The Matrix Revolutions is a thrilling visual experience crossed with a storytelling disappointment. After The Matrix Reloaded, which took many of our previous assumptions and seemingly threw them out the window, I had high hopes that Revolutions would arrive at revelation, and deliver the sci-fi action goods and also a thrilling and interesting conclusion to this intriguing storyline — one that would address the myriad of questions we had after Reloaded.
Alas, Revolutions does not quite get the job done. Correction: As two hours of entertainment, it often gets the job done, with impressive, first-rate special-effects sequences and moments of wonderfully visualized atmosphere. But as the finale in this ambitious trilogy, I was left with the unmistakable feeling of, "Yes, but..."
Revolutions is easily the weakest in the Matrix trilogy. That's unfortunate considering it is also the final installment that closes the book on the story. Obviously, the first Matrix will always be the best, with its thought-provoking yet still straightforwardly coherent plot, fresh action scenes, and interesting meditation on the line between reality and fantasy. But I'm also a huge fan of Reloaded, which from what I can tell was considered by many to be a disappointment. I'm not sure why that was the case, because it was the logical progression of the series and did exactly what it was supposed to do — up the scale on action sequences while throwing us all sorts of curveballs as to the nature of reality and Neo's role as the One.
The more I look at Reloaded, the more impressed I am. The movie, I think, improves on subsequent viewings. It found the right balance between extreme stylized action and interesting, portentous (albeit often pretentious) dialog. And it was paced just about perfectly. It had enough downtime to build a legitimate story, and then took off without looking back. It's a great action film.
That enthusiasm, however, clearly doesn't carry over into Revolutions, which I suspect will reveal more frustration on subsequent viewings than improvement. There is not enough plot, not enough revealed complexity to the pieces set in motion in Reloaded, and simply not enough that takes place inside the Matrix. There is plenty of action, yes, but there isn't nearly as much going on here as I had hoped. With the exception of ace pilot Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and heroine-of-circumstance Zee (Nona Gaye), the supporting characters don't have nearly as much to do as in Reloaded, which had Trinity's brilliant motorcycle chase and Morpheus fighting an Agent on top of a semi-truck. There's something about Revolutions that almost seems too simple. The movie is essentially a build-up on two fronts to two major showdowns, which makes the title seem somewhat misleading, for there is no revolution taking place in the Matrix — not unless you consider computer programs manipulating an apparently preordained game to be a revolution.
At this point, we go into spoiler mode, so you may want to set this review aside if you haven't seen the movie.
Neo, who was unconscious at the end of Reloaded, finds himself stranded in a purgatory-like place between the Matrix and the Source that looks like a subway station. He is told that someone called the Trainman (Bruce Spence) transports people out of this train station. The Trainman works for the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), and Neo is denied entry to the train, and is told he will remain in the train station for a very long, long time. He is doomed to eternal limbo, I guess.
Meanwhile, Morpheus and Trinity visit the Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing Gloria Foster, who died during filming) to find out why Neo will not wake up. She refers them to the Merovingian who holds Neo captive, and they storm his fortified nightclub, in one of the few action scenes that takes place inside the Matrix. The scene is reminiscent of the lobby shootout in the first film, except this time the bad guys are programs who can walk on walls and ceilings. Pretty neat, but this is not in the same league of inventiveness as the scenes in Reloaded, and it occurred to me that the stylized Matrix wire-fu is showing its age and repeating itself. Trinity holds a gun to the Merovingian's head and uses her badass attitude to negotiate Neo's release from the train station.
This is the only scene for the Merovingian and his wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci), in the entire movie, and I couldn't help but think that they go completely wasted, considering how the previous movie hinted at a major showdown. After deliberately undermining her arrogant husband in Reloaded, Persephone barely has three lines of dialog here, and their entire dynamic that was set up is simply thrown out like an afterthought. Disappointing.
Really, the whole business about the Trainman seems like a somewhat contrived and unconvincing plot detour. It has nothing to do with anything else, and doesn't really lead anywhere. This strand, more than anything else in the trilogy, feels like the Wachowskis were just making things up as they went along. A better use of the Merovingian might've made him more critical to what happens inside the Matrix later in the proceedings, as Smith begins to take over the system.
