Second Chance Theater: The Matrix Trilogy

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There is no spoon…

With The Matrix Resurrections coming to theaters and HBO Max tonight, I figured it was time to revisit the series that practically changed the landscape for blockbusters for better or worse. Now, before my re-watch of what we must now refer to as the first three movies of The Matrix series, I will say that I had not seen any of them since I was a teenager and I really hadn’t been keen on revisiting the series. While I still had fond memories of the first film given its profound impact on movie making and pop culture, I must confess it was the infamous two-punch of Reloaded and Resurrections that turned me off to the Wachowskis’ brand of high concept science fiction. Still, I hadn’t watched The Matrix in well over a decade, so I figured a refresh through modern eyes (and years of jadedness built from watching tons of movies) was in order. So here we go, let’s tackle each film in order…

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Say it with me kids, “I know…”

The Matrix

I’ll spare holding you in suspense and cut right to the chase: yes, The Matrix indeed holds up more than two decades after it first graced movie theaters. Frankly, it’s almost bewildering to me how good this movie still holds up. The world building is dense but deftly told through hyper-stylized philosophizing. The characters all feel well rounded and well-acted, especially with Keanu Reeves who at the time was frequently mocked as a bad actor (the world has since corrected itself for this poor judgment). The story, while going through the motions of a typical Chosen One narrative, still found ways to throw curveballs that challenged the protagonists in surprising ways. And while the special effects aren’t perfect in one or two scenes these days, the rest of them still rock to this day. Thankfully, the Wachowskis relied more on “wire-fu” than computer generated images (CGI) and the result is that the movie still looks great while many of its contemporaries feel far more dated in their overreliance on CGI. See The Phantom Menace and Wild Wild West. I frankly cannot imagine how different pop culture would look like without the infamous lobby shootout or the scene where Keanu dodged bullets.

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“And breaking every law of physics we could think of”

I now realize that repeat viewings makes the film a more rewarding experience as you now pick up on clues and details that show a level of foreshadow that I deeply miss seeing in the Wachowskis’ later works like Jupiter Ascending. Some of them are a bit on the nose, others were far more interesting to see like the “Simulacra & Simulation” book, the coppertop nickname for Neo before Morpheus’ use of a battery to punctuate what humanity is to the machines, and the window wiping scene reflecting the lines of code from the Matrix.

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“Deeper than you thought, huh?”

Also, I’ve made it a point that I deeply LOATHE Chosen One narratives for a very simple reason: it gives writers an excuse to skip over important details like character motivation in order to get people to the action quicker. The Wachowskis showed everyone how it’s done way back in 1999: provide your Chosen One with a deeply personal mission (in this case, existential dread about reality) and allow the character to fulfill their needs which will slowly be revealed to coincide with their destiny. Maybe by highlighting this fact we won’t run into franchises making the same damn mistake, mentioning no Star Wars, I mean names.

As a final matter, I do find the recent re-evaluation of The Matrix as an allegory for the struggles of transgender individuals fascinating. I mean, it’s hard not to think about it when both Wachowskis came out as transgender in the past decade and many transgender individuals frequently quoted The Matrix to explain their profound discomfort with who they were before their transition (particularly the line “…like a splinter in your mind”). Now, while others have disagreed with Lily Wachowski declaring that The Matrix was “always” meant to be about transgenderism, I will say that it’s extremely likely that their anxieties and discomfort with their assigned gender contributed to several creative choices they made throughout the movie, and the details are pretty hard to miss upon reflection. Notably, Neo’s declaration of his hacker name as his true identity versus Agent Smith’s mocking calling of “Mr. Anderson” (bit of dead-naming perhaps), Neo’s own grappling that he knows something is wrong with the world but cannot put it into words, and then there’s the fact that the red pill that awakens Neo the true nature of the world may be a reference to estrogen pills (frequently made in red) are used hormone replacement therapy. Honestly, all this makes for a far more rewarding movie watching experience.

