“Do you like what I’ve done with the place?”
All good trilogies must end with a third installment (unless you’re Douglas Adams and defy the definition that a trilogy must have three installments), and The Matrix series ends here with The Matrix Revolutions. It is epic in scope and has groundbreaking special effects, but is it a worthy ending to the series?
When last we left our intrepid heroes, the Machines’ assault on Zion had begun. Neo and Trinity had barely escaped from the Matrix with their lives, only to have their ship destroyed by Sentinels. Neo discovered that he could affect the Machines in the Real World, but the attempt left him in a coma. Meanwhile, the humans’ hovercraft armada was destroyed and every crewmember killed…except for Bane, who had been possessed by Agent Smith and was responsible for the destruction.
With Neo extricated from his imprisonment in the Matrix, the crews of the Nebuchadnezzar (now destroyed), Logos, and Hammer, the last human hovercrafts, go their separate ways. Morpheus, Niobe, and the other survivors speed the Hammer back to Zion to aid humanity’s last stand against insurmountable odds. Neo and Trinity embark alone in a vain attempt to reach the Machine City at the core of the Machines’ defenses.
If there’s one thing you can say about The Matrix Revolutions — both to its credit and to its detriment — is that it’s a spectacle. A massive, unholy spectacle unseen and unrivaled in the history of film. More than any other film — more than the Star Wars prequels, more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, more than even the preceding installments in this trilogy — it is a testament to what can be accomplished with modern computer-generated effects. Curiously, when compared to The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, it isn’t the virtual world that wows, but the Real World that blows your mind. In The Matrix, we got a tease of the futuristic world, but our glimpses were brief and confined to the experiences of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar; in fact, we rarely saw outside its steel walls. Reloaded opened up the world a bit wider, showing us the massive sanctuary of Zion, but gave us little action there except a pointless rave. Revolutions delivers the Full Monty. The dock, a steel and concrete dome about the size of Manhattan, serves as the battleground between thousands of Machines and heavily armed infantry. Neo and Trinity’s trip to the Machine City leads across “The Fields” where lumbering giants grow and harvest crops of humans for their power plants. Tanks the size of the Titanic bombard their tiny ship with thousands of smart bombs that would make Donald Rumsfeld giddy. And the Machine City — my god, the city!
But while the effects are bound to become legendary, the yardstick against which any movie of epic scale will be measured, in their relentless pursuit of the mind-blowing they pass that mark and become mind-numbing. I saw it on opening day in the theater in a 7AM showing packed with like-minded geeks. On a giant screen with bombastic sound and stadium seats, the film and I could not make an emotional connection. The connection was more like a baseball bat to the head and shoulder region, my eyes and ears pummeled by the guns, explosions, and mayhem, all set to 11. I walked away thinking, did I really enjoy this? It was obvious from the reactions of the other early bird nerds that they couldn’t tell either. I don’t often have that reaction to films; first impressions are often enough to tell which way the thumb turns. I never did get around to seeing again theatrically, so the DVD was my bellwether viewing.
You know what? On a smaller screen in the more intimate confines of my living room, Revolutions and I shared a connection. The characters didn’t seem so meaningless and forgettable. Letterboxed on a TV and with a remote in hand, I was in control of the cacophony of war, not the other way around. And with the insight that comes from not being a virgin to the viewing experience, I could pay attention to the nuances that make the Matrix films the experience that they are.
No matter how impressive the visuals, it’s difficult to not be of two minds about the rest of Matrix Revolutions. What I like will follow; what I don’t will be reserved for The Rebuttal Witnesses. There will be spoilers in this review, I assure you. It’s only natural to start with…
* The duality. The Matrix films made it obvious that there was a Real World and an Artificial World. There was a Good versus Evil. But what about Free Will versus Fate? Choice versus Cause & Effect? Love versus rationality?
It would be so easy to say that good should win, that choice govern our actions, and that love triumphs over all. But the Wachowski Brothers don’t take the easy way out. While evil in the form of The Smith is eradicated, the Machines — what we’ve seen as the real Bad Guys of the series, with the agents only fulfilling their moniker — are not defeated; they willingly retreat from the conflict. Neo fulfills what seems to be his Destiny, but he does so because he makes a choice — the choice to sacrifice himself so that others can live. Revolutions isn’t about victory and clear-cut winners, it’s about finding balance. Love and Choice balance Rationality and Fate.
