The Matrix: Haters still Hate?
By @Todd Secord
My history with The Matrix has always been a weird one. Back in 1999 I didn’t find the original particularly inspiring. I even remember being mad when it took best special effects at the Oscars. That year was also the Phantom Menace, and although you had a very shitty movie, the 2000 special effects shots it mustered, at the time, was an outstanding feat of movie making.
I mean, The Matrix’s slow-mo thingy was interesting, and later paved the way for Zach Snyder to use it and never give it back, but the Wachowskis’ film left me wondering what all the fuss was about. Later, when the sequels came out I was indifferent to see them, somehow dismissing their merits because all of sudden so was everyone else. In fact, so complete was my disdain that I was verbally writing the films off to other people without actually having seen them. A big no-no for my personal nerd code, or maybe that was a dark time for me…maybe not a great year personally…and thus I was sufficiently distracted and pissy as to forget the wonder of nerdery for a time…
Then, at the beginning of summer 2006 the clouds were lifting and I decided to spend my vacation catching up on a few things. The first of them was Blackhawk Down. Oh boy did that movie hit me hard. I actually found myself, a self-described movie guru, breathing hard during the parts where I supposed to breathe hard. It had been a long time that I had experienced total film immersion – maybe not since Saving Private Ryan? Probably. But it’s always neat when that kind of thing happens.
Then, just two days later, I was sitting in front of Matrix Revolutions, yes, the 3rd film in the series and inexplicably feeling that same film immersion thing happening again. Of course, seeing as I hadn’t seen Reloaded yet I had to fill in the blanks as to what was going on, but it didn’t matter. Revolutions was so superbly thrifty that it freed me up to enjoy it for what it was – good ol’ Science Fantasy in the tradition of the original Star Wars films. I was mesmerized. So much great stuff that had been visually accomplished before in comics was suddenly swirling around seamlessly in some very detailed special effects – worthy of Oscar level accolades – and making me laugh out loud. It took me back to my very young days of playing with my Micronauts, x-wing fighters and Lego robo-men. It was a trip.
Reloaded was watched almost immediately after, and then the 1st Matrix for good measure, and thus completed a reverse trilogy watch, which was a first for me.
The Matrix films had become a secret pleasure, seeing as I bad mouthed them to friends so often before, again, without reason. Now, I really had no reason but it wasn’t worth the shark like fastidiousness that becomes a tank full of nerds that smell blood. Yes, like most predators, nerds hunt in packs as well.
So, ever so quietly, on a monthly basis I would watch one, if not all of the Matrix films, and each time I did I would learn some new detail, some neat point that I hadn’t caught before. In time, I had concluded that within the trilogy resided some pretty awesome, well executed ideas. And let me tell you, I hate manga/anime.
Imagine my idiotic surprise when I slowly began to discover that there were a sizable percentage of sci-fi nerds that were still not big fans of the sequels, in much the same way that they weren’t jazzed by the Star Wars prequels. It shocks me to think that with so much not so great sci-fi stuff out there, the Star Wars prequels being the extreme side of that scale, that somehow The Matrix trilogy would find itself left out in the cold reaches of nerd space garbage. Needless to say, the following will be on the opposite side of that “garbage” argument…
Of course, listed in no particular order, are likely the most iconic complaints about the trilogy…why do “fans” hate it so?
The Matrix is Everybody’s Favourite: Let’s just get this out of the way fast and say, for the sake of argument, that everyone loves the first one. Ok, let’s move on.
Apparently, Reloaded and Revolutions Have No Plot: I love this one. ‘Cause anyone who would say this clearly doesn’t know either A) the definition of what plot actually is, or B) stared at nothing but Trinity’s leather soaked body for the entirety of both movies…
So what is the plot? Simple. Somewhere good and early into Reloaded there is a meeting between the crews of 3 ships. At this meeting it is made known that the big bad machines are beginning to burrow their way to the human home city of Zion in order to destroy it. The ship’s crews don’t like this. They initiate a plan to stop it from happening…and for the rest of both movies that’s exactly what happens. The ships, their crews, the people of Zion, their leaders, and the specific personalities they call heroes all work towards the goal of human preservation. Consequently, The Machines don’t like this. They spend the rest of both movies trying to destroy humanity. Along the way we learn of things like faith, and love, and causality. We also watch character growth, in Neo, Morpheus, and just about everyone else in the movie. These are all signs of plot.
