Looking back at the Matrix sequels

Feature Mark Harrison 30 May 2014 - 06:40

Mark looks back at the much-reviled Matrix sequels and asks: what went wrong?

This article contains spoilers for the Matrix trilogy.

It seem like a long time ago to some of our younger readers, but those who were there will remember that 2003 was branded “the year of the Matrix” by Warner Bros. Four years after the first film knocked everybody's socks off, Andy and Lana Wachowski made two sequels, an animated anthology, a video game and numerous other tie-ins to expand upon a world that was only hinted at in the original.

The Matrix Reloaded became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time when it was released in May and held that record until the following Easter's The Passion Of The Christ. A vitriolic critical reception and bad word of mouth undercut any chance that the final instalment, The Matrix Revolutions, had in terms of topping its predecessor when it was released in November the same year.

What's really extraordinary about those movies is how completely they seem to have been forgotten. The Star Wars prequels are arguably much more hollow and forgettable than either Reloaded or Revolutions, but we're still talking about George Lucas' films. Saying “the Matrix sequels” has become a punchline, or a by-word for disappointing crap that is sometimes expectorated across the internet like a particular disappointing loogy.

As we see it, the problem is that when all of their spin-off media eventually panned out, Reloaded and Revolutions don’t look like the second and third parts of the trilogy - they look like the final part, split in two. It’s tempting to do more than one article about the Matrix trilogy, but that would almost fall into the same trap.

“No, no, no, it’s better if you’ve watched the spin-off media” isn’t really the best defence of any film, which is why this isn’t the only point we’re making. But most of the problems with the sequels come down to the way that it’s split up and the delivery of a whole chunk of vital information outside the live-action trilogy itself.

End Of Part One - the final scene of The Matrix

“I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.” - Neo

Bearing in mind that we have a lot to get through, I won’t cover this one in too much detail. It's not totally unbelievable to think that the Wachowskis had this whole trilogy sketched out in their heads when they started on the first film, but we’re not here to quibble about that.

There are all kinds of factors to explain why the sequels aren’t as together as the first, which still stands up as a more or less perfect balance of action, philosophy and science fiction. Joss Whedon once called this one of his favourite films of all time and what he said to Rotten Tomatoes pretty much sums it up:

“It contains every aspect of modern life and religion and philosophy and knows it, and they're doing something that is very deliberately very heady. But at the same time, when asked what is this movie about, their answer was "It's about kung fu versus robots." If it was just that, it would be on this list. But it's that and everything else.”

But if they did have a whole trilogy planned, then they really didn’t make it easy for themselves at the end of part one. Neo doesn’t just get better at kung fu and bullet dodging, and beat the bad guys- he straight-up resurrects himself and then, in one of the biggest “Fuck yeah” endings in cinematic history, actually flies away. It’s an awesome ending to the movie, but it immediately leaves you wondering where else there is to go.

The case for the defence of the sequels would be that at this point, he only understands the world that his enemies have created and can throw his enlightened weight around within that world. From here, everything that follows is actually about understanding the machines.

“Part 2”: The Animatrix

“May there be mercy on man and machine for their sins.” - B1-66ER

So, if Reloaded and Revolutions is one climactic story, then the only thing that really fits in the middle to make it a trilogy would be The Animatrix. The animated anthology was released straight to video and DVD a few weeks after Reloaded was released in theatres, and consists of nine short films which takes place before The Matrix and in the six months between the first film and the sequels.

For the most part, the films explore the world and characters of the Matrix, outside of the ground covered in the live-action trilogy, by asking questions about consciousness within the Matrix from various different perspectives.

World Record explores how extraordinary people, in this case an athlete, could see through the Matrix without, say, having online hacker buddies or otherwise getting head-hunted by the Resistance, and Matriculated is about the machines’ perception of reality, given their lack of consciousness. Another highlight, Program, involves a training program in which two unplugged crew-members duke it out over quality of life in the real world.

A couple of other shorts link directly to the trilogy. Kid’s Story is a really interesting film that is briefly referenced in Reloaded, wherein the titular teenager manages to believe so strongly that his world is an illusion, he frees his own mind from the Matrix without help from the resistance. The character is here is more promising than Clayton Watson’s live-action performance as Kid turned out, as one of the most notoriously irritating things about the sequels - he’s the trilogy’s Jar Jar.

Final Flight Of The Osiris, which played in cinemas before Warner Bros’ Dreamcatcher in the months before Reloaded was released, also leads directly into the events of the second movie, with a crew making a last ditch effort to deliver intelligence about the Sentinel attack to Zion.

