It is hard to overstate just how big a deal The Matrix was when it first came out. The sci-fi action thriller seemed to perfectly combine heady philosophical concepts with kick-ass action. It’s dystopic world was at once wonderfully alien and also shockingly not so far from ours. It felt completely relevant to reality at the end of the 20th century. But most importantly, the movie was just undeniably cool. The action scenes were eye-popping and wow-inducing. It’s leather chic style set fashion trends for the next few years after it came out. I cannot tell you how many of my friends suddenly started sporting Ray-Bans after seeing it. A whole cottage industry of books talking about philosophy and The Matrix cropped up. In other words, The Matrix was a big deal.
But just as it is hard to overstate how big the original movie was, it is equally hard to overstate just how quickly the series fell out of favour once the sequels came out. Words like “anticlimactic”, “disappointing”, and “stupid” were hurled freely at the franchise and it became equally as cool to bash the film franchise at it had been cool to sing its praises a mere six months earlier. I’ll admit that I was one of the early adopters to the “Matrix is stupid” bandwagon but a funny thing has happened in the 14 years since The Matrix Revolutions came out. The series has continued to linger for me and I’ve found myself returning to it many times since. At first I returned to it because I couldn’t believe that the sequels were that bad and for the first few times I found little comfort in those returns. But then about the third time I watched it again something happened to me. I think I stopped watching the movies through the lens of the enormous levels of expectations and hype that had surrounded the sequels and started watching them on their own terms. And you know what? They kind of worked.
So when it came time to choose the initial series for my Series Ruminations I couldn’t think of a better candidate than The Matrix Trilogy. In Series Ruminations I revisit a series as a whole, trying to see not just its larger themes but also to evaluate the reputation it has and to see if it has earned that place in society or not. Also since Series Ruminations are my musings on an already completed franchises, you should assume that they are going to be a fairly spoiler-heavy.
As I stated right from the top – there is very little wrong with The Matrix (1999). From the very beginning it is a wall-to-wall thriller that mixes just the right amount of pop philosophy, uber-cool aesthetics, stunning visual effects, and just straight-up action to create one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. It has a fantastic but simple premise (Alice in Wonderland for the dot-com age), tapped into contemporary anxieties, and dressed it all up with highly inventive production values.
But at the end of the day, the movie is at its core just a great sci-fi action picture. Any close examination of the philosophical rabbit trails of the movie will reveal nothing highly new or inventive. Basically it is a modern day allegory of Plato’s cave, which every college student will cover in week 3 of their intro-to-philosophy class. But they are able to harness this basic philosophical concept to give the movie just enough heft to the visual and kinetic spectacle they put us through.
In this first instalment Lana and Lilly Wachowski also wisely put some emphasis in building character as the movie does a great job building the main trio. At the centre of this trio is Neo (Keanu Reeves) who is our modern day Alice who goes down the rabbit hole. The genius of Neo in the first movie is that he functions perfectly as our proxy. Keanu Reeves’ mixture of Zen and cluelessness is key to us going along for what is admittedly a pretty wild ride. But it is the two other characters who help make this movie more than your mere action movie. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) plays the combination of Yoda and Han Solo as the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar – equal parts reckless and wise. He acts as our chief exposition vehicle helping to explain this foreign world – but not to such a degree as to leave us without a larger sense of mystery or to bring the plot to a screeching halt. And finally there is Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), Morpheus’ loyal, smart, and extremely capable lieutenant who is Neo’s main guide and love interest. Together these three help ground the spectacle, giving us characters we genuinely care for. Couple that with the extremely ham-fisted but entertaining Hugo Weaving as the major villain Mr. Smith and you have all the elements necessary for the movie to work.
As a solo action movie the thing is near-perfect. Neo goes on a typical hero’s journey from listless hacker to bonafide saviour of the human race and his journey is dressed up in the coolest way possible (for the end of the 20th century that is). At the end of the movie (spoiler-alert) Neo finally figures out that he is “The One” who is going to free all of humanity. But more importantly, Neo changes from being a regular kick-ass warrior to achieving video-game God-mode by being able to defeat any of his foes and breaking all the rules of the Matrix itself (he can fly!). While this is a satisfying end from the narrative of the movie, it creates a problem that the series will try to solve in several ways moving forward because the thing is, a “superman” who can defeat everything in his path just isn’t very interesting.
