The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) – the Friday Classic review

July 27, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 1 Comment

Clearly intended to be the Holy Trinity of sci-fi movies, but a turgid second – and third – coming take the lustre off the original’s deification.

The Matrix trilogy
(The Wachowski Brothers, US, 1999/2003/2003)

When audiences of the future look back on the early 21st century, they will be amused to see the two key media of American pop culture – cinema and television – locked in a titantic struggle to prove who could create the most literate, ambitious long-form narratives.  These audiences will decide that TV drama, with its ongoing, complex-yet-sprightly structures and ability to evolve year-on-year, has the edge over the bloated, lumbering franchises of the Hollywood studios.  They will wonder how anybody thought that (say) Pirates of the Caribbean could possibly compete with Lost or Mad Men.  And they will surely come to the conclusion that The Matrix trilogy represents the worst example of the movies’ attempts to graft meaningful, novelistic texture onto the template of the multiplex blockbuster.

The Matrix films pose a real challenge to those of us who have always advocated that blockbusters can – and should – be more adventurous than their default setting of ‘good guys blow the shit out of bad guys.’  The Wachowskis are, like, totally into that…but they’re also armchair scholars liable to explode if they can’t paper their films with all manner of arcane philosophical and spiritual symbolism.  These are films that aren’t designed to be passively viewed but ‘read,’ mulled over, discussed and debate in the hope that the rich web of ideas will be digested.  Such ambition should really be lauded, but there comes a point where ideas aren’t enough.  Drama needs humanity and, ironically enough for movies about the triumph of free will over machine-tooled conformity, The Matrix films – especially the sequels – feel like they’ve been made by (and for) robots.

What’s most galling is that the first film gets the balance between ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’ more-or-less bang-on.  Ideas-wise, the Wachowskis keep things reined in to a single doozy of a high concept – the world as we know it is a computer!  It’s not, admittedly, an original idea: virtual reality was one of the buzzwords of the 90s, and speculative sci-fi that questioned the nature of reality had long been the stock-in-trade of authors like Philip K Dick.  Hell, even Doctor Who, in 1976, broadcast a story in which the Doctor battled his enemies from within a fictional computerised world called… well, guess!  But the genius of The Matrix lies in its simplicity.  The Wachowskis are able to work through the human implications of their world, so that Cypher’s story arc is not only the trite plot device that his name suggests, but also a profoundly resonant one: would you rather live in ignorant bliss than free in a flawed world?

Throughout the film, the Wachowskis show a knack for making potentially difficult, alienating ideas palatable to the mainstream.  Compare and contrast The Matrix to its near-contemporary Dark City, a film which possessed the same staggering visual sense and pessimistic fin-de-siecle mindset but which died at the box-office because it delivered its ideas through quiet, cerebral contemplation rather than kick-ass action.  The Wachowskis’ masterstroke was to filter the concepts through their own inner-adolescent comic-geek sensibilities.  The Matrix hardwires into the loves of fifteen year old boys: kung fu, girls in leather and guns… lots of guns.  It’s not really a surprise that the film had real-life echoes in the Columbine massacre: far from life imitating art, life and art were both imitating the same fantasy.

The film is carried along on its wave of exuberant, uncompromising action, helped no end that the Wachowskis are fantastic storyboarders, capable of burning powerful images onto the brain. It isn’t even the then-lauded ‘bullet time’ trickery (which too many piss-poor imitations have rendered dull), it’s the relatively simpler shots that remain stunning today: Keanu dashing through a lobby while the pillars around him are blasted to smithereens, or the sight of dozens of gun cartridges falling from a helicopter.  The final half-hour is one long set-piece, one of the finest attempts at sustained adrenaline cinema has ever offered.

There are downsides.  For a film that is, at heart, pretty simple, the Wachowskis spend an inordinate amount of time explaining what’s going on, which results in long stretches of static talk.  And, by god, the talk is banal.  While the Wachowskis have a good line in memorable conceptual one-liners (“there is no spoon”), whole scenes are swept along on a tide of awful dialogue like, “they’re killing machines, designed to do one thing.”  Er, what’d that be, then?  It doesn’t help that the Wachowskis encourage the cast to speak very slowly, intoning everything to give it unwarranted portent.  Compared to the fast wit of other action high points – Die Hard, for example – or even Keanu Reeves’ other forays into the action genre like Point Break or Speed, this is a humourless film, enlivened only by Hugo Weaving’s astute decision to make Agent Smith very odd indeed.

