Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on The Matrix Reloaded
All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.
This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.
Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.
So here are our final thoughts on The Matrix Reloaded:
Final Thoughts on The Matrix:
What we have here is a film of appearances. This film’s execution, its aesthetic, its philosophy, even its existence, felt as fake as the Matrix itself. I started out enthralled by this movie when it came out, because it was a continuation of the story that had captivated me in the first film. But didn’t Morpheus say something about showing someone the door and them walking through it? Why did we have to walk through this door?
I usually take this opportunity to get the obvious stuff out of the way, but I can’t do that with this movie. The script, the acting…everything needs scrutiny. The story, for starters, was just wrong. This is what happens when you have a great thing that gets coopted by overzealous fans – they fan the bullshit flames. This script was too heavy on dialogue that was meant to have the illusion of depth. Every time Morpheus opens his mouth in this movie, he is clearly identifying himself as a religious figure, where he had been little more than a badass mentor in the first film. Lock’s arguments with the council, Neo’s long discussion with Zerbe, the whole causality thing…when did this franchise decide it was going to be a philosophical vehicle? The first Matrix movie introduced a cool concept that made us think about the world in a different way. It kept things simple, limiting the high-level trippiness to the idea that the One’s prophecy was a lie to trick him into becoming the hero he thought he wasn’t. Once we get into questions of choice, destiny, fate, causality and purpose, there’s a disconnect between the onscreen action and the themes being discussed by the main characters. The franchise has shifted from what was primarily a character story – and a damned good one, at that – to a narrative vehicle for ideology. Most unfortunately, we have the Inception effect of a movie that tries to be clever, but is more preoccupied with the image of cleverness than with the substance of it.
All of that begins with dialogue that’s more prolost than profound, ba-zing. So much of the dialogue in this movie was distracting as either unnecessary exposition or poorly executed drama. I’ll point to the constant name trading. “Morpheus.” “Niobe.” “Morpheus.” “Commander Lock.” “Neo.” “Counselor.” These exchanges are like an annoying refrain to mark the beginning of a serious scene that will explore how our choices are made and what our basis for action is. These heart-to-hearts are manufactured, which is what makes them fall through. I want to cite the broken mirror scene as a counter example of a motif-exploring moment with Morpheus that felt spontaneous. It wasn’t two characters staring at each other for a long time; it began with Neo touching the mirror and getting the silvery goop on his fingers. Morpheus begins to discuss what ‘reality’ is as the stuff spreads over Neo’s body. It isn’t a discussion, it’s a narration. When we get to Reloaded, moments like these have been replaced with the new standard of, “I’m not religious! We need to do this!” “Belief is all that matters. I can’t hear you la la la.”
Now the action. What a fail. I have to say, I appreciate the highway chase more than any of the other action sequences, if only because Neo isn’t involved, but for any scene that he’s in…what are we supposed to be cheering for or thrilled by? In the first movie, they started by showing us that he was like everyone else, just with the potential to be better. He witnessed amazing things and began to see a wider world in which he would become a superhero. So far, we’re still talking about the standard sci-fi/fantasy hero. Luke Skywalker, or whoever. But while Luke ends A New Hope with a lot still to learn and powers still left hidden, Neo ends his first flick as digital Jesus. He can already fight anyone, he can already fly, he can already stop bullets, and he can already jump into someone to blow them up from the inside. So while Luke gets the Vader fight in Empire, which is arguably the high point (insofar as it is also the low point) of the franchise, Neo doesn’t have anything comparable. He has to catch Trinity and restart her heart by using a cheat code. This just requires that he fly faster than he did before and reach inside her chest. Link’s response in the movie matches our own: “Oh, so I guess we’re just making shit up to one-up the last movie now.” But every other action sequence in this movie is without appeal. Why do we care that he’s fighting Seraph? Why do we care that he’s fighting those henchmen in the big hall? Even his fight with Smith is overdone with the CGI and ends with him flying away, which could have happened at any time. No, the action in this movie was wasted action, and the really charged moments are supposed to be the quiet discussions about ideology and purpose and shit. So thanks for removing the stuff we cared about. No lobby scenes in this movie because those guys were mortal and we don’t sweat mortals anymore.
