Matt Watts does the unthinkable and sticks up for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Surely not?
The Matrix is well-known as an excellent film. The sequels are equally well-known… for not being as good, for being anti-climactic letdowns, and for just being plain old bad. This is unfair and, as a fan of the entire trilogy, I wanted to defend The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
I soon realised that’s a silly idea. It’s a question of preference. The first film is more concise with a satisfying conclusion and fewer themes that are easier to follow. It’s also so full of ideas, subtexts, allegories, and references that, to further explore the ideas of The Matrix, you don’t have to watch the sequels at all – you can just watch the first film again! So, instead of defending Reloaded and Revolutions, I’m just going to work out why some people may dislike them and explain why I enjoy them, because I think this will be less annoying than what Matrix Pedants like myself usually come up with.
One problem is that the trilogy is viewed as a trilogy… as three distinct films. They aren’t. Reloaded and Revolutions were written and filmed as one film. The Matrix Revolutions does not follow the structure of a standard sequel. It doesn’t recap or reintroduce characters or concepts. After the titles, we’re straight back into the story. If Revolutions isn’t viewed within 48 hours of Reloaded, it will be confusing, which can be mistaken as poor story telling. Considering that there was four months between the cinema screenings of Reloaded and Revolutions, the first people to watch Revolutions would probably have seen Reloaded once, several months earlier. First impressions are everything and, if the first impression is that the film is confusing, that impression sticks. If the films had simply been called The Matrix Reloaded: Parts 1&2 like the final Harry Potter flicks, this confusion could have been avoided and the sequels may not have acquired such bad reputations. The poor reception of the follow-ups means that audiences are looking to criticise them, and the films get a bad name even though a lot of negative things people pick up on are also present in the original. There’s Keanu’s acting, the occasionally dodgy CG (Agent Smith exploding), the lack of chemistry between Trinity and Neo… need I say more?
Unlike many sequels, Reloaded requires complete retention of the first movie and this isn’t something that all audiences have or are prepared to have. The trilogy is best enjoyed when fully understood, re-watched, with its subtexts analysed etc. in the same way that some albums “grow on you” or novels can be “hard going.” There is a certain arrogance in cinema audiences that you don’t get in other mediums – they assume that, because they haven’t fully understood, it is the film’s fault. Admittedly, this is because it is a form of mass entertainment that is culturally entrenched as not being a form that requires much effort on behalf of the audience.
It’s often overlooked that the sequels also have all the elements that made the original great. There is still a great whack of philosophy and mind-bending ideas, with the same depth and detail that makes re-watching the first so satisfying. There are incredible fight scenes and awesome “Dodge this!”-style lines. I particularly enjoy the chilling moment when Agent Smith confronts the Oracle and she asks what he did with Sati: “Cookies need love, like everything does.” I’d even go so far as to say that some of the problems in The Matrix are resolved in the sequels, as I think that Trinity’s death is the only truly tender moment between the leather-clad couple. This, however, is why the sequels are considered unnecessary. The first film was so original that any sequel couldn’t possibly hope to live up to it, so it’s easy to discard them as just more of the same. They aren’t.
Neo isn’t the centre of attention, he’s part of an ensemble cast now. By being distanced from Neo, we are no longer so complicit in The Hero’s Journey and are free to question it. It also gives us a better sense of scale because, in a way, the sequels are actually more people-focused. Rather than fighting for the idea of freedom, Neo et al are fighting for the people of Zion. Whereas, in the first film, we had Mouse and the Lady in Red sleazily discussing “what makes us human,” in the sequels we have the whole of Zion partying! We also have Link and Zee’s domesticity and The Kid’s hero worship and heroism, which all manage to make up for the Neo-Trinity sex scene.