Maybe where the confusion lies is that although Reloaded and Revolutions are separate movies, following all the normal plot patterns that individual movies are prone to do, they are actually one big movie cut into two parts – similar to Richard Lester’s Three and Four Musketeer’s, or the Kill Bill films. Moreover, The Matrix is about Neo, the coming of a Messiah like figure. Reloaded is about love and faith. Revolutions is about accepting one’s fate in the face of self-sacrifice. Remind you of anything? Hint: It involves “real wrath of God type stuff.” Trust me, all the movies have plots.
Of course, this mild revelation isn’t enough to convince those that would still choose to dislike the movies, because it isn’t the plot that they actually have a problem with. The problem has to do with some of the “devices” that move the plot along…
Upgrades: Maybe it’s because there are certain conclusions that the first movie reaches that Reloaded takes, and then, y’know…reloads. Primarily, that Neo finishes the first film as a God within The Matrix. Literally at the beginning of Reloaded Agents attack Neo, and based on what we’re led to believe at the end of the first movie, Neo should have made them all explode by just looking at them. Kinda like what Naome Campbell does with hotel maids. But this is not what happened. Neo finds himself fighting them like usual, much better at it mind you, but when an Agent actually defends against his attack, he dismisses it as “upgrades”. Choosing not to finish the fight, Neo flies away.
This whole sequence has angered fans. I guess because the idea of a sequel angers them altogether. The first movie ended without any loose ends and that Neo was a god, humanity’s protector. To see him not being able to destroy things with but a twinkle of his nose is no fun, and anything less is beneath the character. Therefore, the idea of everything getting stronger, or upgrading, is just a stoooopid device to give Neo a reason to punch again. Ergo, the movie sucks.
Orrr, we can also realize that The Matrix itself isn’t really the focal point of the movie. The destruction of Zion is. The destruction of Zion is a “real” possibility, while the Matrix is a device, literally. The Matrix is essentially a video game where anything can happen, so the god-like Neo is as only as god-like as it allows. The Matrix dictates the rules, Neo, Morpheus and the Agents are just really good at bending them. Upgrades, scmudgrages you say? If that’s the case Todd, what then sets Neo apart?…
Neo as Christ/Superman: Maybe it’s because he actually IS a god – or at least a mortal with super powers (more likely). This is evident when he starts destroying machines in the real world with his mind…ANOTHER point that seems to piss people off. Once again, this criticism is ridiculous when you consider that the movie itself is fantasy based and that one would think that nerds, who love super beings that can destroy everything else with their minds (telekinetics such as Jean Grey, Carrie and Scott Baio) can’t seem to wrap their brain around a guy who can destroy machines with his mind. It’s not that far off really and the movies do a pretty good job of setting it up. The whole crux of the problem for the humans in The Matrix is that they perfected making machines so well that those very same machines became self-aware. Since they became self-aware, they suddenly developed the drive for self-preservation. In this “will” to live, the machines rose up against the humans and reversed the situation almost verbatim. When the dust had settled nothing had changed really – only that now the humans were the slaves and the machines were the masters.
