The Matrix Revolutions (Warner Brothers Pictures, 2003)

Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace -- could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now! You can't win, it's pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why do you persist?

-- Agent Smith, The Matrix Revolutions

(1) If there was any doubt that Agent Smith is one of the all-time greatest movie villains, his role in The Matrix Revolutions -- though brief, with only a couple of scenes -- is powerful enough to not only erase that doubt, but to eradicate every trace of its existence.

(2) Hugo Weaving is spectacular, malevolent, enthralling in the role. He is the exact opposite of Keanu Reeves' Neo: he is a joy to watch and he's the only key player in the film who injects fun into a movie that takes itself way too seriously. He owns The Matrix Revolutions on a level that I'm not sure the filmmakers intended -- he's such an amusing counterpoint to the story's endlessly pontificating heroes that, frankly, I wanted Smith to kick their collective ass. For me, he is the real hero, since he's the only character eager enough to put Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus out of their existentially angst-ridden self-importance.

(3) The final battle between Smith and Neo reaches such soaring levels of excitement and adventure as to make it incomparable to anything ever committed to celluloid. I doubt it could be achieved in any other way, or realized in any other medium, or choreographed, conceived and executed elsewhere with such passion as is evident from the first frame of this monumentally thrilling conflict. It is pure, unparalleled cinematic gold.

Those are the three things I liked about The Matrix Revolutions. As I sat through the remainder of the film I couldn't help but feel a bit like Agent Smith: I was entertained by the ride and I relished the thrills of the fight, but at every ludicrous plot point and every unexplained logical leap I wanted to give the directors Larry and Andy Wachowski a slap around the face and scream at them: "Why, why, why? Why do you persist?!"

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you'll want to go out and rent The Matrix, the 1999 film that introduced the world to Neo (Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and the evil Smith (Weaving). They inhabit a world that you and I believe to be the "real world," but which is, in fact, a virtual reality illusion created by the artificial intelligence of machines who keep us asleep, blissfully unaware of the truth, in order to use us as batteries to power themselves. Only a handful of humans have been removed from the virtual reality of "the Matrix" and, as citizens of the underground city of Zion in the "real" real world, they continue to wage war against the machines that enslave the human race.

The Matrix Reloaded was the first sequel to the original film, in which Zion's citizens were informed that thousands of machines were en route to the city in order to destroy it, and that an opportunity had arisen for those same citizens to destroy the virtual world of the Matrix once and for all. The Matrix Revolutions, the second sequel filmed in tandem with Reloaded, continues the story established in the previous installment. In particular, it emphasizes the rising conflict between Agent Smith and Neo. During the climax of the original film, the messianic Neo appeared to kill Smith, the anthropomorphic computer program in charge of keeping the Matrix running smoothly, but in reality Neo freed Smith from the confines of the Matrix. Now, in these sequels, Smith has taken on a life of his own, with the intention of seizing both the Matrix and the "real world" for his own purposes. Even in the face of resistance from Neo and the machines, and indeed fate itself, Smith continues to fight, he persists and persists -- and he very nearly comes close to winning. His defeat is ultimately a noble one because of the sheer strength of his resistance and relentlessness.

See, Agent Smith is a smart guy. Persistence is what these two latest Matrix films were all about. In The Matrix Reloaded, a fight between Smith and Neo looks set to end in Neo's favor until Smith takes a blow, furrows his brow and ominously snarls: "More" -- and at his command, scores of Smith clones come from out of nowhere to continue the fight. If Reloaded could be summed up in one word, Smith's utterance would be it. Reloaded felt like the Wachowski brothers had created it not in the hope of making something better or more interesting than the original film, nor with the intention of making something worse, but simply with the goal of making "more" of the same.

Obviously, Revolutions is an improvement on its predecessor since Reloaded barely managed to achieve even that much. Sure, it had the escalating tension between Neo and Smith to its advantage, it had the excitement of a stunning freeway car chase, and it had the deliciously smarmy presence of the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). Those are all good things. Also superb was the directors' daring decision to employ an over-written monologue as the climax of Reloaded, in which the Architect (Helmut Bakaltis) turns the events established in the original Matrix upside-down and on their head. I admired it because it knowingly, deliberately, and defiantly alienated a large percentage of the film's audience; it must have taken a fool's courage to do that. But that monologue is the only moment throughout the entirety of Reloaded and Revolutions that builds upon the potential of the original film's ideas instead of simply repeating, revising or extending them, or re-tracing their steps. For a series of movies that are all about the importance of choices, it's a shame that the inclusion of that monologue was the only really interesting choice the Wachowski brothers made across the span of not just one sequel, but two.