Back in the real world, Bane (Ian Bliss) wakes up and acts like a strange and disconnected man barely suppressing an apparent homicidal instinct. No one among the ship's crew notices, but we in the audience sure do. Bane, if you will recall, is the guy whom Smith downloaded (uploaded?) himself into in Reloaded. Despite his strange behavior, no one thinks to lock this guy up for observation, which allows him to kill one of the crew members (which also goes unnoticed until it's too late) and stow away on Neo and Trinity's ship, who head off to the Machine city while Niobe and Morpheus pilot a second ship through the underground waste tunnels in a desperate attempt to reach Zion in time to make a difference in the fight for the city.
About this same time, the Machines' sentinels are drilling toward Zion, ready to unleash their destructive attack. The residents of Zion prepare for a hopeless battle of man versus machine. It takes until about the hour mark (and at times the first hour has a tendency to drag), but then the sentinels come storming into the outer dome of Zion, and the battle is on. And what a battle it turns out to be.
During this battle is when the movie really heats up and takes off. The special effects are massive, relentless, amazing, and exciting, as thousands of sentinels swarm Zion like locusts, while the human warriors, wearing mechanical armored suits, unleash fierce batteries of machinegun and rocket fire. They make ED-209 look about as threatening as ROB the Nintendo robot.
The dialog during these scenes is terse and simple, a stark contrast to the bombast of Oracle-speak or the wonderful scene with the Architect in the previous installment. The movie is not afraid to invoke war-movie clichés, like the Naive Kid Who Must Prove Himself, or when the fierce fighters of Zion yell out uncontrollably as they unleash a barrage of unending machinegun fire.
The movie's expletive of choice is "Goddamn it!" ("it" omitted when the expletive is used as an adjective). The word pops up with such clockwork frequency that it becomes downright humorous, particularly whenever military leader Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) appears on the screen. Many of his scenes involve assessing desperate situations, looking grim, and then exclaiming, "Goddamn it!" It nearly becomes his most memorable character trait. (Suggested Matrix Revolutions drinking game: You must drink whenever a character says "Goddamn it!" Drink twice if Commander Lock says it.)
These sequences do not much depend on story, because the plot pieces are long since in place. What they depend on is flow of action. About all I need to say is that this is not boring, and sometimes it is amazing, despite any battle clichés that crop up in the process.
But the battle might ultimately be hopeless unless Neo can fulfill his destiny (or something) by reaching the Machine city (allegedly unreachable because of its defenses, etc.) in order to do ... something, he's not sure what. The point is: The Oracle told him to go there, using her typically enigmatic Oracle-speak. (It's unfortunate for the movie that Gloria Foster's death forced the Oracle to be recast, because Mary Alice lacks that certain self-aware sarcastic/humorous quality that Gloria Foster used to define the character. Foster was better for the part, and the change is a distraction.)
Suddenly, Bane/Smith takes Trinity and Neo by surprise, and reveals his true nature in a hostage scene that takes so long for Neo to catch on that you realize that while he might be the One, he's also got a box-of-rocks intellect at work. (I wanted to shake Neo by the shoulders and ask: Hey, dumbass — does anybody call you "Mr. Anderson" except for Smith? Does anyone talk like that except for Smith? And yet Neo is stunned in disbelief to the point of paralysis.) There's a struggle, Neo is blinded — and yet can still see, since his vision now transcends a need to use his eyes — and Neo kills Bane/Smith.
Neo's increasing powers outside the Matrix — not to mention Smith's ability to exist in Bane's mind — is something that interested me, because I had speculated this chapter's conclusion was headed in a direction that would've been interesting. Specifically, I was convinced by the end of Reloaded that the Real World was simply nothing more than a separate subprogram inside the Matrix, and that Neo's role as the One, as convolutedly explained by the Architect, was to supply humanity with an avenue to exercise their options of choice and hope, under the belief that they had escaped the system and were free ... when, in fact, they were only under the perception they were free.
This to me made sense, and would've introduced an interesting irony about the personal belief of freedom in a world where freedom is still an illusion for the sake of control. Furthermore, I envisioned the true "revolutions" of this film would be about humanity's uprising to escape from all these systems of control.
Suffice it to say, that's not how it plays out here. There is no second layer beneath the Matrix; the Real World we see is apparently the true Real World, and Neo's new abilities are simply chalked up to the fact that he is a superhero/superbeing/deity with powers that have been bestowed on his Real World self from wherever: God, the Oracle, the Wachowski brothers — it's not my place to guess.
