Caught a bit of The Matrix:Reloaded on telly the other night and it reminded me about this article I wrote a few years back about the Matrix series. Originally published in Prism, The British Fantasy newsletter way back in 2003.
(SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the entire Matrix trilogy. And don’t read this if you’ve got housework to do. The carpet won’t hoover itself you know …)
The Matrix was a near-perfect action blockbuster: stylish action set-pieces, a tightly constructed plot, there’s even an attempt at depth by moulding philosophical concepts to the action. (Okay, so certain aspects of the plot don’t really stand up to close inspection and some elements of the film are highly derivative but any film that can persuade Keanu Reeves to increase his dramatic range to the point where he has two facial expressions has to be commended.)
Then came Matrix: Reloaded. The explosions were bigger but unfortunately so were the philosophical discussions. These conflicting elements sat awkwardly beside each other. And the ‘To Be Continued … ’ ending was so ineptly handled that it even used a “dramatic” musical sting of the sort outlawed in 1937 for being too corny. But although disappointed the fans remained loyal, ignoring the film’s obvious flaws whilst secretly hoping that the next instalment would see a return to former glories. (The technical name for this kind of blind loyalty on the part of SF fans is known as ‘The Phantom Menace syndrome’.)
Finally came Matrix: Revolutions. Presumably the revolutions of the title are a reference to the 180° turns in allegiance performed by most of the Matrix’s fans after watching this incredibly tedious film. Action scenes are almost entirely jettisoned for impenetrable philosophical discussions, main characters such as Morpheus are reduced to simpering sidekicks, and Keanu Reeves has by now totally misplaced his second facial expression. The film even denies the audience the consolation that this is the final instalment in The Matrix story; with the Oracle and the Architect musing on a future disruption of the newfound peace.
But is the Matrix trilogy really that bad? Perhaps it’s too soon to fully assess the films’ merits. Maybe they will repay multiple viewings. Have the Wachowski brothers produced a set of SF classics that are too sophisticated for the current audience but which will in years to come be treated with the same awed reverence as films such as Blade Runner?
Frankly, I don’t care.
The Matrix films were marketed as action blockbusters and that’s what I want damn it! The first film showed that the philosophy could be worked into the story without slowing the action scenes down so why did they mess around with things on the sequels? I’m guessing because they wanted to show off their knowledge of Baudrillard and Barthes in an attempt to silence the intellectuals who sneered that they had just copied the names from their old notes from Philosophy 101.
And they had to work in all the pompous religious and mythological symbolism. Most of the characters have Biblical names! Neo gets blinded just like Oedipus! He dies and is resurrected just like Jesus!
But all the clever intellectual games are pointless without a decent plot to go with them. The Wachowskis’ sense of pacing gradually deserted them over the course of the series, the balance between action and dialogue becoming increasingly uneven. So The Matrix opens with a kick-ass fight scene! Reloaded opens with explosions! And Revolutions opens with Neo sitting at a train station …
Meanwhile the scenes in Zion are deathly dull, turning the entire trilogy into a holo-deck episode from Star Trek. Characters like the Trainman, the Albino Twins, and the Indian family that turn up whilst Neo’s trapped in the train station, appear and then disappear as The Wachowskis realise they don’t really know what to do with them. Even The Architect, who is a pivotal character, only appears after they’ve scoured the dictionary for enough multi-syllable words with which to pepper his dialogue. In fact by Revolutions even the trilogy’s three main characters -- Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus -- are relegated to the sidelines for large chunks of the film. Instead we’re supposed to care about the geeky kid (imaginatively named Kid) and the gruff Captain Mifune. But these aren’t characters; they’re extras who have somehow managed to blag a few lines of dialogue.
The fact that elements of the plot are explained in tie-ins like The Animatrix series and the Enter the Matrix computer game doesn’t help. When I watch a film I want all the relevant information to be included in the film itself not in some spin-off product that I’ve got absolutely no interest in. (Okay, so I’ve read The Matrix graphic novel but that’s because I like comics, not because I’ve been brainwashed into buying any old rubbish that carries the Matrix brand name.) No doubt the Wachowskis think of these tie-ins as ways of allowing the fans to enjoy the Matrix in a more intense interactive manner but that only applies to the hardcore Matrix fanboy. The term that comes more readily to mind for the average filmgoer is total rip-off.
Even the lauded special effects aren’t that special. The Burly Brawl in Reloaded loses all credibility once the CGI goes into overload. Up until then it had been an exciting slice of chop socky with the only major effects being used to create the illusion of multiple Agent Smiths. But as soon as Neo goes into his kickboxing poledancer routine the fight just becomes laughable. And yet still the scene plods on, proudly displaying its blocky sub-Pacman graphics.
