Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Matrix (1999) and The Matrix Reloaded (2003)


Last Friday was a perfect day to spend on the couch. Outside the temperature was about 5 degrees, and my fiancee was spending the weekend in Maryland. So I got it in my head that I was going to watch some sci-fi trilogy in it's entirety to see how the whole thing held together side by side instead of piecemeal. Being sort of burned out on Star Wars this past year, I decided I would revisit the "other" trilogy, what was once considered the main contender for the series of the decade, The Matrix movies.

As you can see from the title, I only got through the first two; five hours on the couch is a long time for me, even with crappy weather. Besides, the last chapter Revolutions was the weakest of the three, and the one I had seen most recently so I figured I could let it slide.

When I say the Matrix movies were going to be to this decade what Star Wars was to the late seventies/early eighties, I must also point out that despite its considerable influences on action films, it ultimately failed. Whether it is a larger failure than the Star Wars prequels is up for debate. The Matrix was quietly released a month before the turd that is Episode I: The Phantom Menace plopped in theaters. It was everything that Episode I was not: it was smarter, had better characters, a original cyberpunk setting and stylish special effects. The Phantom Menace was merely Star Wars with better effects and an unabashed willingness to shit all over its mythology and the intelligence of its fanbase.

The Matrix is unquestionably the better of the two movies, but I also recall hating it the first time I saw it. Not just a ho-hum dislike, but hatred only a few degrees less severe than my hatred of Pearl Harbor (and that's pretty bad.) How did I go from loathing to liking the first film? Let me explain my schizophrenic reaction to it.

I caught The Matrix a few weeks before it was released at a free sneak preview. Besides a commercial here and there, I knew virtually nothing about it. Through the first hour of The Matrix, I actually liked the film. I liked it more than I expected to. The setup is nearly perfect and thrillingly paranoid as John Anderson (Keanu Reeves) begins to learn of the true nature of "the matrix", the system of control that works as a perfect metaphor for the drudgery of the modern world. The way it unfolds is perfect, and Keanu Reeves clueless persona works in his favor this time, since it mirrors the audience's reaction to this new world. Spiced up with some Philosophy 101, the first half of the movie is great slice of Kafka-lite. Though it didn't invent most of the devices it used (the whole alternate computer reality plot was used earlier that year in the inferior The Thirteenth Floor), it was a great stew of all the Wachowski brother's favorite stuff, from Hong Kong action movies to William Gibson to anime.

However, I can pinpoint the exact moment when the movie began to go downhill for me, and it's when the whole idea of Keanu being The One is introduced.

Perhaps it's that I'm frustrated with the tendency of a lot of sci-fi/fantasy to have to always have a budding messiah figure (see Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Terminator, Star Wars etc.) It always seems like pandering to the inflated egos of their presumed audience of geeks who imagine themselves as potentially leading armies, weilding lightsabers, and having purposes and powers beyond the trappings of their homely selves. To have Neo be a savior seemed unnecessary. Couldn't the story be just as effective as a rag tag group of freedom fighters out to fight the system instead of black trenchcoated superheroes?

With the whole The One concept introduced, it is also the start of Morpheus's "know-thyself and believe" speeches that bog down the second half of the movie. While the action remains terrific, except for the bullet time sequences (used sparingly compared to the series' many imitators) it is nothing new to fans of old Hong Kong cinema. The climax should have also come at the end of the fight in the subway, instead of with Neo killing Agent Smith, especially since he comes back to life with little to no fanfare in Reloaded.

The point where I lost it though was right before the credits rolled, when Neo *flies* like Superman off the screen. For some reason, that pissed me off so much that when I was leaving, that when the girl who was taking surveys on our opinions of the film asked me if I liked it, I gave a curt "No," and stomped off outside (I was an angry young man once...) I hated the movie because it took what could have been a great sci-fi premise and turned it stupid.

Now, my opinion of The Matrix has eased quite considerably since that sneak preview (for the record, it was the final cut of the movie we watched there.) Watching it at friends' houses under the influence of a lot of weed, I began to see it as less of a bad sci-fi movie and more as a really smart action flick. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I saw it the first time, or just being a curmudgeon. My enthusiasm for the franchise grew and four years later when the first of the Matrix sequels was released, I was right there on opening night like everybody else.