The other major problem – although it only really becomes a deadening influence in the second film – is the perennial curse of comic-book movies: mythology.  Just as the Wachowskis have established a solid narrative foundation with the timeless simplicity of a fable, they fuck it up by introducing the Oracle.  When the plot requires the intervention of an all-seeing seer into order to progress, all claims to being plausible science-fiction are off and we’re in the realm of fantasy.  Specifically, a thinly-veiled Christ allegory that reduces everything that happens to Neo to the lamest of Second Coming clichés.

In retrospect, it’s the Wachowskis’ obsession with pre-destination that should have been the warning sign to avoid a sequel at all costs.  Then again, it’s not really surprising that nobody noticed when The Matrix was such a shot in the arm compared to the film that everybody thought they were waiting for back in 1999.  The Phantom Menace turned out to be a talky, ludricrous bore, where The Matrix was an adrenalin-pounding chase movie…but the two share a surprising similarity in that both are predicated on the discovery of a prophesised saviour.  With the right – or, rather, wrong – set of conditions, it would be all too easy to turn The Matrix’s moves against itself and produce another Menace.

What nobody could have predicated was that those conditions would arrive so quickly, and with such force.  In the end, three factors conspired to wreck the promise of The Matrix.  The first was hubris.  The Phantom Menace had highlighted was the danger of indulgence, the perils of the pampered auteur being allowed to take his franchise any-which-way because the strength of the brand would support it.  And yet here were the Wachowskis, instantly feted for their apparent Midas touch and given carte blanche to return to their virtual reality.  Clearly, Hollywood thought they would get more of the same…but the Wachowskis were about to do a Lucas and pull away from the direction the audience expected.

The second condition was bullet time fatigue.  It’s the curse of innovation to quickly become commonplace but not, usually, this quick.  But The Matrix’s blend of graphic directness and access to the newest weapons in the special effects arsenal was so startling, so unexpected, so new, that jaded studio executives changed tack overnight to repeat its success.  Within a year, every action movie – Mission: Impossible 2, Charlie’s Angels – looked just like The Matrix even when the films in question had nothing to do with sci-fi.  Familiarity breeds contempt, and the Wachowskis were becoming the most contemptuous of all: if other films were catering to audience demands for more Matrix-style action, then surely that gave them an excuse to do something else?

And, right on cue, freeing the path towards that new direction, came the third and most crucial element of this perfect storm: The Lord of the Rings.  Peter Jackson’s film changed everything, proving that long, involved epic narratives could be filmed by shooting everything in one go but releasing it in episodic chunks.  Everyone was a winner: the studio got to maximise its return because a single investment would have three chances at turning a profit, while the filmmaker could smash the tyranny of the generic, three-act narrative by deferring resolution.  Only two years before, The Matrix was the vanguard for a new century of cinema.  Now, it was already the coda to cinema’s last century, adrift on the far-distant side of the Millennium.  If it was going to be brought back, it would have to be on the terms laid down by Rings.

The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, then, are films made by the unchecked egos of filmmakers who have grown bored with the template they created but who have been given the ideal precedent to get away with their new vision.  These are films made back-to-back a la Rings and on a similarly epic canvas, but where Jackson was a Games Workshop kind of guy, the Wachowskis are unashamed computer geeks.  The Matrix Reloaded suffers especially because it’s less a quest story than a gamer’s progession from level to level.  OK, so it’s set within a computer, but is that any excuse for the narrative resembling one of those old puzzle games where you have to sit and chat to characters to garner information to get to the next mission?  Here, with no apparent irony, there’s even a character called the Keymaker, who has to be found in order to (I’m not making this up) open a door.

Worse, whole swathes of the film is spent discussing the philosophy of the Matrix itself, delivered in language that suggests the Wachowskis have swallowed a whole university degree’s worth of reading and want to show off.  Some of the ideas are actually pretty stunning.  I’d always wondered why, if the machines were so clever, they had created a fake world where the characters understood things like computers, thus allowing them the means to escape their bondage, rather than, say, a Medieval agrarian economy?  The revelation that the human rebellion is part of the system, an in-built device to maintain the status quo, is clever, heady stuff – but there’s a time and a place for this kind of stuff, and it certainly ain’t at the arse-end of a two hour action movie being lectured to by a bearded, white-haired bloke we’ve never seen before.

This would be bad enough, without a first act in which nothing whatsoever happens.  The Wachowskis don’t trust to the simple, effective threat level posed by a planetary population subjugated by evil robots and, mistakenly, believe that we must care about the more tangible, conventional threat posed to the population of Zion.  It’s not just that the human survivors spend an interminable amount of time discussing protocol, or that their recreation time in spent attending the single silliest rave scene committed to film, it’s the more basic fault that the attacking forces don’t arrive until the next film.  Compare and contrast to the superficially similar opening act of The Empire Strikes Back, and marvel at how lucky we were that George Lucas didn’t keep Han and Leia freezing their tits off on Hoth until halfway through Return of the Jedi.