The attack on Zion in Revolutions also suffers from being too long. Long after the audience has figured out exactly which clichés the humans are going to use to save the day the Wachowskis feel the need to drag the scene out for a seemingly interminable length of time. For some reason they think it will make the supposedly unstoppable Sentinels scarier if they reinforce the machines’ total inability to kill unarmed and unprotected people despite the humans being weighed down by heavily laden wheelbarrows.
The fact that the Wachowskis expect people to dissect the films, searching for all the clever references they’ve made, also means that people start to find all the bits of the story that don’t seem to make sense. Like, how comes Neo can use his computer-generated powers in the real world? If the computers can’t create a perfect version of the Matrix because human minds reject it why don’t they just clone braindead humans who wouldn’t be able to reject the perfect Matrix? If Neo and Agent Smith are supposed to be so radically different from all the other computer programs in The Matrix, blessing them with unpredictability, then how comes The Oracle can always predict what they’re going to do?
Maybe all this stuff makes sense and maybe it doesn’t. But if it does the Wachowskis haven’t done themselves any favours by making it such a tangled mess. They should’ve stuck to the formula of producing a slick action movie that touches upon the metaphysical stuff just enough that the audience could delve deeper into the references if they were interested. By keeping everything moving quickly they could gloss over the story’s inconsistencies.
Because even in some of the smaller details the films fall apart. One of the great things about the first film was that the Agents were so unstoppable that even the super-cool Morpheus and Trinity legged it as soon as they appeared on the scene. Yet in Reloaded despite the Agents having upgrades that allow them to go toe-to-toe with Neo suddenly Morpheus and Trinity start duking it out with anyone they can find who’s wearing a black suit and shades. Worse, if the upgrades mean that a mere handful of Agents can hold their own (albeit briefly) against Neo then how come he isn’t totally overwhelmed when battling a hundred or so copies of Agent Smith? And why does Neo keep forgetting he has superpowers whenever the Wachowskis want to prolong an action scene? I just wanted to scream at him, “You can fly, you moron! You can halt bullets in mid-flight! You can enter into Agents and unravel their very being! Why are you standing there letting them punch you?”
Although for me the biggest problem of the films is the way that the heroes quite happily blast away at innocent people. It’s clearly stated that if you die in The Matrix you also die in the real world. Therefore when Neo and Co. shoot at the Agents, causing them to vacate the bodies they’d hijacked, leaving them as bullet-ridden corpses, the good guys have effectively just killed innocent people. Now, fair enough, when faced with certain death at the hands of an implacable killer who makes the original Terminator look cuddly you’re not going to be too bothered about how you stop him so long as it works. In that sort of situation self-preservation rules. But there’s not even the slightest hint of remorse following these regrettable slayings. The only time I recall this dilemma even being mentioned in the films is in the training sequence with the woman in the red dress where Morpheus tells Neo, “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.”
Well, that’s all right then. Why bother displaying genuine human emotion over a truly horrible situation when you can just hide behind rhetoric and a pair of shades?
Not that I’m condoning “The Matrix Defence” that has sprung up in America where teenagers claim to have been driven to kill people because of the messages of violence in the Matrix films. No doubt these kids have also seen Disney films, with blatant messages of love and tolerance, but did that make them go out and start acting like saints? No. The teenagers’ violence came from mental problems and sociological strife. If these issues had been dealt with then the question of whether the Matrix films could ever have driven them to commit murder would never even have arisen.
And yeah, I know there’s a whole looking glass reflection aspect to the human/machine relationship in the Matrix films. We can’t live without the machines and they can’t live without us so we’re locked in an endless cycle of mutual dependency and hatred. So showing the heroes as being capable of an icy ruthlessness that matches that of the machines may well have been intentional. Maybe it’s to remind the audience that okay, humans are the good guys but we can still act like right bastards when the occasion demands. Although if this was the Wachowskis’ purpose I think they fumbled the ball badly.
This lack of compassion is something that I feel mars the series as a whole. The first two films are, on one level, love stories, with Trinity’s love bringing Neo back from the dead in The Matrix and then him returning the favour in Reloaded. And Revolutions has them both so filled with love for humanity that they sacrifice their lives so that their comrades might have a better future. Yet frankly I found these scenes didn’t touch me at all on an emotional level. In fact Trinity’s death scene was so badly handled, with the camera panning down ever so solemnly to reveal that she had been skewered by umpteen sharp objects (but she hadn’t told Neo this because she didn’t want to upset the poor dear), that it totally avoids pathos and instead jumps straight into black comedy.
Even the other romantic elements that were brought in after someone noticed that Neo and Trinity had absolutely zilch chemistry together fail to elicit audience sympathy. Link and Zee’s romance is never given enough screentime to engage the viewer whilst the romantic triangle between Morpheus, Niobe, and Commander Lock that started in Reloaded is conveniently forgotten in Revolutions when the Wachowskis realise they don’t actually know what to do with the subplot.
With no emotion at the heart of the story the trilogy becomes empty, soulless.
The kind of story that might have been written by a machine.