Millennial Malaise End: The Matrix Sequels

In Which Our Watch Has Ended

In 2003 there was nothing as culturally all consuming as The Matrix franchise. Four years after the original burst into the cinematic world a whole universe had popped up around it. For you see The Matrix was not only as surprise box office smash, it was a paradigm shift in culture and the type of art that immediately and permanently had people scrutinizing its structure, tracing its influences, and building fandom around its every facet. The Wachowskis, being the smart people that they are, realized something. That The Matrix was much more than a singular movie, instead it was a totem to the time. A piece that so purposefully spoke to the present, past, and future, that people would, for at least a little while, go along with them wherever they went.

So The Wachowskis built out, deciding not only to shoot sequels back to back for production, but oversee the construction of a world grander than a trilogy of films. An experience encompassing multiple media formats, styles, and levels of interaction. In a way this grand trans-media enterprise was the dream of what storytelling could be by the end of the century and moving into the next. People we’re no longer solely bound by a theater or TV, they had computers, game consoles, and the internet. All of these things are means for story, and The Wachowskis saw the future and struck when the iron was hot.

Consequently there weren’t just the two filmed sequels to the original Matrix in 2003. There was the animated short film compendium The Animatrix, and the video game Enter the Matrix, both of which contained vital information for the stories presented in the films released that year. None of these things were to be independent, each pinging off story points from one to the other to create a intricate fabric, a tale greater than medium and reception, one that could transcend and reach an audience at any level.

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But things didn’t really work out that way. For even if the franchise of The Matrix was at its most overfilled in 2003, it was also starting to be a relic of the past. Due to the decision to shoot back to back films, the production Reloaded and Revolutions were arduous affairs. Plagued with re-castings, and the death of Gloria Foster (who played The Oracle), the whole thing inched along as the world around it rapidly changed. By the time of The Matrix: Reloaded screens, American movie making had gone through another giant shake up.

The releases of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 heralded the oncoming wave of superhero filmmaking. Though it would take a few more years for the template we currently experience to dominate, the groundwork was already being laid. Elsewhere, in the big Hollywood action vein was The Bourne Identity, the film that sat the template for the star led thriller in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Gone was the flash of the 90’s: instead replaced with claustrophobic action, murky morality, and a more “grounded” texture. These movies also proclaimed an attitudinal shift in the American psyche: gone was the lugubrious air of waiting for the future to happen, and in its stead was the feeling of immediate action and paranoia. Conflict had returned to the culture, lines were drawn, sides were taken, and history lived to see another day.

Despite its forward thinking structure and influences, it then left Reloaded and Revolutions in a bit of a cultural lurch. For as much as the films work to subvert the structure of their progenitor, the plot still hinges on the fact that the world of The Matrix is stuck in a loop, constantly repeating the 20th century over and over again, all in vicious cycle of repeating the past.

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All this leads to the films themselves, which with the blessing of hindsight, are more noble failures rather than the outright disasters their immediate reputation indicated. No they don’t quite work the way they were intended (Revolutions especially) but The Wachowskis are doing their damnedest to find an interesting way to extend the nearly perfect capsule story they created with the original project. Undercutting the trope of the singular hero is great idea that is too wonkily implemented to fully get across in the movies. Reloaded is backlogged with paragraphs of odd exposition that doesn’t really explicate the ideas of the story on the first go around. In fact a second viewing plot is almost needed to clear things out.

The befuddlement feels like a contradiction of the cleanliness of the first film. Where in 1999 the world could be beautifully distilled into the idea of living in a computer, in 2003 it was bit trickier to delineate the histories of storyline reboots, undermining the hero’s journey, introducing a multitude of new worlds and characters, and of course tying every single disparate media property into the whole thing. These films couldn’t fully contain the overflow of information peppered through games, shorts, and DVD extras. It’s all too much, and the films suffer for it.

And while The Matrix: Reloaded was an even bigger financial success than the first (holding the title for highest grossing R-Rated film of all time until Deadpool in 2016) the drop off of Revolutions and relative dormant nature of the franchise until now kind of made sense. The Matrix series no longer spoke to the moment, it was only speaking to itself. This is not inherently a bad thing, as all continuations of a story end up about how said story is continued: through an expanded world, new conflicts and characters. But the perfect synthesis of End of History culture found in the first had mostly vanished as The Wachowskis toyed with every possible way of expanding and keeping the movies thematically rich.

As such 2003 feels like the furthest end of the Millennial Malaise, and the blowout of Matrix properties a kind of a curtain call. 9/11 had hit America, the Iraq war was rolling, and new trends in culture had firmly taken hold. Movies still certainly pulled from the successes of 90’s (there was no limit on mugging Tarantino imitators, and the world of early Vin Diesel is made from the composites of Millennium turning cool). And so the aesthetics, thematics, and concerns of the past were laid bare. Not exactly as wrong, but of the past, disconnected, and lacking the undercurrent of resonance.

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The world after 9/11 couldn’t hold the like of Sneakers, Strange Days, Hackers, Fight Club, American Beauty, and perhaps even The Matrix itself. Everything changed, but these movies remained the same, and have gone through their own cycles of life. From ridicule to respect and vise-versa. And all of them represent something greater, a time that won’t come back. There are new fears now, a new malaise, but it’s different, and scarier and more immediate. On and on history marches, repudiating us all in the simple fact we can’t deny, there will always be more to come, and we have no idea what’s next.

Odds and Ends

  • These articles may have come to a close, but my writing hasn’t. I will continue to produce some mighty fine content here, perhaps about different mediums all together.
  • While a fourth  Matrix film might seem like a sketchy proposition based on the 2003 films, I feel like the time is ripe to revisit this world, especially with a new bent on how we interact with technology.
  • The most successful of the movies released in 2003 is easily The Animatrix. It points to a better structure that could support the story world of The Matrix, exploring different corners and aspects of the mythology without having to bear the weight of giant narrative. And excepting the few segments that now look Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the whole experience is gorgeous.
  • I know that there are movies from a little later in time that probably fit my parameters, but there’s only so many resources and an unless amount of stuff to cover. If I missed a fave I’m sorry.