I want to stop for a second and mention that there is one ideological point in this movie that I like, which is the Anthony Zerbe discussion in the basement of Zion. He has the bit about not knowing HOW a machine works, but knowing WHY it works, which is a really key distinction that ties into the whole purpose thing. The problem with this is that he then turns it on Neo – we don’t know HOW Neo does what he does, but we understand WHY that is. I think the larger question here, and an important one for most people, is how we perceive technology’s influence on us. For example, I don’t understand how my iPhone works, but I have a pretty good idea of why it does what it does, and more importantly, I have a vague impression of how it has begun to change me. There’s a debate going on about whether computers and how they augment our brains will be detrimental because they will reach a point of integration at which we can no longer understand what we know, remember, or can do, and what the computer is filling in for us. At what point will they begin to make choices for us, and will we know the difference? As long as you recognize what your phone or your search engine is doing to your process of decision making, we have that WHY covered, but there will be a time when more and more of this stuff is seamlessly integrated into our tangible environment. Anyway, I liked the point that he raised, but I wish they had turned it back on the cause of the Robot Wars to begin with and shown the difference between an Agent Smith and the water purifier as being clear statement of intent and execution. The water purifier [hopefully] lacks hidden motives and hidden functions, and the moment that is no longer the case is when we start to encounter problems. But they left that off the table and decided to make it about some Jesus stuff.
I should discuss actors. Did anyone else notice how black the cast got? That’s cool, but you have to stop and think about why that was. Is it because white people are more robotic, and black people are somehow more human? Was it that black people just look cooler than white people and were supposed to appeal to the audience in that way? Could it be that the Wachowskis were THAT obvious and made it a slavery thing and decided that this slave revolt should be mostly black? Or did they decide to employ more black people because Hollywood is too white?
Lock and Link are “types” whose motivations are clear and whose characters aren’t too deep. Niobe has the potential to do something, but we see later on that she really kind of doesn’t. Seraph and Ghost, as the two Asian guys, contribute martial arts to a franchise already steeped in martial arts. The Oracle is still interesting enough in that she’s the only character spouting pseudo-profundity who remains conscious of how bullshit it is. Her dialogue is just as bad as anyone else’s – it’s Gloria Foster’s delivery that saves it. She calls Neo out for being stupid while still manipulating him, and for that I like her.
The two characters that make this movie at all worth watching are Smith and the Merovingian. Smith has been discussed at length – he’s evil, he’s motivated, he’s strangely more human than the human characters, and best of all, he’s Hugo Weaving. The Merovingian is a different matter. I think I’m drawn to this character primarily because he isn’t intimidated by the main characters and because he’s an old-fashioned information broker. In that regard, he’s less like the actual Merovingians – Frankish rulers from the Dark Ages – and more like the Renaissance Italians. Maybe they just wanted to make him French for whatever reason, and they needed a dynasty that nobody would have heard of. That’d be a good reason why he couldn’t be a de Medici or something like that. But his wife IS Monica Bellucci and SHE’S Italian. Even though her character’s name is Greek and refers to the queen of the underworld who was effectively forced into marriage and resents her evil husband. So this couple is a weirdly hermaphroditic symbol of Greek mythology and Frankish history, but the point is that I like it when he’s in a scene. He knows things and expects that this knowledge will protect him. Which is awesome.
Unfortunately, most of the movie isn’t these things. Most of the movie goes on around these things, ignoring all the elements that made the first movie so enjoyable. We’ve got mind-numbing action sequences with more CGI and less thrill than the first movie’s sequences had, we’ve got tedious, ideological speeches and religious figures who make the struggle for survival one of a philosophical nature. The result is a movie about the future that reads like David Hume. And I’m not even getting to the issues of narrative structure.
I don’t hate this movie. I wish it hadn’t been made, honestly. This didn’t have to be a franchise – a lot of great movies leave you with questions about what’s still to come and how the character will continue to grow. Casablanca, for example, tells the story of a man and how he finally comes to join the fight. There’s no talk of what his actual involvement in WWII actually is, and it’s so much better that way. We didn’t get a movie about him and Claude Rains killing Nazis (Casablanca II: Round Up the Usual-er Suspects?) because that would have cheapened the feeling of triumph you had as they walk off into the mist at the airport at the end of the original. There’s no way we can really know how we’d look at The Matrix now if the sequels hadn’t happened, but I can only imagine that it would be considered one of the all-time greats of its genre, a groundbreaking film in story, cinematography and effects. Once you create a universe, people want more, but the more franchises we cover, the more I’m convinced that making an unblemished franchise out of a single excellent movie (with and original concept) is impossible. Cypher was right. They should have taken the blue pill and ended it with the first film.
