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Non-Review Review: The Matrix Revolutions

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.

I remarked in my earlier review of The Matrix Reloaded that I feel I’m in the minority in regarding the final part of the trilogy as a much stronger film than the second film in the cycle. I mean, if you look at the Rotten Tomatoes score, the second film is almost regarded as highly as the first (higher among top critics), while the third is very clearly “rotten.” On the IMDb, the second film scores higher among audiences than the third. However, while neither sequel comes close to matching the impact of the original, I do have a fondness for the third over the second. Perhaps my preference derives from the same reason many find it weaker – the fact that the only way to enjoy it is to really disengage from the underlying philosophical questions posed by the second film.

Whoa...

By the time the third film rolled around, I had pretty much given up on trying to make sense of the pseudo-philosophical ramblings of the second film. Sure, the movie looked like a deep exploration of the nature of free will, but it used this deeper meaning as an excuse to gloss over elements that clearly didn’t make sense and to tread water while waiting for the climax of the film. At the end of the last film, Neo’s mysterious abilities begin to manifest in the real world, as he is able to shred the robot sentinels with the power of his mind. The laws of physics and science tell us that this is an impossible feat, and the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer a pseudo-scientific explanation.

Morpheus in the original film explained how the characters could do the impossible within the Matrix, a clearly artificial construct. “It has the same basic rules, rules like gravity,” he remarked of the system. “What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken.” This makes sense, and that’s why we can accept characters leaping impossible distances or distorting the world around them. It gives us a reason which allows us to understand how such things can occur.

Making a splash...

On the other hand, Neo’s new gifts are dismissed as “something’s changed.” Do his powers stem from some rational source? Is he connected with the machine mind, for example? Is the real world of Zion simply a Matrix-within-a-Matrix? Is Neo more than a fluke in the computer code, a messiah inside the Matrix? Is he the pawn of some irrational and divine force outside the Matrix? Is there a divine power at work in the real world that is able to bend the laws of physics? I don’t know. And the movie never makes any serious attempt to explore or address this. When Neo confronts the Oracle about this, he demands, “Tell me just what the hell is happening to me.” Her answer is typically obtuse, “The power of the One extends beyond this world.” Well, “duh.” We kinda got that, but what we want to know, to quote the Merovingian, is “the why.”

Of course, the real reason that Neo can suddenly manifest this sort of power is so that he seems even more important in the context of the story the Wachowski Brothers are trying to tell. The shock twist at the end of The Matrix Reloaded (though hinted throughout it and the original film) was that Neo is not the first one – he’d be the sixth. There was nothing special about him… until he made the choice not to serve his purpose, not to reset the Matrix. So there needs to be something extra-special about this already very special person.

Mech warriors...

Being honest, this was about the point I stopped really engaging with the deeper questions raised by the film and stopped expecting answers. Instead, I accepted that random things would happen. They’d all be highly symbolic and smartly executed, with all manner of style and flair, but they wouldn’t ever make sense with the world as established originally. I stopped engaging with it and just decided to sit back and enjoy the ride. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still food for thought to be found in the film – but it isn’t quite as clever as it wants to be.

So I roll with the punches. When Neo is blinded, but starts seeing the real world as the Matrix (only with yellow fire standing in for lines of green code), I accept it. What does that mean? I don’t know. I have my own theories, but I’m not going to wait on the edge of my seat for the movie to say anything about it beyond the “blind messiah” and “a symbol for all of your kind” nonsense. Also, you know where the power to spontaneously destroy Sentinels would come in handy? Zion, the city under siege. Why doesn’t Neo just stay in Zion, at least until that genocide if averted – and then negotiate with the machines?

Burn, baby, burn...

In its defense, the third movie does offer spectacle in spade, perhaps offering some of the best visuals of the entire series. It looks absolutely stunning, whether it’s the invasion of Zion by the machines or Neo’s pilgrimage to the heart of the machine city (which looks to us like a mechanical wasteland, while the blind man can see it as a glowing cascade of light). It’s pure popcorn fare, something you can throw your head back and enjoy. I can appreciate the frustration of many viewers who were hoping for a conclusion that would make address the quandaries raised by the last film, but I think the third film is stronger if you accept it for what it is.

In fairness, once you get past these questions that the movie refuses to address, the trilogy does work much better back-to-back, viewed in one sitting. The developments between the three films seem much more organic. The bond between the first and second is strengthened, and even the second two (originally separated by only a few months) seem more closely connected when viewed one-after-another.

Machine city...

The movie also does a wonderfully effective job of illustrating the connections between the artificial beings and human. Neo has never “heard a program speak of love”, and yet the “daughter” of two computer subroutines exists without any express purpose or reason. Indeed, the movie sees Morpheus and Trinity infiltrating a fetish club, which provides a nice (if unnecessary) counterpoint to the (in)famous Zion rave/orgy sequence from the start of the last film. Yep, it still feels gratuitous, but it provides an excuse to see Monica Bellucci in a leather corset, so make of it what you will.

