The Matrix universe

The Matrix (1999)

Rating: N/A

Dir: The Wachowski Brothers
Star: Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

What is the Matrix? It’s very difficult to accept a concept that is so far from normal thought as to be nearly incomprehensible. Even more difficult, I imagine, to incorporate such an unimaginable concept into your everyday realm, and be told to forget everything you know and understand as reality. Add to that, the responsibility of being told that you are the new Messiah, the next Saviour, the only hope…The One.

Well, I’d say “fuck it” and probably cave. Or, I’d face this new adventure with open eyes, an open mind and hope it’s not too terrible. For this adventure is an amazing one. The story is tried and true – Good vs Bad, it always is. But it’s a gripping story with incredible…no, better than incredible… more like Un-Fucking-Believable special effects and fight scenes. I was entranced. Not once as I watched did I utter the phrase “Oh, I am so sure”. Not even once! I perceived the fights as real, accurate, believable. I’m very critical from watching Hong Kong action and their hyper-dramatic martial arts fight scenes, but here, we are led down a path gently focusing our eyes to what the filmmakers wish us to believe and the concept placed in my mind made all the amazing fight scenes (by Yuen Woo-Ping) jaw-dropping.

It’s all like that. The unbelievable is now not only believable, but a working part of the universe as we know it. Or maybe not. Confused? Oh you will be. You will be. And then, like an epiphany…or maybe a two by four board slamming you in the face, it hits you all at once and is, for some, too much to bear, but it makes perfect sense.

The Matrix is visually, audially and intellectually stunning. One tends to try and focus on one or the other of the qualities enmeshed within the film. I was awed by the special effects, the graphics, the fight sequences and will need to see it again to fully appreciate the storyline. The characters are all beautiful in their journey to face the truth and the sacrifices they have to make. The bad guys are deliciously evil and I almost sympathised with their truths and reasonings, although I was still rooting for the good guys, and not only cause they were seriously cool dressers.

What is the Matrix? It’s worth a trip to a big screen cinema to find out. It may awe you, it may disturb you, it may floor you, but also, you may not look at anything in the same way again.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Rating: C+

Dir: The Wachowski Brothers
Star: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lawrence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving

I really wanted to really like this, which may explain the palpable sense of disappointment I currently feel. Not that this is “bad” in most senses, just far short of what I hoped. In this installment, Zion, base for the last surviving free humans, is about to be attacked. Our heroes go back in the Matrix to seek advice from the Oracle, but encounter enemies old (Weaving as Agent Smith(s) comes close to stealing the movie) and new. And, naturally, fight. A lot. Like The Two Towers, Reloaded suffers from middle-movie syndrome. It lacks a start or end, and at 138 mins, could and should have been shorter: far too often, I felt I was attending Philosophy 2.0.1. The worst offender – and believe me, he does well to surpass Morpheus – is the Architect (Helmut Bakaltis), spouting copious pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, in what seems a desperate stab at deep meaning.

The first half in particular suffers from an overdose of clunky self-importance; while Zion looks fabulous (as does the entire movie), the scene where it turns into Studio 54 had me sniggering into my popcorn. One also wonders about the significance of a world where coloured people seem more numerous – does this also go for the slaves still in the Matrix? What exactly are they telling us here? Hmmm… Luckily, the action, particularly later on, is plentiful and well-staged; the highway chase is every bit as impressive as I hoped. Though when Morpheus fights an agent on a juggernaut, I kept flashing back to Yuen Wo-Ping’s In the Line of Duty IV, where Cynthia Khan battled atop an ambulance, with a much greater sense of danger. Perhaps linked to this, at no point do you ever feel Neo is threatened; can’t help thinking they shot themselves in the foot by revealing his One-ness in the first movie. Hell, what do I know: I fell asleep first time I watched The Matrix, so until Revolutions turns up, I’m not prepared to crucify this. But I do have a hammer and nails ready.

The Animatrix (2003)

Rating: A-

Dir: Various
Star (voice): Hedy Burress, James Arnold Taylor, Clayton Watson, Julia Fletcher

To summarise: they should have released this at the cinema, and sent Reloaded straight to video. The animated visuals are easily the equal of the live-action film, and the short running time of the nine episodes (averaging about 10 minutes) means there’s no time for the pointless self-indulgence – Zion rave, anyone? – or philosophical drivel which plagued Reloaded.

