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Non-Review Review: The Matrix Reloaded

Today I’m taking a look at the Matrix trilogy. All three films, all watched and reviewed in one day. Join us for the fun! All three reviews will be going on-line today.

No, what happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.

How do you know?

We are still alive.

– Morpheus and Neo have one of the least obtuse conversations in the film

The reaction to the second and third films in The Matrix series has always somewhat surprised me. I don’t mean that I can’t see the criticism typically levelled at the films – I can see it and I agree with most of it. I mean that most viewers regard the second film as stronger than the third, while I always considered it the other way around. Rewatching all three films in one day just cemented that opinion – but I’m still curious about why cinema fans tend to favour the middle instalment over the last. Neither is as efficient or effective as the first film, but while I appreciate the sense of closure (and action) of the third film, I find myself regarding a significant portion of the second film as just idle padding – the franchise positioning itself for a final film, which would then go on to ignore a lot of what was suggested here.

Blade of glory?

I should, of course, clarify that I am not talking about the movie’s somewhat large amount of philosophical discourse when I mention “padding”. All three films contain fairly massive quantities of debate on the nature of concepts as fundamental as free will and reality. Instead, I am talking about the movie’s plotting. The film contains two major action beats. The first is the famous “burly man brawl” between Neo and the former Agent Smith, while the second is a three-way car chase down a freeway. The problem is that none of these sequences seem particularly important. Smith and Neo would tangle again (and definitively) at the end of the third film, while the car chase is part of an attempt to grab a plot device only tangentially related to the central plot of the trilogy.

As a result, the bulk of the film feels like it could be safely discarded. The really pivotal element comes near the climax of the film – the conversation between Neo and the Architect. Despite the impending destruction of Zion, it’s only that interaction which seems to kick the movie into action – everything else seems almost like window dressing. Smith talks a lot about “purpose” during his early encounter with Neo, and it’s easy to sense that a lot of the movie is without that purpose. It doesn’t seem like anything is moving forward or that – until Neo walks into the strange room fifteen minutes before the movie ends – anybody is any closer to anything than when the movie started.

This script needed a good punching up...

This lack of progress isn’t necessarily a problem, but it becomes one when the Wachowskis decide to pad out the plot with lots of unnecessary and seemingly pointless subplots and world-building. I get the sense that the second and third Matrix movies might perhaps have worked better as books in an on-going science-fiction series. Certain elements of the film don’t really work within the context of a big science-fiction movie, such as the time devoted to painstakingly mapping out the political structure of the city of Zion and the complicated personal politics of its inhabitants.

Too many tangential characters are introduced too quickly, with too much exposition. In the opening ten minutes, we are introduced to a love triangle. However, we only really know (and thus only really care about) one of the three parties involved. “She used to be with Morpheus,” Trinity explains of  the new character Niobe. “Now she’s with Lock.” We don’t know Lock either. When he’s introduced, he is antagonistic to Morpheus for no reason whatsoever, other than to set up some heightened melodrama. “If it were up to me, Captain,” he remarks at one stage, “you wouldn’t set foot on a ship for the rest of your life.”

He doesn't need to be faster than a speeding bullet...

This focus on heightened melodrama seems frustratingly pointless, as does a prolonged temple/rave/orgy sequence later on (which seemingly exists only to serve as a counterpoint to a machine rave/orgy scene at the start of the next film). In a book, where space is less of a concern, these elements could be considered as world-building, but they just serve to clutter the film. It’s quite similar to the way that Lucas tangled up a lot of the Star Wars prequels with dull and pointless palace politics. You could argue that they help give a greater sense of the fictional universe, but they do eat into time and distract away from the plot or from development of characters we actually care about.

These scenes in Zion really kill the movie, sapping it of momentum. It doesn’t help that everybody in the place speaks in that stilted way that sci-fi cultures always speak (saying stuff like “we do not wish to start a panic” instead of “we don’t want to start a panic”). That sort of contraction-less speech worked well for the Coen Brothers in True Grit, but – despite the fact they are siblings working in the entertainment industry – it should be apparent that the Wachowskis aren’t the Coens.

The action is explosive...

