matrix-agent-smith

How to Ruin a Good Thing: The ‘Matrix’ Sequels

While it’s not the greatest film ever made, ‘The Matrix‘ felt like a genuinely new and exciting IP when it first appeared in 1999. I can remember seeing it in the theater, not knowing much more than the central question: “What is the Matrix?” And the movie did not disappoint. While not every line of dialogue was pure gold, it was a mainly a smart, interesting and downright cool sci-fi action flick. Fans went nuts when they heard the news that there would not just be one sequel to the movie, but two to be shot simultaneously. Of course, we now know that the sequels were horrendous mistakes, but let’s take a look at why.

Watching ‘The Matrix’, now that it’s not still being referenced and parodied in every movie and TV show being released, the first thing you’ll notice is how deliberate everything in the film is. Each shot and edit is done with maximum impact in mind. The opening sequence, where Trinity fights her way out of a trap set by cops and Agents, is cut tightly and smartly, teasing us with Trinity’s abilities and “Bullet Time” moves without giving the whole game away. Later, as Mr. Anderson (not yet Neo) talks to a client in front of his apartment, almost every line the client says foreshadows later events in the story. The lobby attack by Neo and Trinity is also tightly cut, with only one or two shots even suggesting that we’re looking at stunt doubles, and none where it’s clear that we’re not seeing Keanu or Carrie-Anne Moss.

This sense of pacing and smart editing is missing in the sequels. As ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ opens, we see quick clips of Trinity wreaking havoc before being shot while falling out of a building. This epic beginning is quickly squandered as Neo, Morpheus and Trinity (along with a new, bland crew member by the name of Link) arrive in Zion, shown to be a place of cold metal and tough decisions. The film putters around in Zion for what feels like ages, introducing a host of characters that have little to offer in terms of story or human interest.

Once we finally return to the Matrix, business is unfortunately not back to normal. Fights break out for no reason. (One of the useless new characters, Seraph, starts a pointless fight with Neo, claiming that the only way to know a person is to fight him. Give me a break.) The dialogue has become hackneyed, stilted and pretentious. Gone is the simplicity of the first film. The big set-pieces are lazily edited, with stunt doubles (especially Keanu’s) painfully obvious on screen, which kills any suspension of disbelief that the audience had built up to that point.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the ‘Matrix’ sequels break their own rules. One of the things that separates science fiction from fantasy is that, at its best, science fiction institutes a set of rules that allow the audience to buy into the core concept, and then the rest of the movie (or book, or short story) unfolds according to those rules. ‘The Matrix’ does this, but its sequels do not. In ‘The Matrix’, Morpheus specifically states that The One is able to rewrite the code of the Matrix as he sees fit, and the end of the movie supports this, with Neo deleting Agent Smith at the code level. In ‘Reloaded’, Neo’s abilities seem reduced to flying and punching really hard. Even the Agents are able to block a few of his punches. (Neo smirks and says “Upgrades” when this first happens.) Despite these upgrades, Morpheus is later able to successfully fight off an Agent, even though he previously stated that every single person who ever fought an Agent has died. So even though the Agents have been upgraded, Morpheus is better able to take one out than he could Agent Smith in the last movie.

Logical gaps like this show up all over the sequels, killing the audience’s ability to stay connected to the material. The Merovingian, a long-winded and ultimately pointless character, is introduced in ‘Reloaded’ and captures Neo in ‘Revolutions’. Nothing comes of this. Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph fight their way into the Merovingian’s stronghold, and just as things seem like they’re getting interesting, the Wachowskis drop it by having Trinity hold the Merovingian up at gunpoint. Of course, ‘Revolutions’ has barely anything to do with the Matrix at all. Over half the film is spent in Zion or on ships. Let’s face it, the real world isn’t nearly as interesting as the one in the Matrix. Even with Neo’s ability to blow robots up real good (where did that come from?), the real world is stiflingly boring. Even more so when the Wachowskis spend most of their time in the real world ripping off ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Star Wars’, but with characters we don’t care about.

And that’s not even mentioning massive mood-killing blunders like the rave scene in Zion or the needless scene where Monica Bellucci makes out with Neo. Even worse, these sequences made the cut while other, cooler stuff was intentionally left out so that it could be premiered in the dreadful ‘Enter the Matrix’ videogame. The only good spin-off to come out of ‘The Matrix’ was ‘The Animatrix’, a series of animated shorts that generally have little bearing on the movies.

Perhaps the only good element of the sequels is Hugo Weaving, reprising his role as Agent Smith. Weaving, much like Gina Gershon in ‘Showgirls’, seems to be the only actor who understands the complete absurdity of the movie he’s in, and plays it to the hilt. However, as a threat, Agent Smith feels completely neutered. Instead of being a singular force, he takes over everyone in the Matrix, resulting in hundreds and ultimately thousands of identical Smiths running around. With so many of him, no single Smith really seems dangerous, and in large groups they just come off as silly.