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“And bonus: we get to do the all emotional growth while going on an action rampage”

I leave The Matrix assured that its place in pop culture is richly deserved. Now…let’s see how the sequels fare.

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“It was somehow cooler the second time I did this exact same thing”

The Matrix Reloaded

Re-visiting this one after several years has left me pleasantly surprised in many ways (and not so much in others). I remember disliking the plot when I first saw it in theaters, but I now find my various issues with the plot resolved since I was paying a bit more attention to the dialogue this time around…or maybe it was the fact I had the subtitles on to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. You see, it’s not hard to understand why people are down on this movie, the monologues can easily yank you out of the experience with how overwritten they can be. The exposition feels TOO dense several times, so it’s easy to lose critical information being explained to you at the speed of a hyper train. Hell, critical characters like Bane (the dude who got possessed by Agent Smith) are barely introduced and referenced, so when he shows up in the final frame of the film I barely understood why there was a musical sting. Again, maybe watching with subtitles helped with that issue as well, especially with the infamous meeting with the Architect.

Before I get to that, I got to say that the action sequences in this movie are really the best in the series and frankly put modern action movies to shame. A lot of the computer generated effects haven’t aged well, but when the movie is showing off wire-fu stunts it feels just as fresh today as it did 18 years ago. And I’ll be damned if that freeway chase isn’t friggin impressive, and it makes me realize Chris Nolan owes quite a lot to the Wachowskis in terms of framing and stunt choreography.

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The Highway Chase is honestly the one thing we can all agree looked good and STILL looks good

Going back to the plot, a criticism I made years ago still stands: multiple important plot details in this movie are tucked away in extra material like The Animatrix (a collection of animated shorts, some of which were written and directed by the Wachowskis) and Enter the Matrix (a bizarre video game that featured on two side characters from Reloaded who barely had any lines, given a fleshed out plot that intersects and bolsters the primary narrative). It’s a bit amusing to me that the Wachowskis were pulling off Marvel’s shared universe across multiple works of fiction several years before the first Iron Man was released.

But as with anything so revolutionary, there are many issues with trying this tactic and all of them are present in Reloaded: Jada Pinkett-Smith is not given much to do in this film with her actions being vaguely alluded to when she in fact went through a significant character arc in her own game; the threat of the destruction of Zion is told but not shown to us for almost 90 minutes before we finally see the machines’ drills when the threat was more clearly established in a short of The Animatrix; and the discussion of the weird idiosyncrasies of the Matrix are only briefly discussed when they were more fleshed out in other material.

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Enter the Matrix also includes a scene where Monica Belluci makes out with Jada Pinkett-Smith…you can find it here because I know that’s where you’re going next

For those curious what I’m referring to, I mean that bit where the Oracle talks about ghosts and vampires as programs in the Matrix who have rejected their directive to be deleted causing trouble. Enter the Matrix and The Animatrix both show vampires and ghostly apparitions in more concrete ways that makes sense in the lore of the Matrix, but since it’s only briefly discussed in Reloaded, the scenes feel like superfluous material that should have been cut out entirely.

Now something I really appreciated in my re-watch was the confrontation with the Architect. His dialogue truly felt nonsensical to me when I first saw the movie as a teenager, as well as not knowing what was coming in Revolutions. Now with the help of age (and subtitles), I was actually able to make sense of the Architect this time around and I must confess that I now love this bizarre scene. Yes, the adjectives are still superfluous, but maybe years of absorbing Hideo Kojima’s nonsense has helped me appreciate the writing a bit more. And honestly, the revelation that the path of Chosen One was in fact another form of control put in place by the machines is simply ingenious. Again, I’ve ragged on Chosen One narratives in the past but I like it when the trope is being subverted in surprising ways. Reloaded accomplishes this wonderfully (if not perfectly).

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“I’ll take the C+!”

