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.