[This review originally appeared in SciFiDimensions.com in November 2003.]
Everything that has a beginning has an end. Sort of.
When Larry and Andy Wachowski introduced audiences to The Matrix back in 1999, it was the beginning not only of one of the most lucrative film franchises of all time, it was also the beginning of a fresh new synthesis of various pop culture influences. The Matrix was cyberpunk mixed with Japanese anime mixed with Hong Kong Martial Arts Spectacular.
In The Matrix we learn that our world is really an illusion, a virtual reality created by intelligent machines to enslave the minds of nearly all of the six billion human beings in existence. We learn that a few thousand people live outside the Matrix—in “the desert of the real”; or more specifically, they live under it, in a subterranean stronghold called Zion. These freeborn humans hope to overthrow the Machines and liberate the billions housed in row upon row of pods, their minds plugged into the Matrix.
The Matrix Reloaded (last spring’s blockbuster hit) picks up six months after the end of The Matrix. We find Neo (Keanu Reeves), who many believe is The One; i.e., a human being with special talents, whose mind can override the programming of the Matrix and somehow bring an end to the long struggle. The stakes become even higher when the Machines finally pinpoint the location of Zion, and begin digging down to destroy it.
Neo is hindered in his quest by the re-appearance of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), one of the Matrix’s enforcers, who has somehow been recompiled (after Neo destroyed him in the first movie), and is now an independent entity, capable of duplicating himself endlessly. (This would explain why there are so many Smiths in the phone book.)
Reloaded ended with a cliffhanger. Zion is still threatened, and Neo is in a coma after apparently exhibiting the ability to stop Machines in their tracks in the real world. And Agent Smith has uploaded a copy of himself from the Matrix into Bane (Ian Bliss), one of Zion’s freedom fighters.
So begins The Matrix Revolutions. We find out right away that Neo is not actually in a coma, but somehow stuck in limbo between the virtual reality of the Matrix and the real world. This limbo is represented by a subway station, lorded over by a filthy vagrant called the Trainman (Bruce Spence). The Trainman is, in turn, actually another program beholden to the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), a sort of router program encountered in Reloaded, who manifests himself as an obnoxious Frenchman (is there any other kind?). Not to give too much away, but Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) cut a deal with the Merovingian whereby they obtain the release of Neo from the Train Station. This accomplished, they can now turn their attention to the defense of Zion, where the ever-angry Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) is overseeing a last-stand at the city’s “docks,” where the Machines are expected to penetrate within hours. While Morpheus joins the crew of a hovercraft called The Hammer to join the fight for Zion, Neo and Trinity head off on a seemingly hopeless quest to the heart of the Machine city (where no one has gone before and lived to tell the tale).
First, the compliments. The Matrix Revolutions shows us the full potential of what CGI effects can do for large-scale combat. The battle at the Zion docks is a visual extravaganza, with the human defenders saddling up in Big Walking Suits Armed with Even Bigger Guns (imagine souping up Ripley’s hydraulic rig from the finale of Aliens with wicked Gatlin guns). The Machine “squiddies” attack in river-like swarms, and the whole thing is just Huge, Loud and Complicated. There’s also a roller-coaster ride as The Hammer (piloted by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe) races through twisty underground tunnels, pursued by another contingent of squiddies. And the Wachowski’s vision of the Machine City (when Neo finally gets there) is dark, bleak and disturbing.
Now, the criticisms. If you’re a slavishly devoted Matrix fan, and/or you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want it to be spoiled, read the rest of this later. You’ve been warned…
The Matrix Revolutions is easily the least of the three films in this trilogy. The Matrix was an instant classic, and Reloaded, while it had its problems, redeemed itself with some incredible over-the-top martial arts sequences and the famous freeway-chase-to-end-all-chases. Reloaded also upped the ante, revealing that Neo’s quest was actually part of a repeating cycle, that his existence was predicted by the Architect of the Matrix, and thus controllable (to a certain extent).
Characters introduced in Reloaded are brought more to the forefront in Revolutions; notably Niobe, The Kid (Clayton Watson), and Zee (Nona Gaye). Morpheus is shoved to the background, and once his role in springing Neo out of the Train Station is over, he’s relegated to riding shotgun while Niobe takes charge. One character swap was inevitable: actress Mary Alice takes on the role of the Oracle, replacing Gloria Foster, who died while shooting Reloaded. Rather than simply establishing this fact, the Wachowskis try to explain it within the context of the film, and the result is a confusing bit of hand-waving that ultimately has no relevance to the rest of the film.
Revolutions, unfortunately, fails to provide either a satisfying conclusion to the epic, or even a reasonably cogent explanation for the big mysteries involved. There was seemingly no point to Neo’s temporary sojourn in the Train Station (other than to give Morpheus and Trinity something to do). Agent Smith manages to possess a human body outside the Matrix, but why this was ever a major threat in the real world is unclear—Smith’s ability to replicate was only manifest inside the Matrix. And what was the point of Smith replicating himself millions of times, only to have 999,999 of him as mere bystanders to the Big Showdown???
For a series of movies with “Matrix” in the title, it’s amazing that the consequences of the battle between Zion and the Machines within the Matrix have been totally ignored. It is established early on that people within the Matrix live virtual lives; i.e., that they are not sleeping or somehow programmable by the Machines, but rather being fooled by an incredibly complicated computer program. But nobody seems to have noticed as Neo & Company stir things up during the events of Reloaded, engaging in freeway car chases that leave dozens of vehicles destroyed; blowing up power plants and multiple city blocks; not to mention Agent Smith replicating at an alarming rate. Wouldn’t this cause a crisis of control within the Matrix? Surely the unwitting “prisoners” of the Matrix would be reading the morning paper and wondering what the heck was going on!
Finally, the task laid out in the first film (that of freeing humanity from the Matrix) is left undone. Neo agrees to a truce between Zion and the Machines, if he can stop Agent Smith from taking over the Matrix. This he does (at a high cost), but what of the six billion human beings in bondage? What of the vast “baby fields” (shown briefly in The Matrix and again toward the end of Revolutions), where the Machines create human infants as fodder for the Matrix? Apparently, they’ve been forgotten—or at least written off as unsalvageable casualties of the war. If anything, Revolutions makes it seem that this should be a tetralogy rather than a trilogy.
Still, I have to tip my hat to the Wachowskis. They came out of nowhere and created one of the most imaginative, creative, visually stunning series in the history of sci-fi cinema. But they are truly victims of their own hype, having promised more in the first two films than could ever be delivered in the third. The Matrix Revolutions is evidence to me (from a plot standpoint, at least) that “the Boys” hadn’t really thought this thing though to the extent implied. The result is a magnificent, but flawed, masterpiece trilogy.