I saw The Matrix: Revolutions last Wednesday, and based on some of the reviews I’ve read online (cnn.com, wired.com) I apparently survived a cinematic catastrophe of epic proportions.
The sequel (as with its immediate predecessor) was big a failure as its progenitor was a success, or so speakth the pundits. Only the great unwashed masses could possibly like this movie.
Well, I guess I must have forgotten to wash behind my ears last week, because I walked out of that theatre smiling. No, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the original, and in some ways, I preferred Reloaded. But I wasn’t looking get my $8 back, nor was I looking organize a mob to storm Warner Bros.
The movie isn’t perfect. Far from it, but as a sci-fi fan — and more importantly as a comic book fan, I found a lot to appreciate. Perhaps the fact that I do enjoy comic books so much — and I mean the mainstream books, not the dark, depressing indy titles that rebelled against the tights-wearing majority — explains why I liked this movie. Because watching it was essentially like watching a comic book rendered for the big screen. Neo’s climatic fight versus the evil Smith classic Superman and the opening “fight for Hell” was perfect four-color action … albeit with those colors traded in for latex and leather.
And hell, the 12-year-old sci-fi geek in me loved the Battle for Zion. Reviewers slammed the big drills and the swarming Sentinels, but to me it was reminiscent of Empire Strikes Back — when the Sentinels actually broke through into the dock, I couldn’t help but think “imperial walkers spotted on the North Ridge”. There were other fanboy moments as well — like Hammer’s inverted dive into the machine line, which was clearly inspired by a similar dive by the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star during Return of the Jedi. And those freaking machine-gun wielding walkers were half Battletech, half-Aliens.
Now of course some of this plays into the complaints of the reviewers, who argue that the uniqueness of the original movie is sullied by the derivative nature of this film. I think they forget that the original Matrix was as much a hodgepodge of ideas as the later films — what made it unique was the spin that the creators put on it.
There are definitely flaws in both Reloaded and Revolutions. Revolutions’ ending didn’t make much sense, and contradicts most of what Reloaded was about, indeed, what the entire series was about. If Neo is supposed to represent free will, then why is his final choice one identical to the one he’d have been compelled to take if he had no free will? Why posit that the solution to nihilism is conformity? Why, after correctly arguing that choice is the very essence of life, does Neo embrace the opposite?
And if this is not the case, then why not make an ending that people can actually understand? Yes, philosophizing about the hidden meanings of the Matrix is a big part of what made it so fun, but when alls said and done, we really want to have at least half a clue about what the guys behind the curtain were thinking.
That said, these movies did not deserve to be slammed nearly as badly as they were. Whatever their flaws, they weren’t so awful that the celluloid must be scorched from the surface of the Earth.
I have a few thoughts on why the movies were slammed so badly. The first revolves around the demystification of Morpheous. In the first movie, he was an all-knowing, Yoda like presence. As Trinity told Neo, “He knows more than you can possibly imagine”. And then Reloaded came along, and we learned that the Prophecy was a tool designed to keep humanity in line … and that while he rejected the Matrix, Morpheous bought into this alternative system hook, line and sinker.
It made him look like a fool. And I think a lot of fans couldn’t forgive the movie for that lapse. Indeed, the entire realization that human religion was “just another system of control” undoubtedly ruffled thousands of intellectual feathers, especially those who thought that Neo was Jesus, Morpheous was John the Baptist, and the entire Matrix-rejecting mythos represented a 21st century embracement of a new mysticism.
But philosophical trainwrecks aside (for them, not for me — I loved the “religion as control” storyline), there was something else at work here. The Matrix was in many ways an underground phenomenon. The movie was released in March 1999, well ahead of that summer’s soon to be faltering blockbusters (i.e. The Phantom Menace), and was discovered by geeks independent of the rest of society. It was geeks going to see it time and again that kept it in theatres until August, and what ultimately made the sequels possible.
This time around though, the hype engine was thrown open, and the entire world was in on the Matrix phenomenon. And I think a lot of people resented that. The original movie was something special — a secret shared by a community. The sequels had their own Sprite commercials and a thousand magazine covers. Thus was created a situation where the only way you could retain your outsider voice (and The Matrix was as much about being an outsider as anything else) was to denounce the movies. Not just to point out their flaws, but to take off and nuke ’em from orbit. Because, as we all know, that’ s the only way to be sure.
Me? I’ recommend that people go and see the movie, and judge for themselves. But go in with an open mind, one that strives to be independent of the hype and the cynicism. Go in with a 12 year olds willingness to be amazed. And you might just find that the movie isn’t all that bad after all.