In early 1999 news of the imminent Star Wars prequel dominated the news. People eagerly awaited a badly-needed revitalisation of the stunted sci-fi genre and it seemed like The Phantom Menace was poised to deliver just that. However, at the same time, there was another phantom film teasing its arrival. Short trailers showed bizarre glimpses of people bouncing off of walls, dodging bullets and moving at superhuman speeds; all of this was proceeded by the enticingly enigmatic question: What is the Matrix? It turns out The Matrix was a film that would touch off a revolution in visual effects and how action movies are made, all while telling a compelling story with an eerily plausible premise. The movie drew upon many influences and while the idea of false reality is nothing new, its unique blend of Western-inspired duels, Asian martial arts and blend of Eastern and Western philosophies together with a compelling premise, a likeable band of heroes and a hypnotically captivating antagonist led it to become a box office smash and one of the most beloved sci-fi movies of all time. Then its sequels happened. So what went wrong?
There are a variety of reasons to admire The Matrix. Led by the writer/director Wachowskis, the cinematography in the opening five minutes alone is worthy of an Oscar; the camera displaying a gorgeous slow-motion jump kick, a flashlight following a woman who runs across a wall, tracking shots rising and falling with the roofs of buildings as police officers give chase, their every step making a large thud as they hit the tin with wonderfully precise sound effects. What follows is a beautifully shot movie which pioneered visual effects which remain in use to this day and displayed gun-fights and martial arts which would make John Woo blush.
The film also gave us a likeable set of characters. Neo / Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), the timid yet defiant hacker in a world he didn’t understand or feel comfortable with. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the honest crusader and moral support. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the wise sage. And, of course, one of cinema’s most loveable villains, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). The characters had just enough depth to keep us interested and let us know their motivations but not too much to weigh down the pace of the action.
More than anything, like The Truman Show, we were presented with a story which made us question our own reality, sticking with us after we left the cinema, pausing every now and then to wonder – what if? Is it so far fetched? It was a compelling story and well told. With all these feathers in its cap, how could this franchise have fucked up its sequels so bad? How could such a visionary work falter?
Enter the Matrix (Sequels)
The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were both commercial successes upon their release in 2003. However they received lukewarm reviews from critics and the long-term consensus in popular culture seems overwhelmingly negative, particularly towards the final installment:
The sequels have a number of problems ranging from poor effects shots to shitty dialogue. More than anything however, the films simply suffered from basic screenwriting errors. We will now proceed to take these fuckers apart.
The Script is Too Smart For Its Characters
There is a basic rule of thumb in writing that a character should never speak about anything that such a character would be unable to comprehend. For instance, it would be absurd for the simpleton Lennie in Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, 1937) to discuss the intricate economic theories regarding the Great Depression. Likewise, Die Hard’s John McClane shouldn’t have a conversation about the underlying causes of social deviancy.
In the first Matrix film we were presented with a Neo who was out of his depth. Throughout the course of the film he did learn and grow, of course – that is what a character arc is. But from the outset of the second film we are inundated with characters having conversations about philosophical issues so esoteric Bertrand Russel would have an aneurism. Granted, in a world where one can download knowledge from a computer, it is feasible that Neo and the others simply downloaded the history of human philosophy, but from a screenwriting perspective this does nothing for the audience. Rather, we are now forced to endure simply witnessing a bunch of unrelatable characters using sterile and obnoxious language to discuss concepts which should be way over any normal person’s head. If Neo were to suddenly become a repository of all philosophy then this should have happened in front of the audience, so that we were kept up to speed. Instead, we go from fish-out-of-water Neo to the most calm, collected and cock-sure character imaginable right from the start, and as a result we are left trying to play catch-up. Keep in mind, this is an action movie – it isn’t the fucking Socratic Dialogues.
Exposition is perhaps the most difficult thing to write in cinema. It is a tricky balancing act to try and get out the necessary information to drive the plot along without boring the audience or just plainly stating what is going to happen. The Golden Rule of screenwriting is show, don’t tell. Cinema is a visual art form and in order to successfully capitalise on that, the challenge is to use symbolism to convey important themes, concepts or plot devices in the film. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions violate the living shit out of this rule. In an action movie, where conflicts are played out and resolved by symbolism, physical confrontation, transcendence, the overcoming of boundaries and self-actualisation, we spend an unwieldy amount of time listening to long stretches of painfully dull expository dialogue. Less is more. In the first film, the few expository scenes (Morpheus red-pilling Neo, Agent Smith’s rant at Morpheus, Morpheus explaining the war and the Matrix to Neo in the Construct) are handled in a visually engaging and verbally brief way, leaving just enough to the imagination and not over-saturating the audience with a pile of useless shitty pseudo-philosophical circular logic. These scenes revealed things about the characters and their motivations as well as the world they exist in. In the sequels, we have blandly framed, long sequences in which characters either act completely dumbfounded, speak cryptically or discuss ridiculously pointless concepts for extended periods of time. They are neither aesthetically interesting or insightful towards the film.