In retrospect, it’s clear that ‘The Matrix’ was intended to be a one-and-done movie for the Wachowskis. Rather than stick up for their artistic integrity, they took the big payday, and the resulting crap has so soured their original vision that it can be difficult for fans to even enjoy the good material anymore. The difference in quality between the first movie and the other two is so stark that they could have been made by different filmmakers entirely. Thankfully, the Wachowskis seem to have learned their lesson, as ‘Speed Racer‘ was blisteringly fun, while ‘Cloud Atlas’ was one of, if not the, best films of 2012.

17 comments

  1. Timcharger

    “the Wachowskis spend most of their time in the real world ripping off ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Star Wars’”
    Could you explain this part more in detail? Obviously, we didn’t see any blue painted faces (though Neo had some kind of jacket with a flared out bottom, almost kilt-like) and no lightsabers in Matrix 2 & 3, so what exactly do you mean here?

    • Dan Hirshleifer

      The speech Captain Mifune gives is a complete rip off of Braveheart. The sequence where the ship races to get back to Zion is a total rip off of the scene in Star Wars where the Millenium Falcon escapes from the Death Star.

      • Every single scene in the first Matrix was a rip-off of some other famous movie, from The Terminator to Ghost in the Shell to the collected works of John Woo. Even “bullet time” had been used previously in Wing Commander and a famous commercial for The Gap. Like a Tarantino movie, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

        Also, Speed Racer is utterly unwatchable.

        • Loved without question first Matrix, and was massively let down by the sequels. The Wachowski’s bragged about the digital actors and how you couldn’t tell them from the flesh and blood counterparts. Well every single time one of them was on screen not only could I tell but it was for me, painfully obvious. Was it an improvement from other films that had tried the same thing? Yes, but it was nowhere as seamless as they thought.

          Every time they did it with Neo (why? for the love of Pete?It was one guy.) it was so lifeless as to almost be comical and it brought me out of the moment.

          And it’s exactly why the Star Wars Prequels suck compared to the originals. When you have less to work with you make choices that are eventually better for the story. Just because you can do a thing does not mean you “should” do a thing. The Matrix Sequels fall in that category.

          Hell the Animatrix has a sequence in it that is all CGI animated yet is better scripted and just plain cooler than most of what happens in the actual movies themselves. It would have been a better opening for sure than what they ended up going with.

  2. Dan and I debated this a little on Facebook, but I still maintain that Matrix Reloaded is the best of this trilogy. It’s not perfect (that rave scene is a real groaner), but it genuinely attempts to expand upon the ideas of the first movie and open up all sorts of interesting avenues to explore in the universe. I think it was incredibly ballsy to climax a big-budget action movie with a scene of two characters discussing philosophical ideas about the nature of reality. AND that freeway chase scene kicks all sorts of ass.

    Of course, all of that was thrown to the wayside with the tedious, mundane Matrix Revolutions.

    • Dan Hirshleifer

      If the basic mechanics of filmmaking were tighter in Reloaded, I might agree with you. But it’s so sloppy that it’s tough to admire even the good stuff (although I do love the freeway chase).

    • Josh, the Matrix Reloaded is only marginally better than Revolutions, and yes the Highway scene in that movie was awesome. But the problem is that moments of cool are surrounded by such crap that they diminish it. They pretty much have no re-watch value except for the aforementioned highway scene.

      There is no way you can gloss over everything else and say that either of the sequels are as good or better than the original.

      They obviously spent all their time on things like the highway sequence and little else, especially story. Usually I agree with most things you say, but this is the equivalent of saying Attack of the Clones is better than The Empire Strikes Back.

  3. JM

    ‘The Matrix’ sequels are the greatest missed opportunity in the history of Hollywood.

    Neo should have become drunk with power and bent the code to his will.

    Where I lived in 1999, the original felt derivative yet stylish. The plot-by-numbers origin story and fortune cookie dialogue I was hoping was just the compromise of studio notes.

    Like all superhero movies, I was waiting for #2 to see if the universe (the writers) had potential. And maybe the studio still had guidelines and a timetable that made awesomeness unattainable, but we clearly learned that creators of ‘Bound’ can’t pound out good shit fast.

    I actually feel that pop culture ruined ‘The Matrix’ more than the sequels did.

    ‘Jupiter Ascending’ as written next by the filmmakers Wachowski (to set up a new trilogy?) I’m hoping will be a significant evolution of storytelling and not just a Luc Besson-esque crank out.

    Like with Robert Rodriguez, I wish they would stick to adapting provocative novels.

    Leave the writing to the professionals.

