Late to the Party: The Matrix Trilogy

Everybody loves The Matrix. The surprise smash hit of Spring 1999 rode a wave of leather jackets, nu-metal, and your older brother saying “what if… life… was the real simulation?” into $465.3 million dollars at the box office and four Oscar wins. The sequels, released in May and November 2003, respectively, have been regarded much more poorly. Essentially a 4.5-hour-movie with an intermission, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions received vastly differing receptions (Reloaded received mixed-positive reviews and became the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time for 13 years, while Revolutions received negative reviews and, while a hit, did not meet astronomical expectations). However, in the seventeen years since, they’ve both been looked upon negatively by filmgoers, calling them confusing, overlong, and unfocused.

When I signed up to write this Late to the Party, I had seen none of the Matrix films, but I was about to begin watching them. A few months ago, I started catching up with Blank Check, a podcast about Hollywood directors that receive “blank checks” to create their passion projects after initial hits. Spun off from a podcast about the Star Wars prequels that quickly became about George Lucas’ directorial career, Blank Check based their second “mini-series” around the Wachowski sisters, who rose to blank check status after The Matrix only to make Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending, three audience-alienating but undeniably original films. I had no idea what angle I would write this Late to the Party from, but when watching the films, one quickly came to me: The Matrix Reloaded is an amazing film in its own right.

The Matrix

It’s hard to talk about The Matrix, since everyone loves The Matrix. I had high expectations for the initial film in this cyberpunk saga, and these expectations were pretty much met. While I was familiar with the cultural touchstones (such as “bullet time” and the red/blue pills), there was a lot I didn’t know, and it was fun to watch. The Wachowskis throw a good amount of ideas and action sequences at you, and while it could have been overwhelming, they have a deft hand at balancing everything to make it make perfect sense. It is already clear that they have an interest in the (easily broken) rules behind the Matrix and the philosophical underpinnings that uphold it, but the story, to its benefit, is deceptively simple.

The other thing that makes The Matrix work so well is that it is unafraid to have fun. Its characters may be deadly serious, but the Wachowskis are aware that the situations they create are strange, and they play these scenes (such as Neo getting a “bug” inserted into his abdomen) with the perfect amount of humor and horror. There’s so many new things to look at and think about, but the propulsive movement of the film keep it upright (aided by the performances).

The Matrix is also famous for revolutionizing the 2000s in Hollywood action sequences. Enlisting Chinese action choreographer Yuen-Woo Ping, the Wachowskis made every actor do their own stunts and had them train for hours. The results certainly paid off, as the action sequences are constantly engaging and dynamic; it’s easy to see why people went to repeat viewings and urged their friends to go see this movie.

Of course, The Matrix has some small flaws. The attempts to look “cool” with leather jackets, sunglasses, and heavy metal (in one scene, “Dragula” is played unironically) are mostly laughable, and Trinity doesn’t get enough to do in the second act. The only significant problem with the film for me was Trinity’s love for Neo; it seemed to occur randomly, and it didn’t make any sense, even within the film’s logic, why Trinity’s kiss would revive Neo from death. However, this proceeded to set up an important plot thread in the sequel, which I thought was paid off extremely well.

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded is undeniably messier than its predecessor. It opens with yet another great “bullet time” action scene before flashing back into thirty minutes of Phantom Menace-caliber political discussion. Unlike Phantom Menace, this discussion is resolved with some sort of dance party orgy. This is probably where the film lost most audiences, and it doesn’t do much to win them back. Reloaded is bigger, louder, and most of all, weirder than the first: the plotting is reminiscent of a video game’s fetch quests, the conversations become denser and denser by the scene, and an absurd French stereotype makes a cake that is implied to be so good that one bite causes a spontaneous orgasm. Naturally, I loved it.

While it may not completely hang together, Reloaded is a great film due to its sheer amount of ideas, which bounce off of each other in discordant harmony with the jaw-dropping action sequences. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus no longer have character arcs; instead, they are pawns of the story and of whichever characters are spouting off their personal philosophies to them at the moment. That being said, while these characters may no longer have coherent goals, their stories are fascinating, as they turn the ideas of the original film on their heads. The audience spent the last film learning that Neo is the One, and the sequel, while not stripping him of his powers, acts as a massive “but…” to the audience’s expectations. Neo learning that he is the sixth One, and that his goal, even as the One, is pre-determined, is a shocking twist, as what he has been fighting for completely changes. A similar thing happens to Morpheus. When we meet the other inhabitants of Zion, we learn that he is not a prophet of the future and instead is a widely-disliked radical for believing in The One; he becomes a lost man, as his beliefs fail to come true and his. A sequel that so thoroughly invalidates the original film while still managing to be engaging and fun is rare, but Reloaded is able to pull it off.

