When I wrote about the Matrix last, I believe I said something about how it basically rocked. And the critics all seemed to agree on this one: the action, the plot, the tone, and the rich metaphorical nature of the film all combined to create something that was entertaining, stimulating and even groundbreaking. The only problem with having such a big hit is, how good does the second one need to be in order to live up to the original? Even harder is creating a sequel that can top it! Greater people than the Wachoswkis have tried, few have succeeded.
In their heyday, Lucas, Scorsese, Cameron, Miller and a few others managed to top their first installments. In fact, Google a list of the best sequels ever made and I guarantee that The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, and Mad Max 2 will be in the top ten. Hell, top five! Go on, I’ll wait… Was I right? Yes, I’m sure there were other worthy entries in that list, but these ones stand out for one reason. Between movie one and two, they didn’t switch directors! That’s right, sometimes, when it was clear that a franchise was in the making, the studios brought in a pitch-hitter to give the movie a higher profile. But in cases where the original director was still in charge, it was even more impressive when the sequel was better.
Why should this be so, you ask? Well, two reasons that I can think of: One, inspiration is a fickle thing. Rarely does a creative mind know when their idea is truly spent. And unless they had the foresight to plot out where it was going ahead of time, rarely is a follow-up even foreseeable. Remember Highlander? There was a movie that had no business becoming a franchise! It ended in movie one, so movies two, three, four, etc, were mainly contrived explanations as to how there could possibly be any sequels. My apologies to any fans, but in this case, there really SHOULD have been only one…
And reason number two: Duty! If the first installment is a smash hit, the creator can’t help but feel obligated or pressured to create more of the same. In the process, they can overshoot and end up making something that feels totally forced. Or, to use another baseball metaphor, if you hit it out of the park on the first pitch, you’re likely to get nervous and end up hitting air on the second. And lets not forget, when it comes to the creative process, high expectations and pressure are like a hot lead enema. Little wonder then why movies like the aforementioned ones are so popular! In spite of the pressure and expectations, these creative minds managed to produce something golden not once but twice!
But enough about those sequels! Let’s get to this sequel! As I might have also alluded to in the last post, the Matrix: Reloaded did NOT quite live up to the first for many reasons, most of which had to do with why sequels fail in the first place.
The Matrix: Reloaded:
After the first movie’s success, the Wachowski brothers spent some time contemplating what they were going to do as a follow-up. Initially, rumor had it that they were going to make two more movies, one a prequel and the other a sequel. However, the brothers eventually decided on two sequels which would be filmed together and released within a few months of each other. I can’t say if this was done out of shrewdness or kindness, because while this did have some obvious commercial benefits for them, it was also a welcome relief to fans who wouldn’t have to wait a couple of years to see how it would all end.
However, this format also had some drawbacks. For one, it made the two movies seem more like a single movie told in two parts rather than two separate ones. It also meant that the critical flops were a lot more apparent, which led to some sour reviews towards the end. The Wachowksi’s had little to worry about though, since they still had the fans. But they too were saying bad things about the second and third movie that they weren’t saying about the first. In general, I tended to agree with these assessments, and here are some of the more glaring ones that I picked up on:
1. Convoluted Plot/that “Matrix within a Matrix” crap:
Reloaded suffered from a particularly obvious fact in that it was trying to do too much. This is surprising considering that the point of any second act is relatively simple: find a way to darken things. In the fist movie, Neo realized that he was the One and has superhuman powers which made him damn near invincible as far as the machines were concerned. But Act II had to end with things hanging by a thread and the heroes close to losing all hope. So the question remained, how were the machines supposed to get the upper hand on humanity now that their savior had arrived? How were we to get to that hopeless feeling that would keep us all guessing between parts II and III?