  4. I’ve had numerous debates with people who share the same view on the Matrix trilogy as Dan and there are typically two explanations: a) the viewers came in with a “more-of-the-same” expectation, meaning just cutting-edge special effects and action without heavy themes; or b) the naysayers are simply too mentally lazy. For example, the parts that Dan mentions in this piece as breaking the “rules” could be explained very easily if one just take the time to think about them, but most moviegoers these days want everything to be spoon-fed to them. But that is partly what made the sequels so great…they force the viewer to think!

    Although it is not “perfect” I really did like the Trilogy as a whole and I especially enjoyed the final third of Revolutions where the fate of mankind rests on the shoulders of one man…who with all his powers both within and outside the Matrix is still mortal and he is forced to accept that fact in order for man to survive. It’s really powerful stuff, and the undertones of love, altruism, and perseverance and religion are both obvious and subtle. That is not to say this is the only movie to explore these themes, but it is unique in that it did so simultaneously while combining both action and sci-fi genres with ground breaking special effects. Sure there were some set pieces that didn’t advance the plot very much but not every scene has to advance the plot to make a movie great. Taken as a trilogy I think the viewer would find the “slow parts” less annoying and the ultimate resolution very satisfying. In fact, the original Matrix left on its own seems incomplete. While we discover the One has the ability to alter the code within the Matrix, that by itself would not have led to a lasting peace between man and machine. So Kudos to the writers for having the balls to discover a way to resolve this without cheating. Contrast this with the LotR Trilogy where the solution is foretold in the very fist hour and we spend the next 8+ hours awaiting for the ring to drop into the fire.

    I find that re-watching the Matrix trilogy with a new perspective on the whole thing gives it new life as you can appreciate the themes and layers. I hope that at least a few readers will give it a shot and come away feeling the same way.

    • The Magnificent One

      You state the author’s criticisms can be easily explained away, yet you fail to do so. What the above article states is correct, the Wachowski’s set themselves so high a bar by the end of the first film, they evidently had to indulge in a bit of retconning to make the sequels; by the end of the original film, Neo is essentially a god within the Matrix, a person of unlimited powers and abilities within the artificial simulation he inhabits, but the sequels seemingly reined that back considerably and at no point do we see those god-like abilities followed through on, for someone who’s supposed to be the fastest person alive, he can’t even make it to a door (TWICE!) before it’s closed on him, yet he was able to dodge bullets in the original film’s rescue of Morpheus. And the point made about Morpheus and the Agents is a correct one, unless you have a better explanation…?

      The wider mythology in the sequels was an intriguing and well-developed one, but one that could have been better told in a single (and considerably tighter) three-hour film, but that didn’t happen, and thus what we’re left with are fatally flawed works of sheer hubristic indulgence… I think I’ll just stick to the original film if you don’t mind.

  5. Thanks for the amazing article, Dan!!

    I really dug The Matrix. After expecting so much more in The Matrix Reloaded, only to be completely let down and annoyed, I felt less mad when watching Revolutions, but it still absolutely pales in comparison to the first. All the tension and sense of wonder and excitement was thrown out the window in favor of one of the most annoying characters in all filmdom: The Merovingian, who did nothing but talk. He talked so much I zoned out and became fascinated with the spittle on the side of his mouth. I still cringe when I think of that character. Plus every other character speaks in “Matrix” speak. It’s hard to explain without going into incredible detail, and I cannot be bothered now. They act as if every line is the most important line of dialog in the movie. It’s so grating.

    All in all, I hate The Matrix Reloaded almost as much as I hate the Twilight franchise.

    Again, I loved The Matrix.
    The Matrix Reloaded is a steaming pile of camel dung, and The Matrix Revolutions was fun but lacking all the heart of the first.

  6. I liked the trilogy. Yeah, the second and third movies were not as good as the first, but they were still entertaining.

    I think what I loved most about the story was that it was told in multiple mediums. What a great idea, and surprised that no one else really tried it since. The Animatrix was enjoyable, and I put in quite a bit of time in Enter The Matrix.

    Granted, the ending of trilogy was weak, but its still a great trilogy.

    I would go into why, but its late, I am tired, and wouldn’t even be online right now except I am waiting for something to finish processing on my computer.

  7. you know what grinds my gears with the matrix sequels? the terrible, like worse than spiderman terrible cgi neo fight scenes.

    i skip through them theyre so bad, the scene on the rooftop and the final agent smith battle mostly. after beautiful action scenes like the neo trinity raid scene they throw this slop at us that just removes me completely. because they could have done it without cgi, it just would have taken more time and an actor who could actually act.

  8. loganfire3

    while ‘Cloud Atlas’ was one of, if not the, best films of 2012.

    This made me laugh, that movie was unwatchable. Speed Racer was indeed awesome though.

  9. Sorry to resurrect this thread but this is an interesting article and one that I can see both sides of the issue on though I do actually like the sequels to an extent but still. The reason I randomly bring this up is because I am possibly going to get the ultimate matrix collection box set on blu someday so I just looked up some comments here about the matrix trilogy. I’m annoying , I know.

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