Well, with a trailer drop a couple weeks ago, it seems that it is indeed time to go back to the world of the Matrix for the first time since The Matrix Revolutions hit the screens in 2003. Which, like…that was the same year as the invasion of Iraq. Wild. I’m naturally skeptical of the film, but I’ll probably see it anyway. With one of the Wachowskis involved, there’s a decent possibility that there might be a story worth telling here rather than just another cynical cash-in…or maybe not. After all, I’ve already watched two sequels to the Matrix by the Wachowskis, and, generously, they both kind of sucked.
But hey, either way, the version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit that plays over the trailer kicks ass, so there’s that.
Regardless, this did inspire me to revisit the Matrix sequels, all these years later. Were they secretly good all along, and unfairly maligned by critics and fans both? Are they hidden masterpieces waiting to be discovered?
Morpheus Is Out Of His Fucking Mind
The funny thing about this is that the things that Morpheus is saying and doing aren’t actually that different from the first movie. He babbles on about belief and prophecies and whatnot just like before. The difference is one of perspective.
See, in The Matrix, we see everything from Neo’s perspective as a freshly awakened crewmember aboard the Nebuchadnezzar. We know from dialogue that there’s a human city named Zion near the core of the planet, and we can infer that there are other ships out there pursuing the same goals, but the camera never leaves Morpheus’s circle. So it’s very easy to just accept what Morpheus is telling Neo (and you, the viewer) about the world and how it works. We never meet any character who would disagree; not even Cypher, really, who mostly just thinks that it sucks.
In The Matrix Reloaded, however, the camera pulls back and we see more of the wider world. We meet the crews of other ships, we see Zion and meet its inhabitants, and it quickly becomes clear that while there are varying levels of belief in the Prophecy of the One among the general public (best illustrated in a scene where Neo is accosted by a crowd of supplicants who ask that he look after their families aboard the hovercraft fleet, and most irritatingly illustrated in the character of The Kid, who worships at Neo’s feet) the first film was basically set on the inside of a cult. Morpheus is way more invested in this belief system than most people, and his crew are his followers. In the sequel films, the camera pulls back and puts this cult in the context of broader society.
On the opposite side of the belief spectrum from Morpheus is Jason Lock, commander of Zion’s defenses and frequently the only sane person in the room. Lock has no interest in prophecies, only in practicalities: he has a city to defend from an enormous invasion force, and he finds community leaders who run around telling people not to worry about the incoming swarm because Techno Jesus will pop up and save them unhelpful.
The Wachowskis clearly want us to see Lock as an obstinate asshole who is just too grumpy to get on the Neo train to utopia, but that is absolutely not how it reads. Lock comes across as a sensible person trying to do his best to save lives, and when he butts heads with Morpheus, he comes off as way more sympathetic than Morpheus, because Morpheus can’t say anything other than ‘I BELIEVE’ and variations thereon. Given this wider context, Morpheus just seems completely off his nut, even though objectively he has way more basis for his belief now that Neo is around.
What Was The Fucking Point of the Subway/Club Hel Sequence, Again?
The first twenty minutes of The Matrix Revolutions’ run time is spent rescuing Neo from the cliffhanger at the end of The Matrix Reloaded: after zapping a bunch of sentinels in real life, Neo passes, and in the third film it’s revealed that he passed out because (by unclear means) his consciousness is not inside the Matrix, but instead trapped in between the Matrix and machine mainframe, in a subway station used for smuggling rogue programs into the Matrix. Despite all his powers, Neo is helpless against the Trainman, a program which built and operates the subway station, and Morpheus and Trinity, accompanied by the Oracle’s guardian program Seraph, must go bust into a club run by rogue program kingpin The Merovingian, who commands the Trainman, and use violence to force him to return Neo to them.
And then that sequence ends and more than a fifth of the movie’s runtime has passed and absolutely nothing that happened in it mattered, at all, to any other part of the movie.
Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic; it introduced the character of adorable little Sati (who is not particularly important or relevant to the rest of the film either, but whatever) and I actually do think the scene of Neo talking with Rama Kandra about the machine society and how a machine can feel love enriches the world of the film pretty substantially. But still, it’s weird, right? Why write in this whole thing that could be totally left out without changing anything else about the film?
Well, I have a theory. Or rather, a pet peeve about the film.
So, the conflict of the film is predicated upon Smith growing out of control, right? Per the Architect at the end of Reloaded, he’s part of the Matrix’s cyclical design; if Neo won’t restart the system, then Smith will spread uncontrollably and break the system, killing everyone connected to it. The implication is that the reason the Matrix shutdown is structured this way is so that the Machines couldn’t coward out of killing their power source even if they wanted to. The Machines are, as the Architect puts it, willing to accept “certain levels” of survival if need be, but if they had an escape hatch, the One might rebel against their role on the assumption that the Machines wouldn’t dare cause a Matrix crash just to spite them. So they start the process well before Neo meets the Architect, and structure it such that even they could not put a stop to the process if they wanted to.
