31 May 2012

MATRIXIDE, PART 2: EX MACHINA

The conventional wisdom is that The Matrix Revolutions, the last of its trilogy, is weaker than its immediate forebear, The Matrix Reloaded, regardless of whether either of them is "good"; and I am proud to break with this convention. Not because I think that Revolutions is really good, or a successful return to the level of the original Matrix; it is neither of those. It has, however, two very important points of distinction that separate it from Reloaded, and they are both strongly in its favor:

-It is nine minutes shorter;

-It has much, much less talking.

Admittedly, the rather exceptional heights of the freeway chase scene in Reloaded isn't remotely matched by anything anywhere in Revolutions; even the only decent-sized fight scene in Reloaded, the famous Neo vs. Army of Smiths sequence, is better than its companion moment in the finale, when the entire arc of this grand, vasty saga culminates in a fight sequence that is, honestly, kind of boring; while Reloaded mostly held its own despite how much the wire-fu aesthetic that The Matrix so effectively popularised had become old hat even as early as 2003, just four years later, Revolutions runs splat into the issue that by the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there pretty much wasn't anywhere else to take the style, and from there it was all so many people hanging about in the sky, zapping towards each other at high speeds with arms and legs in photogenically poised combat positions.

The point being, Revolutions averages out to be a mildly better film than Reloaded, mostly on account of being neither as good nor as bad in its peaks and valleys. As reasons to see a movie go, that's not a very good one, so let me try again: in the history of loud, messy movies with way over-the-top CGI excess, Revolutions is particularly lovely to look at: its effects have aged considerably better than a great many other films from around the same time, including, weirdly, its own immediate predecessor, which I take to have something to do with a slightly longer time in post-production.

Now, Revolutions, being as it was conceived and produced right at the same time as Reloaded, and meant to be viewed as the second half of a single grand arc, doesn't function as a stand-alone story all that well. In essence, it's the payoff from the situation presented at the end of the second film: the underground city of Zion, last human enclave in a ghastly future world ruled by machines, us about to be overrun by the armies of those same robots; the only hope, and it is thin and nobody even knows why they're meant to be hopeful, is if Neo (Keanu Reeves), "The One", can use his extraordinary control of the artificial world called the Matrix to find some means of stopping them. The only problem is that the closing moments of Reloaded, in which Neo learned a great deal about his own powers and many discomfiting things about the Matrix and the real world, left him in an indescribable fugue state, almost like he has found a way to bridge the world of flesh and computer in his own body. So before anything else can happen, his close allies Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) must find him within the Matrix - or within a place that is not quite the Matrix itself, as it turns out and the new insights we get into how this simulation works doesn't make any rational sense if we're still thinking in terms of science fiction, which is why I'm content to say that this film is where the franchise enters the world of outright fantasy - and bring him back to life, in time for him to head right to the heart of the machine's enclave while the Zion citizenry prepares for a desperate pitched battle that has the merit of being big and massive even if it is rather too kinetic for it to be 100% easy to follow the action in any more specific sense than, "it is good when the squid-looking robots blow up".

The massive central war sequence, which resembles nothing else in the Matrix universe, is certainly the most diverting part of the film; it's not, I should hasten to point out, nearly as entetaining as the freeway sequence in Reloaded - though it is longer - by the simple virtue of being less original: in 2003 there were already a fair number of sci-fi battle sequences that resembled this passage in the abstract, and certainly there have been a great many more since then, while the particular physics on display in the freeway chase have still not been copied or even referenced.

On the other hand, the war sequence involves none of the three principals, just the many assorted minor figures who were introduced rather blandly in Reloaded, with the the hope that we'll thus be invested in their fate when this moment roles around. I didn't find this gambit to work out, personally: it's hard enough to feel much empathy for a blank slate like Neo or Trinity, given a huge chunk of screentime and several big emotional scenes, let alone people like Jada Pinkett Smith sleepwalking through what feels like a particularly long cameo. But that is the exact opposite of the point I was making, which is that by virtue of keeping us separate from the central trio, this battle sequence also keeps us separate from the arch symbolism that hangs around them like a cloud.

Because, in case you managed to miss the little hints, Revolutions makes it undeniably clear that Neo is a messianic figure, echoing though not directly mapping onto the ascension and transcendence of Christ. How this hangs together with the philosophical worldview of the first two movies isn't entirely clear to me, though I assume I could read one of the many books or websites that get all excited by the Wachowski's musings if I really wanted to know. But the overt religiosity of this finale doesn't seem to gel with the broader spiritualism of the first two; it remains the case, however, that the primary moral force in these films is neither Christan nor the vague Buddhism of the first movie, but an emphasis on the freedom of the individual to choose their own actions, which isn't incompatible with either. I am saying, I guess, that the films end up being a grab-bag of philosophical impulse and not a coherent system of thought at all, and this is very much in keeping with how the first two functioned, but given the intense focus on Christ imagery in the last third of the movie, it feels like it should be more consistent than it is.

