The Matrix Revolutions
2003Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne
he beginning of The Matrix Revolutions is a depressing indication of what’s to come. The brilliant specially digitally altered version of the Warner Brothers logo, green against mechanical static, slowly, apprehensively makes its way onto the screen, accompanied by quietly rousing, enthused music; this immediately followed by the layered triangles of the Village Roadshow logo. Suddenly, music of import, of apocalyptic fury, blares from all directions as you are plunged headlong into the film’s title, into the three-dimensional waves of the “o” in the middle of “Revolutions”, and through. Orange fractals explode orgiastically from the screen, then entire cityscapes appear out of the familiar green symbols, only to be revealed as a single character. Great so far. But then, when we pull back, to be shown a flat array of characters, it’s revealed as... wait for it... the Matrix display screen, with Link reading its code.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. You see, I’ve been defending—no, championing—The Matrix Reloaded ever since its release, spurred on to love it more, and to make more and more extravagant claims for it, by what struck me as a constant barrage of point-missing criticisms. And I still love it. The self-contained militarism of the original gives way to the maximalist epic nature of the universe’s central point, Zion, where the godlike Morpheus is revealed not only as just another ship captain, but as a frequently discredited madman. It steals those things from games that no one has managed to adequately imitate before—the introductory exposition and characterisation, for example, and the long monologues and ostentatiously verbal storytelling. The action set-pieces are self-enclosed, stop and start for almost no reason, and play as masterfully controlled ballets of stylized movement, rhythmically scored almost as music videos, precisely and obviously choreographed and speeded up to dispense with the personal and the astonishing, leaving only hyper-exaggerated aesthetic signifiers; they last at such great length because, somehow, they have to. Ideas are thrown about in a scattershot manner, assumptions and preconceptions constantly shaken, and the series’ entire mythology triumphantly revealed as a lie. And, beyond the wonderfully exaggerated heroic inspirationalism, there’s a surprisingly subtle humanity, most notable in Neo’s conversation with the Oracle. It’s no philosophical text, but it never claims to be; and its ideas are more than good enough on which to base an engaging film…
I know. I did say “extravagant claims”. Maybe everything I’ve said in praise, should be a criticism. Maybe I’m an intellectually shallow and undiscerning teenager (19, should you care) easily taken in by cool-looking sci-fi films with philosophical pretensions. Probably I’ve actually gone completely mad. Somehow, though, it feels to me as if there’s a deliberate purpose behind every decision made, some sort of unified aesthetic theory, so that all these disparate elements fuse into an unmatchably coherent whole. Okay, okay, okay. Let’s put it like this: for me, it just works. Brilliantly.
And then you get The Matrix Revolutions. Which doesn’t.
Good characters from Reloaded are not only wasted; they’re diminished, devalued. As everyone knows, Gloria Foster’s death meant that a new actress had to be found, and the plot hastily rewritten to explain this away. Which is fine—except that the new Oracle, Mary Alice, is dreadful. Foster had a sense of mischief and fun, and great vitality, yet tempered with appropriate cynicism and low tolerance for uselessness. Alice is subdued and hesitant and whiny. Her lines not only lack weight; they’re completely uninteresting. And the inexplicable neglect of the Merovingian and Persephone is worse. The Merovingian’s tyrannical self-regarding pomposity, his oily superficial elegance and barely concealed vulgarity, were a joy to watch. Removing him from his restaurant is bad enough, but he’s appallingly out-of-place in the gaudy nightclub where Trinity, Morpheus and Seraph find him. And then he’s briefly used to serve the plot and subsequently ignored. Persephone’s appearance in Reloaded, meanwhile, suggested a character depth to be more fully explored in Revolutions. Which is why she has an entire one (1) line. And is then hastily written out.
Instead of some sort of explanation of the purpose of those two interesting-in-the-previous-film characters, you have irrelevant use of some all-new, completely uninteresting characters. At the beginning, Neo finds himself in a train station that’s used as passage between the machine world and the Matrix, or… something. (It honestly doesn’t matter.) Here, he finds two programs: a man and wife and… their daughter. No attempt is made to explain why or how two programs might have a daughter. When Neo expresses surprise at their talking of love, saying that he thought of love as a human emotion, the husband replies “No—it is a word. What matters is the concept that the word refers to.” Or, I dunno, something like that. It’s a deliberately smug clever-clever avoidance of the question, and is as pompously arrogant as Reloaded is always said to be. Anyway. There’s also the program who runs the trains, who is ingeniously called the Train Man. His purpose is to be ugly and to snarl a lot.