All well and good. But the film goes one step further: by the end of Revolutions, Smith poses a threat not just to the humans plugged into the Matrix, but to the Machines as well. He’s going to jump the Matrix’s banks and infect the mainframe. Which sounds reasonable if you completely forget the premise of the movie, but is in reality very odd. The Matrix is running on physical hardware, which the Machines have access to. Why wouldn’t they pull the plug on the Matrix? Or at least sever the connection between the Matrix and their other systems? Sure, this sort of action would no doubt kill the humans plugged into the matrix…but that was the plan to begin with! That’s literally what they created Smith for! So what’s the problem?
Now, consider that over the course of the sequel films, it becomes clear that Smith is absorbing not only humans, but other programs as well. And we know that he’s specifically hunting at least some rogue programs specifically to absorb their unique abilities; that’s what he was doing with the Oracle.
So, we have three story threads: First, Smith hunting programs for their powers. Second, Smith as a threat that for some reason the Machine overmind cannot reliably keep contained to the Matrix. And finally, you have a club full of rogue programs, including a rogue program that controls a way to ferry stuff from the mainframe to the matrix and vice-versa, which the Machines either do not know about or cannot shut down.
You would think that these three story threads would meet at some point. They never do.
Morpheus’s Character Arc Is Weird
This is a separate complaint from the other Morpheus one above, I swear.
So here’s a weird thing about Morpheus: at the end of Reloaded, his whole worldview is basically exploded. The prophecy that he’s spent his whole life pursuing turns out to be a big old load of horseshit; just another system of control by the Machines. His whole life is a lie.
And then he just…never acknowledges this? Like, he expresses a moment of doubt when he and Trinity meet the Oracle in Revolutions, but it’s entirely toothless; it’s “Why should we believe you when the last time we were here you gave us bad advice”, not “hey why did you tell me to structure my whole lie around one huge lie”. And after that it just…never comes up. He spends more time adjusting to being his girlfriend’s copilot than he does dealing with the fact that his worldview in in shambles.
Which, honestly, I guess isn’t exactly an unrealistic character development. But it is kind of narratively unsatisfying that Morpheus basically gets to ignore his problems until, at the end of the film, they go away on their own.
The Battle of Zion Rules
Okay, look, Reloaded is kind of up its own ass, but at least it has some very cool action scenes to make up for it. But Revolutions has basically no redeeming features, right?
Wrong. The entire Battle of Zion sequence, starting from when Niobe pilots the Hammer into the Mechanical Line to when the EMP goes off, slaps incredibly hard. It’s tense, visually incredible, creative in its production design and storyboarding, and is paced like a jackhammer, just one beat after another. Cutting between three storylines – Mifune’s APU unit pissing metal at the unstoppable swarm, the infantry trying to keep them full of ammo and ambush the digger, and the crew of the Hammer trying desperately to get home – each with its own musical motif, and memorable moments, all three of which come together at the end. I love the big chunky mechanical design of the APUs, I love the way the sentinels swarm together, I love how much thought was put into how the infantry would move about and contribute to the fight. I love the shitty, clumsy way Kid runs while he’s piloting Mifune’s APU, a system that he’s barely touched in his life but must now use to save a quarter of a million lives. I feel it in my gut when Mifune tells the Kid to leave him with a jammed ammo case and save himself, and when Lock’s adjutant very quietly says that they already lost the dock. It’s an absolute triumph, sandwiched in the middle of a turd.
So why don’t people talk about this sequence in the same way they talk about, say, the freeway scene from Reloaded? I have two theories. The first is that, while this whole sequence is great in its own right, it’s not the sort of thing you go to the theatre expecting to see in a Matrix movie. There’s nothing like it in either of the two previous movies. It’s messy and gritty and stands in stark contrast with everything else.
The other reason is that the whole sequence has exactly one sour note in it, and unfortunately, it comes right at the end. A moment before the Kid pulls the trigger and drops the gate counterweights, opening the gates and saving the city, the camera gets right up in his face and the music cuts out, and he whispers, “Neo…I BELIEVE” and oh my GOD it’s so terrible. It’s not just terrible because it’s a lame line (it is), it’s not just terrible because the line has nothing to do with anything happening in the scene, it’s not just terrible because it flashes back to the Kid’s introduction, when he’s been a much more enjoyable character since then, it’s not just terrible because the whole deal with him and Neo requires the context of the Animatrix and honestly even that’s not much of anything…it’s terrible for all those reasons, but also, it’s terrible because Zee already just had this exact moment but much more effectively, so having the Kid do this just destroys the scene’s pacing.
This one sour note isn’t enough to substantially ruin the whole sequence, but because it’s almost the very last thing in the sequence, I think that when people think of the Battle of the Dock, Kid’s stupid face and that stupid line are what come to mind, not the almost twenty-five minutes that preceded it.
They’re Worth Watching For Hugo Weaving Alone
I can’t think of the last time I saw an actor having as much fun as Hugo Weaving is in these movies. He’s not just chewing the scenery, he’s pulling out a knife and fork, lighting a candle, and making a three-course meal of it.
The closest thing I can think to compare it to is that iconic clip of Tim Curry from one of the Red Alert games, trying and just barely succeeding in holding back laughter as he declares his intention to escape to the “one place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism…space!”. But, it’s like that for two movies straight.
His dialogue’s ridiculous and his character motivations are sketchy at best, but god, he’s just out here loving life and I’m absolutely here for it.