Following in the wake of the Architect's revelations -- that there are dozens, possibly thousands of levels in the Matrix, and that Zion and the so-called "real world" are really just deeper levels of virtual reality -- Revolutions feels more like an attempt to justify the validity of its ill-conceived predecessor rather than a solid conclusion to an epic trilogy; it feels like the Wachowski brothers suddenly realized they didn't know how to end their story, so they buried a proper climax under a mountain of computer effects; it feels transient and slight, it feels rushed, non-committal, indecisive, as if the Wachowskis weren't sure whether to proceed with the story or wait for everyone to catch up with what they'd already established -- it feels like the temporary construct of two feeble human intellects trying desperately to justify the existence of two films that are both without meaning or purpose. Chalk up another point for Smith, he just hit the nail on the head.

Oh, I should be kinder. Revolutions really did impress me, and it certainly has its moments. I smiled at the return of Neo's little "bring it on" kung-fu maneuver from the first film, and I watched in wonder as Trinity finally glimpsed the "real" sun, and I was energized by the kick-ass power of the all-girl tag-team in charge of a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher during the machines' assault on Zion. Even when actress Mary Alice replaces the late Gloria Foster as the Oracle, the transition is pulled off smoothly and successfully, and somehow the Oracle's transformation into a completely new person feels like a step forward. It's true, there's nothing absolutely awful about The Matrix Revolutions -- it's not a "bad movie" in the 2 Fast 2 Furious sense of the term -- it's just a little silly, that's all. It feels mismatched: neither the film's awe-inspiring aesthetic sophistication nor its dozens of gifted actors can properly gel with its lackluster content. The bombastic dialogue is utterly cliched, yet it's delivered with such precision and conviction by actors who deserve better material.

Sometimes, in the most wince-inducing moments, you feel like you're laughing at a joke that the filmmakers themselves have missed. Take, as the most glaring example, the scene in which a major character dies. If you pasted together all of that character's dialogue over the course of three films, you'd have a slab of words only half the size of the monologue this character sputters out as they shuffle clumsily off this mortal coil. The result is a death scene that should have been tragic but which is, instead, sapped of all its emotional power to the point where it becomes rambling and comedic. In a scene like that one, Agent Smith's jarringly inhuman laughter at the inevitability of death seems less disturbing and more appropriate.

This overblown dialogue is symptomatic of the film's larger problems -- in fact, its largest problem: an inability to be modest. Where the original Matrix gave each character unique ideals and a unique voice, Revolutions instead knows no restraint; every character speaks as if they're reading from Plato, and those unique voices dissolve into monotonous, anonymous babbling. Sometimes this lack of restraint completely undermines the significantly impressive achievements of production designers and special effects engineers, whose near-flawless work might be better validated with a superior story and a closer eye on common-sense and the internal logic of the narrative. For instance, in the most spectacular and lengthy attack on Zion, thousands of machines drill down into the underground city to eradicate the human rebels. This is arguably one of the most incredible sequences of computer-generated effects seamlessly blended with live action ever conceived by any filmmaker and effects engineer. Yet we can't help but wonder... if these machines are built on computers, and computers are inherently built on logic, then where exactly is the logic in employing thousands of machines to kill thousands of humans individually, when a single atomic bomb -- or any bomb, for that matter -- will kill them in one hit, en masse? While the original Matrix was consistently logical in telling its story -- you could track the narrative progression and the chain of reasoning that led to each major event -- there are events in Revolutions that explain nothing and have no explanation themselves. Logic goes out the window in favor of things that look cool, and the clear-cut intelligence of the first film is replaced with visually spectacular but essentially nonsensical events in this sequel.

The muddled climax sticks out as the worst offender. What actually happens to Neo when he negotiates with the leader of the machines? And why does that leader manifest itself as a gigantic baby's head? Is Neo killed? Is he absorbed into a deeper level of reality or virtual reality? Absorbed into the essence of the Matrix itself? What happened to Smith? Did Neo finally erase him from the Matrix? Was he completely and utterly destroyed? Was he rebuilt, re-coded? What happened to all those people like you and I, trapped inside the Matrix, blissfully ignorant?

We are told at the end of Revolutions that they will be freed if they choose to be free -- but freed from what, exactly? Freed from the Matrix altogether, or only from their particular level of the Matrix? We are told there will be peace between the machines and the humans, but how could there have been any animosity in the first place if those humans were hooked up to the Matrix, unaware of any conflict? If the peace is meant to exist between the machines and the humans of Zion, and those humans and those machines are simply deeper levels of the Matrix, then what relevance do they have to us if they only exist on increasingly more sophisticated planes of make-believe?

So many questions -- all of them big ones -- yet the only answers Revolutions provides are broad generalizations, like so much debris swept away under a rug. But even the most dazzling and aesthetically impressive sweeping skills aren't enough to make these elephant-sized blunders inconspicuous. Revolutions shows us a lot of amazing things designed to wow us and to capture our attention. But the things it doesn't show us are even more captivating than what we see on screen. It calls attention to the missing pieces of the Matrix puzzle because it leaves so many of them out. It dodges them without the explanations we expected and were promised. It's like trying to admire a galaxy of brilliant stars while being distracted all the while by a huge, gaping black hole, sitting right there in the middle. Yes, more than a few things in Revolutions really impressed me, as I've noted, but none of them impressed me on an emotional or intellectual level, and in total they are not as gripping throughout the entirety of the film as were the things that made the original Matrix so compelling.

