Few of us could have guessed back in 1999 that the supercool martial-arts sci-fi thriller The Matrix was actually Book I of The Gospel of Neo. Sure, the religioso underpinnings were there from the outset: Tomes were written on the subject, and I myself penned a gushing treatise on the farrago of philosophical and cultural influences for the New York Times last May, shortly before getting beaned by the lead balloon that was The Matrix Reloaded. (I still have a lump.) With the third and (please, Lord) final chapter, The Matrix Revolutions (Warner Bros.), Andy and Larry Wachowski have gone from underpinnings to overloads: This one is a bona fide Bible epic, with the added bonus of interminable combat set-pieces inspired by old World War II pictures but played at video-game velocity. Revolutions isn't as stupefying as Reloaded—and, of course, our expectations have been drastically lowered. But it's an abysmal anticlimax all the same.
To refresh (or reload) your neural circuits, Neo (Keanu Reeves) began life as (doubting) Thomas Anderson, a cubicle nerd and illicit software programmer who came to learn that his world was a computer-generated simulacrum—a collective delusion engineered by machines to keep the human race dormant while they harvested its energy. (The sun, the machines' previous energy source, had been blotted out by humans in a last-ditch nuclear holocaust that might not, in retrospect, have been such a good idea.) Neo also learned that, if you could "free your mind," anything was possible in the Matrix, including killer kung-fu moves and freezing bullets in mid-flight. In Reloaded, though, Neo came to doubt that he was a creature of free will. In a scene that was a marvel of gummy dramaturgy, he learned from the Matrix's architect that he'd existed before—that, in fact, his existence had been programmed into the Matrix when the Architect had realized that a percentage of humans would inevitably become alienated, discover the secret of their existence, get themselves unplugged, build vast underground cities, and—
Sorry, this is just too convoluted to recount: Even as a religious parable it has no internal logic. But, as deadly as it was, Reloaded did pose some moderately interesting questions about the Matrix cosmos—questions that gave rise to hundreds of theories and billions of words, deep in the rushing magma of the Internet. Was the human city Zion a Matrix—a Matrix-within-a-Matrix? Was Neo the One, or was the One one of the other ones? (As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?") What would happen to the zealous Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) when he learned that his messiah was a plant, and that the Oracle herself might be in cahoots with the Architect? (I see men and women on the subway everyday who've lost faith in their oracles, at great cost to their hygiene.) More important, could the fount of all of evil in the universe be a sniggering Frenchman?
The surprise of The Matrix Revolutions—jump to the next paragraph if you want to preserve your happy innocence—is that the war between man and machine is beside the point. That's right: There will be no mass unplugging of the human flesh batteries, no collective human breakthrough into the real. The ultimate villain—literally, the Anti-Neo—turns out to be Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who has multiplied to the point where he is a greater threat to the machines (and their all-important Matrix) than to the humans. Smith still has a bug up his butt about Neo, though, which means it's in the interest of humans and machines to stamp him out: Neo can fulfill his messianic function by fighting Smith on behalf of both species, thereby becoming a Christ-like mediator and "balancing the world."
I can't tell you what a letdown I find all this. Agent Smith has no stature, and he's an amazingly tedious bogeyman: All he wants to do is complain about the repulsiveness of humans and sneer at the idiocy of Love. ("Why get up, Mr. Anderson? Why keep fighting? Peace? Love? Illusions. Constructs as artificial as the Matrix itself. Only a human mind could come up with anything as feeble as love"—and on and on.) The final battle in the skies is like Superman II (1980), only nowhere near as fun. The lightning flashes, the Orff-ish choir chants and wails. The One and the Anti-One whoosh toward each other, collide, bounce off each other in slow motion, make craters where they land, pick themselves up, and do it again: two little fighting dolls making a meaningless racket.
Early on, you might realize that for all the fancy computer-generated imagery, scene after scene is as primitive as anything in a 19th-century melodrama. In a just world, the final parting of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Neo would be hissed in every theater in the country. (Moss began the Matrix series as the hottest of all superheroines; she goes out as a mooshy oil slick.) The only good news is that Persephone (Monica Bellucci) and Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) put in token appearances. "I don' believe zees," says Merovingian, popping an olive in his mouth when Trinity and friends crash his nightclub, Hell. The best thing in the movie is when Trinity calls him "Merv."
The Matrix Revolutions is one of those movies where Tinkerbell dies if you don't believe. Naiobi (Jada Pinkett Smith) rockets her ship toward a dock overrun with a black cloud of locustlike "squiddies"—only the gate is stuck: Will she make it in time to explode her EMP and wipe the squiddies out, or will she be pulverized by that unopened gate? Believe. Can the gate really be opened by ... the Kid (Clayton Watson)? Believe. The titanic drill is headed right for the heart of Zion, thousands of squiddies in its wake: Will Neo be able to shut them all down from deep inside Machine City? Believe. Guys in giant mechanical walkers spend five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes shooting down wave after wave of squiddies. Is there a point to all this? Believe.
Or, don't. Now that The Matrix is ostensibly over and done with, it's worth asking if anything in Reloaded and Revolutions deepens our understanding of and appreciation for the original film, or if the story was better left with Neo—confident in his oneness, and in the battle to be waged—striding purposefully back into the Matrix to the adrenaline-pumping guitar licks of Rage Against the Machine. I wish the Wachowskis had left him there, before his long black coat became a cassock, before he became boring. The Wachowskis began with the notion that our lives in this material world are insubstantial, that we must somehow free our minds to break through into the real. But what followed wasn't a free-mind saga, it was a religious parable for 12-year-old boys. They make belief seem like the enemy of a free mind.