If there is a moment when the trilogy stumbles it is in The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Not that the movie starts out stumbling mind you. The sequel starts out on all the right notes. First it broadens the world immediately, introducing us to more ship crews, the underground city of Zion, and more importantly reveals to us that the one-sided conflict the ending of The Matrix hinted at was going to be much more complicated than it initially seemed. Plus we get to see Neo in full use of his powers immediately with him defeating several agents singlehandedly and doing his superman thing. Thus opening of this movie hints that we might simply be getting more of the same, just bigger and better.
And then the movie makes a big shift tonally that affects the rest of the series. Where The Matrix got most of its social currency out of being and looking cool, the sequel decides to ditch much of the cool factor in favour of a more epic feel to the movie. Thus the techno-pop soundtrack gets replaced with a more orchestral score. And where once there was cool stylistic shots and a story that moved at breakneck pace, we now get several long sequences of cryptic speechifying whether it is from councils, from advisors like the Oracle, from villains both old and new, or from our main characters themselves. Neo, from being our everyman entry into a strange world now becomes a distant and unrelatable mythic figure.
The transition in tone is at best clumsy but halfway through the movie once the change has set in the movie begins to work on its own terms as a fantasy epic. And whatever problems the movie has in this regard is helped immensely with the action sequences. Even though the larger series shifts tone, the Wachowskis wisely maintain their distinct style when it comes to the action set-pieces. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say that this movie has some of the best action set-pieces of the series whether it’s the duel between Neo and Seraph (Collin Chou), the multi-weapon fight against the Merovingian, or the climactic freeway chase that closes the second act.
The second problem of the movie is that it also feels painfully incomplete from a narrative standpoint. Not one character in this film has a complete character arc. The closest one who does have that is Neo with his quest to get to the source of the Matrix but even that is revealed to be a red herring at the end. Meanwhile the other two members of the original trio see no real character development in this instalment. Morpheus basically spins the wheels in the rouge captain role (while simultaneously seeing his thoughts about Neo devolve from sage wisdom to basic religious zealotry). The great tragedy however is that Trinity, who was without a doubt the breakout star of the original, simply fades into the background here as Neo’s girlfriend. Heck, the great drama for Trinity is that she has to sit out a mission because Neo asked her to. And the new main character Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) isn’t given much to do except to brood.
Now at the time when the movie got released, it got a lot of flak for its incomplete narrative. But when I viewed this again a couple of nights ago, this problem doesn’t seem as jarring anymore. That’s because in the intervening years we’ve had multiple franchises that have intentionally split their final instalment into two different movies (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight). And it is clear that The Matrix Reloaded is a clear Part 1 of 2 movie. The movie is all about setting up the finale and in that respect it does this job fairly well (especially when compared to the franchises mentioned above).
In particular, though the change in tone is a little clunky, it does a fairly good job of effectively “depowering” Neo and it does it in multiple ways. First, it establishes the threat of the robots in the “real” world who are presumably immune to Neo’s powers. Next, it brings back the presumed dead Mr. Smith (classic comic-book move) and makes him an equally powerful foe for Neo to set himself against. But finally and most importantly, the third act of the movie, where Neo finally meets the elusive Architect, firmly establishes that even though Neo is seemingly all-powerful, his powers are basically useless. The end of the movie establishes that Neo, far from being the revolutionary usurper of the machines, is merely another cog in their machine – a catalyst program that helps them ultimately reboot the Matrix every few years (Neo is revealed to be the sixth “The One”).
This revelation completely undercuts the agency of all the major characters involved, revealing that all their acts of rebellion against the system were merely planned contingencies in the robot’s grand scheme. Additionally, it sends us into the final instalment completely conflicted as well. Do we simply root for the humans to continue their insurrectionist goals anyway with the grand hope that somehow they’ll be able to do so in a way that won’t just result in a simple matrix reboot at the end? And if not that, then what exactly should we be rooting for? This conundrum is frustratingly complex in a blockbuster industry that doesn’t really deal with complexity well. But it is also a bold move on the Wachowskis part and perfectly sets up the finale.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003), released six months after the last sequel, was completely eviscerated by the critics when it first came out and I think part of the reason comes from the fact that the Wachowskis chose to follow-through on the implications brought up in the conclusion of The Matrix Reloaded rather than deliver the typical blockbuster finale we were anticipating. The revelation that even the rebellion of the humans are an inbuilt part of the robots’ system is a bitter pill to swallow. But the crisis is further exacerbated for the humans as they also face an enormous army of robots besieging the city of Zion with almost the entire human fleet of ships destroyed. And as if that is not enough, their presumed saviour Neo is facing a seeming crisis of confidence and goes his own way with Trinity. The final instalment has a strong sense of fatalism as each human party does whatever it can to avoid a seemingly inevitable end. Thus even though there is much visual spectacle, especially in the cataclysmic battle of Zion, the whole movie has the feel of a funeral dirge.
