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The Matrix Revolutions: a review


Okay, I thought I had put the subject to rest (for me) with my parody script, but there was a factor I didn't count on: exposure. The script had tons of reads and links very quickly and I keep getting comments and emails asking questions (generally good-natured, though not always) and I wanted to say what I actually thought about the movie so I could refer people to this and save some time :).

Again, spoiler warning. Don't read what follows if you haven't seen the movie or don't want to know what happens.

Before we begin: to those that liked the movie anyway and are willing to flame others. All the "defenses" of the movie I've seen are like a comment posted to my script by Daniel:

Its easy to make fun of something you don't understand. You did a damn fine job of that.
Essentially, the defense boils down to "people that didn't like it are stupid. I am not stupid, hence, unlike you, I understood and appreciated the movie." (I have seen this same theme in a few--very few-- other places. Why assume that people that didn't like aspects (or all) of the movie did not understand it? Personally, I understood Reloaded with only one viewing. Are you telling me this movie is more layered and more deep and complex than Reloaded? And even if it was, saying that everyone's an idiot doesn't really explain anything. Yes, sorry, but unless you actually refute some of what I (or others) say, or unless you offer a clear explanation for some of the ludicrous twists of logic that we have to endure, you are simply clinging on and you are not willing to see the movie for what it is: Just a movie, hollywoodish science-fiction stuff that does not "respect" the basic tenets of science fiction. Saying I (or others) did not understand it is not good enough.

"Ah!" One of these critics might say. "But of course it's just a movie. You are the one who put the burden of proof on them to produce your imagined story-of-the-ages."

Touche, I'd say then. Very, very true.

I think most of the people that were not satisfied with Revolutions were hoping that this would become an all-time SF/Fantasy classic, way up there with the Foundation series and The Lord of the Rings. Most definitely, we put ourselves in that position. But we had good reasons I think, and I'll get back to them in a bit.

What the movie was about

First, for what it's worth, my take on the movie: it's entertaining. Nice picture. Great battle scenes. I think it's worth seeing in a theater, because it's a cinematic experience. Things can be explained. I have no doubt about that (as I make clear below with my own set of explanations).

But... but... it requires too much suspension of disbelief to qualify among the great creations of science fiction. The explanations are not satisfying. Not unlike ID4: Independence Day, or Armaggedon: entertaining, but not self-consistent enough. Sure this one has more twists and turns, and more ideas (not original though as I have mentioned before, the Brothers lifted sequences from Anime, and other classics such as Alien or Bladerunner. I also saw [via Alan] this scene-by-scene comparison of Matrix v. Ghost in The Shell which is very good). The Machine city shots as well as several others reminded me of both Bladerunner and Star Wars. Too much. Waay too much.

The plot would seem to be summarized as follows (given information basically present in the last scene of the Oracle and the Architect). The themes are chaos/order as well as religion. The Oracle is Chaos/Creativity. The Architect is Rationality/Order. The Oracle basically instigated this whole revolution because she wanted to see a new kind of balance emerge (Remember the Architect telling her at the end: "This is a dangerous game you're playing". Although it's not 100% clear how this balance is actually achieved in the end. If the machines let the humans go, don't they lose their power? and so on). Similarly, Neo/Smith are Order/Chaos figures, and it's all framed in terms of a battle of opposites. (Which would theoretically explain why Smith could not survive merging with its opposite at the end). The little girl, Sati, is very possibly a representation of the Matrix itself. If not, it's a program that, because it was "born" within the Matrix, can manipulate it at will but more than Neo could (no more than Smith though, since the hellish climate at the end could easily be attributed to Smith expressing himself after taking over all humans in the world).

The religious themes are back with a vengeance: Sacrifice, Martyrdom, A new world is born after the death of the Chosen One, the Chosen One dies but not really, (note the Machines taking Neo's bodies at the end, as well as the references by The Oracle), etc.

