In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.
Questions are a lot more fun than answers. Questions involve your imagination, involve possibilities. Answers do their best to solidify in concrete and to collapse those possibilities into a form with a beginning and an end. Answers scribble out, cut away, and destroy those limitless possibilities in the hope of cutting down the crystal into a shape which is deemed best. And so the crystal of The Matrix, full of potentialities, is finally cut down in this last instalment, The Matrix Revolutions. Every which way you could have imagined the story going, is cut down into this last piece of the puzzle. Barring the realistic compromise that not everything is answerable, and the fact that the Wachowskis did not maintain complete 100% artistic control over their work, this film is the wrap up; the disparate threads finally being woven together.
As I said, questions are a lot more fun than answers. And the answers The Matrix Revolutions provides were never going to satisfy the hungry questions the original threw into the air. So what does it do instead? The Matrix set out to be a mix of ideas and a mix of action. If you can’t deliver on the reality making and reality breaking ideas, then you put your best foot forward and sucker punch the audience with action. Revolutions is a war movie, a culmination of the larger background conflict of the previous two films between humanity and the machines. An enemy so alien, so anti-human that there’s no need for any debate about the war, its ethics and it’s consequences. So the only questions The Matrix Revolutions has left to answer are who will win the war, and will Neo stop Agent Smith?
And with respect, these questions are just a lot less interesting than the ones posed by the previous installments. See, I can’t help but feel some of the backlash against the second and third films is partly down to the fact it focuses on the areas that only backdrop the first film, and when delving into the far more traditional sci-fi elements, it’s robot cities and mech-warriors etc etc, it’s just not the areas that the possessed the imaginations of those in the first film. People don’t remember the war against the machines, they remember the green code and the red pill/blue pill and those sunglasses. And sure, there’s a lot of bells and whistles going on to keep you entertained. The scales tipping back and forth between the machines and humans, Neo and Trinity’s final pilgrimage and the dangers they encounter. And the wealth of smaller side stories, of characters involved in the battles big and small help to connect the scale of the conflict to the audience.
But it’s too big. Too unwieldy, too much going on. And the characters we once attached ourselves to, have all graduated well beyond our understanding. Neo in this film plays the role of the enlightened mystic, and the problem with that role as a central protagonist is that they never feel the need to explain themselves, because everyone needs to trust them. Belief and faith is one of the deepest roots in this series that’s true. But faith, just like reason can only go so far.
And while everything that made the two previous films what they are, the strong visual design and expert audio design continue to back up the film and at some points overwhelm the senses, the film feels like it’s careering out of control and has to fall back on much simpler conventions to keep itself up. The continuity of Reloaded and Revolutions and the ambition of wrapping the series up in such an intense space of time (they released in the same year and were shot back to back) may have simply lead to burnout. The fleeting glimpses of clarity, Neo and Trinity breaking across the sky and seeing the sun for the first time, are stuck inside the swamp of story and it’s kind of sad to watch it all happen.
I said in my first post that I didn’t need to sum up my feelings on The Matrix series. That back then it was all a lot of questions, feelings, emotions and thoughts in flux (I’m saying that bit now). Well the time has come for me to collapse the possibilities, to narrow and cleave down all of it to a crystal that you can see. So here goes.
The Matrix series itself is an overstuffed sci-fi mythical story, one exploding with enough elements of cinema that it genuinely acts as a fantastic channel for a lot of the best aspects of cinema. It’s full of homages and pastiches and subversions to other film genres, being one of the few Western blockbuster films to really bring a direct Asian influence from its fight scenes. It’s got its head stuck in the heady world of philosophy and it’s not dumb. It’s commitment to its world visually and aurally is nearly unparalleled, just in sheer consistency and experimentation.
It’s characters fill primary symbolic roles, and this is a massive double-edged sword for it because as time goes on they feel less and less real. Like I said, mystic god Neo is almost as alien at points as the machines he’s fighting. The love story which is at the centre of Neo’s journey is also one of its more surreal parts, as the way it’s directed and acted consistently just comes across as ridiculous and unbelievable. It will forever be a stressful thing in my mind that the insane kung-fu/action sequences can feel so breathtakingly real, but the relationship at the heart of the story just feels anti-that.
And with Revolutions, while it’s not the downfall that many people continue to claim it is, it certainly is a fall from grace. Because this final film is the one that deals least with “the matrix” itself, it’s no surprise. And it still has that ambitious drive that powered the first two, especially with a dizzying last fight sequence between Neo and Agent Smith, which makes you dizzy and keeps you that way even after the film. So no, it is not the crowning jewel in the most perfect film series ever made, and the ending of Revolutions really does feel like a vague afterthought. But after two and a half films exploding with ideas, should I be surprised they might run out of tracks?
The Matrix series endures for its’ striking originality and for its awe-inspiring execution. It’s a story by film lovers for film lovers, and it shines in a lot of places while doing its best to cover up its weaker spots. It’s ambitious as all fuck, has left an indelible mark on modern cinema. So since questions are a lot more fun than answers, I’ll end this retrospective with this one.
What more can you ask for?
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