But it’s The Second Renaissance which really contextualises the whole trilogy, because it elaborates upon the history of the war, and of the Matrix, from the otherwise unexplored perspective of the machines.

Writer and director Mahiro Maeda adapted the two-part film from the Wachowskis’ notes about the mythology, to present a history file from Zion’s archives. It details the period from the invention of machines as servile humanoid drones, to the blackening of the sky as described by Morpheus in The Matrix.

It all kicks off when a robot called B1-66ER is put on trial for killing its human master, who planned to deactivate and replace it with a newer model. Anti-robot prejudice is stirred up by the trial, which takes place in the context of self-defence and even alludes to real-life civil rights debates. Nevertheless B1-66ER loses the trial and is destroyed. But robots, having been designed by humans, have just the same desire to live, which soon scares the crap out of their creators.

These films are quite shockingly violent and gory throughout, but the most disturbing scene involves a bunch of men setting upon a female robot and assaulting her as she screams and panics, shot for all intents and purposes like a rape scene. Her haunting last words before she’s incapacitated with a shotgun blast? “I’m real!”

The compromise that saves some robots from the mass destruction which follows is that they establish to their own machine nation, called 01. When 01’s economy and industry begin to outpace the nations of humanity, war is declared.

The machines quickly gain the upper hand by using the kind of biological and chemical warfare that humans have long since forbidden, and to which the machines are obviously immune. In the course of their experimentation, they determine that the energy produced by humans might be a useful power supply and begin putting humans into pods, their minds plugged into a big old computer simulation to keep their collective consciousness going.

Shortly after, the desperate survivors attempt to call a truce with the machines. The machines accept, but immediately detonate a nuclear bomb in New York afterwards, in an attempt to conclusively end the war. The fact that machines can survive in worse conditions than humans becomes a key factor in the ongoing conflict in Reloaded and Revolutions.

The Second Renaissance makes The Animatrix worth watching all by themselves- an essential visual representation of the backstory that might have felt laboured or ancillary if delivered as exposition in one of the live-action films, but which also lends context to the events of Reloaded and Revolutions.

Part 3A: Reloaded

“It was a triumph equalled only by its monumental failure.” - The Architect

What actually happens to move the plot forward in The Matrix Reloaded? Six months on from Neo’s self-substantiation, the machines are sending a quarter of a million Sentinels to destroy Zion within 72 hours, hastening the One’s mission to return to the machine Source.

This mission eventually leads Neo to the Architect, who gives him a choice between reloading the Matrix and starting the cycle over again, or save Trinity from certain death before going back to Zion to die. Neo chooses the latter and manifests One-like powers in the real world.

That’s not a full-on plot, that’s a first act. Granted, not the first act of a film that you would immediately embark upon after The Matrix, but then that just adds to the case that they skipped over part two and went straight to the endgame with this movie.

In hindsight, it’s shocking how little of Reloaded actually matters in the grand scheme of things. While there’s no fat on the first film whatsoever, the action sequences and setpieces in Reloaded all serve to wake the casual audience up in between conversations about choice and destiny.

We’ll get to the skirmishes with Agent Smith, but compare any other given action scene in the movie to a single fight from the first film, which constantly used action to develop Neo’s character and understanding of his abilities after his mind was freed from machine control.

There are vast passages of the film which do absolutely nothing to move things forward, the most egregious of which is the early visit to Zion, including the much-maligned rave scene, intercut with Neo and Trinity’s awkward sex scene. Sure, we see how the humans live, but did any of us feel more sympathetic with them after those scenes?

There is also a glut of new characters. Some of which were spun off into the companion game Enter The Matrix, which contained live-action scenes featuring Niobe and her crew which weren’t in the films and directly set up their characters for Revolutions. Other than that, who really remembers what Commander Lock, Councillor Hamann and Zee had to do with anything?

By contrast, certain revelations in the middle of the film feel somewhat tossed out, especially with the realisation that the Oracle is a program just like the Agents- that should be huge on a personal level, but it’s casually dispensed in the middle of a conversation and then immediately followed by a big CGI skirmish with Smith(s).

With the Oracle and the en-masse reintroduction of Agent Smith, we’re told that certain programs can go rogue instead of returning to the Source and that this is the canon explanation for supernatural phenomena within the Matrix. The next character we meet, the Merovingian, employs a whole bunch of these programs as thugs.

So, when I say that there’s a five minute scene of Neo fighting vampires, werewolves and ghosts in this one, I mean that it’s Neo fighting other people in cyber goth gear and sunglasses. Where’s the imagination in that? The Twins, who have ghostly abilities, may look nifty from a visual point of view, but they’re such B-level adversaries in the overall mix that they never really register.