The innovative, stylised fighting from the first film gets the benefit of a bigger budget, meaning that set-pieces such as the “Burly Brawl” (Neo fighting 100 Agent Smiths) remain exciting and satisfyingly different from standard Hollywood scuffles. The beautiful choreography is taken to the next level so that scenes like the Neo vs. Seraph fight, which would have been the centre-piece of many lesser films, are merely incidental. When the first film made the audience take the red pill and wake up from the Matrix, however, it was a hard act to follow. Another reveal of this magnitude would be near impossible to pull-off, but, whereas many people don’t think the sequels even tried to live up to this, I disagree.
The audience’s idea of reality it completely flipped all over again in Reloaded and Revolutions. The Agent Smith–Neo relationship flips the Humans vs. Machines dynamic so that, rather than being the same as every other “technology and AI are evil” film, the truly desirable outcome is realised: machines and humans collaborate for a mutually-beneficial outcome. There are more sympathetic machine/AI characters such as Sati and her family, and the morally-grey exile programs such as The Merovingian who have their own agendas. The audience is forced to question whether the Oracle and Neo were actually part of the system of control all along. If you read the films in a certain way, you even begin to question whether, like Deckard in Blade Runner, Neo’s even human in the first place (but I’ll come back to that later). Although the sequels should be viewed as one, the best example of their continuing efforts to make the audience question what is real is in the cliffhanger ending of Reloaded, when Neo uses his powers to disable sentinels in the real world. Everything you thought you knew was a lie… again.
The ending is not widely liked. The thrill at the end of The Matrix was that, as Neo says, it’s just the beginning. And that’s how you end a film well. You don’t wrap everything up and give everyone a conclusion, you tie up enough story strands for it to be satisfying. The story needs to continue in the audience’s imagination. The end of Revolutions seems like too much of a conclusion. Although the truce seems uneasy and the Oracle says that Neo will be back, it is far more of a conclusion than the original film. Neo has done the whole Jesus thing, saved humanity and vanquished Smith. Trinity met her conclusion in the Logos on the way to the machine city. Morpheus was proven right all along. The Hero’s Journey has been fulfilled. Or has it?
Let’s return to the nagging question of the Reloaded cliffhanger: how come Neo can disable sentinels, see although he is blind, and generally possess supernatural powers in the real world? Is this just proof that he really is some sort of genuine messiah? That the Wachowskis abandoned Cyberpunk techno-logic to celebrate religion in a series of films about destroying systems of control? I don’t think so. The Architect says that the One is a necessary part of the Matrix’s system of control. Giving humanity the illusion of rebellion is necessary for the system to work, and the One is the key part of this. So why would the machines allow the humans to actually unplug from the Matrix, have their own city, reconnect with the Matrix to free others, and generally be a pain in their metal arses? I don’t think they would. I think the Wachowskis beat Inception to it. Neo behaves as though he’s in a computer program, because he’s still in a computer program. The machines have built a second layer of the Matrix. The world of hovercrafts, Zion and “squiddies” is just another virtual reality. That sounds like machine thinking to me. If this theory is true, then the conclusion isn’t a pretty little ending with all the hope and optimism the Wachowskis trick you into feeling. It’s not yet another version of The Hero’s Journey. In fact, it’s a satire of The Hero’s Journey, mocking it and suggesting that it’s a system of control used in real-life by the entertainment industry.
The problem is choice. If a viewer chooses to watch the Matrix sequels on their own terms – with avid attention and knowledge of the original – they are immensely enjoyable. If you choose not to, they are simply enjoyable but nothing more. No-one can tell the haters how good Reloaded and Revolutions are… they have to see it for themselves.
- Sean Connery was originally picked to play The Architect, but turned it down because he couldn’t understand the concept of the movie. Connery mentions this in an interview on the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) DVD.
The film’s highway chase sequence took almost three months to shoot (longer than many films’ entire shooting schedule).
The fight sequence of Neo versus Smith and his clones (a.k.a. The Burly Brawl) took 27 days to shoot.
The character known to us as ‘The Kid’ is actually of the name ‘Michael Karl Popper’ as revealed in the Animatrix series. Karl Popper was a famous 20th century philosopher who notably did work on the nature of free will and the relation of mind and choice to the physical realms.