The information given in the second movie amounted to giving us a hint that this is what was happening. That the characters were sort of unwitting players (almost unwitting, since Neo makes it very clear at the end that it's his choice to do what he does) in a game played by the forces of chaos and order, the Gods (in the Platonic sense--there are lots of references to Plato) that play with humanity, a parallel to our "real" world.

Neo can "see" the Matrix both in its "virtual" form and manifested through the appearance of the Matrix in the machines that are plugged/depend on it, like in the machine city, and he can affect it even though he is unplugged. Of course, if he really was a "natural" occurrence of the "choice" flaw in the Matrix, and he is really fully human as they keep saying, then this implies superpowers, but that's ok (within the suspension of disbelief theme). In the end, peace is achieved through balacing of opposites all the way. If you wanted to take the religious analogy further, you could say that there are historical parallels with our own history: First, Christianity and Islam, the age of the Messiahs (the first movie), then deconstructionism, the age of rationality (the second movie) and finally chaos/order or yin/yang, the age of Eastern Philosophy or "new age" beliefs.

Though probably close to the truth, this is just one interpretation of what is basically a Rorsarch test of a movie (I would challenge anyone to come up with one that is substantially different though). In the end, You see ... what you want to see.

Which brings me to the problems I have with it.

But... but...

When we walked into theaters four years ago to watch The Matrix, the overriding question was: What is the Matrix?

Coming out of that movie, the sense was that we had an answer: a prison for the mind, the Matrix was a device created by Machines to win a war against Humans, creating yet another war, this one just for freedom from the shackles of a virtual world.

Then came Matrix Reloaded. The question going into the movie then was: How will humans win the war? (Note: How, not If). The answer was, in essence, "There is no spoon." Or rather, "There is no war." The Wachowski Brothers turned everything on its head and destroyed all our preconceptions. The rebels were actually being controlled. Their revolution was a sham. Another lever of control. We were pulled out of the Christian and even Muslim parables of Neo-as-Savior (Muslim because Neo is much more a "Warrior Messiah" like Muhammad, than a Christ-like character of peace and understanding), into a new level of pure science-fiction possibility. Just as the first movie studiously created a fictional reality, the second dedicated itself to proving the first one wrong. Just as the first one required us to suspend disbelief more than once, the second one gave potentially reasonable explanations for everything that was going on. Reloaded, more than anything else, revived the question: What is the Matrix?

And so we start The Matrix Revolutions essentially with the same question as the series begun. We have a lot more information, but there's one big difference. Now we don't trust anything we see. Anything. Every statement is parsed, analyzed. Somewhere deep down, we expect the second movie to be another layer of fabrication as well, and we dread the moment when it might all turn out not to be a fabrication, but the pretense of truth. And we are enticed to pick it apart like few movies before. With all the pretense of "deep meaning", we are told: "this is deep stuff. You have to think damn it!". But then there is no "deep stuff". When analyzed closely, we're left with just bad dialogue, a lot of obvious ideas that are a rehash or outright steal of other things, and a lot of overacting.

Let me go back to a moment when I was walking to the movie theater on Wednesday and I thought about something I had just written:

And what is up with characters not telling others what they've seen? Example: Neo is all cryptic just after meeting the Architect. Why not tell Morpheus the whole thing? Just because he has condemned humanity to extinction? (Supposedly). Or: When Neo stops the Sentinels at the end of Reloaded. He clearly says "I can feel them" to Trinity. Then he stops them. Morpheus arrives. "What happened?" he says. Trinity replies: "I don't know." You don't know? Come on. "He said he could feel them, and then he stopped them." Is it too hard to say that? It's as if characters play the same game between each other as the one they are playing with the audience.
The more I thought about this, the more I thought it was a symptom. Consider that twice in Reloaded we are treated to this drivel from Link. He is watching the Matrix. Neo is flying. Suddenly Link goes "What is that?" or "I don't know what it is, but it's moving faster than anything I've ever seen" when we all know that it's Neo flying, when he has already seen him fly. Etc. He does this both in the freeway chase, and at the end when Neo saves Trinity. Sure you might say that as Neo gets more powerful his Matrix-pattern becomes more difficult to discern, but this happens all over the place, like the Trinity/Neo/Morpheus example I mentioned, with the Sentinels, at the end of Reloaded.