Even the film’s standout setpiece, the stunning freeway chase is an excuse for the film to jog in place for 20 minutes. That whole sequence still stands up, and we haven’t seen a better combined car/motorbike/lorry chase since, but it’s pure, meaningless eye candy, moving the walking McGuffin Keymaker from one side of the plot to the other.

As a result, the most maligned scene in the film, where Neo confronts the Colonel Sanders-esque Architect, is probably the most interesting from a story point of view. To put it as simply as possible, the critical flaw with this scene on its surface is that it uses too many big words.

Screenwriter John August has diagnosed that the problem with the Matrix sequels was that they were “playing obscurity for depth”, i.e. obfuscating the internal logic of the characters' choices in order to make the audience fearful of dismissing it, just in case they were missing something that they just didn't get. The Architect scene is the perfect example of this.

Everything the Architect tells Neo makes perfect sense if you’re up on convoluted conversational bits like “vis a vis”, “concordantly” and “systemic anomaly”. Look at this scene and then think of how much shit the first film gets for Morpheus just saying simply that we are to the machines as an AA battery is to us - an easy analogy that serves as a perfect working understanding for a concept that’s explored in more depth later on, and yet has been retrospectively nit-picked to death because Reloaded won’t show us when telling us for ten minutes will do.

It’s kind of infuriating because the scene is a game-changer (no matter how badly it’s written) and it serves to set up the endgame of the series- the idea that there have been six versions of the Matrix to date, cycling through the same motions of destiny and the One over and over again, comes back around to that notion of the futility of war that was better expressed in The Animatrix.

It certainly shows up how silly it was to have been following a prophecy about the messiah when you’re otherwise so concerned with free will and self-control. Even within the film itself, it retroactively makes that long, pointless scene of Neo fighting a ton of Agent Smiths look better- it doesn’t achieve anything or move the plot forward because there’s no point in them fighting. Both fights between them in this one have Neo and Smith each gaining the upper hand repeatedly, before Neo flees rather than continuing to fight endlessly.

On the other hand, a thread that doesn’t really get picked up in Revolutions is the inference that the first version of the Matrix was a perfect world that humans utterly rejected, because it was too good to be true. Coupled with the final revelation of Neo having power in “the real world” and Smith’s ability to possess humans when they’re not jacked in to the Matrix, could all of this mean that Zion is just another computer simulation for the “freed” humans?

The Architect turns the whole story on its head, because all of Neo’s power is simply the result of a system glitch, upon which the human resistance has consistently bestowed meaning. They’re on their sixth go around now, and it’s the first time the One has tried a different tack.

The Matrix Reloaded is sloppy and unquestionably the weakest of the trilogy, but it’s far from a Star Wars prequel disaster. It has all of the snazzy visuals and complex fight choreography that so impressed audiences the first time around, but for a long stretch in the middle, nothing really carries any weight in terms of story, and there’s no thematic pay-off at the end.

Speaking of which, given what happens in Revolutions, Trinity’s death at the end of this one is the trilogy’s equivalent of destroying the Death Star in both A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi, except this beat feels like a plateau in Reloaded and an anti-climax in Revolutions. As the Architect implies, the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

But even the more relevant story beats are only part of the larger purpose of moving the pieces around in time for the third film. Right before the credits roll, it goes for an Empire Strikes Back-style cliffhanger ending, but then there’s nowhere else for it to go, except the teaser trailer for the finale in the end credits sting.

Part 3B: Revolutions

“Everything that has a beginning has an end.” - The Oracle

The Matrix Revolutions is long overdue for a re-assessment. There, I said it.

I saw the sequels when I was a tiny bit too young to be seeing 15-certificate films in the cinema and a lot of the stuff I’m talking about now went straight over my head. In that six months between films, it would be a massive understatement to say that expectations were diminished from the pre-Reloaded hype.

With some distance and hindsight, Revolutions is a far better film because if the Wachowskis really did make up these sequels after the first one became so popular, then the endgame was probably the first thing they came up with. In so many areas where Reloaded failed to expand upon the central themes of the series or move the plot forward, Revolutions succeeds with bells on.

That’s not to say it’s a great movie. In the same vein as Reloaded, it comes across as a little flabby in the beginning. The cliffhanger of the previous film is partially resolved via Neo’s spell in the limbo-like underground station, which seems more like a half-baked attempt to keep the Merovingian and the other rogue programs in play, than a situation with any dramatic stakes.