(1) The original Matrix was set in a world we could recognize as our own. Revolutions is not. Even the scenes inside the Matrix don't take place in any kind of "real" world as we might understand it. The Matrix set up the rules of the relationship between the "real world" and the virtual world -- and the story was believable because of this clear delineation and this specific tether to reality and believability -- but Revolutions fails to reinforce this "real world" definition. At times, with its gobbledygook and double-speak, and its complete detachment from a recognizable reality, Revolutions might as well be Star Trek: involving, entertaining, but also cold, distanced, and impersonal, like we're just watching things happen instead of taking part in them.

(2) In the original Matrix, each action had a definite consequence. Consider the opening scene of the original film, with its multitude of police officers willing to take on both Trinity and Smith, two deadly killers. Those police officers, who are supposed to be able to defend themselves, had no idea of the danger they'd face if forced to confront someone who can kill with a single punch. Consider also the climax inside the Matrix, as Smith pursues Neo by continually popping up inside the bodies of dozens of other ordinary citizens. Those people -- police officers and citizens alike -- have no freedom as long as they exist in the Matrix, and their freedom is what Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are fighting for. But in Reloaded and Revolutions, we never see any of those ordinary people. There are a couple of security guards at the start of Reloaded, and a few restaurant patrons, but they don't really have speaking roles. Everybody in these two films is in on the truth of their situation; nobody believes the lie. There are so few bit-players on the screen, and hardly any anonymous people in the world of the Matrix, that even though they are the engine that runs the entire machine, in this narrative they become inconsequential collateral. If we can't acknowledge the embodiment of the ideals that the story's heroes are fighting for, why should we care that they are fighting at all?

(3) The original Matrix had an arc. Reloaded and Revolutions do not, and this is the greatest disappointment of the two sequels. In The Matrix, we saw the words "follow the white rabbit" fly across a computer screen, and we watched a man named Thomas Anderson stumble upon a mystery. We felt for him as he shared the same doubts we held about the true nature of this mystery; he couldn't bring himself to take a leap off the side of a building, and would any of us have acted differently? We watched him change from a mild-mannered computer programmer into someone who could act as a hero and say with absolute conviction: "My name is Neo." He became a champion over the course of the film, yet in Reloaded and in Revolutions -- he is Neo. That's it. He doesn't change. He doesn't improve himself or demean himself, or become anyone new or different. He certainly impacts on the events of the story, but the events of the story do not impact on him. He remains largely unaffected by them, and if they do not affect him, they cannot affect us. The impact is lost.

That's what I missed most about the magic the original film captured. It's not as much fun to watch an omnipotent hero as it is to watch a powerless hero trying to become omnipotent. Without that personal goal to strive for, there's no resonance. There's no personal story. There's action, but no reaction. Just action, and more action, and more. So, essentially, Reloaded and Revolutions are just action films. And it's sad to see these sequels become just two more examples of the kind of tedious, perfunctory action films the original Matrix was an antidote for. Ordinarily it wouldn't be fair to compare one film to another, but the very nature of a sequel inherently invites comparison. At the end of the first film, Smith has another foreboding monologue in which he speaks of the battle between human beings and the Matrix: "You are a plague," he says, "and we are the cure." He might have been speaking about the role The Matrix played in reinventing the action film, injecting ideas and philosophy back into it, curing it of stupidity and tired formulaic Die Hard-esque stories. Yet while The Matrix might have been a cure, Reloaded and Revolutions signal a relapse. They fall victim to the brainlessness the original film fought against.

Ultimately, however, I am able to recommend The Matrix Revolutions because at the end of the day, it entertained me in a spectacular fashion for the duration of its running time. Of course, the original Matrix entertained me as well, on top of which it provoked thoughts and left me inspired, left me dreaming of the possibilities for more stories to be told in that world; I was excited about what was to come. Revolutions inspired those same thoughts, those same dreams, although not in the same way. When the credits started to roll, I was left dreaming of possibilities now gone, of lost opportunities and abandoned stories that could have been.

Those lost opportunities don't make these two sequels bad, but they sure don't make them great either -- yet "great" is what they must be if they are supposed to supercede the original film. To their detriment, they stand in the shadow of a predecessor that was on a high level of excellence, and so the virtues they do possess are diminished just a little bit because of their inability to reach that same level. If you can put that aside for two hours, you'll have a blast. If not, it's probably best to stay away; best to hold on to your memory of the first film, and to remain blissfully ignorant of the rest.

[Daniel Wood]