Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thoughts on the Matrix Trilogy

The Matrix Trilogy really isn't as bad as people remember it being. I saw The Matrix back in 2002 when it was playing at the IMAX, in preparation for the release of the dual sequels. It was the only time I had seen it on the big screen. In 2003, when the first sequel was release into theaters, I saw it twice - once on the release date, then again with a bunch of friends. I also saw it in the IMAX, thus making it the only film I've ever seen three times in a theater. I even went to see Dreamcatcher so that I could see The Final Flight of the Osiris, which led into the first sequel. Finally, I saw The Matrix Revolutions twice, once on the release date, and then again in the IMAX.
Therefore, the Matrix Trilogy holds a couple honours in my life. It's the only entire film series I've seen in the theater, as well as the only film series I've seen in its entirety on IMAX screens. (When The Dark Knight Rises comes out, that trilogy would be the only other series to be seen by me in the theaters) It remains the movies I've seen the most in theaters. The first sequel was released while I was in Philosophy 101 in university, and I wrote two academic papers on Plato's Cave and David Hume that referenced the Matrix films explicitly. Both were A+ papers, by the way.
I admit to being disappointed the first time I saw the third film. There was no way that the conclusion could live up to the hype in my head. But I tempered my expectations telling people I knew there would be no easy answers in the final part.
Upon seeing Tron: Legacy, and thinking about how much of it was influenced by the Matrix films, I decided to re-watch the trilogy, but skipping the first movie, because I've seen it probably twenty times. I haven't seen the sequels in probably four or five years, and I wanted to know if I would enjoy it as much as I did back in the day. I've assembled some thoughts on the experience for you to enjoy.

When it comes to film series, I usually love the first one, but then love the second one even more to the point of skipping the first. This happens all the time. I've seen Alien maybe three times, but I've seen Aliens at least twenty. Dead Man's Chest remains my favourite Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and The Empire Strikes Back is the only film poster I have hanging on my wall. The second Spider-Man is the best, and the second X-Men is the best. An exception to this rule is that Scream 2 sucks and Temple of Doom isn't that great.
For the Matrix Trilogy, the same rules apply. The second one remains my favourite, even after a four-to-five year hiatus. Part of the reason why the second installment is usually better is that the status quo has already been defined, and there's less work on the film's part to set up.
This is especially true of The Matrix: Reloaded. One of the reasons why it's my favourite is that it starts off right away with action, and then sets the tone with inevitable apocalypse and destruction. The stakes are ridiculously high, and they manage to increase them with the twist that occurs at the end of the film.
Reloaded wisely changes the game when Neo meets the Architect. It turns over a few things established in the first film, but doesn't completely contradict the events. I say that this is a wise move because it forces the viewer to question the past of the Matrix and the future. Not everything is clear anymore - even if you know the status quo, the filmmakers change the game. A revelation that The One is a systemic anomaly but useful and required is a very big twist and it works. It makes the viewer question whether the revolution is part of the plan. It also feeds into the determinism theme.

Philosophically speaking, I'm against The Matrix movies. They put forth a theory that the human race is special because of free will. That's what all the hullabaloo about choice is in the three films. I personally believe in determinism, a theme that constantly pops up in the fiction I write.
The Matrix movies are obsessed with belief, almost to the point of distraction. The word "believe" has the be one of the most uttered words in the entire screenplay. Morpheus says it every other word. It's like Lawrence Fishburne had it written into his contract.
Faith and free will and choice are illusions in my book, but this trilogy thinks otherwise. The power of love and the crazy things it makes us do is one of the biggest motivators in the films. Both Neo and Trinity do all sorts of badass things for each other and it's the power of love that causes things to change. Neo chooses to save Trinity rather than Zion in the second film, which continues the chain reaction to destroy the human race. All for love.
Now that I'm a little bit older and not an arrogant university student, I'm looking at the philosophy in the Matrix movies and wondering if there's more or less to it than I thought there was. Well, the answer is both. I'm appreciating what they were trying to do in relation to free will and humanity, but on the other hand, it's no goddamn David Hume. It's simplicity disguised as complexity. I don't think the Matrix movies are all that philosophically mature or deep, but I don't think it's all surface. I wouldn't write a paper on the movies now that I'm 26.

A small amount of the special effects are a bit laughable in 2011 (the rubber doll effect of completely CGI people), but overall the visuals are exceedingly impressive. Even after staying away for four-to-five years, my experience with The Matrix sequels was excellent. I love how everything looks in these movies. I love the colour scheme: green for inside the Matrix and blue for outside. I even love the strange Jedi-style costumes the characters wear.
In the assault on Zion scenes, when the millions of sentinels converge on the dock, the synthesis of live action and CGI is utterly and completely seamless. It's a masterclass in how to weave together different realities. No matter what anyone thinks of the story or the pseudo-philosophy, the CGI effects are stunning, even 8 years after the fact.

Agent Smith is still the best part of the movies. He's such an engaging villain and he's played with such vigor by Hugo Weaving. He's a great actor playing the part with every ounce of energy he's got. When actors just throw themselves into roles, I'm more inclined to appreciate rather than actors simply going through lines.
Smith is a great villain because he's unpredictable. He shows no mercy and has no respect for humanity and that makes him dangerous. That's why he's so damned scary.

Keanu Reeves? Not a very good actor. But is he any good in these movies? Well... yes and no. He plays the stunned spaced out guy really well, but when the messianic elements come into play, it's a little hard to believe (ha). He never really bothered me in the movies like he did most critics. He was just a powerful piece in a bigger game. I didn't really watch these movies to enjoy high quality dramatic emoting. And I didn't get it, so I wasn't disappointed.

One thing that struck me that I didn't really notice until now is the masterful control over tone. These are dark movies without a lot of hope, and it's possible that the viewer would just feel depressed, especially in the dirty Zion scenes. But the directors keep the tone even and balanced, with light touches here and there, but never inane comedy or people getting hit in the crotch. From the second scene in the Matrix Reloaded, the tone is set to dire, and the filmmakers sustain this sense of dread throughout the rest of the trilogy, up until the final scene between the Oracle and the Architect.
But it's never oppressive. It's never the hopelessness that pervades zombie movies. Even though things are dark, I was never bogged down by the movies. In fact, the opposite. There's a sense of exhilaration when the good guys manage small victories and they kick at the darkness. This is an example of the marriage between tone and the audience's investment in the characters. If I even felt a little bit better when things go good for the protagonists, that means the directors have done their job, and I'm colluded into the experience. It's not the easiest thing to do in the world, and this trilogy accomplishes it.

Overall? Yes, I still love these movies, despite their numerous problems. But I don't think they are as bad as the reviews would have you believe. I think the world's expectations were too high and the fans too quick to judge. These movies are still very good and I will watch them again.

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