* The symbology. What I’ve found most remarkable about the Matrix series isn’t that it’s a special effects powerhouse, or that no action film has ever looked this cool, but that the Wachowskis managed to slip such a wide array of philosophical and theological concepts into a big-budget action/sci-fi series. Specifically, what’s impressed me is that Christian allegory and symbology wove their way through the series without the outright proselytization of a John Bunyan or C.S. Lewis and in a strictly areligious, cross-belief manner; it’s balanced (there’s that word again) by the secular philosophy and Eastern religious concepts. The Wachowskis don’t flinch from these ideals in the final installment. They have developed Neo as a messianic figure — he is The One, the Son of Man (as the etymology of his “real” surname, Anderson, hints; andros is the Greek word for “man”), “my own personal Jesus Christ.” I am certain that it’s no coincidence that, when Neo jacks into The Matrix for his apocalyptic showdown with Smith (whose license plate in Reloaded referred to the Biblical passage Isaiah 54:16: “Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.”), he lays back with arms spread, as if nailed to a cross. The Wachowskis don’t shirk from fulfilling the messianic symbology by killing off their hero; what good would a Messiah be if he did not give his very life to save humanity? The only thing missing is Neo’s resurrection and ascension, though The Oracle hints that we may see him again. (I’m quite thankful that they didn’t bring him back to life; they did it in the first film, and it would’ve been too obvious and ruined a fine conclusion.)
It’s also important to note that Neo was the product of the sixth iteration of The Matrix. His death, and the balanced peace it brings, ushers in the seventh and (one would assume) final version of The Matrix. “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” (Genesis 2:2, 3)
The Christ/Antichrist duality is worthy of note, but is not as fully developed as one would wish. It’s also worthy of note that while the Antichrist is identified with the Biblical end-world prophecies of the book of Revelations, the word itself does not appear in that book. (Though Revelations’s role as a prophecy of the end times is subject to debate; I took a class on it in college, and you’d be surprised just how boring a class about the end of the world can be.)
* It means something again. I really enjoyed The Matrix Reloaded. It’s a kick-ass action movie — how can you go wrong with a 20-minute car chase/gun fight/martial arts-on-a-semi extravaganza? It’s a technically brilliant film, exciting as all get out, but what it lacked was soul. Meaning. A reason to care. The Matrix had us rooting for Neo. There was a palpable feeling of fear that Smith might really destroy him when they’re duking it out in the subway station or when Smith unloads the gun into his chest. But Neo rises from the dead, sends Smith to /dev/null (or so we think), and ends the movie doing his best Christopher Reeve impersonation.
By Reloaded, we know that Neo is invincible. The movie starts with him beating the fsck out of three agents, then making like Superman and flying away. Dude, that’s cool, but what happens when the Smiths (although Morrissey is nowhere in sight) attack him in the courtyard? There’s never a shred of doubt that he’ll walk (or in Neo’s particular idiom, fly) away without a scratch. Same thing later when The Merovingian’s henchmen take him on in the chateau. Snore.
In Revolutions, though, Neo is no longer the übermensch. We first meet him trapped in a very Kubrickian train station, powerless to overcome The Trainman and make his escape; he must rely on Trinity’s undying love to set him free. Neo’s first real fight scene in the film is the series’s only fight scene in the Real World, a gripping clash between the Smith-possessed Bane on board the Logos. (There’s yet another Neo/Biblical reference; logos is the Greek word for…well, “word.” It’s the word used in John 1:1 to refer to Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Word.) Neither exhibits the reality-defying wire fu they can perform in The Matrix — it’s a bone-crushing brawl that only real-world physics can bring. We are rightly afraid for Neo’s life; though Bane is the one killed, Neo’s eyes are burned out. The final battle, referred to as the “Super Burly Brawl” in the DVD’s extras (a reference to Reloaded‘s “Burly Brawl,” which itself was a reference to “The Burly Man,” the wrestling movie written by John Turturro in Barton Fink), restores the sense of urgency from the first film. Smith has assimilated every being in The Matrix. There’s millions upon millions of Smith doppelgangers looking on as Neo fights the original. Their powers are evenly matched as they fight in the streets, in buildings, and in the air. A single punch can send an opponent miles into the air, a single collision cause a shock wave to level a city block. Can Neo really overcome an entity so powerful that The Matrix itself cannot control it? The answer, it turns out, is no…but that was Neo’s choice.
* The war sequences. Quite simply, they kick ass. Certainly, no other film has caught a battle of this magnitude, at least in a science fiction setting. It has the hopelessness of the Normandy Beach storming from Saving Private Ryan, the heart of the battles of Braveheart, and the massive scale of Return of the King, though it can’t come close to the effectiveness of any of those films because it’s not a true story. Wait, neither was Return of the King. Never mind.
* A fitting ending. When the black cat walks on the screen, code-morphs, and reappears, it won my heart. That reference to the first film earned the Wachowskis a reprieve for any of Revolutions‘s failings.
But what of the DVD?