The answer: Well, turns out that the Matrix is older than anyone knows. And it has a way of dealing with the One too that ultimately serves its purpose. Basically, the machines periodically destroy Zion and time their system to crash at roughly the same time. As soon as the One emerges, they ensure that he/she finds their way to the Source where they are then given a choice: reboot the system and rebuild Zion once its been leveled, thus ensuring the human race remains alive and the Matrix keeps running; or let all humanity die. Honestly, not a bad idea. Kind of ties things up nicely too if you think about it (but not too much). Ah, but there was one problem when it came to the delivery of this plot line: nobody seemed to get it! After the movie opened at the box offices, the most common reaction reported by movie-goers, aside from being impressed with the special effects, was confusion! And who could blame them? Between the Oracle’s revelation that she is a program and that there are all kinds of exiled sentient programs running around in the Matrix, Smith’s long-winded diatribe about freedom and purpose, and the patronizing lecture from the Architect about the true nature of the Matrix with all the pointlessly big words (ergo, vis a vis, concordantly), everyone seemed to be just a little lost. What the hell did all that mean?
I wasn’t sure myself, and had to watch it a few times just to get it all down. Sure, it made sense in a convoluted way, but if you have to go over it again and again just to get it, the point is already lost. In fact, people were so confused that an entire culture of speculation seemed to spring up in the months between the release of the first and second movies. And rather than being concerned with what all the speeches meant, the focal point seemed to be on the last few minutes of the film where Neo killed those squiddies. Because of that, just about everyone seemed to think that there was a “Matrix within a Matrix”! In short, the characters were STILL in the Matrix when Neo killed them, and that meant… well, that depended on who you asked. Some even went so far (as one friend of mine did) as to say that Neo HIMSELF was a program. It made no sense to me and I told them so (sometimes arguments ensued!). But I could see why this was happening. When people don’t get a movie, they tend to make up their own plot. And just about everybody was doing that here!
2. Too much going on:
Another thing wrong with Reloaded was the fact that everything felt way too rushed. One minute, we’re getting a long speech or expository scene, and less than a second later, a big fight or a car chase. And all of it seemed to rush on endlessly towards a climax where, I hoped, everything would come together and things would make sense. I realized shortly after seeing it for the second or third time that it was for this very reason that the plot felt so convoluted. Had they taken their time to develop things and flesh things out some more, and not spent so much time cramming everything they could in, the movie might have made more sense and not been so overwhelming. Whereas in the first movie, time was taken to develop things and let questions and suspense build, this movie jumped right in and seemed to keep piling things on the longer it went. Here are some examples:
Mythological characters: In movie one, we were treated to a rich mythology where characters were obviously inspired by classical, biblical or historical figures and sources. This time around, the Wachowski brothers tried to do the same but both over and under-did it. On the one hand, we were saturated with characters who had obvious parallels to mythological figures:
Seraph- the guardian angel of the Oracle, based on biblical seraphs that protected heaven
The Twins – Castor/Pollux, the twin brothers of Greco-Roman mythology
The Merovingian – aka. the Frenchman, a power-hungry, exiled program named after the Merovingian dynasty of early France, who claimed descent from the union between Gods and humans (much like Greeks royals)
Persephone – his wife, based on the Greek goddess of renewal who was brought unhappily by Hades to the underworld to be his wife
The Keymaker – a sentient program imprisoned by the Merovingian who grants access to the back doors of the Matrix, the doors representing the doors of perception and the keys the answers
The Architect – the judicious and perfectionist mathematical program who designed the Matrix and is based on Yahweh, God in the Old Testament, in how he controls and binds all to his creation, even the One
On the other hand, not one of them was well-developed. Take any of the above mentioned characters and try to find a few words to describe them, but you can’t say who they were inspired by or what their basic function was. What can you say about Persephone other than she is inspired by the original and was the Merovingian’s wife, and angry? What can you say about the Merovingian other than he’s arrogant (and French)? How about the Architect, keeping in mind you can’t say he’s the creator of the Matrix and obviously a dick? Hard, isn’t it? The movie simply moved along too quickly to give a single one their due.
That stuff you notice is really the Matrix doing stuff: In this movie, we get a slew of explanations of how supernatural things and conspiracy theories are in fact aspects of the Matrix. A neat suggestion, and somehow related to the fact that there are sentient programs running around who are defying the Source. But do they take the opportunity to follow this thread and develop it, show us some examples and how it might be really, really significant? Not really… Remember that moment in the first movie where Neo’s says he’s having a moment of deja vu? Remember how everyone reacted and how it led to tension and an immediate action sequence? Not only was it a cool sci-fi concept, it was intrinsic to the plot. Here, not so much! Sure, we get to see some examples – the Vampires that work for the Merovingian or the Twins (who are decidedly ghost-like). But no time is spent explaining their purpose, why they chose to defy to the Matrix, or why they were behaving in such a way that the Matrix had to assimilate it. This is important shit, dammit! It shows just how detailed and rich the world of the Matrix is; but it goes by so fast, we barely notice!
