully realized" for soup, anyhow.

It could be that the Wachowskis were merely John the Baptist on this one, announcing and preparing, but not really meant to be, er, The One. Lord knows a lot of their former fans won't mind seeing their heads on a silver platter, anyhow.

I wonder how much control they retained, because this might be a case where a Paramount/Star Trek style licensing smorgasboard would provide some value from good raw material, as opposed to the horrible way in which "Dune" has been turned into the private preserve of an inadequate scion.

Or, as with Star Trek, it could just turn into another excuse for the bookstores to squeeze out original, one-shot science fiction in favor of yet another elephantine franchise. I could do without that.

I'm guessing they have too much control to offer much hope for (the inevitable) ongoing film franchise unless they get some of that discipline Michael B. implies they could use or get a veteran producer to fight them the way Irvin Kershner fought George Lucas over the course of "The Empire Strikes Back."

Either way, the sequels have definitely moved any further installments into the territory of "going to see it at a matinee after the crowds die down," if that, considering how precious my movie-going time will become after January. :-)

Posted by: Michael Hall at November 10, 2003 01:23 PM

I finally went to see it Tuesday night. I thought she'd *never* die. Oy.

Bring on the Hobbits!


Posted by: Cristina at November 13, 2003 10:15 AM

i watched reloaded the other day, and it sucked.

now i can't bring myself to spending ten bucks on the new one.

i think its gonna wait for netflix.

Posted by: The Mighty Jimbo at November 18, 2003 11:29 PM

I think you all missed it. As much as you rant and contort and try to showcase your robust talent of syntax, you still fell short of it all. The Matrix (and I say that including its sequels) was not stupid. For you to say so only illustrates your ineptitude mentalities. The truth is you simply didn't get it. For one, I've read here that Morpheus "was some bad ass character reduced to a copilot" (loosely translated), but I ask you, what role would you then serve, if your main role had been fullfilled? What happens to Pontius Pilate after he kills Jesus? We don't know! His purpose is served, his intent made. Only instead of making Morpheus disappear into the oblivion of non-neccessities, the Wachowski's chose to keep him there, because remained a part of the story, though not as forefront as before, but he was still there. You speak of moments that could've been met to equal the first movie, but you again fail to see beyond your own distatse of the franchise. Stop comparing it to the first one!!! You watch the sequels with expectations and you leave wanting. Nothing will match the magic of the first one because the first one caught you off guard, you didn't know what to expect, nothing was as it seemed. But now, when movie after movie hints at, or blatantly steals its forms and sensibilities, you seem put out because you prize has lost its luster. Boo hoo. Point the fingers at yourselves for not seeing the greatness of the two, not the directors.
In addition to that, you hold the Animatrix to a different standard for no reason as well. They are one and the same with intent. The Animatrix as well as all three films are glimpses into a frame of time in the Matrix itself. Where the movies are simply a tale illustrating the Matrix's end, The Animatrix are a series of tales spread out over its life span. There is no difference - judging the "neccessary content" of Revolutions (the defense of Zion)is a futile gesture. It happened, that's why it was shown. To tell the tale, if it were all a matter of interest then the film would be nothing more than a series of kung fu flips, splashes of bullet time and naked women dancing slowly. I'm offended by the way you people have taken to these films, the only betrayal here is by the populace which someone thought was ready to learn the truth and sadly it seems, none of you are.

Posted by: Humble Listener at January 17, 2004 10:07 PM