Countdown to Jupiter Ascending, Part 4, in which we double the philosophy but scale back on the drama...
It’s easy to look at highly-anticipated sequels and say they were destined not to live up to audience expectations. There’s no way any sequel could compare to the movie that the fans had built up in their head, they’ll say. People were so excited that anything less than the Second Coming would have been a disappointment…
I’m here to tell you that’s a prime piece of bullshit.
Because, at the end of the day, you either deliver or you don’t. Expectation should have nothing to do with it. Filmmakers shouldn’t be trying to emulate movies that a widespread audience could think up themselves; they should tell the stories that come only from inside their own heads that no one else could dream up and then turn into reality. And that’s kind of where the twin Matrix sequels Reloaded and Revolutions go wrong: they are, at once, stunningly original and profoundly conventional. Much like the first film before them, they take on the form of mythic structure and storytelling to deconstruct and then reassemble it into something entirely new, but the Wachowskis fly too close to the sun in their attempts to achieve that aim. I don’t think I could call them “bad,” because the films are far too interesting to deserve such a callous label, but the simple fact of the matter is that the narrative they construct to bring these fascinating ideas to life just cannot hold all of that dramatic heft properly.
There’s a history with certain sequels that sees the filmmakers trying to achieve the magic of what made their original movie work only to misunderstand what audiences took away from the first film that made it so special. With their genre-subverting nature, the Wachowskis largely manage to sidestep this in The Matrix sequels, but still fall prey to certain stylistic tics to recapture the feel of the first movie, where they begin to favor form over function. The more elaborate action scenes with their endlessly-spinning camera don’t evoke the same feelings of awe that the bullet-time effects provoked, and other curious choices wind up constricting the world they’ve built instead of opening it up. The fetish gear of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar worked to an extent in the first movie, but by having all the ships’ crews decked out in such rave attire while in the Matrix makes them look more than a little silly when they gather for a meeting, and their deadpan delivery of geek-speak begins to border at the edge of parody (when asked if Zion has a plan to deal with the coming machine army, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Niobe replies mechanically, “A strategy is still being formulated.” Why can’t she just say, “We’re working on it”?).
But that’s largely nit-picking. The problematic content with Reloaded and Revolutions is far more deep-seated. By making the relationship between Trinity and Neo the crux of the whole story, the Wachowskis hamper themselves irrevocably. It’s like building a bridge with toothpicks; the foundation just isn’t strong enough to carry the deep and profound statements of humanity that the siblings sought to explore. The romance between the two worked in the first movie, as it was little more than longing glances here and there, but once their relationship becomes a fully-formed, love-conquers-all bond, the problems begin to arise, largely because we the audience just can’t get behind the idea that these two humanoids have any heat between them, no matter how many sex scenes they have intercut with post-apocalyptic, techno-hippie raves. I wouldn’t say that that lack of chemistry is solely Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss’ fault, but with Neo taking on the role of Zen Savior/superhero, the actors must do that much more work to make such a heady character and his relationship real and human in our minds, a task which neither the filmmakers nor the actors manage to pull off believably - in the process shooting both films in the foot before they can properly head off to the races.
It’s a shame that the emotional core of the film is a nut the Wachowskis never quite manage to crack, as there’s a lot of brilliant filmmaking on display elsewhere. Both films contain a number of standout sequences, the highlights of which are the numerous conversational set-pieces taking place throughout both films, like the Merovingian and his orgasmic pie or Smith and Neo in the crater at the end of their apocalyptic fight; each explore deep notions such as fate, choice, causality and the symbiotic relationship of oppressive societies. Even better is the scene in Reloaded where Neo meets the “god” of the Matrix itself, Col. Sanders… I mean, the Architect, and we learn the true purpose of the One and Zion and humanity’s revolution. It’s one of the standout sequences of all three movies, where the Wachowskis’ subversive instincts are at their most effective. Here, they bluntly state that the One is the product of the machine itself, a story regurgitated and retold time and time again to keep the complex and difficult algorithm of human choice in check. It’s a virtuoso scene, unapologetic in its intelligence and unwillingness to compromise its deft complexity. The scene opens up the world in the way the original did in Neo’s removal from the Matrix, leaving the audience to question once more what is truly real; could it be that Zion and the “real”world are just another layer of the Matrix? The story opens itself up to such fascinating possibilities with this scene that it’s a little disappointing to see it retreat once more to convention by the time the third film rolls around.
The films boldly dive face-first into such complex and fascinating deconstructions of the genre in the second movie, but the ultimate adherence to the tropes of said genre is what deflates their effect in the third. Not nearly as much care and attention goes into the reconstruction that must take place in the finale, with the siblings playing far too close to the straight-and-narrow requirements of the genre for it to have the intended effect of renewal and rebirth… Which is also a shame, because how many of our action franchises dare to have such a spiritual and non-paternalistic, “conquering hero” end - a story where the hero doesn’t triumph over his enemies, but transcends conflict and sacrifices himself to achieve peace? You can see how it might have worked on paper, but the execution just doesn’t have the emotional and spiritual gut-punch needed.
The film also stumbles in its action, which remains visually impressive in fits and starts, but their overly-pixilated nature becomes more and more hollow the further away we get from it. The Matrix was one of the movies that pushed CG effects further than they had ever been pushed before, and even though the animation and rendering of the effects themselves have aged considerably, they still work due to their place within the world of the film itself, and the story utilized to bring that world to life. The scenes in the sequels are more akin to an effects house’s demo reel, a lot of showing off just what they were capable of at the time. This leads to such scenes like the Burly Brawl, where Neo faces off against Smith and his copies - why is the scene in the film? What does it accomplish for the story to have these two characters (and co.) stop and fight for fifteen odd minutes, other than to show off the new virtual camera techniques and the accuracy of the digital doubles? Such is the way of much of the film’s action, with scenes that do away with the careful pacing of The Matrix in favor of overblown set-pieces that drag on for much too long (I must say that I do still like the final battle in the rain between Neo and Smith, the Super Burly Brawl, still probably the best flying superhero fight we’ve yet gotten and are likely to ever get on the big screen).
The scenes are also frustratingly limited in their scope. The afore-mentioned Super Burly Brawl aside, the sequels never capitalize on the promise of the end of the first movie, which saw Neo achieve superhuman status and completely break free from the rules of gravity and beyond. He shows off these newfound abilities in the sequels by… engaging in a wire-assisted kung fu battle. And another. And another after that. In a world where anything is possible, where the Oracle herself talks of sightings of vampires and angels and aliens being the result of “programs doing something they ain’t supposed to be doing,” it’s a big let-down when the movies then keep going back to the well of Asian action that defined the first film (and was itself a success because of its willingness to mix-and-match such disparate genre confections). Now, I’m not saying I need to see Neo kung fu fighting a werewolf (scratch that: I desperately need to see Neo kung fu fighting a werewolf), but more of an open, genre-blending world instead of the same protracted sequences of graceful wire-fu might have helped to distinguish the Matrix sequels like it did their own genre-blending predecessor.
They don’t quite work as well as they should, but I still find myself drawn to Reloaded and Revolutions; any time I catch them on TV I’m compelled to stop what I’m doing and give them a watch, and over the years I’ve seen them at least as much as I have the original. In many ways the ending to the first film is the perfect capstone, with the story ending on the promise of something greater and leaving it at that. But I’m also thankful that we live in the reality where the Wachowskis completed their vision and The Matrix is a trilogy, because - for all the sequels’ numerous faults - the films only serve to enhance each other upon each subsequent viewing.