Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Matrix Re-something

Ten years have passed since the world was asked to consider a notion so strange and world-altering that it forever changed the way we view cinema. The notion was this: that Keanu Reeves was a brilliant computer hacker.

To convey this idea, the Wachowski Brothers utilized a relatively formulaic retelling of Plato's Cave allegory: an idea often explored in the realm of science fiction.

To commemorate this anniversary, I recently sat down and watched the entire trilogy, as well as The Animatrix. If my typing is less than coherent, it is because I have just completed watching the last two films back-to-back, and my head has not yet cleared. By my estimation, I expect to be back to normal by 2013. 2014 at the absolute latest.

No film I've seen and discussed has caused me more trouble than The Matrix. The names I was called in conversations about this film are simply not printable - this is, after all, a blog intended for a family audience.

There was little sympathy in the circles I traveled for one who did not like The Matrix. The true irony, though, is that I didn't dislike The Matrix: I was merely critical of it. And, on re-watching, my criticisms remain intact.

The largest problem I had with The Matrix in 1999 was that it was a far inferior film to Blade in all respects. Despite a far higher budget (and better technology) the action in The Matrix was relatively dull to watch. It had its moments, of course, but against the action scenes of Blade, there can be no real comparison.

The real disappointment, however, was that it wasn't nearly as smart as Blade. I realize this is a controversial point, but having seen both movies several times, I feel the position is defensible. The Matrix boils down to a cookie-cutter application of the Plato's most overused idea. There are some other ideas, slipped in through supporting characters (everyone in that movie seems to say something about the nature of reality or humanity), but these tend towards the simplistic.

Blade, on the other hand, is a surprisingly layered film. The transition from reality to comic book absurdity is gradual, as the movie evolves from horror to fantasy. Many of the minor characters have implied backgrounds and personalities. Granted, the screenwriter reused most of these tricks in Batman Begins, but there is little reason in criticizing an author for making the same wise choices twice.

This isn't to say that The Matrix was a loss: far from it. It was fun science fiction which played with philosophy. But it was far from great.

Then came the sequel. As I've said, I'd spent years arguing against The Matrix's following. There is nothing that irritates a geek more than an overrated picture, and the situation seemed clear. But, as the trailers were released and early rumors began to appear, I grew hopeful. There was reason to suspect that where the first film disappointed, the second might excel.

I swear to you - SWEAR - that I took no satisfaction as I walked out of the theater after viewing The Matrix: Reloaded. Never before, and I hope never again, have I ever been so sad to win an argument.

The strangest part was that one of my main criticisms was addressed. It is seldom said, but, for all its faults, the second Matrix film is surprisingly intelligent. Gone is the simplistic dichotomy between good humans and evil machines: the computers behind The Matrix are complex. Gnosticism, only suggested in passing in the original, becomes a foundation of the world, and Neo's discussion with The Architect is surprisingly fascinating.

And yet, the movie ranks as one of the least interesting I've seen in years. The first forty minutes or so is painful to sit through: the speech and subsequent dance scene are downright awful. When the fight scenes do start, most are dull. The first fight between Neo and three dozen copies of Smith should be required viewing for all perspective film composers and editors: if any of them actually enjoy the experience, they should be shown the door. The battle is far less engrossing than the meeting with the Oracle which precedes it.

The movie improves a bit with the introduction of the "supernatural" villains and the fights which ensue. While these could have been better, they actually managed to lend a degree of excitement to the movie. I'd have been happier if some of the werewolves had actually turned into wolves. Still, the ghosts were cool.

The end is fairly straightforward: once Neo has saved Trinity, he's poisoned by Sheelob, taken by a kraken, then sold to Jabba the Hutt. At this point, I'm not sure whether such conventions are intended as cliffhangers or merely as a way to waste the first thirty minutes of the next film.

Which brings us to The Matrix: Revolutions. When I saw this in the theater, I recall enjoying it far more than part two. At the time, the absurdity of the thing felt fun. While I'd had high expectations going into Reloaded, they'd been safely lowered by the time the conclusion came out.