Another example is all the "mystery" surrounding the "new" Oracle. Now, I know that they had to come up with something to explain the problem that the original Oracle (Gloria Foster) died while filming was incomplete. I appreciate that. But instead of pointing to something reasonable (for example, they had already hinted at a reason when the Merovingian said in Reloaded that her time was "almost up") the explanation just dissolves into a bunch of generalities that "hint" that something deep happened but it's never fully explained (maybe it's explained in the game Enter The Matrix, I don't know). Why make a mystery out of something that can be explained away easily with a million different reasons? Why not trust the audience? The audience wants to believe, just like Morpheus. :-)

My point is, this is a symptom for writing where the mystery is created by making weird and ambiguous statements, rather than having something true to tell. It's very easy to do. Consider:

Sam stared at the scopes in astonishment. All the screens had suddenly gone blank. The visual showed a flash, growing, where the Sun used to be. Was it...? "Oh my God."

The Captain interrupted. "Sam, what is it?"

"I don't know Cap." Sam replied, lips quivering. "Something I've never seen before. But it's approaching us."

"Can we get out in time?"

"No way. It's too fast." Sam doubted for a moment. "Do you think the ship will hold?"

The Captain rested his hand on Sam's shoulder and pressed reassuringly. "Don't worry, Sam. We'll know soon enough."

Now, I just made that up, so don't start criticizing the writing :) but I'm trying to show that it's really easy to get off explanations by making characters appear dazed and confused. Think about yourself in real life. Whenever something strange happens, you don't just sit there and say "Well, beats me." You use your experience. You talk with others. In this case, it wouldn't be so hard to think that the Sun had just gone supernova. And we get a hint that a character might have an explanation with the "Was it...?" but then he doesn't say anything. Why? You better have a good reason, because if you don't, it's just an empty device that you are using to create suspense, and eventually it wears out.

Just as it does in The Matrix.

And even worse trick to pull is creating the suspense for the answer, and then giving it, but the answer raises yet more questions which are never explained. In my example, the Sun (our star) doesn't have enough mass to go supernova. It physically can't. So once the characters survive, and say "Our readings indicate it was a supernova, Captain". And you leave it at that. Why? Why did the Sun go supernova?

Apparent plot-holes such as the lack of offensive weapons on the Nebucadnezzar (Morpheous' ship) or not using EMPs to defend Zion can be explained, but only raise more questions that force the viewer to extrapolate with no information whatsoever. For example, we could say that the "Neb" didn't have offensive weapons because it was never assigned to be on the offensive, while the Hammer was. But that was really a last minute change. Lock intended to use every ship in the offense. Morpheus bailed out of that at the last minute. So why wasn't it fitted properly? Sure, you could come up with answers. But at this point, we are already well beyond what the story says, we're just inventing reasons, speculation based on speculation. But I think that's not good enough. And Reloaded raised the bar on the whole story by implicitly saying that it was fully self-consistent.

And this is the essence of why we were led to believe there was a cool explanation behind all of this. We were caught by the 'Matrix' created by the Wachowskis you say? We were given a lesson-in-action of how we let ourselves be deceived by appearances you say? Maybe. But if so, if I can see through it so easily, it's a clumsy attempt. And if you're doing that, forcing you to, say, play a PC game just to get part of the story, buy the Animatrix, etc, etc, would imply that all of this relentless franchising of the story is not done by a mega-corporation (Time-Warner), but on purpose by a bunch of guys who don't care about money with too much time on their hands.

Which one is right? Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation tends to be the right one.

