What happened to The Matrix? Editorial By Will Turner
In terms of film quality, there are worse sequels than The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Men In Black 2 springs most readily to mind. And why did anyone bother with Blues Brothers 2000, Cinderella 2, or the endless spin offs to Highlander?
Have you spotted the connection? These films are all unnecessary sequels, yes, but worse yet, all go against the rules established by their predecessor films. Men In Black 2 turned an elite group of government agents into slapstick buffoons. Cinderella 2 by definition is pointless—"they lived happily ever after" isn't a premise to start with. And don’t even ask me about Blues Brothers 2000. Suffice it to say my feelings can be summed up in the phrase: "pissing on John Belushi’s grave."
The Matrix was a nihilistic, cynical film about oppression by a controlling system, and the need for man to break free. Granted, that sentiment is hardly original—a variety of fiction from 1984 to The Prisoner has covered it. Likewise, the fear of technology running amok has been explored in The Terminator and The Ghost In The Shell—a noted influence on The Matrix.
What The Matrix added, though, was a more philosophical approach. It asked us to rethink what we define as real, from what we eat to how we dress, even daring to suggest that we only accept reality in a world where we never feel truly happy.
While the film provided plenty of dialog on the subject, it worked primarily through the use of image—human beings harvested in fields, people dressed in uniform colours—and, of course, the moment when Trinity defies gravity to spin 360 degrees and kick a man in midair.
The Matrix proved that a film could have both brains and brawn, a nutritious subtext combined with visual confectionary. If you want to discuss the philosophy behind the action, you are free to do so. If not, just sit back and enjoy a film that finished the action genre as effectively as The Wild Bunch did for the Western.
So where did it all go wrong? How did such a fine work of balance lead to the lop-sided mess that followed? And more pertinently, what could have been done differently to salvage the soul of the first film?
One flaw has already been exposed—fans asked questions about The Matrix, and the Wachowskis were misguided in thinking they had a duty to explain it. Their clumsy attempt to do so ruined their credibility.
The Matrix films referenced Alice In Wonderland, but The Matrix Reloaded resembles the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The Architect and The Merovingian may have been created to add explanation to the world of The Matrix, but instead added extra layers of befuddlement and more screen time away from the action. Admittedly, there are two marvelous action sequences to compensate—the swarm of Agent Smiths and the freeway chase are breathless marvels. But the worst was yet to come.
On the one hand, the third film had less posturing and rambling. But it failed in its most basic task—to provide decent action. The real world scenes are dull and repetitive, as if someone sewed together Saving Private Ryan and Aliens, but accidentally ripped out the excitement and emotion.
Then it failed on its biggest hurdle, the finale. Granted, endings are the hardest part of any story. Get it right, and they are exceptional. Get it wrong, and you blow away any goodwill your audience has left. In the case of The Matrix, it aimed for the moon and hit the gutter.
For starters, when Neo works with the machines to beat Agent Smith, it defeats the entire premise of The Matrix—people fighting against a system. On top of that, Smith's invasion of the real world comes complete with some of the worst "He’s behind you!" scenes (in one hilarious frame, Keanu has a real "Bill and Ted moment".)
To top it off, the final face off between Neo and Agent Smith is repetitive. We know Neo will win, and the way he finally defeats Agent Smith is predictable. I won’t even go into the numerous questions it raises (e.g. "The Architect said Neo had to make a choice. He saved Trinity in the second film yet she still dies in the third one. So it makes no difference after all?").
OK, I myself am guilty of not answering the two basic questions here—why did The Matrix go wrong, and what should have been done about it? I’m not arrogant enough to suggest I could have done a better job, but I can break down the fundamental failures.
The time: Two films back-to-back is a tall order. Even if you believe that the Wachowskis originally conceived the film as a trilogy, it is unlikely they could have followed the original vision while making the films to be released eighteen months apart. Therefore, I suspect corners were cut in the script (the Architect being a notable example). Spin offs: Given the limited timeframe, having the Wachowskis write and direct for the video game and spin off animations was a not a great idea. The priority should be the film, and hiding key bits of information in the spin offs is an insult to filmgoers.
The Ending: What would have made The Matrix great? A truly powerful, negative ending. The state wins, Zion falls, there is no escape or hope. Planet Of The Apes proved negative endings can be successful. A happy ending does not suit the original spirit of The Matrix.
With any luck, The Matrix will rise above its lackluster sequels. Truly great films deserve to be remembered. My advice to everyone is watch it, think about what might have been, but for God’s sake don’t watch the sequels (and for those who haven’t, well done!).
Will Turner is the author of Mix Tape, an anthology of short stories, poems, monologues, and sketches. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is currently developing a collaborative web comic, Reynard City. For more information, on all of his projects, visit his home page.