In earlier years, when you had a dragon in a Hollywood movie, it only had one head. But now, those same dragons have seven heads!
IN THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, THE DRAGONS — be they swarming Sentinels or replicating Smiths — have way more than seven heads, and so does the movie. As in The Matrix Reloaded (released this past May), there are moments in which the screen becomes congested by so much computer-generated Sturm und Drang, it’s impossible to discern exactly what it is we’re seeing — or, at least, to make ourselves care about it. And being that The Matrix Revolutions is the final chapter in the visionary (and so far enormously successful) sci-fi trilogy dreamed up by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, it naturally contains more such moments than any of its predecessors, in or out of the Matrix franchise. Originally conceived not so much as a stand-alone part three, but as the second half of a single mega-sequel (of which Reloaded was the first half), Revolutions is, as one might therefore expect, nearly wall-to-wall climax — an unwieldy, two-plus-hours third act of a movie, guided by the principle (incubated by Reloaded and fully grown here) that too much is never too much. Long before it’s over, The Matrix Revolutions has given us ample time to ponder the many ways in which the movies in general — and the Matrix movies in particular — were that much bolder, brighter and scarier when their dragons had fewer heads.
Indeed, the process of producing these two back-to-back sequels appears to have taken a significant toll on its enigmatic creators. Whereas so much of the charm of The Matrix (1999) rested in its fundamental unselfconsciousness — its ability to dazzle us (both with regard to its action and its ideas) without seeming to realize it was doing anything out of the ordinary — Reloaded and Revolutions have been weighed down by the enormous expectations (both self- and audience-imposed) that the Wachowskis would top even the most innovative trickery of their earlier work, and that at the final unraveling of their Matrix mythology might lie not merely revolution but revelation. Unfortunately, being a modern mythologist is no easy racket: Just ask George Lucas.
As faithful series viewers will recall, The Matrix Reloaded ended on a cliffhanger, in which trench-coated über-hero Neo (Keanu Reeves), having miraculously brought his latex-costumed lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) back from the brink of death, suddenly discovered that his heretofore only-inside-the-Matrix superpowers now seemed to work in the real world as well. With a single wave of his hand, he managed to strike down a pack of Sentinels — those nasty, hydra-headed seek-and-destroy machines that had immolated the good ship Nebuchadnezzar and threatened to make mincemeat of its crew. Not long before which, a battalion of ships attempting to fend off the imminent destruction of Zion — that last outpost of unplugged human life — had themselves been thwarted by the errant firing of a powerful electromagnetic pulse.
Picking up mere hours later, The Matrix Revolutions continues its predecessor’s concern over the fate of Zion, now a mere 24 hours away from doom. But before that can be addressed, other, more urgent matters must be tended to, such as the semi-comatose state in which Neo’s heroics at the end of the last installment left him. Only Neo isn’t really out cold. He’s stranded somewhere between the real world and the Matrix in an antiseptic, sparsely populated subway station, presided over by a toothy, bedraggled train conductor (The Road Warrior’s Bruce Spence). Indeed, it’ll be some time before Revolutions gets around to addressing (let alone answering) other portentous, nagging questions from Reloaded, e.g., how did Neo do what he did to those Sentinels? And what was that Architect guy really on about anyway? In fact, for a brief, delectable moment, as Neo continues to mull over the Architect’s suggestion that choice is but another system of control, there is the intimation that those questions — in an ultimate fulfillment of the Wachowskis’ insatiable appetite for armchair philosophizing — might never be answered. No such luck.
OF COURSE, IT WAS LIKELY IMPOSSIBLE that any sequel would recapture The Matrix’s sense of mystery, the thrilling dislocation we felt as the Wachowskis hurtled us about their meticulously ordered netherworld of glittering skyscrapers and cozy, green-Formica kitchens, slowly assembling the pieces of their futuristic puzzle, forever tugging at the rug beneath our feet. (So thrilling, in fact, that few of us even bothered to comment on the essential paradox of being able to fend off homicidal computer programs with kung fu techniques.) In a way, it was as though at the end of that film, Neo had freed not only himself from The Matrix, but us as well. Nothing could ever be the same again. Then came the subterranean Zion of Reloaded and Revolutions, with its flaming pyres, barefoot raves/orgies and tribal-elder councils — and a sense of having peeled back all The Matrix’s layers of illusion and deception only to find Star Trek: The Prehistoric Generation underneath.
Revolutions is the most Zion-centric Matrix picture to date, and it lacks many of the pleasurable distractions — the colorful supporting characters, the ever-shifting topography, the oddball sexual humor — that gave Reloaded, despite its problems, a propulsive kick. The disappointments of The Matrix Revolutions, however, extend well beyond that. The film seems to exist primarily to accommodate two elaborate, inevitable set pieces — the clash between the Zion and machine armies and, simultaneously, the mano-a-mano duel between Neo and Smith (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. the Super Burly Brawl — which arrive in a blur of digital gunfire and computer-animated people and machinery as numbing as it is, from a technical standpoint, impressive. As Neo and Smith duke it out for the last time — tumbling through the Matrix’s stormy, virtual-reality skies, wholly unbound by the laws of physics — we don’t feel like we’re soaring alongside them, the way we did with Christopher Reeve in the old Superman movies, but rather like we’ve been stranded behind on Earth, watching as someone else plays the final level of an incredibly high-tech, emotionally uninvolving video game.
Just as their films have developed a certain self-consciousness about their own grandiosity — a foreknowledge (which comes to a head in Revolutions) that they are giving us, that they must give us, the best, most inimitable spectacle Joel Silver’s money can buy — so the Wachowskis seem to have been convinced of the Godlike status that legions of movie geeks have appointed to them. They’ve isolated themselves on a Kubrickian media iceberg, refusing interviews and becoming fodder for a series of scandal-mongering tabloid headlines. They’ve even stripped their press-kit biography down to a scant three sentences, the last of which reads “Little else is known about them” — a declaration I roundly doubt was included back when the Wachowskis were just the directors of the terrifically wicked lesbian-noir Bound (1996), the screenwriters of the misbegotten Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins (1995), or even the creators of the original Matrix, which, difficult as it may be to believe now, was far from a sure bet when it first arrived. Which is also a way of saying that somewhere along the winding road to The Matrix Revolutions, the making of these films has come to seem, for their makers, more work than play. Writing in these pages several months back, John Powers suggested that, had God himself been responsible for the “epoch-making world” of The Matrix, He might have opted to rest rather than embarking on these two sequels. Watching The Matrix Revolutions, you sense that the Wachowskis should have sooner abided by God’s example or, at least, by their own film’s ad line and oft-iterated dictum: “Everything that has a beginning has an end.”
THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS | Written and directed by THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS | Produced by JOEL SILVER | Released by Warner Brothers | Citywide
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