In fairness to the film, it does look fantastic. The production design is spectacular, especially in Zion itself. The soundtrack is especially awesome – I own the soundtracks to the films, and the score is quite impressive. All the choreography continues to be of the highest quality. And, despite the fact that movies perhaps get too bogged down in them, the Wachowski Brothers deserve credit for daring to ask these sorts of questions within the framework of a huge studio production. It doesn’t always work out, but I genuinely admire the effort that they make to provoke and challenge the audience.

However, the simple fact is that The Matrix Reloaded finds itself rather academic compared to the original film. I won’t presume to describe the first movie as “realistic” or anything, but it certainly felt more visceral. There was, for example, a sense of genuine threat to the mysterious and sinister agents – Neo was the first to defeat an agent at the climax of the first film. This time around, the villains have been drained of all their mystique. Neo seems almost disinterested during the opening fight sequence against a few agents and later takes on an entire dogpile (or “Smithpile”) of Smith clones singlehanded.

Smith & Smith...

Despite the occasional suggestion that Neo is “just a man” (after he bleeds when he stops a blade with his hand – rather than, y’know, having it chopped off), the movie makes it clear Neo is pretty much a god. Hell, when Morpheus tries to find Neo early in the film, we’re informed “he’s doing his Superman thing.” It’s certainly an apt comparison, but Neo doesn’t even have a weakness to kryptonite. There’s no plot hurdle he can’t overcome. When the villain attempts to take Neo off the board by stranding him in the mountains, Neo need only fly back to join his friends – it’s a minor inconvenience to our lead at best. Again, it’s only during his conversation with the Architect near the end that we get a sense that Neo might possibly be more vulnerable than he appears.

There are also several plot-related problems that arise from the rather abundant amount of extra materials. There are characters and references and actions which are only really explained if you happen to play the Enter the Matrix video game or watch The Animatrix tie-in films. I can understand that this is a catch-22 situation – if you make the extras completely superfluous than they feel like cheap cash-ins, but if you make them essential then you damage the core product – but it still doesn’t excuse it. Movies like this should be accessible to everyone going to see them. Tell a good story in the tie-in materials and they’ll sell themselves – don’t create a dependency in the large product for the smaller one.

The Architect of his own destiny?

Including key plot information in supporting materials that the majority of fans are never going to see just locks casual movie-goers out of the film. It is possible to offer extra material without excluding those viewers who don’t buy the tie-in DVD or video-game, but the movie actually feels like there are chunks missing in Niobe’s subplot (explained in the game) or with the character of “the Kid” (the Animatrix). They don’t really interfere with the main plot, but – at the same time – you can sense that there is something missing. You feel like you’re being locked out of the VIP area at the party. The “expanded universes” of any number of science-fiction properties (from Star Trek to Star Wars) never intrude on the core material in such a fashion.

That said, the stuntwork and visual effects in the series continue to impress. The two key action sequences I mentioned above are great moments and they are captured effectively on film – they get the adrenaline and blood pumping. There are moments during the brawl between Smith and Neo when you are aware that you are watching a CGI representation of Keanu Reeves, but it’s still an effective action sequence. (For the record, I am proud that I didn’t make a cheap joke about how difficult it would be to tell a CGI Keanu Reeves from the real deal.) The freeway chase sequence is well-handled and makes for a compelling 14 minutes, especially with the volume turned way up. It might be the best action sequence of the trilogy. It’s just somewhat ironic in a film so fixated on reason and purpose that it feels so disconnected from the core of the franchise.

La Vita Bellucci...

In fairness to the film, it does have more than a few clever ideas behind it. I especially like the notion of “back doors” in code that can be hacked to take a shortcut around the Matrix. There’s also the notion of the no-longer-Agent Smith surviving as a badly-damaged virus, replicating through the system. It helps that Hugo Weaving is just deadly as a menacing bad guy. Even the most awkward lines sound great from him. “The best thing about being me,” he boasts at one point, with a line that would make lesser actors tremble, “is that there are so many ‘me’s.” Of course, Smith’s involvement here seems almost tangential to main plot (which makes it even more frustrating when he’s revealed as the primary theat in the following movie), but that doesn’t stop him being perhaps the best thing about the movie.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing that Laurence Fishburne, the best part of the original movie, has next to nothing to here. Of course, the character has already executed his core plot function – he found Neo and helped him on his journey to become “the One.” In essence, Morpheus is now sorta redundant – who needs a prophet when the messiah has arrived? Barring a confrontation on top of an articulated lorry during the chase sequence, you could cut Morpheus from the movie entirely and nobody would miss him. It doesn’t help that Morpheus seems as frustrated reading his vague faux-losophical dialogue as we do hearing it.

