Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

(Image from Imp Awards)

(Image from Imp Awards)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

This follows on directly from my 'Matrix' review, and I'm going to do both sequels in one go because there's so much that the two sequels have in common that set them apart from their classic progenitor. And much of that is decidedly not good.

The story in a nutshell - it's been several months since the defeat of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the resistance have freed many minds. In retaliation, the machines are preparing for a full on assault on the underground city of the free humans, Zion. The head of Zion's armed forces, Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), believes in using military might to defend the city. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) however believes in the prophecy of 'The One' and seeks to invest resources in aiding Neo in his quest. He, Neo, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and their new annoying crew mate Link (Harold 'WAAAAAAAALT' Perrineau) seek the help of the Oracle (Gloria Foster) to determine how to save Zion. This leads them on a quest to meet the enigmatic Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his stunning wife Persephone (Monica Belucci) and free the 'Keymaker' (Randall Duk Kim). Meanwhile Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is back, and he's more powerful than ever - he can seemingly replicate himself into anyone within the Matrix and can't be stopped by even the likes of Neo. All of that describes 'Reloaded'; the final film, 'Revolutions', takes place mostly outside of the Matrix and splits the story up between the defense of Zion and the journey of Neo and Trinity to the Machine City.

The one thing these films had going against them from the get go was the lack of the element of surprise; the original came out of nowhere. One could even argue that the lukewarm response they received was partially attributable to this fact. One would, I believe (by the way, this phrase - 'I believe' - is uttered a ridiculous number of times in 'Reloaded'. There's a lot of believing going on in Zion), be wrong. Time and distance have revealed these sequels to be, while not bad movies per se, certainly monumental failures with respect to the film they were following.

The first major stumbling block is the story, or rather the lack of it. It's slight and it flows with all the elegance of a video game, going from one action sequence to another, only broken up by cutscenes of exposition that give the protagonists instructions on how to get to the next action sequence. Speaking of exposition... Now, I'm not the type to complain about philosophical concepts like determinism and nihilism being explored in film, which is what these films - 'Reloaded' at any rate - do. But, while these discussions are certainly interesting as they are presented in the film, they are grafted onto proceedings so inelegantly that the end result is like major plastic surgery gone awry, with chunks of incongruous material all over the place. 'Revolutions' doesn't have this problem though - when it comes to the final film, it's one big extended climax that doesn't adequately address much of what came before. The storyline of these sequels isn't unsatisfying; it's just that when you're expecting a nice juicy steak and you end up with a Big Mac instead, you're bound to be disappointed (or not, if you're a McDonald's fetishist).

Then there's the characters - they just don't seem alive anymore. They're like avatars being guided by a plot that they themselves aren't all that interested in, spouting embarrassing and portentous dialogue as they go. What's worse is the relegation of the main characters as bland, cliched ones that we don't give a damn about take centre stage, a particularly noticeable problem during the big battle sequence in 'Revolutions'. The biggest character mess up on the part of the Wachowski's is Morpheus, who goes from being the series' Gandalf to the series'.... I dunno, I guess there's no equivalent to his vapid character in 'Reloaded' or his hollow husk of a man in 'Revolutions'.

Another big problem is the 'more is better' attitude embraced by the filmmakers. More action, more bullet time, more grandstanding, and all of it bigger than before. There's a point where it becomes too much, especially when you begin to feel that the films are trying way too hard and are seemingly aware of their own status as pop culture icons. The coolness is too forced. Where the original had cool moments that became iconic, these films seem to be going for iconic at every turn and failing more often than not. The action scenes are overlong, aren't engaging, and don't feel organic and integrated with the story. The fights lack any sense of danger as well, and often look more like dancing than life or death combat. And some of the effects work here is awful, with CGI characters sticking out like a sore thumb, particularly in the 'Burly Brawl' featuring Neo fighting a multitude of Agent Smiths. 'Reloaded' is the biggest offender with regard to most of these criticisms, with 'Revolutions' being marginally better, particularly when it comes to the effects - the final assault on Zion is dumb as hell (those mechs should have been swatted aside in minutes), but it sure looks spectacular! In terms of production values, everything certainly looks good if a little too green and a little too 'product placement' and 'designer'. One area where the film is as strong as what came before is its score, with Don Davis providing some very effective musical cues in both sequels.

If there's one guy in this cast who comes out on top, it's Hugo Weaving. The man's a champion, make no mistake. If there's one character who seems alive and spontaneous and makes proceedings engaging, it's Agent Smith, and I think Weaving is a big part of the reason the character works so well. Every moment he's on screen is pure fried gold. Also worth noting is Ian Bliss, who does a fantastic impression of Smith in 'Revolutions' when his character's body is taken over by him. Keanu is fine in a role that requires perfect stoicism and an aura of self assurance. There are also moments of doubt that crop up - every messiah has this problem - and Reeves is quite adept at handling those scenes as well. Laurence Fishburne, sadly, gets carried away with his regal shtick to such an extent that it gets annoying. There's no humanity in the performance, just a smug 'I'm Morpheus, bitch!' attitude that comes crashing to earth at a certain point and leaves him looking blank for much of 'Revolutions'. Carrie-Anne Moss is actually pretty great in both films and it's a shame she's given relatively little to do in them. Lambert Wilson and Monica Bellucci make memorable appearances in their minor supporting roles. Gloria Foster and Mary Alice are also quite good as the two incarnations of the Oracle, and Helmut Bakaitis is just plain groovy as the Architect / Colonel Sanders (it's a lame joke, but it's so true!). The rest of the cast range from mediocre to terrible, and aren't worth mentioning.

At the end of the day despite what appears to be a torrent of negativity in what I've written, I'd say that these films are decent, even good perhaps. They are, for the most part, well made and they are certainly far from vapid. They engage the old gray matter, no doubt. And they are often exciting, thrilling, and spectacular. But there are, as I've written, many things wrong with them. The best way I can describe these films is that they are like 'The Matrix', only bigger, bloated, less assured, and made with a touch of hubris and too many resources to play with. They want to tell a story but get too caught up in tangential ideas, being cool, and topping everything that has come before while paying tribute to it at the same time. They are an example of what can happen when talented people are given free reign and are riding a wave of good will and credibility - said people can get carried away. I enjoyed watching 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' and would even recommend them to some degree, but I don't feel the need to revisit them. For me, the story of 'The Matrix' ends with Neo launching himself into the air at the end of the first film with a new perspective of the world, one where anything is possible. What happens next, well... that's left to the imagination.

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