Friday, August 31, 2012

From the Archive: The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

"Karma's a word. Like "love". A way of saying 'what I am here to do.' I do not resent my karma - I'm grateful for it."

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Ending a trilogy well is not at all an easy task.

Final installments in cinematic trilogies are, in fact, notoriously rough going. Consider Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Godfather III (1990), for example.  In cases such as these, it's fair to state that it is much easier to forge a beginning than a satisfying ending.

There’s also the opposite instance of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I suppose, which earned a Best Picture Oscar.  Yet there remain a number of critics (myself included) who consider that trilogy-ender wildly over-praised and overlong, and certainly not the finest of the three pictures in the series. 

So why do trilogy-enders tend to fail in terms of audience and critical appreciation? 

In large percentage, I suspect, because of deeply-held expectations. Viewers carry along much emotional and time investment when it comes to ending a trilogy; and also weigh-in a great deal of narrative 'history' in determination of how well a ''final" chapter succeeds.  Opinions about how a tale might end have already been, perhaps unconsciously, forged by the advent of a third film.  A trilogy-ender must, by necessity, satisfy those expectations, and yet not in an obvious, routine, or predicable way.

Unfortunately, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix Revolutions doesn’t escape unscathed from this “trilogy” curse.

In fact, it is undeniably the weakest film in The Matrix trilogy, in part because it devotes so much screen-time wrapping up the details of existing story lines rather than exploring more deeply the philosophical terrain excavated by the earlier movies.

To an unexpected extent, The Matrix Revolutions is also scuttled by an unfortunate but necessary re-casting in a central role, and by a storyline which, essentially, drops the two most interesting characters – Neo and Trinity – for an egregiously long spell. 

On the first front, Gloria Foster portrayed The Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures, but passed away before her scenes could be completed for The Matrix Revolutions.  Mary Alice replaces Foster and does an absolutely fine job in the role.  And yet Foster's more laconic and familiar presence is sorely missed here, despite the crafty manner in which the shift in The Oracle's appearance is explained.

Again, I'm not picking on Mary Alice, or claiming that the filmmakers were wrong to re-cast the role.  Clearly, they had no other choice.  And yet still, this time around I miss the human connection to Foster's indelible, dynamic character.  Foster's Oracle was tough as well as charming.  Alice's interpretation seems "straighter," if you will, without some of the flamboyant affectation that made Foster light up the screen in each of her memorable scenes.

Regarding the second matter, Neo and Trinity are sidelined from the film for a long spell as war comes to Zion, and Neo makes a pilgrimage to the Machine City, a kind of wondrous, mechanical version of Baum's Oz.

While Neo and Trinity are away, the film showcases an intense, large-scale battle to hold Zion, and the sequence is dominated by incredible special effects.  In essence, this show-stopping special effects triumph depicts the Machine/Man war that the Terminator films always seemed to promise but never truly delivered.  These visual effects are indeed awe-inspiring yet, and the battle also does a nice job of showcasing two minor human characters as they fight, moment-to-moment, overwhelming odds. In so many ways, it is this battle that it the very centerpiece of the film.

Yet -- and forgive me for saying so -- this isn't really why we go to see a Matrix movie.

We go to see Neo, Trinity and Morpheus in action...inside the Matrix, preferably.  And to one degree or another, all three of those characters are essentially side-lined while second tier characters (Niobe, Zee, Mifune, Lock) fight the war, positioned in the driver's seats.  This narrative structure seems a miscalculation because it asks us to relate to characters we don't as easily identify with, and because it takes us out of the Matrix for such a long time.

The Matrix Revolutions boasts some other notable problems too.  For the first time in the franchise, the audience is already well-ahead of the characters here, at least in terms of critical thinking.  There's one absolutely agonizing, poorly-directed, poorly-acted scene during The Matrix Revolutions in which Neo -- with all his new found abilities -- fails to recognize Smith in the body of a human, Bane.

Heck, you don't even need those special psionic/metaphysical capabilities to recognize Smith because the actor portraying Bane, Ian Bliss, does a masterful, almost supernatural imitation of Weaving's distinctive speech patterns.  Listening to Bane speak, it is impossible not to recognize him as Smith virtually instantly.  And it's not like Neo's attention isn't focused or something.

That Neo fails for so long to recognize Smith in his new, human guise  does not speak well for the hero's intelligence or even his sense of intuition.  Again, this scene represents one of the few instances in the entire trilogy during which we have time to grow bored with the film making, performances and writing.  I'm not generally a critic of Keanu Reeves' acting style.  I believe he's a good actor who can either be used very well in a film (Speed, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded), or used poorly (Bram Stoker's Dracula).  Generally, the mix is right in The Matrix films, but Neo's Revolutions plays into the perception by many audiences that Reeves comes across as a dolt.  And The One can't -- and shouldn't -- be a dolt.