There’s a pattern emerging here: that every single interesting plot point or idea or stylistic advance brought up in Reloaded, is completely ignored in Revolutions. Great example: Neo’s scene with the Oracle. (Oh: Neo ends up back in the Matrix. The Merovingian tries to prevent him from returning, and holds Trinity and co. captive and gives them the ultimatum to bring him the Oracle’s eyes, but Trinity kicks some people and everything’s okay again.) At the end of Reloaded, Neo manages to stop two Sentinels with a simple gesture, raising his hand in the air. This is explained away as “the power of the One extends to the Source”, or something. Smith’s ability to copy himself is something about trying to balance an unbalanced equation brought about by the anomaly of the One, or, again, something. And the Architect’s pleasingly mythology-shattering revelations are basically dismissed because he has no idea about the future because he can’t understand any choices because he sees everything in terms of equations to be balanced out. Or. Something. The Oracle’s lines in Reloaded about understanding choices worked well as vague pseudo-philosophical exposition. But that whole idea becomes straightforwardly dreadful when used so concretely and literally.
The Zion scenes equally stop trying. (Yes, fine, everyone else in the world hated the Zion scenes in Reloaded. But I liked them. No, shut up.) In Revolutions, it’s not just that irrelevant minor characters threaten to take over the film—it’s that their dialogue is atrocious, and they become laughable stereotypes. I think that this should sum everything up. There’s a bit where the brave and militaristic Captain Mifune, who leads the defence of Zion by men in big stompy robot suits against the Sentinels, talks to a character known only as The Kid, and tells him that he’s too young to fight. The Kid replies that the machines won’t pay attention to his age, and Mifune replies with “Well, aint that the damn truth”. The plucky Kid pleads “Gimme a chance, sir—I won’t let you down.” Mifune agrees, but tells him that, if he does, “me and the machines’ll have something in common.” Not enough? Get this: Link’s wife joins up to fight against the evil machines, and teams up with someone who we’ve never seen before. We’re instantly supposed to care.
Anyway. Morpheus is in there somewhere, but doesn’t do much. And then you have Trinity and Neo, who fly off to the machine city, and… oh, god, never mind.
There are good bits. It’s just that they’re nothing compared to almost everything in Reloaded - in fact, they’re nothing compared to the good bits of the original. (The original? I tend to think that the immersive and stylish and clever cyberpunk-ish first half switches at an exact point to rather less interesting claustrophobic macho-ness.) The all-out war between man and machine in Zion is an enjoyably hyper-kinetic stream of flying machines and machine parts and gun fire and bullets and stompy robots and big drill things and rockets and explosions, almost an experiment in how rapid and incoherent a scene can be while staying essentially comprehensible. But, however good, the sequence is still fatally ordinary and generic. Ian Bliss’s impersonation of Agent Smith is hugely enjoyable. But his character is used as inadequately as everyone else in this film. And—well, the most startling part of the trailer was that brief shot of blue sky. It’s just as startling in the film itself. But even this seems hurried and essentially random.
And then we have the Neo/Smith fight. At the start, it has a sense of importance—both intrinsically, and in relation to the story—and the rapid-fire sequence of punches are imbued with new physicality and apocalyptic grandeur. There’s one precisely stylised overhead shot with symmetrically perfect rain falling, and one shot presenting the fight in silhouette. It’s good. But, when Neo and Smith fly double-helixingly upwards into the air, I get bored with the self-conscious darkness. Soon enough, Smith starts to talk, accusing Neo of total incomprehension about what he’s fighting for. It’s menacing because it’s convincing. Except that Smith also rants about the general pathetic nature of humans, and about how “only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love”. And I never trust films that feel bound to affirm that love is nice and people are great yay. Then back to the hopeless nihilism and overbearing darkness. And then, eventually, an ending that, in a total lack of skill, ignores every single idea raised in the first two films.
“But they didn’t have any ideas”, you might say. “Are you stupid or something?” Oh, never mind. I’ve said everything that I can.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2003-11-14