The Matrix trilogy has been running on ITV over the last three weeks, and watching it made me realise a) what a towering technical achievement it still is over a decade down the line, frame after frame, and b) how crammed with ideas it seems to be. There are more ideas – however clumsily expressed - in ‘Reloaded’ alone than you’ll find in scores of sci-fi wannabees. But what actually galvanised me into writing this was the recent reception afforded Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.
‘Inception’ is being lauded as a blockbusting ideas movie, and its central conceit – the plunging ever deeper into the mind in order to implant a single idea – may be a masterstroke, but where have we seen such an artfully constructed ‘false’ universe before? Where physics can warp mid-battle? Where the general populace are just embodiments of a subconcious that could turn on you at any moment? Where the rise back to true reality is often a fight to the death? Where the true reality itself is far less attractive than the artifice? To me, Nolan’s only mining the seam the Wachowski’s left behind back in 2003.
Do you remember your original impressions of The Matrix trilogy? I always thought ’The Matrix’ was a masterpiece of pacing and style, with never a frame that wasn’t painstakingly storyboarded & stylised so that it felt like the most kinetic comic book ever written come to life. The phones, the glasses, the jackets, the bleak desaturation, and – lest we forget – bullet-time. It was so influential, and I think it is still the sci-fi action movie of the 20th century. And it’s yet to be surpassed in the 21st.
But then I recall walking out of the ‘Reloaded’ screening with indigestion. It was too long, too ambitious, too portentious & pretentious, too enthralled by its own technical brilliance to accept that the full CGI Neo just didn’t work, nullifying the whole experience of the supposedly epic ‘burly brawl’. It felt like a dozen teen comic nerds had been handed $150,000,000 to sit down and fill a hundredweight of blank pads with their dream dystopia and, when they handed it in, no-one had dared rip out a single page.
‘Bloated’ was the byword, and although it was a third more successful again than its predecessor, it burned so much goodwill that the third instalment tanked, taking less cash than the original.
But I remember thinking a lot more of ‘Revolutions’, and that was partially down to the shift in Zion. The bullshit Bodyshop rave vibe had been overrode by a desperate fight for survival, and I still recall gasping when the sentinels finally overwhelmed the defensive fire and swarmed down the concrete dome. But then I also remember feeling utterly underwhelmed by the continuous waves of platitudinous sophistry that seemed to crash out of every character’s mouth bar Neo’s, and he was just a blank.
That’s what really annoyed me about the two sequels originally. At the end of ‘The Matrix’ Neo is massively empowered. He’s discovered his true purpose and abilities and he’s going to use them to smash the system. Excellent. But in ‘Reloaded’ he’s clueless, his active role initially reduced to that of a glorified bodyguard while Morpheus & Co decide the fate of Zion, and there’s another crucial shift. ‘The Matrix’ ended with the supposition that mankind could be saved by unveiling the false world, but ‘Reloaded’ & ‘Revolutions’ basically said ‘fuck the coppertops, we can only save those humans who are already free – Zion! Zion! Zion!’ and that felt like a bit of a slap in the chops.
Revisiting these movies seven years later has been a revelation. Not that everything that was wrong with them originally is any less ridiculous. On the contrary, The Merovingian is still a gallic ponce (“I love the French Language, especially to curse with…It’s like wiping your arse with silk.”) The Oracle is still infuriatingly obscure (“We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”) and I still want to punch The Architect in the face (“You have many questions, and although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.”) I mean, who else uses the word ’ergo’, apart from utter bellends?
But the artistry - the sheer brio - is still there. The CGI - Neo apart - is still immaculate. And better, the ambition seems clearer. As poorly expressed as their provocative thoughts are, the Wachowski’s just keep throwing them at the screen, layer after layer atop the CG sheen, but whereas back then it felt like a mistake – an overload of cod philosophy that buckled an otherwise elegant universe – now it feels brave.
Here you have a machine-generated world populated by the minds of slaves, but also, uniquely, by computer programs, some of which have set functions within which they live and some of which are anomalous free agents apparently infected by the humanity they were formed to reflect. Agent Smith – whose diction is the one constant pleasure in the entire trilogy – is the classic case: a program created to police The Matrix that grows to despise its human infection to the point of becoming the infection itself, an infection that Neo offers to cure in exchange for mankind’s survival.
At this point Neo fulfills his true purpose in becoming a mere line of antiviral code, the means by which the machines can destroy Smith and reboot The Matrix, saving the coppertops and Zion into the bargain.
It’s the ultimate defeat of Smith, the mutual foe, that clarifies the trilogy’s main point – a point that originally seemed obscured by scripted misjudgements and an injudicious reluctance to cut, but that now appears to rise out of the emerald gloom. The point is that man & machine will always co-exist, that which one predominates is just a matter of perspective, and that the fine line between mutual survival and destruction must be walked, whatever the sacrifice.
And all that with kung-fu and guns. Lots of guns.
Viva La Révélation!
Wise words smashy, ergo (Just kidding). Like you I’ve managed to re-catch (Load?) the Matrix trilogy on tv but didn’t quite see the ingenuity in 2 & 3 of Neo’s Symbiosis with the Matrix in opposition to Agent Smith. Maybe you’re right and the sequels are a lot cleverer than most people are giving them credit for but I can’t help feeling with the exception of spiralling budgets and special fx the original is head and shoulders above what followed and that includes wealth of ideas in each film.
I just hope we’re not subjected to a series of remakes in the next decade of three.
You’re right. The original is way better – leaner, swifter, surer – than the other two. Because of the copper-top focus, and without the wearisome burden of having to portray the remnants of humanity in all its leaden mawkishness with Zion, it can stand alone. I think, with the first one, the Wachowski’s made a mountain they couldn’t climb. Everything about the other two consequently falls short, but I think they do significantly build on the original’s ideas.
There was some talk of a ‘Matrix: Resurrection’ but so far it’s come to nothing. I guess the twentieth anniversary of the original might see a flurry of greenlights, but it depends on the Wachowskis’ level of interest, which is probably minimal. Surely they’ve exhausted the theoretical limits of that universe, unless they can actually work out a way of freeing the copper-tops.
I’ve just re-read Harry Knowles’ original review of ‘Reloaded’ and it makes the salient point that the sequel talks a big talk (programs as vampires, ghouls, werewolves, etc) which it then ignores, choosing instead to unimaginatively plough the chop–socky furrow and give us more & more of the same fight that we know Neo can win.
I can now imagine how explosive ‘Reloaded’ would have been if it had featured mythical creatures, and I could see how that might prove a true test of Neo’s strength, as Knowles also has an issue with Neo being suddenly limited within The Matrix when he could previously explode code. Certainly wrestling with werewolves to decode them might have been more invigorating than Neo v Smith x 1000.