Considering my reaction to the sight of Neo flying at the end of the first film, how would I react when Reloaded was almost all scenes of him flying?

Of course, the Wachowski brothers (venerated at that point as being the new sci-fi visionaries ala Lucas) claimed that they had the story for the whole series drawn up from day one. I doubt it, since the plot, which was tightly wound in the first film unfurls at a leaden pace in Reloaded. More annoyingly, certain bits of the plot are unnecessarily shoehorned into the script to accomodate the numerous tie-ins that had been flooding the market in anticipation of the film's release. Without the Animatrix shorts, would we have known who The Kid was? Even with it, do we care?

The next problem with Reloaded is Keanu Reeves himself. Neo is considerably less interesting in Reloaded than he was in The Matrix, where he was endearingly bewildered by the circumstances. In Reloaded, it is replaced with blank stoicism behind designer sunglasses. Perhaps this is my ultimate justification of why the messiah element should have never been brought into the series, since messiahs are smug and boring.

The Wachowskis also take the whole "philosophical" aspect of the first film and up the ante, resulting in long, boring, and frequently nonsensical speeches, the worst offenders in this case being The Oracle and The Merovingian and Agent Smith. Programs governing flocks of birds, who cares? And what does cause and causality have to do with slipping a chick some orgasm cake? It's not that they assume too much of the intellects of the summer blockbuster crowd, but that it seems unnecessary in the first place.

Probably the worst mistake of Reloaded is in strange-ing up the world of "the matrix" in the first place. Considering that the make-believe world is supposed to be indistiguishable from the real world, don't the souls still trapped inside the machine make note of the vanishing albinos around them? Wouldn't people with names like The Keymaster or The Merovingian or seeing people fly inherently make people question the world around them.

Considering the way that I enjoy these films is as just smart action instead of smart sci-fi, at least in Reloaded when the action finally kicks in, it is well done. The highway chase was cetainly the best car chase scene in a summer that was filled with them, if not a contender for all time. The infamous "burly brawl" is certainly excessive (and narratively unnecessary...couldn't he have just *flown* away at the beginning like he does in the end?) but in this instance the excess is charming, though they probably should have ended the scene before Neo turned into a CG character that looked like something out of The Polar Express.

Also, contrary to popular opinion, I liked the scene in the end when Neo meets The Architect. Perhaps it's that contrary to the rest of its running time, Reloaded tried to be daring a leave with a quiet, menacing confrontation instead of another excessive action scene. Though much of The Architect's dialogue is sheathed in the obsfucating exposition that mars most of Reloaded's exchanges, it does throw in several interesting twists to the plot, twists that are almost brilliant. I don't know if I should hold it against this movie that The Matrix Revolutions gives zero payoff to what is promised at the end of Matrix Reloaded.

While The Matrix was expected to rival the Star Wars prequels, in the end I believe it will be Lucas's flawed creation that will be the more revered of the two. The overheated hype that met the Matrix sequels evaporated overnight when Revolutions landed with a thud, where Star Wars bowed out last year at its high point. Though the Star Wars prequels did plenty of things idiotically, it did provide the coherent story that The Matrix lacked.

Still, most of this criticism is directed at the sequels, which amplified the least satisfying parts of the original film while ignoring it's economy of plot and exposition. The world created by the first movie had potential, and I would not be averse to revisiting it provided that Larry...er, I mean Linda...Wachowski is not distracted by a sex change while making it.

Oh, and please, please, please, leave the flying out of it.

2 Comments:

Blogger Gridlock said...

http://denbeste.nu/Chizumatic/tmw/TheMatrix.shtml

This is the best (by which I mean most satisfying) theory of the Matrix I've read. Conveniently, it's all about geeky stuff.

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well IMHO the 2nd matrix movie was the weakest of the three.

They missed so many oportunities and went with the messianic rubbish.

Give me "The 13th Floor" any day :)

That said it looks good, and Keanu is the perfect clueless character, if they'd left it at one movie and left some questions unanswered it would have been better.

6:18 AM  

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