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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003
Neo, Smith go out with a whimper
"The Matrix Revolutions," the third and supposedly final installment in the "Matrix" series, opens with a curious scene. Our hero, Neo -- played by Keanu Reeves or a reasonably accurate computer-generated simulacrum -- awakens from the coma he was in at the end of "Matrix Reloaded," and finds himself in a strange, pristinely white train station. This "nonplace" turns out to be a transit point between the virtual world of the Matrix and the real world. Neo finds, however, that exit is impossible. Jumping onto the tracks, he flounders into the dark tunnel at one end of the station, only to re-emerge back there again at the other end. This piece of virtual reality is a trap, a closed loop which endlessly leads back to the same place.
It's a fitting symbol for the movie as a whole, which seems to have completely run out of creative energy. The series loops in on itself, giving us -- yet again -- another climactic battle with evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), another pointless visit to the Oracle (Gloria Foster), another lecture from The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), another death of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and another two hours' worth of Neo trying to figure out if he's "The One."
Maybe it's the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole that's become a closed creative loop, with no way for any new approaches to find their way in. The bleak mountain range surrounding the city of machine's in "The Matrix," covered in roiling black clouds and lightning, resembles nothing so much as Mordor in "The Two Towers." Ditto for the climactic siege of Zion, where the robot hordes seek to overwhelm outnumbered human defenders. Didn't we just see this in the battle of Helm's Deep, right down to the cowering civilians in the bowels of the city and the last-minute arrival of help from outside?
The feeling of de ja vu is inescapable; whether it's the "Transformer"-style robots the humans use to defend Zion, the stylistic steals from "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell," the generic "Yessir! Right away, sir!" U.S. military-speak from a zillion other movies -- or even the floating head that recalls "The Wizard of Oz." From predictable plot arc to cliched dialogue and set-piece battles, there's barely a moment that feels fresh, new, or daring. Welcome to "The Matrix Regurgitations."
It's a shame that the Wachowski brothers, the film's writers and directors, chose to play it so safe, especially since the first "Matrix" was such a blast. Few films could match the sheer shock achieved when Neo takes that red pill, and we find that the story we'd been watching is not the real story after all. There have been no equivalent surprises since. The premise dropped at the end of "Matrix Reloaded" -- that Neo was a "systemic anomaly," a preprogrammed bit of rebellious release, a mere illusion of choice -- promised a mind-boggling dead-end to be surmounted somehow. "The Matrix Revolutions," however, merely drops the whole subplot like it never existed.
At least, as far as I can tell, but I suspect many viewers will spend a great deal of "Matrix Revolutions" just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. OK, so the robots are sending a horde of sentinels against the last human city of Zion, whose hopes lie in the hands of Neo and the yet unproven prophesy that he is "The One," the savior who will deliver his people. (And the Wachowskis hammer that theme like nails into petrified wood, even going so far as to have Neo's final agonies played out in full, arms-outstretched, crucified-Christ mode.)
But beyond this general plot arc, much of "Revolutions" remains incomprehensible. Take that "train station" at the beginning. Neo meets two Indian programs there -- programs, not programmers -- Matrix-inhabiting pieces of software who've somehow birthed a human child. Whether they're taking a human into the virtual ether of the Matrix's world, or out of it into the robot-dominated real world isn't clear, but neither follows the film's own internal logic. Seemingly the only reason for this encounter is to let the Indians talk in vague terms about karma, adding another layer of mumbo-jumbo to this film's metaphysical smokescreen.
"Everything that has a beginning has an end." That's the film's tag-line, and like the movie itself, it's superficially profound while essentially meaningless. While the first film walked a fine line between ontological teasing and time-dilating action, the sequels' metaphysical ruminations seem ham-fisted and squeezed ineptly between the shoot'em-ups. And Agent Smith is mightily afflicted with that obsessive-compulsive disorder of so many movie villains, namely to lecture his enemy when he's got him down instead of doing the smart thing and whacking him. This he indulges in not once, but twice; so much for his machinelike belief in "reason."
Admittedly, Weaving is a hoot as Agent Smith, the viral software taking over the Matrix's world; his megalomania -- entire city blocks covered with nothing but Smith clones in every window and doorway -- comes across as a sweet nonintentional satire of the film's own saturation ad campaign. There are other flashes of fun, like the swarms of squiddly sentinels overwhelming Zion's port, and the usual tripped-out dialogue ("If I'm not me, then who am I?"). But it's hard to escape the feeling that, for most of the film, you're watching a video game that someone else is playing.
Like most sequels, "Matrix Revolutions" believes that bigger special effects are the answer to repetitive plotting and lack of new ideas. Like most sequels, it's nowhere near as good as the original. Now there's a lesson in karma.