On reviewing, I had considerably less fun, though there were still moments I enjoyed. While part two was trying for dramatics, the last Matrix film seemed to go for something more operatic. The death of Trinity still stands as one of the most unintentionally hilarious in film history, as though the Wachowskis felt bad about killing her... again... so they offered comedy as a consolation prize.

I don't know whether it's her five-minute monotone speech or the wiggling pipes that have impaled her, but I can't watch her die with a straight face. Hardly the ending I'd have envisioned for the most interesting character in the trilogy.

The battle for Zion is another example of technical mastery being wasted. The lack of emotional involvement, along with the ridiculous CG men in suits, makes it fall flat. While the waves of robotic squid are visually pretty, the best parts wind up feeling like a good screen saver; the worst, like a bad video game.

Of course, their pain and suffering is more or less for nothing: soldiers have no impact on their own fate. No, it's their savior, Neo, who makes the real choices. His battle with Smith is one we enjoy in spite of its excesses - or perhaps because of them. Does it feel like two Kryptonians pounding on each other? Sure. But why is that a bad thing?

In the end, a bunch of characters I don't care about celebrate their survival in their post-apocalyptic underground lair. Trinity and Neo have died, but they've ensured that the Wesley Crusher lookalike can live a rich and fulfilling life collecting mold spores or whatever these people do.

I actually have some sympathy for the problem the Wachowskis faced: wrapping up a trilogy isn't easy. On one hand, they didn't want to create a "Return of the Jedi", which has often been criticised for being overly happy (personally, I like Jedi, but that's me). They wanted something final, something epic, so they offed two of their three characters.

The real problem is that I found myself no longer caring about the third. Morpheus was extremely cool in the first film, and even helped salvage the second (he should always have had a katana). But as his faith began to waiver, he lost his intrigue. Morpheus was not improved by his weaknesses.

The Matrix seemed extremely important when it came out: for years, movies were expected to follow its lead. Still, there are things to like about these movies.

But I still say none of them are anywhere near as good as Blade.


Zak said...

Yeah, you're pretty much still on crack. Which is your right, as a crackhead.

Erin Snyder said...

Well I'll be... I didn't know ANYONE was still defending The Matrix. Not after 2003.

Maybe you haven't had a chance to see the sequels yet. Maybe you haven't realized that the SINGLE BEST THING TO COME OUT OF THE MATRIX WAS SPEED RACER.

But then, perhaps you do know these things. At some level. Buried deep in your deluded subconscious.

Hard to say, Zak. Very hard to say.

Zak said...

Speed Racer does rock the casbah. Like a swizzle stick in cinema form.

Erin Snyder said...

You see. Now we're getting somewhere.

Bedlam said...

I was disappointed by Revolutions; I thought the beginning was extremely interesting but the Zion war was spectacularly boring.

However I will still say that the films are far more interesting than you think. If you can stomach it, read (and watch) my interpretation here:

Erin Snyder said...

I think some of your arguments are overreaching, Bedlam, however I found your viewing of the Neo/Multiple Man battle as a philosophical debate intriguing.

But, at least in terms of Reloaded, none of it addresses my concerns. I agree with you that Reloaded is far more intelligent than it's given credit for - I said as much in my rant. As a movie, though, it's just not interesting or engaging. Your defense of the dance scene as pleasure, for instance, misses the mark: regardless of the intent, most of those I know who've sat through it - myself included - found the scene tedious. So, while the Wachowskis may have wanted to convey "pleasure", the end result was rather painful. Five minutes of the audience's life gone, and nothing gained: what's the point? If they wanted to convey pleasure, they should have filmed a scene that was pleasurable to watch: it's what good directors do when filming good movies.

My largest problem with the original was a lack of philosophical content, and I still remain unconvinced there was much more than Plato's Cave Allegory. Where you see a Rorschach test, I just see a lack of direction. Yes, there are a half dozen different traditions and religious allusions present, but these went nowhere. I realize that Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity mirror the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but there doesn't seem to be a reason. Allusions at random are easy, but they're wasted without purpose.

Reloaded improved the philosophy, but the movie itself was about as interesting as Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. If you're going to spend that kind of time and money on spectacle, I expect GOOD SPECTACLE.