Almost every potential aspect is explored: the history of the man-machine war preceding the first film, the discovery of the attack on Zion, and various side stories, some involving Neo and Trinity, while others are entirely separate. The styles on view are varied too, from CGI to old-school cel animation – the best, however, combine these styles, as in Beyond, a story about a haunted house that’s really a glitch in the Matrix, and Matriculated, which has humans seeking to dupe a machine into believing in an alternate reality. The latter does lose its way in terms of plotting, but is just such fabulous eye-candy, you can’t condemn it.

Our personal favourite was The Second Renaissance, a ‘lesson’ showing how we became slaves to the machines. Mixing imagery borrowed from the Holocaust, Vietnam and other examples from history, it is worryingly plausible. Initially the victims, the robots created by humanity eventually turned in self-defence – when we blotted out the sun, their source of energy, they found another…us. This two-part entry runs about 20 minutes, but is extremely effective. Come Oscar time, however, you could stack up whichever five of these you want as nominees, and they’d all likely kick the arse of any other animated shorts released this year.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Rating: B

Dir: The Wachowski Brothers
Star: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett-Smith

A poster-child for managing expectations, I went into this expecting it to suck. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t. The philo-babble that plagued Reloaded is largely bypassed, though the Oracle still speaks with the clarity of a fortune cookie – just at rather greater length. Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) hardly appears at all, and even Trinity and Neo are absent in the middle hour; they’re on a last-ditch mission to the machines’ city, while the final human stronghold comes under relentless attack. While large chunks feel like a totally mindless video-game (at one particular point, Galaxian!), the Wachowskis add to the humanity by focusing occasionally on minor characters such as an ammo-loader and a bazooka crew.

It leads, with the inevitability of continental drift, to a final battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Weaving, stealing the show again – though credit to another actor for a near-flawless imitation of his mannerisms). There’s one shot which, while of no real significance, causes the same sense of awe and wonder as the first occasion you saw bullet-time, and any number of minor spectacles, not least a moment of daylight that makes you realise how absent it has been. Most ends are tied up, despite a regrettable (and equally inevitable) leaving of doors ajar for further sequels. Overall, if you replace Reloaded with The Animatrix, this can take its place among classic SF trilogies.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

Rating: C-

Dir: Lana Wachowski
Star: Keanu Reeves, Jessica Henwick, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

At the end of the film, a crappy cover version by a female singer of a Rage Against the Machine song plays. A more appropriate metaphor for the movie would be hard to find. Well, maybe not. Turns out, the band responsible became notorious a few weeks back, when the lead singer pissed on a fan during a live performance of the same song. That may be an even more appropriate parallel.

22 years since the Wachowski Brothers Siblings Sisters revolutionized cinema. Their career arc since has been almost relentlessly down, though I speak as someone who liked Matrix Revolutions much more than most. But their stuff after the trilogy? Eek. Speed Racer is the biggest-budget film I’ve turned off in the middle, and nothing else I’ve seen convinced me The Matrix wasn’t a fluke. But maybe going back to their roots would reignite the amazing creative spark demonstrated by the original? For about 30 minutes here, it seemed it might work. It was almost a reboot, with Thomas Anderson (Reeves) now the world’s top game designer, who had created The Matrix. Or had it created him? Once more, he must choose between blue and red pills, and up to that point, the sense of queasy uncertainty about reality is beautifully balanced, along with some jabs at interpretations of the first movie.

But he should have taken the blue pill, because everything thereafter goes increasingly wrong. Most painfully, the action is shitty, generic and very obviously not choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Poor personnel choices include recasting Agent Smith and Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen II – presumably to avoid confusion with all the other Yahya Abdul-Mateens out there), even though the latter in particular is entirely irrelevant. Just because you say “I am Morpheus” doesn’t mean you are Morpheus, any more than saying “I am a woman,” makes you a woman… Turning the Merovingian into Hipster Hobo. Bringing Niobe back with Jada Pinkett-Smith in flaky aging make-up. Reducing Neo’s abilities to little more than an occasional force push. At points, it feels as if the makers went “What would be the worst possible decision?”, and went with it.

About the only thread that works is the love story between Neo and Trinity. As the latter – thank god they didn’t recast her – Carrie-Anne Moss steals the show, and if Wachowski had kept the film simpler, focusing on that couple, it might have worked. Instead, there’s so much extraneous stuff, it feels over-stuffed, even at 148 mins – though about a quarter-hour is end-credits. Apparently, Wachowski eventually agreed to make the movie, as a way of coming to terms with death, including that of her parents. I venture to suggest a therapist would have been cheaper, and left us out of it. Instead, an early conversation about making a Matrix 4 video-game – “I’m sure you can understand why our beloved parent company, Warner Bros., has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy” – proves uncomfortably relevant to this, and less meta than the makers probably wanted.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch The Animatrix.