My Final Thoughts:
I have two major issues with this film. Both of which get back to the same core theme. Which is — you forgot where you came from. The first is the substitution of practical effects and real locations and objects for excessive CGI. The second is the inability to recognize what got you there in the first place, and assuming the audience wants a particular thing and trying to give it to them. The first problem is a problem that other people have. Peter Jackson has it. Boy, does Peter Jackson have it. The second problem is a much rarer one to have, and seems to plague the Wachowskis. Because when you look at their history — they only really do great work when they don’t give a shit about form and content, and try to push the boundaries of cinema by doing their own thing. The first Matrix is an example of that. Speed Racer is an example of that (and also an example of when they can do wrong, by trying to give the audience what they think it wants. See, the excessive moments in that movie with the kid and the monkey. Most of which can be forgiven, but them at the very end… that’s beyond the pale). Cloud Atlas is a beautiful example of that. And yet, when they try to become mainstream and recreate their previous successes, that’s when they fail. The CGI problem only exacerbates this. They went into this movie, having told their story the first time. This was never intended to be a trilogy. They made the first movie, which was a huge gamble — a giant sci-fi action movie based on deep, philosophical concepts. And it was a gigantic hit. It was bigger in every way except total box office than what was supposed to be the actual biggest hit of that year (Jar Jar Binks). So then they got paid to continue the story. Problem is, where do you go from here? And it’s clear, based on this movie… they don’t know. They sort of extend their concepts a little further, but it’s clear that they can only do so much. It’ll become even more apparent once we get to Revolutions, that they just really have nothing left and are trying to stage enough action scenes to bring everything to a close. Here, they at least try to keep the philosophical stuff going, and do an admiral job of it. But it’s clear that they aren’t as focused as they were the first time. Plus, they looked at this film and the next film (since they were conceived, written and shot together) almost the way Todd Phillips viewed the Hangover sequels. How can I recreate what worked the first time? And when you have an action movie, the answer the filmmakers come up with is always the same — bigger, better, more. That’s why they built a giant highway loop specifically for that sequence. They came up with more action. And that’s fine. Although, this movie came in an era where CGI was at a very precarious point. Where it wasn’t advanced enough to do everything you want it to do, but also enough to create things that hadn’t been done. Which is why there were able to create a fight where Neo fights two hundred Agent Smiths. But not well enough to where it didn’t look like an awful cartoon and clearly fake. (Though it’s not like CGI has gotten that much better. CGI now still looks horribly cartoonish. It’s really not like Guardians of the Galaxy looked that good. Most movies where CGI is predominant look pretty shitty, because you’re aware of how fake it is.) They got away from what got them to where they are. The first movie was built on real sets — they slid down fucking walls for god’s sake. And here, we’re just having fight scenes where whole chunks of them aren’t even really happening on screen and were created in some lab in Australia. Which is why this movie has a really weird quality to it, where I half like it but am also half disappointed by it. Because the story is interesting enough to keep me going, but then I’m also aware of how it isn’t able to really go where it should go, and reminds me that Revolutions is going to follow it. And that might be the single worst final entry of a trilogy of all time. And I’m including Spider-Man 3 in that.
Oh, and while we’re getting into film here — Neo has nothing to do in this movie. The first movie was all about his arc. This movie for him is actually just — he can do whatever he wants. He has a question. He finds out. The end. And he fights a bunch of people in between. There’s nowhere for Trinity to go, so they basically just paint her as Juliet, barreling toward impending doom. Morpheus is the biggest casualty of this franchise going past one film. Because before, he was this badass who had a hunch and saw his hunch come to fruition. But now, he’s clearly not the guy who knows everything and can get things done. He’s essentially, as Colin said, a religious zealot. He’s not even ranking dick in Zion, and is slowly chipped away over the course of the film, to the point where, in the next movie, he serves no purpose whatsoever. The highway sequence is his last moment of glory, and even that feels anticlimactic. Damn shame what happened to that dog. Hugo Weaving is so good they had to bring him back, and without him, these sequels would have been shit. Gloria Foster is the best, and it’s almost good that she got out when she did with this franchise.
There are some new inclusions that work. The Architect is a great character, even though I’d argue that his inclusion into the franchise hurts it. I don’t like that there’s this one program that’s behind everything. Though if you get far enough in a franchise, that’s what happens. An arch villain. And a fucking council. Always with the councils. But he’s cool. The Merovingian is cool, just because he’s a great douchebag who’s operating outside of the laws and getting away with it. And is gleeful about it too. And Monica Bellucci. For reasons unnecessary to explain.
The ultimate problem with this film is that there are no real stakes. The first movie had stakes because your characters had antagonists they couldn’t overcome. You see an agent, you run. They will kill you. But now that Jesus is on their side, there’s nothing bad that can happen to them. Now, in order to have action, Jesus has to be tossed aside and everyone else who can die has to go to war. So we’re left with a fractured film. None of the action amounts to anything except to fill up screen time. This is essentially the same problem we have with Superman movies. To the point where, even here, people can’t die because he can just spin the world backwards and make them alive again.
I like this movie, but I’ll always see it as a disappointment simply because it gets away from what this franchise is. It’s the kind of thing where, on a basic movie level, this movie is great. I like it, and it’s good. But when you think higher, about it as a narrative, and about what’s going on in terms of a story arc… not so great.
Also, you guys ever stop to think that, basically after the scene with Neo and the Smiths, the entire rest of the franchise takes place over the course of like, a day and a half?
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Tomorrow we start Revolutions.
(See the rest of the Fun with Franchises articles here.)