Smith couldn't wait to get his hands on Morpheus again...

And now onto the philosophy. Because there’s a lot of it. I should qualify this with the observation that I am not a philosophy graduate or anything. I’ve read some political philosophy and know a little about the most obvious philosophers, but nothing I say should be treated as anything other than the ramblings of a science-fiction nerd. But, since the philosophy is such a large part of this film, I figure I ought to discuss it.

First of all, it’s great that the film tried. I’ve remarked before that I often prefer an ambitious failure to a modest success. The film really tries to draw in existentialist philosophy and debate on the nature of free will into a two-hour action-movie narrative. That’s bold and ambitious, and something we very rarely see, so the film deserves kudos for attempting to engage with its audience, and to spark a little thought. When I first saw it, I know that myself and my mates spent hours discussing it at our all-night pizza restaurant.

I'm not exactly raving about the film...

However, some of it feels a bit cheeky, and some of it just feels lazy, for lack of a better word. “What is control?” an elder council member debates with Neo in Zion. When Neo, clearly growing tired of talking in circles, wonders what his point is, the character notes, “Old men like me don’t bother with making points.” It feels like the movie is adopting the same sort of half-hearted approach – the notion that it can just throw some fancy words like “control” or “purpose” or “reason” out there and that will be enough.

The film’s attitude to “reason” particularly frustrating. I use “reason” here as distinct from “purpose” as Smith uses it – “purpose” is the intended outcome or goal, while “reason” is the logic used to reach that. Neo and the council man, who clearly has no important affairs of city governance to manage instead of just rambling philosophically, suggests, “See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work.” That’s a cheap cop out. In that case, you don’t understand its reason, you understand its purpose. That knowledge is shallow and superficial at best, but it betrays something of the mindset of the film.

Neo-classical design?

The water machine works because the humans need clean water to drink in order to live. The problem is that using a crutch like that allows for weak storytelling. It allows writers to justify anything by the logic that they need it to happen for the story to work. It’s understandable at the micro level (the water recycler unit or any techno-babble), but it feels like a cheap move with larger things. It makes it seem like it doesn’t matter if they can’t explain that particular facet (Neo’s power manifesting in the “real” world, for example), it just matters that the end effect allows the writers to move the story to where they want it go. “I know because I must know,” the Keymaker explains at one point.

At one point, Morpheus is giving his “deep philosophical speech of the hour” as seems to be mandatory. “When I see three objectives, three captains, three ships,” he explains, “I do not see coincidence, I see providence. I see purpose. I believe it our fate to be here. It is our destiny.” However, the fact that there are three captains does not feel organic. There are two established characters, in Morpheus and Niobi, but there’s a third character just drafted in because the script needed a third character at this point. (By the way, guess which one of those three dies.) It’s only fair to call something like this “providence” when it doesn’t feel like the writers are simply having stuff happen because they want to point to it as symbolic.

Pull up a chair...

The movie puts a lot of focus on understanding – deeper philosophical understanding. The Merovingian accuses Neo and his friends of lacking that fundamental understanding of their own actions. “You were told to come here and you did,” he explains, stating they don’t understand the “why.” Later on, when a rational military officer questions his commanding officers, he is assured, “comprehension is not necessary for cooperation.” It might not be necessary, but the film suggests that a clear understanding of meaning is important to make sense of the world around us. However, at least in the world presented to us in the film, there’s no way to find a sure enough footing to make any judgement of meaning.

The Merovingian points repeatedly to the law of “cause and effect.” He explains, “I drank too much wine, I must take a piss.” Our actions and reactions are defined by laws of reality and nature. We eat because we are hungry. We don’t jump off buildings because we can’t fly. Our “reason” is based on rational principles. If “cause and effect” lies at the root of our behaviour, than we need to understand the actions and reactions governed by the world around us. However, the movie repeatedly throws the rational principles of the universe into doubt. We can accept that the laws of physics may bend inside a computer construct like the Matrix – that’s a rational thought based on the rational knowledge that the world is designed and controlled by code.Thus, from that point, reason is still possible while characters leap impossible distances.