Such flaws established, The Matrix Revolutions does add at least one new element of philosophy to the series mix, namely in the explicit debate regarding karma.

We learned in The Matrix Reloaded that Neo is actually the sixth "One" -- part of a chain -- and that his actions in this life will impact future lives and future selves.  That's the essence of karma, in the Buddhist sense, and if Reloaded concerned the idea of making "free" choices in what seemed a deterministic universe, Revolutions focuses squarely the impact of our choices on our lives, our world, and our  bigger destiny.  Rightly, Revolutions is about causality, how results, sometimes unintended, follow choices.  This is the film -- the ending -- that must concern such results.

The Matrix Revolutions isn't exactly "the bad one," as so many critics have claimed regarding the trilogy, but the film's balance does seem off, for the first time in trilogy history.  There's far too much focus on hover crafts weaving about in impossibly complicated sewer systems, much like the Millennium Falcon in an asteroid belt, and the battle sequences -- though incredibly impressive -- suck momentum away from Neo and Trinity's tragic love story.

Finally, the ending "detente" between machine and man, while assiduously layered into the trilogy (especially in the middle film), somehow fails to satisfy on a dramatic level.  We leave the film wanting more; wanting to see the defeat of the machines.

One way or another, I'm getting on this train

Neo (Keanu Reeves) has become trapped in the domain of The Train Man (Bruce Spence), a subway station with no end and no beginning.

"This place is nowhere.  It is between our world and your world," he is informed  by a kindly program, Rama Kandra (Bernard White).

While trapped, Neo learns that such programs  have not only learned to reproduce, but to "love," an act responsible for the child program, Sati (Tanveer Atwal).  He is shocked to realize that machines have developed the equivalent of human emotions.

Outside the way station, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Seraph (Collin Chau) confront the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) to free Neo. Once released,  Neo takes a hover-craft with Trinity to reach the Machine City, a path that Neo has seen laid out for him in visions, while Morpheus and Captain Niobe attempt to return to Zion to defend it from Machine attack.

Meanwhile, in the Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) assimilates the entire population, turning one and all into mirror images of himself.  Amongst the lost are The Oracle (Mary Alice) and young Sati.

Once he arrives at the Machine City, Neo attempts to negotiate a truce between the machines and Zion, but the machines have a task for him: He must destroy Agent Smith once and for all, before Smith's corrupting influence can be allowed to pollute the "real" world.

It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity

Karma is all about the way that actions lead to results, and is also one of five categories of "causation" in Eastern beliefs.

Karma suggests that actions spring from intention, and karma also drives samsara (the flow of life, essentially) for each being; the process of life, death and re-birth.

The Matrix Revolutions gazes deeply at the idea of karma in terms of its lead characters. Though Neo optedto save Trinity rather than the Matrix and Zion in Reloaded, he gathers additional information about the Machines and Programs in this film, and then  re-establishes his foretold destiny as established by the Architect/Oracle.   He chooses the path the Architect sought for him, but not in the way the Architect desired.

Namely, having lost his mortal love at Trinity's death, Neo arranges a peace between the machines and the humans.  And after defeating Smith, Neo also "re-boots" the world for the dawn of the Sixth and next Matrix.  It is true that things happen slightly differently this time around on the wheel of fate, but the end results are the same:  Zion continues.  The Machine City Continues.  And the Matrix continues.

By saving every element in the world (machine, man and program), Neo creates a "sunny" future for Earth, as the film's final, idyllic shots reveal.  This peace may be fragile, but it exists, and so when Neo returns in some future life, his karma will be positive.   He is "The One," and Neo learns in this film that being "The One" means not simply representing human beings.  On the contrary, he is the savior/messiah for the Programs and Machines as well.

When the Oracle is asked by Sati if she will ever see Neo again, The Oracle answers in the affirmative ("I suspect so. Someday.") because in the cycle of birth/death/rebirth, Neo's actions have been wholly positive.  To put it another way, "our" Neo --  through self-sacrifice and heroism -- has created karma in this world, but it won't be until his next life that he actually gets to experience it and feel it.  That's how karma works.  We make karma in this life at the same time as we deal with karma from a past life.

Smith's karma also plays a role in his defeat in The Matrix Revolutions.  Smith "outgrew" his role as an agent in The Matrix when Neo (at the end of the first film), became one with him -- suffused him -- and then, essentially, blew him up.