Looooong action scenes: Last, but certainly not least, the action scenes were way too drawn out! I mean hey, I love a fight scene or a car chase as much as the next guy, but the fight with the Smiths and the freeway chase? Holy crap, did they go on! In both cases, it just felt like the Wachowski’s were trying to see how far they could take things. How many Smiths can we cram into one shot? How many cool moves can Neo do before he’s forced to fly away? How many cars can we crash and semi’s can we total? How many explosions? And after all that, Neo somehow manages to save EVERYBODY!
3. That dance scene: Really, what purpose did that scene serve? That long drawn out dance scene with the techno music interlaced with scenes of Neo and Trinity doing it in slow motion. Tell me what purpose it served! Was it meant to showcase how the people of Zion were trying to celebrate their freedom? Fine! Show them dancing in the background. Don’t do a ten-minute montage of slow motion dancing and screwing. It’s just plain weird!
4. CGI aint setting!: Here’s something George Lucas should have realized in the course of making his prequels. CGI does not a movie make! It must be somehow freeing to know that budgets are no longer an issue, but really, special effects are not a substitute for real settings or real people! This movie, just like all the Star Wars crap fests, was saturated with CGI, and it didn’t make it one bit more impressive! The massive fight scene between Neo and the Smiths, the Highway chase scene, and a plethora of other shots that were packed full of digital special effects… Well, they just showed! One fan-critic I remember hearing from pretty much summed it up: “No wonder all the characters wear glasses and trench coats and suits. Its so you don’t notice that they don’t look like the actors!”
And he was right! Especially during that fight scene, the Smiths and Neo just looked so… rendered! I mean really, the audience KNOWS when its CGI, so its not like you’re able to substitute it for a real shot and expect them not to know the difference. And in truth, it just seems lazy to rely on green screens and site lines rather than real actors, real sets and real costumes; which is why it should be used sparingly, not glaringly! If every face, every motion, every effect, and every background – hell, just everything in the shot – is rendered in CGI, it’s going to look fake! The result is that everyone’s going to be very aware of the fact that they are watching a movie. Suspension of disbelief will fly out the window!
5. Dialogue: Granted this movie had a few good lines, but nothing like the first. In fact, the dialogue in this one seemed very hackney and awkward compared to movie one, even when coming from Laurence Fishburn and Hugo Weaving! Smith’s opening speech to Neo, for example. Holy shit did that drag on! Not to mention that it was so full of cliches and philosophical claptrap! Yeah, I know it was obvious that Smith wanted to kill Neo by the way the background music was all menacing and building up to a crescendo, but you sure couldn’t tell from what he was saying: “I’m free, thanks to you. But see, I’m not really free. Blah, blah, blah, purpose. Blah, blah, blah, existence. Prepare to die!” And Morpheus, the one-time Pez dispenser of cool lines, became a big, over-enunciating machine in this one. Not once did he use a contraction! Right before the highway chase happens, he says “Yes… that is TRUUUE. Then let us PRAAAY, that I was WROOONG.” Laurence, I’m usually a fan, but that last line was hard to hear! Or how about “There are some things in this universe that do not change, Naobi. Some things DO change.” Ick! He aced his lines in movie one, sure, but this time around, both he and Weaving seemed daunted by bad script writing.
6. Neo saves everybody: A minor point, but it annoyed me, and I’m writing this, so there! Okay, so back to the freeway chase! Neo showed up at the last second to save Morpheus and the Keymaker, right? And remember how he did the exact same thing at the end and saved Trinity, even though he foresaw her death and we are told repeatedly that there is a very good chance she will die? So why does he get to save her in the end? One unlikely rescue was enough, two is pushing it. And in the end, this movie would have felt a lot more serious and dire if Neo lost the love of his life in the end. Hell, it would have been the perfect Act II downturn! He decides to forsake all other humans in order to save her, but then can’t! Can you feel the tragedy? I think movie-goers would have left thinking this movie made a lot more sense if that had happened! And before anyone tells me that’d be too sad, let me remind them that she dies anyway in Act III. This way, Neo goes into the final installment bitter, sad and full or rage; ready to kill and even die for the sake of one final act of vengeance/sacrifice in order to save Zion!
