Aug 6, 2020
The Matrix, Revisited: 50% of a great trilogy
“What is the Matrix?” was the question for 1999 movie fans on the verge of experiencing one of the more influential sci-fi films of the era. That question still applies in respect to its legacy over a decade after the end of the trilogy. Is it still the highly regarded mix of spectacular special effects, effective fast-paced action sequences, and fun philosophical questions that it was at one point?
By now, the strong critical and fan reception of the original movie is marred somewhat in retrospect by the latter two films of the trilogy, and by some of the more recent high-profile failures of the Wachowskis. The original Matrix seemed to make promises that the writing in Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions was unable to deliver on. Was all the praise and interest in the philosophical and spiritual messages of the first movie the undeserved result of the relative scarcity of great, thoughtful science fiction of the era? Will the Matrix movies be regarded alongside other landmark cinematic sci-fi franchises like Aliens, Star Trek, Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Critters? I propose that the Matrix trilogy is 50% of a great trilogy, by which I mean the greatness rests in the first one and half of Reloaded. Matrix: Revolutions contains 0% greatness, 40% stupidity, and 60% boredom.
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What’s fascinating in what resonates and makes a lasting impact in the films is those elements that don’t. By which I mean that the hero at its heart, Keanu Reeves, is mostly bland and forgettable. The same goes for the romance that involves him and Trinity, a romance that leaves little effect on the viewer. For the most part, these are not movies with characters at the heart. Few of the human characters introduced in the two sequels, the Zion residents, are particularly memorable. Other than Morpheus (and Cypher from the first movie), I would say that many of the most memorable characters are programs, which includes Agent Smith, the Oracle, and the Merovingian.
As I wrote earlier, the 2003 sequels really failed to deliver on the ideas and themes put in place by the first film, and that’s had an impact on the legacy of this trilogy. The first movie had something philosophical at its core to say, about perception, illusion, control, etc., whereas Reloaded and Revolutions had less to say. Reloaded turned its philosophical focus to choice and causality, but it often seemed to do so in ways that were less organic to the plot or scenes, as characters would just stop to deliver speeches on a specific point or idea that the writers wanted expressed. At various times in Reloaded this occurs with the Merovingian, the Architect, and the Oracle. It’s almost like [shudder] the expository dialogue in some of the Star Wars prequels about politics, or the Jedi council scenes. Finally, Revolutions dispenses with much of the philosophical in favor of long stretches of numbing battle scenes. There’s some talk of balance and harmony, kittens and rainbows, but it’s pretty empty by that point.
1999’s The Matrix features several stunning moments of imagery that really deserve to be seen on a big screen and don’t feel superfluous or out of place. By contrast, these are less and less frequent by the sequels. The first movie has the fields where the humans are “grown” before being placed into the Matrix, several early scenes where Neo is introduced to various concepts in the Matrix, the “bullet time” fight sequences, and Neo jumping into Agent Smith’s body and forcing his way out. To be sure, Reloaded has some impressive effects and sequences, like the highway chase, Albino twin ghost stuff, and a football team worth of Smiths fighting Neo, but by this point, the novelty has worn off, and the impact on the audience isn’t the same.
One of the biggest criticisms that the last movie gets is the ending, and therefore the trilogy itself must face this criticism. The first movie repeatedly referenced the idea of liberation, and described the relationship between the machines (and their agents within the Matrix) and the humans as one of domination and exploitation. The Matrix was a system of control that kept the humans within it subjugated. Yet, by the time of Revolutions, the promise of liberation and overthrow of that system is pushed aside in favor of the idea of truce, that peaceful relations between the humans and the machines would be established both within and alongside the Matrix, with that system and virtual environment kept intact. I find it humorous that this resolution somewhat validates Cypher’s perspective from the first movie. Cypher is weary of the struggle for freedom and liberation, and comes to see the outcome of his personal “liberation” as a Pyrrhic victory that cost him the more simple and materialistic pleasures of the Matrix. He argues that the difference between illusion and reality isn’t that important if the illusion is so much more enjoyable. And it’s hard to argue that the contrast isn’t jarring when you see him enjoying fine dining versus the more spartan lifestyle the rebels had on the ship. It’s even more worthy of reconsideration in the sequels, when the audience sees the way that the free residents of Zion live. Existence within the Matrix simulation seems preferable in most quantifiable ways. Of course, from a dramatic perspective, Cypher’s outlook isn’t meant to be embraced, as he plays the role of traitor, betraying his allies, but his actions are separate issues from his argument.
The Matrix was one of several films to come out around the late ‘90s that focused on the issue of technological illusion and virtual reality. Other movies to grapple with these themes or issues were Existenz, Dark City, and The Thirteenth Floor. And of course science fiction on screen and in print has long grappled with the issue of reality, illusion, and the ethics and considerations of navigating between them. Sometimes these same shows and stories have been fairly sympathetic to the “illusion” side. Star Trek showed how enticing the Holodeck could be, and to me there seems to be a lot of similarities between the Holodeck and the Matrix, especially if you look at it from the perspective of holo-characters like Vic Fontaine or Moriarty, rather than the visiting guests who aren’t trapped within the illusion. In the Star Trek TOS episode “The Menagerie”, a severely crippled Christopher Pike makes the decision to embrace a pleasing fantasy rather than continue with the harsh limitations of his condition. And then there’s the season six Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again” which teases the audience with its ending that suggests that the main character chooses her private fantasy as a superhero rather than face the possibility that she’s suffering from a delusion.
I wanted to look at the Matrix trilogy within the context of other cinematic sci-fi and well-known sci-fi trilogies as well. Did The Matrix, with its engagement of ideas that were very relevant to its time, come along at just the right moment in movie sci-fi to make the impact that it did? Phantom Menace was supposed to be the big sci-fi movie of 1999, but The Matrix stole its thunder with a better reception for both the movie itself and its effects. Was the less impressive reaction to its sequels a result of changes in the sci-fi/fantasy cinematic landscape? Between 1999 and 2003, the Lord of the Rings movies were being released and making their impact, and the success of the first two X-Men movies, as well as 2002’s Spider-Man were showing that comic book movies had arrived. On the other hand, Reloaded had a huge opening and was still a big financial success, so the audience interest was still there.
I think that turning a hugely successful movie into sequels or a trilogy is often a matter of what path to take: repetition or expansion. The sequels can be a retread of what came before, giving the audience more of what they want. Or the writing can try to expand the fictional setting of the first movie, opening up new avenues for storytelling. The Matrix trilogy chose to expand the setting for the sequels, and thus set up the possibility of a letdown. The writing with the latter two movies developed further ideas about the nature of the Matrix construct, its design and origin, and the sentient machines or programs within it. The role and motivations of Agent Smith were changed as well. While still leaving him the villain of the movies with the dry wit, he acted more on his own and for his own purposes, having been, as he put it, “set free.” And of course the meaning of the prophecy and “the One” was expanded, or rather, by the end of both the second and third movies, changed mostly beyond recognition. Whatever the letdown of the trilogy’s conclusion and its unrealized ambitions, it’s still a noteworthy entry into the collection of original science fiction trilogies.