Well, here it is, the climax of the biggest action-sci-fi phenomenon since Star Wars and the conclusion to this May’s misconceived sequel, The Matrix Reloaded.
The good news is that The Matrix Revolutions gets right a lot of what its predecessor got wrong. Instead of pointless exhibition matches (Neo vs. 100 Agent Smiths, Neo vs. Seraph, etc.), the action actually matters this time around. The pseudo-philosophical gibberish is mercifully lighter here, and the outright sleaze of the earlier film’s rave-sex scene isn’t repeated.
Beyond that, unlike Reloaded, which featured an impressive but hardly groundbreaking freeway chase scene as its biggest set piece, Revolutions has startling new sights to offer, notably a spectacular siege scene that recalls the first act of The Empire Strikes Back with its Walker attack on the Hoth Rebel base. In fact, The Matrix Revolutions arguably had the potential to be the Empire Strikes Back to The Matrix’s Star Wars, had the Wachowskis not squandered that opportunity six months ago with Reloaded.
The problem is, Revolutions isn’t supposed to be the series’s Empire Strikes Back. It’s supposed to be what Return of the Jedi was supposed to be, the slam-bang climax. Return of the Jedi might be something of a disappointment in some ways, but Revolutions as a climax is so deeply flawed that one wonders what the Wachowskis were thinking.
Neo’s messianic promise and abilities, the war against the machines, the freeing of mankind, the welter of irrelevant supporting characters — practically nothing pays off in a satisfying way. The series has failed to deliver on so much promise that both sequels can only be regarded as a spectacular mistake.
Revolutions even makes Reloaded look worse than before, not only by not making the same mistakes as Reloaded, but even more just by exposing once and for all how many mistakes there were. As long as the ending remained unknown, it was possible to imagine that what seemed pointless or arbitrary in Reloaded might somehow take on unexpected significance, that loose plot threads and unexplained issues would be creatively resolved, that the problems the series set for itself would be satisfyingly addressed. Now that the trilogy is complete, the extent to which the Wachowskis have dropped the ball is no longer in doubt.
One of the series’s biggest failures has a small echo in Star Wars. Like Ben Kenobi’s portentous but ultimately hollow prophecy about becoming "more powerful than you can possibly imagine," all the hype around Neo’s supposed potential to transcend all limits within the virtual world of the Matrix has fallen flat. The difference is that in Star Wars this was a throwaway line about a supporting character, whereas in The Matrix it was the whole point of the protagonist’s story arc.
For one brief moment at the end of the first film, Neo seemed to have no limits. Then in the next film the Agents got an upgrade, and suddenly Neo was limited again. Even so, at least in Reloaded’s "Burly Brawl" it took 100 Agent Smiths to fight Neo to a standstill. In this film’s rain-soaked final showdown, the thousands of Smiths on the sidelines are all spectators; only the original stands against Neo. Perhaps we should be grateful that Revolutions doesn’t attempt a "Burlier Brawl," but as the fight scene builds toward its climax, it’s clear that the direction set by the first film has long since been abandoned.
Far more problematic is the resolution, if I can call it that, of the war to destroy the machines and liberate mankind. The issues here are overwhelmingly complex: How can the machines be defeated without killing the billions of human lives asleep in their pods? How do you manage the task of unplugging billions of minds from the Matrix, when as we saw in the first film freeing even a single mind is an arduous and dicey process, involving painstaking physical rehabilitation on the atrophied body as well as an arduous transition for the mind? Didn’t Morpheus even say the Zionites had a policy of never freeing a mind once it had reached a certain age? How would this be managed on a global scale? How would mankind begin to take on the challenge of waking from a late 20th-century dream world into a post-apocalyptic nightmare?
Without revealing key plot points, it’s safe to say that the Wachowskis have essentially defaulted on the issues and problems they set for themselves. Something happens in the war on the machines, and something happens about the fate of humanity, but there are no satisfying revelations, no bold solutions. Something that should have been given an entire act is tersely dismissed with a single, oblique line of dialogue, and what should have been the series’s crowning triumph crumbles into a morass.
Revolutions doesn’t make sense even of itself, let alone the previous movies. At the end of Reloaded, it was suddenly revealed that Neo’s powers in the Matrix extended at least to a point into the real world; this film continues that notion, offering barely a line of "explanation" about some sort of technological energy center called "the Source," but explains nothing about exactly what it is, how it works, who or what decrees that Neo and no one else can tap into it, and so on. (Use the Source, Neo…)
We see the viral Agent Smith replicating at an alarming rate, threatening to take over the entire Matrix and becoming a danger to machines and men alike. Yet at the same time the film continues to play out the idea suggested in the previous film that All This has happened many times before, including a climactic moment that would suggest that Smith must have reached a comparable level of strength and power many times previously. If that’s so, why does this time seem to be different? Why is Smith a threat in a way he never was before? How was he contained in past iterations, absorbed into the cycles or revolutions of the Matrix? The movie doesn’t ask and doesn’t tell.
We see Neo take the battle to the machines using his unexplained oneness with the Source, and we see him make his last stand against Smith; but can anyone tell me exactly what happened at the end of that confrontation, how it worked, why Neo knew it would work?
Can anyone explain why the Wachowskis are still burning screen time with filler subplots, such as Neo’s imprisonment in the limbo train station, and the rescue mission mounted on his behalf? Why they have added yet another pointless, irrelevant character — the Train Man — to Reloaded’s queue of irrelevant characters (Merovingian, Persephone, the Keymaker, and, since I’m no longer giving series the benefit of the doubt, the Architect)?
What about the series’s much-ballyhooed philosophical-spiritual
dimensions? The Matrix Revolutions is not the kind of film
that, in itself, would inspire much philosophical analysis.
Because the philosophical-spiritual resonances of the original
Matrix film make the subject inevitable, though, the
safest comment about the trilogy is that it ends on what might be
called an existential note, finding purpose or direction not in
objective values or higher reality but in individual autonomous
choices. (For more, see "Is The Matrix Gnostic
But The Matrix Revolutions hardly makes a convincing
existentialist tract. For that matter, it hardly makes a
convincing conclusion to the Matrix trilogy. In fact, I
would rather think of The Matrix Revolutions not as the
conclusion of a trilogy per se, but as part a of misguided
The original Matrix I will probably see again more than once in my life. When I watch it, I will do my best to put the sequels out of my mind. For that matter, I’m not going to wait until then.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.