At the same time, the Oracle has revealed that Smith is Neo's opposite (or Opposite), who intends to seize control of the system and take it for himself, apparently becoming more powerful than even the Machines can contend with. If he was a system "exile" in the last film, Smith now has grown to be a boundless computer virus threatening to take control of the mainframe. He has copied himself endlessly, apparently creating a Matrix world full of Smith clones.
All of this points to an inevitable final showdown between Neo and Smith in the Matrix — with a heavy emphasis on themes of Good versus Evil, the One versus his Opposite, and various symbolic biblical allusions. But before that, we have a catastrophic crash of Neo's ship into the Machine city and a prolonged, tender deathbed scene for Trinity that seems motivated by a need to (a) make the audience cry if at all possible (although very few will), and (b) dispose of her character because the story's titanic showdown between Neo and Smith simply has no need for her. It's at this point it's confirmed to us that this movie is short on human spontaneity, and is instead following the directions on a stone tablet where It Was Written.
But getting back to that titanic showdown: Boy, oh boy, does it ever look great. The establishing shot plays like the setup for a gunfight in a Western, much like the showdown between Neo and Smith in the first movie. And we have all kinds of great, melodramatic atmosphere: darkness, torrential rain, lightning, thunder — all while the two opponents insist on wearing sunglasses. The cinematography is excellent, and Don Davis' score goes for broke in a wonderful, melodramatic, colossal fashion. Meanwhile, Hugo Weaving's lively performance turns Smith completely loose as a villain drunk from his own power.
If you have no fear of cinematic excesses and must end your film trilogy with a climactic final showdown between the hero and villain, THIS is the way to do it. Visually, the sequence is amazing; on a temporary visceral level, you will believe that this is the fight to decide Everything. (If you've seen Dark City, you'll notice obvious similarities, taken to a visually slicker level, with the darkness and rain and lightning and the opponents flying through the air and battling each other in the skies above the cityscape.)
The way this battle ends is puzzling. Certainly, it's open to interpretation as to exactly what happens and how. Eventually, Smith absorbs and copies himself over Neo. (Did I mention that much earlier in the film Smith absorbs and copies himself over the Oracle? No? Well, he did.) Somehow, after Smith absorbs Neo, the Oracle is able to destroy Smith and all his clones from within, using, I guess, Neo's human capacity for hope or love or faith or something. To be honest, I can't be sure what exactly happened or what it all means (assuming it truly means anything) without another viewing to clarify the details, but I don't think the movie quite earns a repeat theater trip. (I'll probably wait until the DVD.)
The final scene is between the Oracle and the Architect, who apparently represent the two masters of the Matrix, but with certain opposing points of view. The Oracle believes that humans should have the option to choose to leave the system, while the Architect does not. As a way to convince him of her point of view, it would seem that the Oracle engineered the trilogy's entire sequence of events via her manipulation of Neo and, I would guess, everybody else. She doesn't exactly control everybody, but has a capacity for prediction (as well as faith) that is second-to-none. "You play a dangerous game," the Architect says to her. Indeed. The game's prize is nothing short of humanity's concept of free will itself (or lack thereof), being manipulated by sentient computer programs. There's a message here somewhere about fate, predetermination, choice, hope, love, fatalism, or existentialism. I'll be damned if I know what the message is, but I'm pretty sure it's in here. Somewhere.
This is all very interesting, and I suppose there's something to be said for a story that leaves itself open to a certain amount of interpretation. But the problem I see is that the Matrix is a system with rules, and those rules were closely followed in the first film, mostly followed and expanded upon in the second film, and now in the third film allowed to run off the rails without explanation until they have become arbitrary. What, for example, happened to all the inhabitants of the Matrix after Smith hijacked the system? Was everybody overwritten? When the system is "reset," do they remember anything that happened? Are they even still there? What about the fields where human embryos are grown? Is the war over and will humans and Machines coexist peacefully?
The film cannot answer these questions and perhaps never could have. But it no longer has the capacity to try, because the series has strayed so far from the first film's concept of a system holding the human race prisoner to that of fates being manipulated by the Oracles above and below and everywhere else. The only people in the virtual world by the end are Neo and Smith. Nothing else matters. The revolution is them. It's fun to watch, but somehow I'd hoped it would've been more than that.
Don't get me wrong. This is an entertaining movie. But it can't live up to what came before.
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