In fact, what I particularly like about the film is that it rejects a lot of the more childish notions we saw in the original film. The suggestion that humanity and machines are locked in a state of total war which can only end with total annihilation on one side or the other is a fairly shallow idea for a film series as packed with ideas as this one. Equally ridiculous is the notion that the planet in its current state could support all the freed human beings from the Matrix. So a peace of some kind always seemed the more logical outcome of all this, rather than a genocidal war of attrition on both sides. A lot of people were less than pleased with the ultimate end of the film, but I like it – I think it reflects the kind of maturity that a science-fiction saga like this really needs, especially given Morpheus and Trinity’s indifference to human (let alone machine) life in the first film. In particular, I like the way that the scene in which the Oracle and the Architect discuss matters is balanced between green (the green tint of the Matrix) and blue (the tint given to the world outside).

Me's a crowd...

I also like the fact that Smith turns up as the key villain at the end of it all. It does render the two times he tangled with Neo in the second film just a bit pointless (as they seem to exist simply to make sure you haven’t forgotten that he exists), but it’s nice to see Hugo Weaving given material he can sink his teeth into (although I was less than convinced by Ian Bliss’ impersonation of Weaving in the “real” world). I maintain that the final confrontation of the film is perhaps the best Superman fight sequence ever captured on film, much better than anything seen in Superman Returns. The sequence is visually stunning, even today, as rain falls like Matrix code and splashes like static.

Neo and Smith have perhaps the most revealing conversation of the franchise, as Smith proposes a hard fatalist approach – accepting that he does what he does because he’s supposed to do it. “The purpose of life is to end,” he observes as he narrates his actions like stage directions. “You were laying there, like that, and I.. I was standing here, like this. And I’m supposed to say something, I say.. Everything that has a beginning has an end Neo… No, wait, what did I just say?”

The end is Neo...

He demands a reason or a purpose from Neo, seemingly unable to find one as he carries out his own prerogatives. “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?”

Neo answers, “Because I choose to.” That seems fairly self-evident, to be frank, and a somewhat weak philosophical revelation to hang an entire trilogy on. It reflects the general mindset of the franchise, where every “why?” is answered simply with a “because” that doesn’t answer anything. Perhaps that’s the key to the films, and that’s why I accept all the strange and irrational stuff that happens. I embrace the idea that, within the Matrix framework, things simply happen because they do.

A stormy atmosphere...

It’s worth noting that Neo’s choice isn’t exactly a triumph of freewill. He’s following a script just as much as Smith. Smith does what the Oracle’s prophecies predict him doing, because he accepts that the prophecies tell him to do it. Neo does what the Oracle wants him to do because she manipulates him. “You played a very dangerous game,” the Architect explains to her when it becomes clear the whole set-up was according to her plan. You could argue, as she does, that she couldn’t be 100% certain things would play out that way, but I’m not convinced.

“Did you always know?” the Architect asks. “No I didn’t, but I believed,” she replies. However, the thing about belief is that there’s a degree of uncertainty involved – she has always been completely and utterly right, every step of the way. Whether she can tell the future because it’s set in stone or simply because she is, as the Architect suggests, an “intuitive” program built to study human behaviour, the outcome is the same – Neo never actually made a choice that deviated in any way from that the Oracle foretold for him. By that logic, it makes one wonder who has the stronger philosophical position – is Smith simply “a puppet who can see the strings” to borrow a quote from another franchise, while Neo can’t?

"The One" vs. "The Many"?

It’s interesting to note the trilogy’s portrayal of female characters. Along the way, the movies are populated by male characters who make plans (the Architect, the Merovingian) and the female characters who exist purely to throw these plans off the rails (the Oracle, Persephone). It’s an interesting portrayal of the distinction between male and female gender roles, with women coming to represent the randomness inherent in any sufficiently large system. It’s just something that I noticed watching the trilogy through in one sitting, and it’s definitely something of a theme.

It’s also worth noting that the films all feature quite a few strong characters of varying ethnicities and genders. Unlike your typical big budget science-fiction fare, there’s a sense that this really is a diverse cross-section of society. It really shouldn’t be such a big deal that I need to point out the number of strong black and female characters, but it’s sad that a I feel I have to. The franchise certainly deserves credit for that diversity.

Morpheus is a regular pillar of the community...

So, in conclusion, the trilogy is never quite as strong as the first film. The original managed to raise interesting questions, without ever seeming to be willfully obtuse. The sequels do raise a few interesting questions and offer stunning visuals, but they never manage to engage in the same way as the first film. They refuse to even hint at answers, and seem to relish toying with audience expectations. It’s a shame, because the movies do genuinely try to offer a somewhat fuller and more challenging experience than most studio fare, but the execution never matches their ambition.

Check out our complete reviews of the Matrix Trilogy:

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