A Lack of Levity
Contributing to the dry exposition, there is a notable absence of the playful sense of humour the original Matrix had. Neo smirked gleefully upon executing a Kung Fu move. Mouse had a conversation about the taste of chicken. Morpheus pointed out that virtual air doesn’t do much for you in a computer world. These little moments were implemented with a feather touch, just enough to keep the story from becoming overly-serious but not enough to make it clumsy. Unfortunately, as with the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels suffer from humourless, almost inhuman characters, which again makes the characters further unrelatable. I hesitate to put too much emphasis on this, seeing as Keanu Reeves suffered a tremendous personal tragedy in between the filming of the original and the sequels, and frankly its incredible that he even soldiered on going to work when someone like me would have just curled up into a ball and cried for a decade. Sadly though, the lack of levity cannot help but detract from the films. That said, there was the vagina-cake sequence.
Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know
At heart, one of the strongest failures of the sequels is in its characters’ personalities (or lack thereof). The characters we have come to know now behave thoroughly out of character. Neo is no longer a defiant but self-conscious rebel but instead a stoic philosopher-priest of utter composure in any circumstance. Morpheus is no longer the idealistic sage but is a loud war-ready commander (who ultimately does basically nothing to aid the fight). Trinity’s tender strength has given way to needy damsel status. As RedLetterMedia observed of the Star Wars prequels, it feels like someone came along and sucked the fun out of The Matrix, and now all we are left with are sterile alien characters who we can’t empathise with. Alas, it is not just the protagonists who suffer poor character development…
Inside the Matrix They Are Everyone and They Are No-One – Outside The Matrix They Are Fucking Boring
Our heroes aren’t the only shitty characters. The sequels also suffer from painfully weak antagonists. In the original, Agents are portrayed as insurmountable villains: “Every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an agent has died.” One of the very first scenes in Reloaded shows Neo nonchalantly defending himself from apparently improved Agents, thereby deflating all tension.
Of course, Neo learned this trick at the end of the last film, but perhaps opening this one with an action scene devoid of suspense was not the wisest move. Lest it end there however, it becomes even more dull, as during the freeway chase sequence Morpheus – who previously got the shit kicked out of him by Agent Smith until he was pulverised and bloody – encounters an Agent and manages to fend him off for something like ten hours without even breaking a sweat (he does however get his necktie cut in half).
Sadly, in Revolutions we don’t even receive castrated villains. Instead, we have sentinels. Lots and lots of fucking sentinels. The problem with having sentinels as the primary antagonists is that they are simply uninteresting. They literally have no motivation past “search and destroy”. Contrasted with the machine characters within the Matrix – the desperate and contemptuous malice of Agent Smith, the gleefully decadent and rude Merovingian and the insightful prescience of the Oracle – the sentinels are simply fucking boring. They are literally robots with no dialogue and no depth. Such as it is, this makes the sentinels about as intriguing as antagonists as would be a bullet. They either hit their target or they don’t; who cares?
Where is the Matrix?
This is an obvious one and many others have explored it in detail, as well as my own previous mention, but it bears repeating: for a movie series called The Matrix, the climactic final film barely spends any time in the Matrix. For the same reason Titanic doesn’t spend most of its final act on board the RMS Carpathia slowly steaming to rescue survivors, and Jurassic Park doesn’t spend its entire second act at Dr Grant’s archeological dig, this is why The Matrix Revolutions should not devote two-thirds of its screen time to what is happening outside of the fucking Matrix. On that subject…
Zion as Symbolism
The truth is, Zion was for more interesting as (and only ever needed to be) a concept. In the first film, it was a metaphor for sanctuary, refuge and freedom; its symbolic connection to the final destination and liberation of the Biblical chosen people was obvious and required no further expansion or explanation. As an actual location it is far less interesting and loses its mystique. This is not simply a failure in execution – it is a fundamental flaw inherent to the script (sorry to use Architect-esque language). That is, in a universe which features a simulated reality where anything is possible, where rules can be bent or broken, where people can be superhuman, the real world is unavoidably bound to be less interesting to watch.
Zion or the Matrix – Failing the Trolley Problem?
There is a thought experiment in ethics known as the Trolley Problem. The challenge is this: A train is approaching a fork in the line; on one rail a single individual lies on the tracks while on the other a group of people lay on the tracks. With a switch in front of you to alter the course of the train, do you let it hit the individual or the group? Most people, given this choice, would choose to sacrifice the one to save the many – a philosophical position known as utilitarianism (a form of consequentialism); essentially, the most good for the most people. In Matrix Revolutions we are presented with an odd set of stakes. The overwhelming majority of the film takes place in the real world and focuses on saving the several thousand liberated people living in Zion. On the other hand, little attention is paid to the vast, vast majority of the human race that exists still plugged in to the Matrix – in fact, their fate throughout the film is totally ambiguous, until a slightly less ambiguous line is delivered by the Architect in the final scene. For a movie series that started with the idea of liberation from a false reality where a saviour is found who can help to free humanity, we spend a totally inappropriate amount of time worrying about those who are already living free. What is the moral imperative here? To save a few thousand or to free billions? There are interesting debates to be had about utilitarianism, of course, but the film neglects to even address the issue of just what the fuck is happening to those who are still plugged in while Smith wipes across the system like a virus or precisely what is won by whatever it is Neo does at the end. Instead we just focus on the few thousand in Zion.