As I already said, the throughline at the heart of Reloaded is surrounded by lots and lots of mess, but that mess just makes me love it more. The action sequences, while incorporating much more CGI, hold onto their martial-arts roots, and are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The “Burly Brawl” where Neo fights a hundred Agent Smiths is inventive and hilarious, and the 14-minute car chase was when I realized that I loved this movie. The various new characters (such as the Merovingian, the Keymaker, and the Architect) have complicated roles and even more complicated monologues, but the Wachowskis’ dialogue makes it interesting to hang onto every word. The world of Reloaded, much like the first one, asks the audience to keep up with them. Its dialogue and plot density may be (understandably) alienating to most audience members, but the Wachowskis have perfectly expanded their world and unseated expectations in this wonderful sequel.

The Matrix Revolutions

I really wanted to like The Matrix Revolutions. I did like much of the first forty-five minutes, even though it’s more unnecessary political discussion and exposition. But it’s soon revealed that this is essentially a one-act film. Neo and Trinity go on a quest, Trinity gets sidelined, Morpheus gets sidelined, everyone gets sidelined for 35 minutes (I checked) so CGI robots can shoot at each other. I really like a lot of the movie, but that CGI robot action scene (and how it reduces the presence of the characters) is so long that it fatally kills the movie. The simplicity of the storyline turns some of the philosophical dialogue to mush (the Oracle is still great), and placing most of the film in the real world limits the ability to do Matrix-style martial arts.

I know there’s good stuff in this movie, but two weeks later, it’s very hard to remember it. I like when Neo talks to the computer program that had a kid? I like the performances, and the two martial arts scenes? But everything that I like in it was something I already liked in one of the previous films; nothing at all feels new. The Wachowskis have followed up a sequel that’s packed with so much invention with another sequel that has no invention at all.

Conclusion

Was The Matrix Reloaded too ahead of its time? To me, it feels like the sort of thing that would become a cult classic later on, a glorious hodgepodge of incident after incident after incident shoved (and barely fitting) into a 138-minute package. But it’s instead become cultural detritus, a movie people basically forget exists.

The Wachowski sisters were truly revolutionary in their early attempt to start a cinematic universe; important plot points from Reloaded are explained through spinoff anime shorts, comic books, and a PS2 game. One could fairly say that this shows the movie is spinning too many plates at once, but part of the fun of watching it is watching those plates smash on the ground and having a great time anyway. With the upcoming release of The Matrix 4, I hope that Reloaded begins to be seen as the movie it actually is instead of the movie that fans imagine it to be.

Odds and Ends

  • If I had time to rewatch them before writing this, my other article concept would have been about how the real hero of these movies is the Oracle. Perfectly played by Gloria Foster in the first two and by Mary Alice in the third (who is able to step up to the challenge of replacing a dead actress in what is essentially the middle of the movie), she’s the most interesting oddball in a sea of interesting oddballs. Reloaded implying, and Revolutions confirming, that the real journey is her decision to lead Neo to freedom, not Neo’s to find freedom, is another great way these sequels upend expectations.
  • Joe Pantoliano is also wonderful as Cypher. I love most of the trilogy’s performances, but many of them are consciously artificial. Both Foster and Pantoliano are truly able to find the human side of this universe.
  • I love the diversity in these movies; Keanu Reeves is surrounded by a main cast that’s mostly female or POC, and this diversity extends into the Zion sequences. The Council meetings and Zion sequences show that of course the future will not have mostly-white representation, and it’s not called attention to at all.
  • The best moment in the franchise is when Neo knocks a Smith into another Smith during the Burly Brawl and they inexplicably play bowling strike sound effects.
  • If I got anything wrong about these movies, feel free to let me know. It’s been a few weeks, and they’re certainly not information-light.
  • By the time I have published this, I have also watched Bound, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas. They’re all really great.