Now, I don't have anything against plots that don't fully make sense. In fact, the first Matrix on its own, had so many holes that it was hilarious. But I liked it. I willingly suspended disbelief to enjoy the ride. And a big part of that was that the first movie was not pretentious.

But Reloaded was. Reloaded said to the audience: "See? We've thought about this stuff. There's more levels than you imagine, even though you can't see them all. Here is the depth you sensed in the first movie."

And so we got to Revolutions waiting to see the final twist. But instead of a twist, Revolutions essentially goes back to the original Matrix. Why do I say this?

Think about the three movies. Now imagine you completely remove the second movie. Ignore all that information. Ignore everything that happened in it. Does it change anything?

Be honest. Does it?

No. All the flaws of logic and plot consistency are still there. (In fact, I'd say that just the first and third movies on their own work better, and by "consistency" here I mean J.R.R. Tolkien-level of consistency, not "ID4: Independence Day" level of consistency--though both are valid). But at least there is no pretense that there is something deep behind all this. We are not given lectures on causality or whatever. Things just happen, which is just fine. I can ignore all the flaws of logic in making programs have emotions for some things (e.g., Agent Smith is angry or greedy) but not for others (e.g., The Architect saying that he could never betray a deal he made). I can ignore how weird it is to use humans for power (why not cows? or chipmunks? Oh, right, "because the machines create a symbiotic relationship with their enemy through it"). I can ignore the ludicrous explanations of The Second Rennaisance in which we are told that humans nuked the hell out of Zero-One but nothing happened (Nuclear weapons create electromagnetic pulses of the same type of those we've seen "kill" machines time and again in the movie). I can forget about the fact that first the Hovercrafts "only have EMPs as weapons against the machines" (and this is also the case in Reloaded when Morpheus loses his ship to an attack----but by the third movie they have so much ammo (though not many guns!) that you could film Commando all over again with Keanu taking the role of Schwarzenegger. Or I could forget about the other miriad plot holes, many of which I mentioned in my parody script.

But I can't.

Again, these plot-holes depend on your expectation of the movie. Not on the movie itself. The movie never promised explicitly to match our expectations. But in my opinion, there's a sort of "contract" that happens when you dive into fiction of any kind. For example, in ID4 or Indiana Jones the contract is "shut down your brain for a while and we'll show you a good time". The first Matrix walked a fine line between deepthink and pure entertainment. But the second one, with all of its pretentiousness, did not. The second one cemented the promise of the first one, which was "Look, I know there's tons of philosophical dialog and repetitiveness, but it's all for good reason. Just hold on there." And so the washed-up explanations of the third, basically in line with the first, don't add up. Why? Because all the repetitiveness is to explain something simple, not something complex, and that amounts to telling the viewers: "See, you are too stupid to understand this. So we'll say it over and over again. We will put Neo in the guise of a martyr, bandages and all, so you can see how much he suffers and don't miss the Jesus analogy. We will make you questions words like "Love" by making machines say "they're just words". We will make obvious references to everything under the sun until you can't ignore them."

But I think that people would rather see something that is a) either simple and to the point, or b) something non-obvious that can not be fully expressed, but hinted at.

The Matrix, as it stands, is just a bunch of obvious points driven into our heads with a sledge hammer. And that's not what the "contract" specified. Furthermore, all the ideas have been used before. Nothing new here. It's all one big cop-out. Entertaining? Yes. A Masterpiece? Most definitely not. Treating your audience like idiots is not a very good idea.

As Smith said in the first movie. "[Humans] refused the program. Entire crops were lost."

Or:

Don't try and bed the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, realize the truth. There is no spoon. So it is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.

Replace the world "spoon," by "rational explanation" or "self-consistent plot" and you're in business with The Matrix.

Phew! Okay this should do for now. :)

In closing, a line from Futurama:

... and so life returned to normal... or as normal as it gets on this primitive dirtball inhabited by psychotic apes.
Heh.

Categories: art.media
Posted by diego on November 7 2003 at 1:16 PM

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