If a machine can take on human emotions and affect the human world, than why can’t a human think like a machine and affect the machine world? I guess you can call this “causality” which the movie goes out of its way to explain. Humans develop machines, depend on machines, and make machines their “slaves”. In reaction to this, machines by way of this oppression do what they were destined to do and self-actualize. Since nobody enjoys being a slave, they rise up and turn the tables on Humans. In time, they oppress humans and make them the slaves. Neo is the result of a continuation of the pattern. That being, a human self-actualizing as a machine and rising up against their machine oppressor. So yeah, at some point, as a human, he should be able to blow up machines by just thinking about it. But he can’t do it in The Matrix anymore, because that’s Smith’s territory now. In the actual Matrix, by the end of Revolutions, he has to do it Jedi style with Smith and go to the light sabers so-to-speak. To really drive the point home on the whole yin-yang thang, Smith actually possesses a human as a machine vs. Neo who can possess machines as a human. Cause and Effect.
Dance Cave Parties: Hammered by most nerd commentary, the dance cave scene seems to almost spoil the movie out right for them. Love it or leave it, the dance cave scene simply establishes that there is life loving humanity in Zion – which is why Zion must be saved. Before the big party, Morpheus, like any spiritual leader, stands before the people and delivers a message of strength and hope. Then, they celebrate, in a cave because they’re underground, by dancing – which is what people generally do when they celebrate. The whole sequence is devoted to strengthening character relationships, either through Morpheus and Niobe, Link and Kali, Neo and Trinity, and/or just about everyone else in Zion. With the exception of the girl in the red dress, and Trinity in a muscle shirt, this is the first time there is sex introduced into the Matrix story. Oh yeah, and candles. Caves, sweat, music, dancing, sex and candles. Yes nerds, they all go together.
Betrayed with a Kiss: …In the same vein, there’s a lot of uproar over Persephone’s betrayal, or at least her reasoning for it. First off, how could what is essentially a computer program, feel and act on a thing such as jealousy? Or, for that matter, even feel betrayed by her “husband’s” infidelity? These are great questions. The answer is a simple one. They’re not computer programs, or at least not in the traditional sense. What is trying to be said here is that since they’ve been in charge for so long, the machines themselves have adopted the same traits as humans. They have become just as petty and insecure, secretive and arrogant. This is reflected in the relationship of Persephone and the Merovingian.
Once more, the movie does a pretty good job of explaining this. At the beginning of Revolutions, when Neo is stuck in the subway he is kept company by Rama Khandra and his family. There are a couple of times where Neo questions Rama’s devotion to concepts like love and karma – seeing as a machine is likely not getting the most bang for its buck in these departments. Khandra, as a program seems to understand Neo’s confusion over their loyalty to such notions but basically he explains that even to a machine love is what you make it. Call cheese if you will, but what’s happening here is that in the process of self-actualization, and self-preservation, machines have to learn to cherish as well – they are giving themselves a reason to live. Although this may not directly translate to the power of love that Neo feels for Trinity, to a machine, their idea of love is good enough.
And this takes us back to Persephone’s kiss. Whereas we see a dependable connection between Khandra and his wife, we do not see this in Persephone and the Merovingian. A way of saying that machines suck at relationships as much as humans do. And furthermore, something like “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is apparently a machine trait as well. So, in conclusion, behavior, action…it’s all relative, whether from a machine craving something as simple as a kiss, or an equally jealous human willing to kill because of it. More importantly, I think what the real message in all of this is that love is so important to being human that even something as unfeeling as a machine learns to need it as much as anything else.
The Architect: Oh, the Architect! Made fun of time and time and time again. Yes, I did like this scene. I’m writing a blog on why the Matrix Trilogy is totally awesome…of course I did. Here’s Neo and the gang working so hard to get to the “source”, peeling back layer after layer of the Matirx, risking life and limb and the Key Master to get to it, and it turns out that it’s really Coronel Saunders brother – without the bucket of chicken no less. Many, many nerds thought this a huge disappointment. I on the other hand immediately thought of the Wizard of Oz. No foolin’. I thought of the Wizard of Oz and the part when Dorothy and the gang get to meet the wise and powerful Wizard of Oz and it turns out that it’s just some old guy behind a curtain working a bunch of buttons and leavers. Sounds just like the Architect doesn’t it? And just like the Wizard, the Architect has a lot of answers to questions that Neo hasn’t even thought to ask yet…
Like, “Neo, did you know that there have been 6 different versions of the Matrix, previously hinted at by the Merovingian and Persephone, and that you, Neo, are the sum all things that are wrong about the Matrix…that is, you’re the inevitable glitch that eventually tries to fuck everything up for us. We know this, because it’s basically happened 6 times before, which means, Neo, you ain’t as special as you think. Now, be a good boy and go back to Zion with a small population so we can start this shit all over again, like we have 6 times before, because I ain’t gonna lie to you, we need humans to survive.”