What I will say in the film's favor is that, however much all of this sucks the narrative energy away (just like in Reloaded), I admire the Wachowskis's commitment to their bloviations - whatever else is true of the Matrix trilogy, it cannot be accused of selling out or compromising. It's as urgently personal as any other blockbuster property of the 21st Century, and while the movie the siblings made is not remotely the film I'm interested in watching - a climactic battle with the psychotic Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) that was more of an ingenious, boundary-smashing setpiece like the first film had and less of an allegory would have been nice, for starters - but it's certainly the movie they wanted it to be. That's a special thing, even if the results are powerfully foggy, and far more invested in undernourished philsophy student games than in science-fiction, world-building, or action storytelling. By which I mean, I might actively dislike Revolutions, but at least it's because the film's ambition went so far awry, and not - emphatically not - because it was as shy on ambition as just about everything else with a budget that size made in America.

6 comments:

KingKubrick said...

Tim, I must say, having just rewatched Revolutions in preparation for your review, you weren't nearly hard enough on it. This has some of the most hokey, cliche-addled dialogue I've ever heard in a major motion picture, or any picture really outside of MST3k offerings. I find the final moments particularly egregious. Especially the cute little girls "do you every think we'll see Neo again?" and Oracle's response, which basically boils down to "I think we will." I was expecting her to wink at the camera and a giant 'THE END?' to pop up on the screen.

Thrash Til' Death said...

"Photogenic" is about the last word I'd use to describe Neo and Smith's final battle. There's nothing even remotely fluid or graceful about it, especially compared to the first movie and bits of the second.

The.Watcher said...

Matrix 2 & 3 are hands down the most disappointing and wretched sequels I have ever seen, with Star Wars 1, 2 and 3 being the most disappointing prequels.

After the second movie ended, I was left feeling frustrated at how bad it was, but there was still that little glimmer of hope that Andy & Lana would fix it and explain everything away in the third one, but nope, just a cheap cop-out that left me fucking livid and hating the WACKowskis.

Eugene said...

Both the Matrix and Matrix reloaded have genuinely interesting philosophical ideas. I wouldn't even necessarily call them half-baked. I genuinely find the climax of reloaded to be a climax, because it is a really exquisite mindfuck that plays with important and genuine philosophical problems in an interesting way. If the matrix is mostly about knowledge, reloaded is mostly about free will, and revolutions is mostly about bullshit.

I think if you find the ideas from those first two movies boring, then sure, you'll find the movies shallow. But I find it kind of amazing that breathing thinking humans find those questions boring. For me, the problem with reloaded was how up and down it was. I did not especially like either of the big action sequences.

But wow, is revolutions awful. No ideas, stupid Zion full of self-important ciphers they assume we care about, awful dialogue... just nothing going on.

StephenM said...

Alright, I'll be the one to defend these. I won't go into lots of details or anything, and I don't consider myself a major fan, but I honestly find the way the sequels expand on and subvert the world and ideas of The Matrix quite fascinating and entertaining.

I don't think any of the films are especially interesting as philosophical theses--I don't think they have that much to say about the real world--but as sci-fi scenarios they are rather remarkable, and as postmodern mash-ups and meta-commentaries on the nature of stories, I think they have quite a lot going on that's interesting to think about. In a way, the first Matrix does for 1999 what Star Wars did for 1977, creating a grand popular narrative out of mashing together a bunch of different elements from various genres, stories, religious ideas, and Joseph Cambell's monomyth, only updating the various elements for 20 years later. The various philosophical ideas referenced I take to be more intriguing what-ifs than any sort of coherent worldview, and I doubt the Wachowskis would consider them the latter either. What Reloaded and Revolutions do is take that narrative and turn it on its head, suggesting the machines know all about the monomyth and how much humans cling to it throughout history, and therefore Neo is a construct of the machines as well, another form of control, engineered to give the humans a release. But then, after pulling the rug out from under us and saying it's all just a story, the Wachowskis rebuild the structure again in the final film, suggesting that stories matter more than we think they do, that myths can define who we are, and that fulfilling such myths is possible.

The latter two films certainly have structural issues, and their CGI fight scenes have aged considerably, but when I watch the first film now I can't help but feel the world it depicts is limited. The sequels expand and build on the first in imaginative, unexpected ways, and I for one enjoy that.

Vianney said...

Stephen, thank you.
Like T3 i saw this years later and expecting a wretched fiasco, and it kind of is but mostly as an action movie. As a 'reflection piece', it as confusing and unpredictable enough to be entertaining at times, and your explanation shows why, bringing me a bit of peace.
The war sequence was simply insufferable though.