The Matrix Revolutions is anamorphically presented in its 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. It’s nothing less than what you would expect of a film of this caliber. Other than some minor edge enhancement (particularly in the train station scenes, where Neo’s black cassock stands in stark contrast to the white walls) and digital noise in some lighter backgrounds, it’s an excellent transfer. (Note that there is a full-frame version available separately, but really, have some self-respect.)
Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is likewise excellent. It has oomph and subtlety in equal measure and in all the right places. Surrounds are active almost constantly for both directional effects and ambient noises. The LFE anchors the low end just perfectly; it isn’t overdone like it could be at certain points in The Matrix Reloaded. However, like many action films, the dialogue is sometimes subdued when compared to the cacophony that surrounded it, but this is a minor complaint; when it counts, namely when balanced against sound effects and score, the dialogue does not get lost in the mix.
Before venturing into the film’s weaknesses, let me continue with the DVD.
Warner Bros. made The Matrix Revolutions a two-disc set. That’s a smart choice for several reasons: it gives them the opportunity to devote the primary disc’s full capacity to the video and audio presentations, and from a marketing perspective people like more for the same money. But, WB fails to deliver on either point. Disc One only fills up 84% of the DVD’s capacity. The video has an average bitrate of 6.40Mb/sec, which is respectable but hardly remarkable. Audio is 448Kb/sec Dolby Digital 5.1. While it’s nice that WB has finally abandoned the lower bitrate DD5.1 tracks, why not a wider acceptance of DTS? For Pete’s sake, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves warranted it, but not Revolutions? It sounds great as it is, but the added depth that DTS brings would have made it just that much better. As for the lack of extra content, well, let’s just look at what they did include, shall we?
Disc One has four trailers — “teasers” for The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Animatrix, as well as the full theatrical trailer for The Matrix Revolutions. There’s also DVD-ROM content that’s supposed to be used with the InterActual player, which, despite assertions by marketing reps to the contrary, smacks of spyware and will never be installed on a computer in my control. However, if you open it in Windows Explorer, you can view most of the content without selling your soul (or at least your personal information) to InterActual. Most of the content is Flash-based, consisting of pictures, a trailer for the film (which appears to be another video format encapsulated in a SWF file), and a PDF sample of the Matrix comic books. (This content is mirrored on the second disc.)
Disc Two has several featurettes. “Revolutions Recalibrated” is an overall look at the production. “CG Revolution” looks at the computer graphics, primarily the dock battle sequence. “Future Gamer: The Matrix Online” examines (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) the multiplayer online game scheduled for launch in October 2004. Each of these featurettes runs about eight to ten minutes. “Super Burly Brawl” is a multi-angle look at the opening minutes of the climatic fight scene, with views of the final film, on-set filming, and storyboards. “Before the Revolution” is a series of stills or video clips with textual descriptions of the events leading up to Revolutions. This would be cooler if the text didn’t seem ripped from a second-grade Dick-and-Jane reader. “3-D Evolution” contains concept art, storyboards, and stills. It has an innovative yet confusing interface, but I didn’t delve too far into it; I’m not keen on watching slideshows on my TV. “Operator” contains short clips that were interspersed in the featurettes with the Matrix series’s patented “Follow the White Rabbit” interface.
That may sound like a fully fleshed disc of extra content, but there’s no substance to it. The featurettes are little more than on-set clips and talking heads, and nearly every one features producer extraordinaire Joel Silver extolling the films. He’s quite exuberant, but you feel like you’re being sold on the films — after all, he’s a producer, and that’s what producers do. What’s truly lacking is the Wachowski Brothers, who loathe publicity-related activities and stipulated in their contracts that they would not do any. They are both the writers and directors of this series, and their absence leads to an absence of real insights. I’d love to hear from the source what inspired them to create such a profound, nuanced film series.
So, what don’t I like about the film?
* The dialogue. It’s an action film staple to have cheesy one-liners, and granted, The Matrix Revolutions doesn’t have the sort of groan-inducing pseudo-comedy that Arnold Schwarzenegger is known for (“You’re a funny man, Sully, I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.”). What you get is the other sort of cheesy one-liner, the pseudo-profound pre-trigger-pulling quip. The most egregious example is when Kid says “I believe, Neo” just before destroying the dock gate counterweight chain. Lame! Then there’s Hugo Weaving’s scenery-chewing speech in the impact crater toward the end, which takes the film’s philosophical seriousness to a ridiculous, almost laughable level.
* Where’s Neo? For a vast swath of the second act — 28 minutes — Neo and Trinity simply disappear. The movie manages to cut between the dock battle and the Hammer flying in to save the day, yet it leaves the real hero of the film off-screen long enough that you begin to wonder if he went out for a burger, or maybe if he and Trinity found another archway somewhere.
