Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

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5 thoughts on “Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

  1. Good review James, you are right about the original film not needing a sequel- I can’t tell you how many other people I’ve heard that from over the years- and for many years I too didn’t like the sequels, actually I rather liked ‘…Revolutions’ even in spite of it’s shortcomings, mostly because it wasn’t as indulgent as its predecessor, and actually had some terrific scenes (the Zion siege, Neo and Trinity admitting to each other they’re scared, the approach to the machine city) and felt closer in spirit to the original.

    But recently I’ve softened a bit on them after reading other opinions about it (go to ‘Matrix 101’ for some intruiging views), don’t get me wrong, they still have very real flaws in them- mostly in ‘…Reloaded’ (that horrendous rave scene, the Merovingian’s discourse on causality, the ridiculous Neo-Persephone kiss scene), and one specific scene in ‘…Revolutions’ (the Club Hell scene which was both stupid and a very poor redux of the original film’s lobby shootout scene)- and it’s obvious the Wachowski’s are stretching it out in order to make a trilogy, but there are good points to them as well, that being they at least try to make an intelligent sci-fi saga that requires the audience to think and question and actually dig beneath the initial surface of what’s being presented onscreen in more than one viewing to fully understand what’s going on- which leads me to a rather intruiging question that may make sense of the sequel’s rather convoluted plot, what if the Real World is not actually real, but is itself another computer simulation (an alternative Matrix for those who reject the other one), it may sound crazy at first, but if you really think it through, the whole saga arc starts to click into place, give it a go, you’ll be pleasantly surprised, happy watching (just hit the fast-forward on those scenes I mentioned) and great review…

  2. Well, as a matter of fact I have a higher opinion of ‘The Matrix’ sequels than the writer of this article, my good friend and contributor, Patrick Zabriskie. I’ve spent a good deal of time investigating the allusions made in the sequels, which get increasingly esoteric and complex, and are not necessarily justified by the emotional beats of the story — which, unfortunately, become very disjointed near the end. Still, ‘The Matrix’ trilogy is a fascinating piece of work, definitely a mixed bag, but fascinating. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Sorry I got the name wrong James – and credits to Patrick for the excellent article (apologies Patrick)!

    I think you’re probably right about the emotional beats and the increasingly complex mythology of the sequels, it always appeared to me that the Wachowski’s spent more time on ‘…Reloaded’ and it’s expanding of the Matrix mythology, and had to race to finish ‘…Revolutions’ as production was likely starting soon, or had already begun- interestingly, around 2/3 of the shooting script for ‘…Revolutions’ was revised in June 2002, two months BEFORE production wrapped in Sydney, almost as if they didn’t have a fully developed script for that movie when cameras rolled, pushed back most of the filming of ‘…Revolutions’ to the last couple months of production, and had extensive rewrites during production as they knocked the ‘…Revolutions’ script into some kind of decent shape for the latter stages of production, maybe I’m wrong and the Wachowski’s planned both sequels exactly as they played out, but still, you get the feeling ‘…Revolutions’ may have been a little rushed in it’s inception.

    I always thought the Wachowski’s should have spent another year in writing and prepping the sequels – instead of production starting in 2001 for a 2003 release, it probably would have been better to start filming in 2002 for a 2004 release – giving them more time to fully develop, flesh out, not to mention tighten and refine the scripts into a leaner and better flowing story arc than how they turned out, and have both movies completely storyboarded in advance of filming commencing, so each shot is carefully considered and decided upon (the way they planned out the original movie, to startlingly good effect, I might add). Without wanting to sound like an armchair critic, the ‘Matrix’ sequels had some really intriguing ideas and some excellent action setpieces… I just wish they had taken their sweet time in writing and prepping them rather than racing to the ‘get-’em-made-and-released’ finish line before it was completely ready, I hope I’m wrong though…

  4. Thanks Rorshach! Glad you enjoyed my review. Yes, I do agree that more time on the script would have done much for these movies, although I still believe that sequels weren’t necessary from a story-telling point of you. I do have to remind myself that Hollywood is more interested in profit than art and will rush the production of films along accordingly. Whatever the Matrix sequels might have turned out to be, they were compromised from the get-go for that reason.

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