7. Holes: Even though I chose to challenge the whole “Matrix within a Matrix” idea on the basis that it made less sense than the actual movie, it did still have holes that could not be ignored. For instance, if the Oracle is on the side of humanity, why has she been helping them to fulfill the Architect’s plans for so long? By sending Neo, and all the other Ones before him, to the Source, she’s been ensuring that they end up doing exactly what the Architect wanted. Sure, they kept humanity alive this way, but they also kept the cycle of human slavery keeps going. Zion keeps getting destroyed, the system keeps getting rebooted, world keeps on spinning and humanity remains oppressed. Yes, Neo broke that cycle in the end and did it with her help. But in essence, she was screwing all those that came before him by feeding them the same bit of prophecy, the one that misled them into thinking that going to the Source would win the war. By the end of movie two, we were told that the Oracle is basically part of the system, thus making her the enemy. And you know what? I believed it! It didn’t seem plausible that she would be doing all that and somehow be on the side of humanity after all.
Which brings me to plot hole number two. The whole cyclical plot of the Matrix, where every One does the Architects bidding, was basically broken by one act of defiance. When Neo was given the choice to comply or let humanity die, he basically decided to try and save Trinity, and in the process condemned Zion and everyone still hooked into to the system. Did the Oracle foresee this? Did she foresee that at one point, a One would come along who could break the whole cycle by telling the Architect to go to hell, spawn a rogue Smith who would threaten to take over the Matrix, cut a deal with the Source to spare Zion, fail to stop him, let Smith assimilate him, then get himself killed by the Source, thus killing off Smith and injecting the reboot code into the Matrix at the same time, therefore rebooting the whole system in the process? Wow, just saying it makes my eyes cross! I can’t imagine how she must have felt! Point is, its hokey and kinda damn weird! I know, I’m going into movie three, but like I said, these two movies are kinda one and the same.
Next, there’s the question of timing. Essentially, we are told by the Architect that Neo was at the Source because Zion was “about to be destroyed”. Concordantly (ha!), the Matrix was about to go down unless he rebooted it with the code he got from passing into the Source. But here’s the thing! During much of the movie, there was still a good chance that the forces of Zion could have stopped or at least slowed the machines down before they reached Zion. The only reason why they made it to the front door without incident was because a Smith took over Bane (a human resistance fighter), set off one of the ship’s EMPs and disabled Zion’s entire fleet ahead of time. If the Zionites had been keeping the machines back when the Matrix went down (because Neo chose not to reboot it) wouldn’t that mean the machines themselves would die off? The Matrix is their main power source, so keeping 250,000 squiddies alive would become very difficult. At the very least, they’d be right screwed in the long run! Humanity’s eventual victory would be guaranteed!
Makes you think doesn’t it? No? Maybe its just me!
In short, The Matrix: Reloaded suffered because the Wachowskis were clearly trying to do too much with this one film. On the one hand, they were trying to top the action scenes from the first. On the other, they were trying to live up or even outdo the mythology of the first. All that seems perfectly natural considering the hype they knew they were generating. After the success of the Matrix, expectations were high and any effort on their part to follow it up would be surrounded by buzz, expectations and high hopes. But if you try to compensate for all that by cramming more, more, more in, you get what you pay for in the end.
Ultimately, I think this movie and the final installment were good examples of what not to do with a franchise. In essence, stay true to the concept and don’t try to outdo it. And, wherever possible, plan for an eventual sequel ahead of time. Hell, that’s what Lucas did and look what came out of that! Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi! On the other hand, he never bothered to storyboard the prequels til well into the 90’s, and look what happened there… On second thought, don’t! No sense opening up THAT can of worms again!
The Matrix: Reloaded
Entertainment Value: 8/10 (still entertaining)
Plot: 6/10 (convoluted!)
Note: examples of Matrix mythology can be found at www.matrixmythology.com)