* The Merovingian. Why in the hell is he in Revolutions? For that matter, why is he (and his wife, Persephone) in the series at all? He’s merely a speed bump of a plot device, amounting to little more than a apparatus for the Wachowskis to flaunt their knowledge of Gnostism. The Merovingian and Persephone may have served as devices for the heroes to procure the Keymaker in Reloaded, but in Revolutions The Merovingian merely babbles incoherently and Persephone says about one inconsequential line; she’s only there for Monica Bellucci to show off her gravity-defying breasts.
* The Two Darrins…Err, I mean, the Two Oracles. Gloria Foster’s death certainly posed a problem to the writers. The Oracle may not have much screen time, but she serves a vital role in The Matrix’s inception and the heroes’ actions. Reloaded and Revolutions were filmed back-to-back, but Foster died before filming her scenes for Revolutions and was replaced by Mary Alice. She is passable in the role, but seems stiff in comparison to Foster, who made the plot’s expositor into someone sly and interesting. I can’t fault Alice’s performance, because what’s really at fault is the backpedaling and half-hearted explanation the Wachowskis foist on the audience. Apparently, The Oracle did…umm…something off-screen, made some sort of decision that lead to her “shell” being destroyed. Seraph, her ass-kicking bodyguard, was involved somehow, and did something that involved contacting The Merovingian and assuring that something didn’t happen to Neo. Whatever. It would have been more satisfying to have no explanation, like when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched, than some half-assed off-screen subplot.
* Gratuitous Humor. Or, more accurately, gratuitous references to other films. There’s two such moments. The first comes early as Neo tries to escape from the train station. He runs down the tunnel, only to appear on the other side of the screen. The Looney Tunes reference made me laugh heartily, but it’s an out of place joke that teeters dangerously close to taking you out of the film. The other one comes late during Neo and Smith’s fight. Neo plants a Herculean punch in Smith’s face, shown in excruciating slow-motion, deforming Smith’s jaw in the process. Raging Bull, anyone? This one definitely takes me out of the moment, and does nothing more than showing off the special effects.
* Where the hell are the vampires? It’s okay in a character-driven film to introduce details that are inconsequential to the plot, but in plot-driven films — particularly action films and thrillers — the story must be wound as tightly as possible; every detail must serve a purpose. Why, then, introduce that there’s vampires, werewolves, and aliens running about in The Matrix if you’re not going to use this detail in any way? I suppose you could argue that Reloaded‘s Twins were ghosts, but you have The Oracle — the film’s mechanism for driving the plot and providing backstory — deliver the information, making it sound like a portent of Something Important. But it’s not. I feel cheated that we never saw The Matrix’s Area 51 or Van Helsing.
* Kid and The Trainman. There’s nothing worse than blatant attempts at product tie-ins. Methinks these characters were only here to provide product placement for The Animatrix. The Trainman is a forgivable deus ex machina, since he’s only in the film for a few minutes, but Kid…ack. All he does in Reloaded is fawn over Neo, and in Revolutions he’s merely a war movie cliché: The Youngster Fighting For What He Believes Even Though He’s Too Young And Who Will Inevitably Save The Day. Mifune, the cool-as-hell elder soldier, dies like a chump so Kid can save the day. Wouldn’t it have been so much better if he’d been able to shoot open the door and save the day with his dying breaths? Instead, this peach-fuzzed weenie gets the honor.
I wish that, before writing this review, I had had the time to sit down and view all three films back to back. Sure, I’ve seen the first two countless times, and watched this installment at least twice before committing words to bytes, but it’s hard to piece those fractured thoughts into an impression of the series as a whole. This is certain: I would have done things differently, particularly with the closing film. It should’ve blown the lid off The Matrix, make us see things in an entirely different light, answered all our questions, and given us closure. The Matrix could have delivered such a different conclusion — I still think it would’ve been so cool if there had been a Matrix-within-a-Matrix, or if Neo had woken up at the very end to see “Wake up, Neo” on his monitor, the loop iterating itself again, leaving us to wonder if things would work out better the next time around.
It’s easy to bitch and moan about What Could Have Been and ignore What You Really Have. I wish I’d gone to a different college and majored in Journalism, because then maybe I’d be writing as a career instead of a hobby, but I’d be ignoring that my life is pretty darn good as it is. I can complain about how I’d change these movies, but I’d be ignoring the rich tapestry of action, science fiction, martial arts, romance, philosophy, and theology that Larry and Andy Wachowski created. The Matrix Revolutions may not be how I would have finished the series, but it’s a worthy conclusion.
Do yourself a favor: add this disc to your shelf, right next to The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded. Devote a weekend to watching all three. Immerse yourself in them. Be critical, but not too critical. The Matrix series is, above all, there for your enjoyment, and on that level, it succeeds brilliantly.