Who unplugged The Matrix?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 7 2003 2:07 PM

Unplugging The Matrix

Why the sci-fi franchise went south.

The good news is that the conclusion of the Matrix trilogy, TheMatrix Revolutions, is not quite as terrible as the second entry, TheMatrix Reloaded. Reloaded was downright infuriating, with its portentous monologues and willful rejection of narrative coherence. Revolutions, as a thudding sci-fi war movie, is merely disorienting and unfathomable. From the standpoint of the original it is profoundly disappointing, but it does have its own romantic and martial intensity. The bad news is that that, in tandem with Reloaded, it achieves a kind of cumulative badness that will permanently and unfairly stain the reputation of the original. How did something so good go so wrong?

It seems that, in conceiving their pair of sequels to TheMatrix, the writing and directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski overestimated the profundity of the original's philosophical musings. The resulting ponderousness might have been excusable, except that they disastrously misidentified which of those musings was most important to the original—namely, the Matrix itself. In the sequels, the Wachowskis ditched the conceit of the Matrix, the computer program in which all of humanity, save for a few thousand enlightened souls inhabiting an underground city called Zion, is unwittingly trapped. That, in turn, removed virtually everything distinctive and meaningful about the original film—its hipster skepticism, its strangely compelling logic of human striving, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the storytelling discipline that imposed a gorgeous economy on almost every scene. TheMatrix, it turns out,is nothing without the Matrix.

Brevity is the soul not only of wit but of the paranoid buzz of the best sci-fi action movies. It's instructive, in light of the sequels' maddening long-windedness, to remember how teasingly elliptical the original Matrix was, not only in its exposition but in its most memorable dramatic moments. The deliciousness of our introduction to Trinity—her gravity-mocking, gloriously abrupt dispatch of four clueless cops—is of a piece with the utter coolness of her introduction to Neo, which is the movie's first bit of exposition:

"Hello, Neo."

"How do you know that name?"

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Neo's story, then, starts with a question, a mystery (whose effect may have less to do with its philosophical intimations than with the fact that the Prodigy's "Mindfields" is blipping and slamming apocalyptically in the background). After Trinity breathes into Neo's ear, "It's the question that drives us," the encounter climaxes with Neo forming that question, on his own lips, apparently for the first time: "What is the Matrix?" This entire conversation, despite its tentative, druggy pace, takes about 90 seconds.

David Denby, in his New Yorker review of Revolutions, argues that the original Matrix rested on a host of "clichéd science-fiction elements," in that "[i]n sci-fi, the machines are always taking over."  But Denby achieves this dismissiveness only with the aid of hindsight. I bet when he was first confronted with The Question—"What is the Matrix?"—he didn't know the answer, either. And if he's any kind of movie buff, he found the Wachowski brothers' way of hinting that there was something both irresistible and dreadful about that answer—of conjuring paranoia out of Neo's skepticism and existential vertigo out of his discoveries—to be pretty damned cool.

But TheMatrix did more than just pose The Question. Even after Neo learned the truth about the Matrix, he had a few things to learn about himself, the ostensible One. Denby is correct, in a strictly empirical sense, when he identifies traditional sci-fi elements in The Matrix, but the movie actually takes the form of a bildungsroman, an old-fashioned quest for understanding. Luckily for the audience, in the first film Neo's epiphanies occur not in contemplation but in action. Every action sequence in The Matrix—from Neo's training fights with Morpheus to his final destruction of Smith—is also a step in Neo's process of discovery. These scenes are not only streamlined and thrilling, but revelatory. The long action sequences in the sequels have no point at all, which the Wachowskis try to compensate for by drawing them out and cramming them with more digital bad guys. One result of this is that Reloaded contains the most spectacular chase scene that you will ever check your voice mail during.

Another thing that the original got exactly right, and that the sequels lose control of, is style. The overcooked grooviness of Trinity's fetishy patent leather and Morpheus' pince-nez shades was a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but it was part of a weirdness that had yet to be explained. It signaled their status as demigods: Whatever the hell the Matrix was, it had something to do with the fact that these people, in some vague but objective sense, were way cooler than everybody else. The sequels use the leather-clad bodies of Neo and Trinity, within the green-filtered Matrix palette, to generate some striking compositions, but they feel like just compositions, art photography. There is nothing left for these style riffs to signify, which makes them feel not just inert, but, when viewed as expressions of Zion's hippie earnestness, kind of dorky.

The Matrix—the conceit that most of the human race was living in a virtual dream-state, awaiting deliverance from a rag-tag gang of hackers and visionaries—is an extremely fertile dramatic device. It is the question that Neo had to answer and the obstacle he had to overcome. It is the cosmic basis for both early-Neo's groggy alienation and late-Neo's unique brand of whoop-ass. It provides a narrative structure in which some giddily convincing sci-fi pathos emerge: paranoia, dread, existential bravery, transcendent romance. It affords plausible-enough background explanation for some of the most inventive, deftly realized action sequences ever shot. And it offers a pleasing pretext for draping this whole cluster of effects in really cool clothes.

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