They don't quite knock it out of the park...

However, when the laws of physics are shown to bend in what we are assured is the “real” world (without any explanation beyond “something’s different”), it shakes that rational core and destroys reason. All of a sudden the characters aren’t rational actors in a rational world, so any attempt to comprehend them feels pointless and ridiculous – which undermines the Oracle’s argument that Neo has already made his choice and “you’re here to understand why you made it.” If the laws of the universe can bend so readily, it’s impossible to try to assign reason to anything. “We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.” However, if we don’t know what we can do, what’s the point trying to make sense of what we will do? I might be destined to stop several killer robots mid-air with my bare hands, but if it’s something that fundamental principles tell me is impossible, it isn’t really going to occur to me, is it?

If we take away the assumption that the world of Zion is governed by scientific principles which resemble our own world, we are left with the underlying fact that everything that happens on screen happens because the Wachowski brothers typed it into their screenplay. It becomes impossible to view the questions posed by the script as open-ended. It doesn’t feel like a natural and organic development of a train of thought, it feels like a carefully staged trick question. Does free will exist in our own world? I don’t know, but it’s a question entirely divorced from whether free will exists in The Matrix Reloaded, because the universe that the Wachowski Brothers show us doesn’t follow the same fundamental principles as our own. It becomes a question asked in a vacuum, which is completely pointless and empty.

Maybe they should screen the One better next time...

Of course, the Architect kinda gives the game away. The character exists purely to sound intelligent. “Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the Matrix,” he begins, clearly programmed with a thesaurus. “You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you, inexorably, here.” I am sorry, but I can’t watch that scene without thinking of Will Ferrell in the opening sketch to the MTV Movie Awards, where the character uses all his big words and simply resorts to saying “ergo” repeatedly.

You could have the character explain the above statement in about two lines of plain, easy to comprehend English – something that wouldn’t dumb down the concept, but also doesn’t sound like it’s trying to sound smart. And I think that’s a lot of my problems with the film. Free will isn’t exactly anymore complicated as a topic of philosophical discourse than the nature of the reality that surrounds us, but the original film managed to phrase its questions in a far more engaging and inclusive manner.

I think that’s the problem with the two other films. It isn’t that the core philosophical ideas got any more abstract, but that the manner of addressing them became more academic. Movies aren’t designed to serve as philosophical discourses, they are intended to spark them. The problem isn’t the issues the movie deals with, it’s how the film raises them. I think that’s the core problem, and that’s what frustrates a lot of people.

You haven’t answered my question.

Quite right.

– Neo and the Architect. At least they’re honest about it.

Check out our complete reviews of the Matrix Trilogy:

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2 Responses

  1. I’ll agree that much of the second film ends up amounting to “idle padding” but that is because the third installment fails to do anything with the potentials created in this second entry.

    There were so many wonderful hypotheses about what the end of this picture meant and how the third would carry on these complexities and the answers ended up being: next to nothing, and it wouldn’t try.

    I prefer to think of the Matrix Trilogy as “Dark City,” “The Matrix,” and “Equilibrium.” Perhaps throw in “Existenz” for good measure.

    The first film was so weighty yet fun and it wasn’t until the final chapter was released that I realized that the series as a whole would ultimately prove to amount to less on both counts.

    • In fairness, it was the end of the second film rather than the start of the third film where I stopped expecting any explanation for anything (and people will say “find your own”, but most of the time – like here – it’s an excuse for lazy writing).

      It’s the scene where, in the “real” world, Neo extends his hand out and kills a Sentinel with his mind. I don’t know why that scene pushed me over the edge – maybe it was that damn “water processor” comment from the start of the film – but something just flipped. This isn’t really going to be as deep a philosophical trip as it wants to be, because things are just going to happen now because they are symbolic and look cool, rather than because they fit the rational framework of the film.

      So, in the third film, I just sorta went with it – going “this looks cool” rather than “what does it all mean?”

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