Unplugging The Matrix

Why the sci-fi franchise went south.

The good news is that the conclusion of the Matrix trilogy, TheMatrix Revolutions, is not quite as terrible as the second entry, TheMatrix Reloaded. Reloaded was downright infuriating, with its portentous monologues and willful rejection of narrative coherence. Revolutions, as a thudding sci-fi war movie, is merely disorienting and unfathomable. From the standpoint of the original it is profoundly disappointing, but it does have its own romantic and martial intensity. The bad news is that that, in tandem with Reloaded, it achieves a kind of cumulative badness that will permanently and unfairly stain the reputation of the original. How did something so good go so wrong?

It seems that, in conceiving their pair of sequels to TheMatrix, the writing and directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski overestimated the profundity of the original’s philosophical musings. The resulting ponderousness might have been excusable, except that they disastrously misidentified which of those musings was most important to the original—namely, the Matrix itself. In the sequels, the Wachowskis ditched the conceit of the Matrix, the computer program in which all of humanity, save for a few thousand enlightened souls inhabiting an underground city called Zion, is unwittingly trapped. That, in turn, removed virtually everything distinctive and meaningful about the original film—its hipster skepticism, its strangely compelling logic of human striving, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the storytelling discipline that imposed a gorgeous economy on almost every scene. TheMatrix, it turns out,is nothing without the Matrix.

Brevity is the soul not only of wit but of the paranoid buzz of the best sci-fi action movies. It’s instructive, in light of the sequels’ maddening long-windedness, to remember how teasingly elliptical the original Matrix was, not only in its exposition but in its most memorable dramatic moments. The deliciousness of our introduction to Trinity—her gravity-mocking, gloriously abrupt dispatch of four clueless cops—is of a piece with the utter coolness of her introduction to Neo, which is the movie’s first bit of exposition:

“Hello, Neo.”

“How do you know that name?”

Neo’s story, then, starts with a question, a mystery (whose effect may have less to do with its philosophical intimations than with the fact that the Prodigy’s “Mindfields” is blipping and slamming apocalyptically in the background). After Trinity breathes into Neo’s ear, “It’s the question that drives us,” the encounter climaxes with Neo forming that question, on his own lips, apparently for the first time: “What is the Matrix?” This entire conversation, despite its tentative, druggy pace, takes about 90 seconds.

David Denby, in his New Yorker review of Revolutions, argues that the original Matrix rested on a host of “clichéd science-fiction elements,” in that “[i]n sci-fi, the machines are always taking over.”  But Denby achieves this dismissiveness only with the aid of hindsight. I bet when he was first confronted with The Question—”What is the Matrix?”—he didn’t know the answer, either. And if he’s any kind of movie buff, he found the Wachowski brothers’ way of hinting that there was something both irresistible and dreadful about that answer—of conjuring paranoia out of Neo’s skepticism and existential vertigo out of his discoveries—to be pretty damned cool.

But TheMatrix did more than just pose The Question. Even after Neo learned the truth about the Matrix, he had a few things to learn about himself, the ostensible One. Denby is correct, in a strictly empirical sense, when he identifies traditional sci-fi elements in The Matrix, but the movie actually takes the form of a bildungsroman, an old-fashioned quest for understanding. Luckily for the audience, in the first film Neo’s epiphanies occur not in contemplation but in action. Every action sequence in The Matrix—from Neo’s training fights with Morpheus to his final destruction of Smith—is also a step in Neo’s process of discovery. These scenes are not only streamlined and thrilling, but revelatory. The long action sequences in the sequels have no point at all, which the Wachowskis try to compensate for by drawing them out and cramming them with more digital bad guys. One result of this is that Reloaded contains the most spectacular chase scene that you will ever check your voice mail during.

Another thing that the original got exactly right, and that the sequels lose control of, is style. The overcooked grooviness of Trinity’s fetishy patent leather and Morpheus’ pince-nez shades was a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but it was part of a weirdness that had yet to be explained. It signaled their status as demigods: Whatever the hell the Matrix was, it had something to do with the fact that these people, in some vague but objective sense, were way cooler than everybody else. The sequels use the leather-clad bodies of Neo and Trinity, within the green-filtered Matrix palette, to generate some striking compositions, but they feel like just compositions, art photography. There is nothing left for these style riffs to signify, which makes them feel not just inert, but, when viewed as expressions of Zion’s hippie earnestness, kind of dorky.

The Matrix—the conceit that most of the human race was living in a virtual dream-state, awaiting deliverance from a rag-tag gang of hackers and visionaries—is an extremely fertile dramatic device. It is the question that Neo had to answer and the obstacle he had to overcome. It is the cosmic basis for both early-Neo’s groggy alienation and late-Neo’s unique brand of whoop-ass. It provides a narrative structure in which some giddily convincing sci-fi pathos emerge: paranoia, dread, existential bravery, transcendent romance. It affords plausible-enough background explanation for some of the most inventive, deftly realized action sequences ever shot. And it offers a pleasing pretext for draping this whole cluster of effects in really cool clothes.

But what it doesn’t provide—and what, until the sequels, I didn’t think it pretended to provide—was philosophical insight. It seemed fitting that, by way of signaling their philosophical influences in the original, the Wachowskis had Neo pulling from a shelf not Plato’s Republic nor Descartes’ Meditations, Western philosophy’s signal treatments of the appearance/reality problem, but Simulacra and Simulations by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is the French postmodernist who comes closest to the stony spirit (and the philosophical sophistication) of the freshman dorm: “Dude, what if this all isn’t, like, really reality, but instead it’s, like, a simulation of reality?” (And, yes, Neo’s copy of Simulacra was itself merely a hollowed-out hiding place, the appearance, so to speak, of a Simulacra. Sigh.)

But in the sequels the Wachowskis drop the enduring but pleasingly simple appearance/reality problem, which is where the Matrix’s realbuzz comes from. They instead treat Morpheus’ incoherent and New Agey murmurings about Fate as the central issue, which is a real buzz-kill. First, it leads to a series of numbing litanies on human agency. Reloaded airs out four distinct theories of causality and action: Neo’s insistence on free will, Morpheus’ benign fatalism, the Architect’s malign fatalism, and the Mervingian’s scientific determinism.

This is boring enough, but worse is that, with Fate displacing Reality as the central pseudo-philosophical issue, the Matrix loses its central place in The Matrix. Though Neo and his crew continue to nose around the nooks and crannies of the Matrix’s program, both sequels ignore the fate of people still trapped. We no longer get to participate in the giddy, awful process of enlightenment and emancipation, and the fragile semblance of logic that drew from the original’s tidy dualism totally collapses. (Reloaded signals its abandonment of even the pretense of coherence when Neo, head bowed and hand extended in the stance of a Pentecostal faith healer, stops several real-world machines in their tracks. By this time, the audience’s response is, “Ah, what the hell. Why not?”)

The Fate we’re supposed to care about is, alas, that of gloomy Zion, where Jada Pinkett Smith sets the tone with her scowl. Much of the action in Zion consists of legislative hearings held by ponderous middle-aged counselors dressed not in snazzy leather but in canvas smocks. (Cornel West, the poster boy for dreary academism, plays one of them.) This lends the proceedings a neo-medieval vibe that is totally out of keeping with the original Matrix but weirdly, grimly familiar from other sci-fi franchises. The Wachowski brothers, moved by some inscrutable nerd-muse, apparently decided that the one glaring flaw of the original Matrix, besides the whole superfluous Matrix thing, was that it didn’t feel enough like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.