The problem is, even if you accept that there is some kind of imperative to save Zion, in the context of the screenplay that goal is not related to the greater salvation of humanity. That is, whether Zion either destroyed the sentinel army or was decimated by them makes no difference to the fate of the human race which is still plugged into the Matrix. This is a significant problem given that the entire premise of the Matrix films is the ascendance from false reality to truth. Instead, that fate is left to Neo and his battle inside the Matrix – where we spend very little time. Further obscuring the stakes, by the third act of Revolutions everyone inside the Matrix has been converted to Smith, and so the any ability to relate to the human stakes are removed from the finale. Speaking of which…
Attack of the Clones.
The problems regarding character continuity are further amplified with the Smith clones. Agent Smith was a wonderfully interesting villain and acted as an appropriate antagonist towards Neo, so it makes sense to have him return for the sequels. That does not however mean that he had to be cloned a billion fucking times. Firstly, if it is not handled properly – as with the clone troopers and battle droids in the Star Wars prequels and similar to the sentinels themselves – having an indistinguishable mass of villains which are identical entities removes individuality and the suspense is actually diminished rather than enhanced; each copy of the villain is disposable, resulting in a lack of tension. This is exactly why the “Burly Brawl” in Reloaded is so fucking tedious. It doesn’t matter who wins (spoiler: nobody does) because, for all we know, there is a Jenga pile of a thousand more Smiths around the corner.
Secondly, and more importantly, cloning is a fundamental contradiction to Smith’s character. In the first film Smith goes on a tirade comparing humans to viruses that multiply, destroy and consume. Now the roles are completely reversed: Smith has become a virus that does exactly that. He is an agent of chaos, disrupting and spreading across the system like a plague, while Neo is the one who is sent in to restore order. This is exactly what Neo had promised not to do at the end of the first film; to show the people a world without boundaries and destroy the system. Again, Smith originally worked well as a villain, but why did he need to be cloned? Smith could have simply defied the order to delete himself and therefore become more powerful as he realises he can defy the system, bending and breaking rules much in the way Neo does; having done so, he really would have become Neo’s double, with opposing motivations. This would have been the logical setup for the story, with Smith attempting to take down Neo in order to restore order while Neo’s goal was to disrupt and destroy the system of control Smith is inextricably a part of. Instead, we are presented with a complete role reversal which makes the finale both confusing and quite fucking redundant.
The Matrix Really Did Perform a Revolution…
…In the most literal sense, in that we are right back where we started. At the ending of Revolutions the human race is still presumably plugged in to the Matrix (we have no idea what condition they are in following possession by Smith). We are told there is a deal that those who choose to leave will be allowed to leave but we know not who will enforce such a deal or whether the self-motivated programs such as the Merovingian will honour such a deal (doubtful). Most of all, we have no fucking idea what actually happened. Literally, I have trawled the interweb for an answer to this. Some say that Neo committed suicide when Smith finally possessed him. Others say that the Machine Head implemented a kind of anti-virus into Neo when it jolted him. Still others say that since Neo and Smith were opposites, once they combined they cancelled each other out. There are more theories for anyone who cares enough to Google it. Frankly, it speaks volumes that it is such a confusing and ambiguous issue. Not that ambiguity in film is intrinsically a bad thing; movies like Mulholland Drive or Enemy leave you to interpret everything from the character’s identities to the entire superstructure of the story – but The Matrix is an action franchise. It is an epic saga of good versus evil, not a personal avant-garde indie film. We know who the good guys are and we know who the bad guys are, so give us a clear fucking ending. Ultimately, the sequels just suffered from awful writing and bland direction. At the end of the series Neo has been assimilated into the machine world – the antithesis of the entire first film. Somehow in Reloaded, Smith managed to jump into the real world while wreaking chaos in the Matrix, contradicting his role as a systemic agent of control. Morpheus basically did nothing to help win the war, despite his supposedly proactive character. Zion is still alive but there was never much at stake for it either way. Apparently, the programs of control in the Matrix still exist. People may or may not be freed from the Matrix. We have indeed completed a 360.
An unambiguous ending.
So, here rests my brief analysis of The Matrix sequels. I wish I could say more but there really isn’t much else that I can say which hasn’t been said in other places. Sadly, the Matrix sequels will fall into the same purgatory of shittitude as The Godfather Part III, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Alien Resurrection, the Star Wars prequels and every other crap attempt at brand continuation. I believe that is all there is to say on the subject of these abject failures of screenwriting 101. As such, I will let my good friend Cypher deliver my final thoughts on the sequels:
The Matrix sequels, by the numbers:
“What happens” or “What if” questions: 16
“The One”: 20
“Mister Anderson”: 21
“Kung Fu”: 0
Question Marks: 481