But once that’s out of the way, it’s all go - as the newly Mary Alice-d Oracle (original actress Gloria Foster died during production) tells Neo, Smith is aggressively expanding throughout the Matrix with the aim of bringing the whole damn thing down. Meanwhile, his treachery in the real world has left Zion missing a number of ships ahead of the massive Sentinel assault headed their way.

With the Architect having taken off the blinkers about how Neo’s meant to be using his powers, he and Trinity take off in a ship by themselves to head for the Machine City. If you’ve seen The Second Renaissance, you might recognise that as 01, but it’s understandable that it seems to come out of nowhere in the film if you haven’t.

On the way, they’re beset by Bane, Smith’s avatar in the real world, as he and Neo have a punch-up which is more brutal and less elegant than any other fight in the trilogy. Consistent with their showdowns in Reloaded, neither of them outright wins or loses - Smith blinds his enemy in the scrap, but gets his human head taken off by Neo for his trouble.

Meanwhile, Zion is taking a battering from the initial onslaught of Sentinels, as the military takes on the squiddies with mech suits and infantry soldiers. This is another sequence which still stands up over a decade later. Commander Mifune might have the best death in all of the films, going down swinging, shooting, screaming and swearing at the Sentinels as they swarm all over him and lacerate him to death.

By the time it’s over, both sides have made huge losses, thanks to an EMP blast from the incoming surviving captains and their crews. But with every defence wiped out, the machines decide to send out every remaining Sentinel they have left- in winning the battle, Zion may have lost the war.

And so the other major theme here, if you’ve seen The Second Renaissance, is how pointless the war between humans and machines really is. The cycle endlessly repeats because machines are now superior to humans in every single way, except that humans are more resourceful when it comes to war.

If it needs saying any more baldly, then the Oracle actually does - Agent Smith has become the equal and opposite to Neo by being a creation of the machine that has the same thirst for conquest and war as humans, just as the loathed Mr. Anderson is a human who can do what programs can do.

It’s hard to think of anything more machine-like than the binary choices that Neo and the other humans have had to make throughout the trilogy. Red pill or blue pill? Save Trinity or save Zion? Win or lose? By the time Neo reaches 01 and calls a truce with a character who is literally called “Deus Ex Machina”, (yeah, really) he’s well on his way to understanding that the choice between two absolutes will only lead to history repeating itself.

If humans keep fighting then they can never win, because the Architect has already told us that there are levels of survival that the machines are prepared to accept without humanity around. Smith is no longer prepared to take his place in the rank and file of programs within the Matrix, just as Neo finally realises that there is no role for the One, a glitch in the system, other than what he chooses to do.

This isn’t to say that the final fight between Neo and Smith is anticlimactic on purpose, if you found it that way - the Wachowskis mischievously addressed that thought in the game adaptation of the trilogy, Path Of Neo, with a fourth-wall-breaking final boss level that had the super brawl end with Smith manifesting as a giant made from rubble and metal, followed by a corny, recut version of the film’s ending set to Queen’s “We Are The Champions”, as if to say “Oh, sorry, is this what you wanted?”

Of course audiences expected Neo to rise up and defeat the machines and lead the humans to freedom- had the story ended with Neo threatening the machines over the phone and then flying away, that might have been the version in our heads.

He promises a world without boundaries, but in the course of building the mythology in Reloaded and Revolutions, a lot of time is given over to building walls and subsequently over-explaining those boundaries. With the expansion of the sequels, there is no victory to be found through making war, only through making peace.

Perhaps the Wachowskis really didn’t know they were doing a trilogy when they started, but they knew what they were doing with this expansion and conclusion of the story, once the back-to-back production of these two films began. The un-self-conscious tone of the original would attest to that, but the sequels weigh the trilogy more towards the spiritual than the philosophical.

Conclusion

In February, it was speculated that the Wachowskis could be working on a second Matrix trilogy. Frankly, if they feel they have something else to say, then I’m all for it.

The Animatrix demonstrated that there are more stories to tell in this world, outside of the journey of the One as seen in the original trilogy, but moreover, it’s interesting that they’re actually returning to direct.

The ever-accelerating reboot cycle probably isn’t far off a reboot or remake of The Matrix, especially given how much money the first three made for Warner Bros. It surely wouldn’t have been beyond them to attach a new screenwriter and director to airing out the property, but you can bet that they wouldn’t have the insight and thoughtful approach of its creators.

Whatever flaws may have naturally occurred from splitting the story of Reloaded and Revolutions into two uneven sequels, this is absolutely the Wachowskis’ vision and just about the only extension of Neo’s story that could have logically followed. Neither of the sequels can hold a candle to the superb 1999 movie, but they form an interesting and personal perspective on the futility of war that isn’t nearly as anticlimactic as the consensus would suggest.

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