Ultimately, that last sentence sums up my thoughts on Reloaded. It does so many things right and cooks up some amazing set pieces and narrative twists, but they came up with TOO much stuff that they couldn’t cram into a single 2.5 hour flick. So the execution doesn’t feel nearly as polished as it did in the first film in the series. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think the movie is absolutely worth a revisit. You may find yourself enjoying this way more years later. Now…let’s get to the final one.

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The Matrix Revolutions

Got to admit, liked it way better than I did 18 years ago. I mean the movie still has problems, but perhaps watching the trilogy back to back helped me appreciate it a bit more. That being said…it’s clear to me that the biggest issue with the latter two Matrix flicks was an over emphasis on lore, world building, and subversion of typical hero narratives…and skimping out on emotional connections.

This is most notable with Neo and Trinity. Now their love should be something I constantly rooting for and their final scene together should have emotionally devastated me. But honestly, I felt a big old’ nothing. I know I’m not that cold-hearted, friggin A Monster Calls made me weep in a theater. But I do believe the Wachowskis spending so little screen time on building up the relationship between your two leads because they were so busy with subverting Chosen One expectations, setting up the final confrontation between Zion and the Machines, and juggling about half a dozen subplots following supporting and fringe characters. I think Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss have decent enough chemistry in these films that you can kind of buy that they’re heartbroken, but there was so much between them that didn’t feel authentic.

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To be honest, these two had a way better love story than Neo and Trinity

Consequently, this devotion to building up the lore also meant we had a whole lot less time for building up side characters that the movie pays a huge amount of attention to. See several characters appear to have big emotional payoffs that had no set-up in any of these movies and seem to have had a lot of their scenes cut for time. These include: Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Niobe, Clayton Watson’s the Kid (no seriously, they didn’t bother giving this character a name), the child version of Sati, Collin Chou’s Seraph, Nathaniel Lees’ Captain Mifune, and hell even our new Oracle played by Mary Alice (Gloria Foster unfortunately passed away between filming Reloaded and Revolutions, forcing the Wachowskis to concoct a weird retcon to explain the new actress). As mentioned previously, a lot of these scenes made their way into Enter the Matrix and The Animatrix, but expecting audiences to having played a video game and watched an animated anthology that was released on limited demand was a big ask on part of the Wachowskis.

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“Where was my tie-in television series?”

Which is a shame that the all important character development took such a hit, because the story and plot of Revolutions really isn’t half bad. The Sword of Damacles hanging over the Last City of Zion, Neo trying to figure out that he has even more powers than were previously expected of the One, and the negotiation of peace between humans and machines to tackle the Agent Smith virus are all fascinating to see play out. The siege of Zion in particular was genuinely thrilling to watch with the action sequences being very well paced and well shot, even with dated CGI. I’ll be frank, the Wachowskis absolutely one-upped George Lucas at his own game in creating a memorable final battle than he tried with each of his prequels. But like the prequels, your emotional investment is very limited since you mostly follow side characters that you’ve barely been given time to know. I’m honestly reminded of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies with Revolutions, it was a big glorious battle from start to finish but your enjoyment is entirely dependent on both watching and truly loving every second of every piece of Matrix lore.

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Fortunately I had that love, but my God it was testing me

Overall, it’s a massively ambitious undertaking from two people who had a ton of love for the world they created. But ambition truly exceeded their ability to lock down what made The Matrix so damn enjoyable in the first place: a tale of breaking through the imposed limits of society to growing into a stronger person, both physically and mentally. And that journey is nothing without characters you love and have got to intimately know. In truth, despite a very uneven track record from the Wachowkis since Revolutions, I have seen them inject so much more personality and humanity into their subsequent works most notably with V for Vendetta and Sense8.

So where does that leave The Matrix trilogy? Well, it’s a fine movie series that had some fantastic ideas and did so much right despite some weird missteps. I’m genuinely curious to watch The Matrix Resurrections and will let you know what my thoughts are soon after I see it. Until next time.

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