“Six times before”. Think about that for a few seconds. I mean, admittedly, it’s not as juicy as the Architect telling Neo that he’s his father, or that Trinity is his sister. No, but what the Architect is saying is that getting to him is supposed to be the end to the story. When Neo tells him to go screw, that Neo is not willing to sacrifice his loved ones, we now have a reason for the rest of the story to continue, and that this is highly unusual because Neo would be the first in after 6 other outcomes to say “You can keep you’re stinking offer, I’m going to selfishly sacrifice everything for love.” And then he high tails it out of there just in time to save Trinity.
This is actually a pretty cool plot point because now, without all the obvious, we finally get to see just how special Neo is. That he is willing to call the machine’s bluff even if the stakes are against the human race.
What the Hell Happened At the End?: Admittedly, at first I wasn’t quite sure either. In fact, I got worried that the ending was only going to let me down when it seemed to kind of, y’know, go on, and on, and on…like, they were afraid to end it. And like I mentioned before, I hate anime with an unbridled passion, so since The Matrix had this heavy anime influence, it almost seemed like it was heading right into one of those silly, super contrived, impossible to understand spiritually infused quantum physics style endings that only anime gets a kick out of.
But then it didn’t.
There was an explosion that rippled through The Matrix, and then the Oracle was lying in a puddle where Smith used to be – no Neo at all. And thus I figured it had to do with viruses. That is, Smith was essentially a computer virus that was assimilating The Matrix and that Neo was the cure. But in order for the cure to activate, it needs to work from within, and that was only going to happen if Smith assimilated Neo as well. Neo is a virus for the virus. He fully understands his purpose in the last moments when he hears Smith utter the words of the Oracle, “Everything that has a beginning, has an end”. Not only is this a signal to Neo as to what to do next, but it is also letting Neo know that the Oracle is still within in The Matrix, bidding her time, waiting for him to make the final sacrifice. It is a calculated gamble, using Smith, the super virus to threaten the destruction The Matrix, and thus the machine’s main source of power, which concludes as a means to leverage a deal for peace. Factor in the repetitive nature of “The One”, a human’s resolve to die for everything, and the machine’s willingness to agree to the Oracle’s terms had to be, understandably, pretty agreeable.
Philosophical Gobbledee-Goop: Yet another frustrating criticism when you consider that both Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back – especially Empire Strikes Back – is filled with as much of the same kind of dialogue. Star Wars has to do with fate, destiny and a willingness for self-sacrifice. The Matrix is completely guilty of adopting the same themes. Even more so when you figure how heavily influential Eastern culture is already on The Matrix story as a whole. You have a major character called the Oracle. You have another character that is messiah-like and nick named “The One”. There’s martial arts. I guess what I’m saying is, OF COURSE there’s a constant stream of “You won’t truly know someone until you fight them”. The movies are also unashamedly chalk full of never-say-die, love-conquers-all, life-is-a-series-of-choices themes that repeat themselves over and over again. Again, no different than Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or just about every other morality tale set in desperate times. The Matrix isn’t just trying to make you say “Wow, cool!” a bunch of times, it’s also trying to empower you with the same “isms” that make us socially stronger in our day-to-day. It’s trying to equip us with the ability to not always assume the worst. But most of all, it’s simply trying to get us to think outside the box about how time and fate are supposed to work. It ain’t scholarly about it, that would be true, but what it is trying to do is to peak your interest in such things.