Picking up exactly where Reloaded ended, the movie begins with a vanished Neo and the quest to bring him back. I have no idea if this opening scene is meant to evoke Han Solo’s rescue in Return of the Jedi, but this is exactly what it felt like. And though this early scene does intentionally evoke the action scenes at the climax of the original Matrix, the underlying feelings of hopelessness undercut our ability to enjoy it as much. Even Neo’s eventual rescue does little to mitigate the growing sense of dread that anything they try will not be enough.
Yet try they do and in breakneck fashion. Neo and Trinity split from the main group to go to the source of the Matrix in a hail-mary attempt to end the war while Niobe and Morpheus pilot the last ship and crew back to Zion to save it from its imminent destruction. Meanwhile in Zion itself defences are hastily readied and civilians are evacuated as they prepare to face the countless onslaught of the machines hell-bent on destroying Zion and all its inhabitants. The non-stop action through this middle hour of the movie is some of the best of the series as Niobe flies her ship through increasingly dangerous terrain and Zion desperately tries to slow down the machine horde and survive. It is enough to make you forget all of the larger problems the Architect eluded to. But the moment Niobe’s crew finally punches through and saves the day by firing an EMP, destroying all the machines, the despair immediately sets in and the victory is immediately hollow. All their efforts have simply delayed the seemingly inevitable.
The hopes of humanity thus rest in Neo who in the intervening time has discovered his powers extend to the real world, met up with a familiar adversary who has left him blinded, and made it to the elusive surface of the world. But a full scale assault on the Source of the Matrix does not yield the elusive victory. Instead, blind and completely alone, Neo is forced instead to make a bargain with the Source to go back into the Matrix and defeat once and for all his archrival Mr. Smith. The less said about this final battle scene the better as the CGI has not aged well. But even at the end, this last ditch effort fails as Neo realizes that no amount of superpowers will save him or the people he love. And in an act of resignation, knowing that the only way to any victory is his defeat, he surrenders and is absorbed by Mr. Smith. Zion is saved, but the cycle reboots. The only major change won seems to be that Zion as it is will be spared, and everyone will be given the same choice that Neo originally faced: liberation from the Matrix or to continue living in fantasy. The implication is that amazingly, many will choose to stay. Rather than the victorious ending we were promised, the ending leaves us feeling deflated.
And this I feel is exactly why audiences turned on the trilogy. The original movie ended with the promise of future severe butt kicking, of the breaking of humanity’s shackles, and of the overthrowing of our robot overlords. But instead the Wachowskis delivered a sobering tale about the futility of violence because ultimately all violence begets is more violence. Especially with the strong implication at the end that some people will actively choose to stay in the Matrix at the end of it all, the movies ultimately bear out as a true modern retelling of Plato’s cave – in which even in the face of enlightenment, many will choose ignorance and happiness instead. While this is not the crowd-pleasing ending we hoped for it may be much more honest and thus more commendable.
It cannot be overstated just how much this flies in the face of modern blockbuster expectations. The trilogy undercut the idea of individual human agency, instead entertaining the Ecclesiastical idea that all things might truly be meaningless. As the series went on, it increasingly exposed the idea that redemptive violence is a myth, because violence will simply result in more violence no matter the motive. Against a society that religiously believes in progress, it suggests that human beings and culture is more cyclical than we’d like to believe. And finally, it suggests that when given a choice, most of us might choose the easy delusion over sobering reality. In doing so the Matrix trilogy just might be the most honest blockbuster trilogy ever made.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the last two films of the series are flawed. For every moment where they manage some profundity, there are at least two or three others that are cringeworthy or campy depending on your tolerance level. And the Wachowskis, for good or ill, do not do anything half-heartedly. This is no doubt an ambitious movie trilogy that sometimes falls short of that overarching ambition. But it is also a trilogy that hits the mark multiple times throughout the series. And the fact that such a sobering tale was able to be made, for the money that it was made for, is nothing short of astonishing. And that rarity is something that should be celebrated.
The Matrix: ★★★★½
The Matrix Reloaded: ★★★½
The Matrix Revolutions: ★★★★