And even when the action does come, it’s an ungainly, overindulged travesty of the sprightliness the Wachowskis achieved in the first film.  The impeccable, comic-book storyboarding is gone, replaced by frenetic cutting and an over-reliance on the circling camera moves that made their name.  The wire-fu has none of the poetry that Ang Lee (in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or Zhang Yimou (in Hero) had brought to fighting in the meantime, and there’s scant attempt at realism in the so-called Burly Brawl, where it’s hard to care about an obviously digital facsimile of Keanu Reeves thumping lots of digital Hugo Weavings.  The one exception is the lengthy car chase, the film’s self-conscious attempt to show that the Wachowskis can do something else, but it’s overlong and horribly unfocused.  At one point, we’re watching Trinity riding a bike through traffic with no enemies after her, a chase sequence without a chase.  It’s purely an attempt to show Matrix-style moves with vehicles instead of bodies, forgetting that such scenes are all about the dynamism rather than the spectacle.

Then again, after watching The Matrix Revolutions, you’ll be longing for even the spectacle.  The unfortunate but inevitable result of allowing the Wachowskis to make a sequel that deliberately clouds the issues they’d established is that the finale has a lot of loose ends to tangle.  And Reloaded’s awful non-event of an ending means that the follow-up has to jump through hoops just to explain what’s going on, with lots of dull wandering around inside the Matrix and more infuriatingly gnomic talk with the Oracle and that annoying French bloke.

But at least there are scenes in Reloaded set inside the Matrix.  For the most part, the Wachowskis’ grand conclusion to their trilogy is set within the real world.  It’s very difficult to care what happens to the people of Zion, simply because their characters haven’t been given the time to breathe that Neo, Trinity and Morpheus have.  But the latter is relegated to a bit-part, while the other two – who have, incidentally, decided to become lovers not fighters (never a good sign in a film like this) – are off on a random quest to try and find the plot.

A huge amount of the film is spent with second-tier characters preparing for and fighting a massive battle with the machines.  It’s visually impressive – albeit in a sub-James Cameron blend of steel and artillery, with the humans’ oversized battle suits straight out of Aliens – but the constant one-note pummelling quickly gets tiresome.  Then again, I suppose when you’ve sat through the portentous talk of the past one-and-a-half films, a generic sci-fi war movie is actually something of a blessing.

And blessings, ultimately, are what the Wachowskis are dealing in here.  After six hours plus of fighting and talking, it takes a self-sacrifice by Neo, now a spiritual smorgasbord of various conflicting theologies, to persuade the machines to just give up.  Only in Hollywood, eh?  Neo’s adventures in Revolutions, in which our hero is physically blinded so that he can psychically see the light, represent a new low in trite Californian new age wisdom.  What had begun with such narrative elegance and visual style ends as a jumbled, would-be profound study in the enlightenment of a virtual Messiah.  It’s also an awkward fudge of the conflict, with the implication that the machines will be allowed to continue to harvest the humans it needs as long as they let go anybody who asks.  On the one hand, it feels like a A self-satisfied in-joke that The Matrix films are only for those clever enough to ‘get’ them.  On the other, this would-be mature ending where there is no clear-cut resolution but a hint that all of this is going to carry on in the future, smacks of nothing more than Hollywood filmmakers hedging their bets in case they want to make another film down the line.  God forbid.

Which brings things back to the original question, the simple, cryptic query that kickstarted the initial buzz for the whole endeavour: “What is the Matrix?”  With the apparently clear, concise answer implied by the original film muddied by two sequels’ worth of abstract, philosophical debate, the answer must surely be: a fluke.

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One Comment

  1. FranciscoJan 13, 2014 at 3:53 amReply

    What a well thought out set of hypotheses for the success, and ultimate failure of not only the trilogy, but the first film (as standalone). Your original thoughts on the historical context, and inter-film relations that I’d noticed (MI2), and many cultural links I hadn’t (Commmodore 64 adventure games and the stupidity of the keymaker) make the disappointment of 2 and 3 seem inevitable.

    Props must go to the brothers for the action ( “rescue” sequence in 1 and “highway” in 2), the much maligned visual style (yes, huge debts to dark city’s black coats notwithstanding) and some of the score . But yeah, a bit flukey one would conclude….

    I like these blogs of classics. Please keep it up…

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