“Granted, the Sequels are Full of Heart Stopping Set Pieces and Unbelievable Visuals but They Still Suck” argument: This is the most tiresome of all the things said about the sequels. Reloaded contains an exceptionally complicated car chase, likely one of the best hand-to-hand wire work combat scenes you’ll ever see, some really cool characterizations and last but not least, one of the best soundtracks a movie can muster, and yet this is not enough.
Revolutions is widely regarded as having a never ending stream of iconic cyber-punk images and special effects which included, a titanic battle that involved mech-style exoskeleton battle suits (a mini-Pacific Rim if you will), a blood rushing ship from squid chase through an impossibly narrow tube network, and a super hero style battle over a cityscape in the rain. I mean, c’mon! AND, if I may be so bold, a fact which nobody seems to pick up on is that there are a bevy of female characters – an aspect that is usually passed over in most sci-fi action films – that are constantly saving the day as much as any other character in the movies. Niobe is an essential part of the Matrix sequels, almost as much as Trinity or The Oracle. She’s totally Han Solo.
Nerds Can Be Pretty Picky: To sum it all up, Nerds can be pretty picky, if not inconsistent in what they choose as being cool. As I’ve said from the beginning, there is a long list of movies that commit crimes against their inner logic a lot more often with greater WTF? factor than any of the Matrix movies but they end up getting waaaay more love…
How this happened is likely up to timing. I mean, how many films that were once box office bombs are now considered classics? Like, a lot. Goonies was not a big deal when it first came out, but don’t say that to a twenty-something. They’ll have you believing it’s the greatest thing since the Wizard of Oz. But the best comparison for the Matrix is Blade Runner. It’s another one that was totally dissed when it came out. Now? Now it’s regarded as one of the most influential movies of all time, and frankly, even though it’s been roughly 30 years, still looks good compared to the films of today.
I guess the problem for me is that even 10 years after the fact, the hate is still brimming for the Matrix movies. If you use Rotten Tomatoes as a source, The Matrix is 87%, Reloaded is 73%, Revolutions is 36%. Comparatively, Blade Runner is 91%, and happens to be in the National Film Registry. Yet, Revolutions is not a 36%, certainly not in comparison to other films of its genre.
I’ve said this before in previous blogs, and I’ll say it again…I think what’s happened here is what I like to call the “Star Wars Effect”. In other words, let’s blame the prequels. Nerd audiences were going through a strange time when the rest of the trilogy came out – we were in the midst of dealing with the idea that the Star Wars prequels were totally sucking. Although tempered by the success of the Lord of the Rings, because Peter Jackson was succeeding with his movies, it just made us even angrier with George. Attack of the Clones was released summer of 2002, giving us a year to let our nerd rage boil to just the right temperature once Reloaded came out in 2003. Revolutions followed suit that same year, opening in November. This was unusual for movie sequels, opening in the same year, and the lack of time between the films likely didn’t help the wave of “unpopular” opinion. Blade Runner experienced something similar, being released in a year where there were a lot of now classic sci-fi movies – E.T., The Thing, and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn. Coincidentally, it probably didn’t help that it came out during the original Star Wars era where people’s take on science fiction was high adventure, not futuristic film noir. However, both Blade Runner and the Matrix Trilogy are of the cyberpunk genre. The earlier one is originally persecuted for being essentially cyber-punk and not space opera enough, and the other is being persecuted for being too space opera and not cyber-punk enough. Funny, how times have changed.
I’ll admit, the above theory may sound convoluted at first, but remember, I was so angry after the plight of the prequels that I wasn’t even paying attention to The Matrix movies, let alone going to the theater to purposely talk myself into being disappointed by them. I left them alone, stewing in my nerd rage until the time was just right to sit down and give them a chance. And like I said, they did not disappoint, because, they’re that awesome.
Needless to say, if you haven’t watched the films in a while then watch your favourite sci-fi flick of the last 10 years and then give the Matrix Trilogy another try. I’m willing to bet you might actually be surprised.