This infusion of the One's power,led Smith to grow exponentially in strength until he was the dominant force inside the Matrix; a force he used for negativity and evil.  In The Matrix Reloaded, these events come full circle as Smith totally absorbs and suffuses Neo, providing the protagonist the opportunity to corrupt the Smith-ian status quo, and similarly overturn it.  This act is a reversal of what we saw in The Matrix, and the Oracle reminds us, trenchantly, that Smith is Neo's "opposite."  Their karmas are also opposite.

It's also worth pointing out that Trinity reaches her pre-ordained destiny in this film. She dies young, at Neo's side, after willingly giving her life for him over and over again.  Neo may have rescued her before, but he was only delaying her fate, not changing it.  Trinity's selection was always to die for Neo.  That was her "karma," and it too paved the way for a future of peace.  If Trinity is to be re-born at some point, one would also anticipate her karma  in that iteration would be positive.

Each Matrix film has utilized some aspect of Buddhist philosophy to a substantial degree, and it's rewarding that The Matrix Revolutions -- on the event of the series' ending -- should focus on the big idea of our actions creating meaning; and the epic sweep of life, death and eventual rebirth.  "Change is always a dangerous game," according to the film, but in forging change, the film's heroic characters, particularly Neo and Trinity, build a new and better world.  Not the best world, mind you, but a better one.  They end the war.

The question that roils me to this day, however, is this one: Is this change enough?  The machines are still growing human slaves in those fields.  And millions of human souls are still locked in the Matrix, essentially a "lie" about reality.  The film ends with this paradigm as the status quo.

Yes, Zion is free, but what are the rules of this new peace?  Must the humans of Zion stop attempting to free the minds of the enslaved?  And will the machines truly leave Zion alone, in defiance of history and five previous attempts to overwhelm it?

Again, the idea of detente (not defeat) is built into the Matrix films, and I do understand that.

In Revolutions, fore instance, we learn that programs can be loving fathers and husbands, and also broach such concepts as self-sacrifice.  Such qualities make them not an enemy to humans, essentially, but a competitor.

This is a noble, uplifting idea --- peace between biologicals and mechanicals -- but again, slavery is involved in the equation. Is it right to go on living happily in Zion knowing that your brethren are enslaved, exploited as "living batteries?"

The Oracle glosses over this idea at the end of the film by noting that anyone who "chooses" to leave the Matrix may now do so.   But don't we already know, from Reloaded that the Matrix works in the first place because there is a choice involved, and that the slaves implicitly have accepted their slavery in The Matrix?   In other words, the System is designed to overcome choice, so how can the Oracle blithely state that the slaves have a "choice" about leaving?

Something about this truce just doesn't sit right.  Slavery is a moral evil, no matter the degree of "choice" apparently provided by the master. I don't believe for a minute that Morpheus would simply "retire," knowing that machines are still growing human beings for use as batteries.  The whole point of the war, it seems is freedom for all.  Not just the lucky thousands already dwelling in Zion.

In terms of drama, I believe the resolution of this film is extremely disappointing.  We have been told that this is a war of survival against the machines, and then -- at the last minute -- it isn't.  The machines offer a truce to Zion, Zion accepts, and life continues.  The change wrought by Neo -- beyond the welcome destruction of Smith, of course -- appears mostly cosmetic, not in the real nature of things or systems  It's no wonder that Morpheus asks "is this real?"   As viewers we wonder the same thing, and wonder how the truce can last (in the same manner that the Architect ponders this question).

I hope you feel I have not been too hard on The Matrix Revolutions.  Some elements of the film are downright gorgeous.  The Machine City, for instance, is an incredible vision of what a robot utopia might look like, and splendidly, terrifyingly-realized.  The battle to hold Zion, as I indicated near the top of my review, is a stunning vision, and one of a scope almost beyond our capacity to imagine.  I also appreciated the visuals of a thoroughly corrupted, rainswept Matrix, transformed into grisly embodiment of Smith's degraded, egomaniacal id.  Neo's funeral in the Mechanical City -- very much like a Viking funeral -- represents an unforgettable visual as well.

These are all sights worth seeing, and the message about karma -- about how our choices impact our future -- is certainly valuable and in keeping with the franchise's noble history.  But there's still a feeling, when The Matrix Revolutions ends, that -- if you'll pardon the expression -- the "hopey, changey" thing isn't really going to cut it; not when there are still two sides of such diametrically opposed interest involved. Ultimately, either the machines will win, or the humans will win.  The planet doesn't seem big enough for both.  Maybe what we're left to ponder, then, simply is that Neo has given the world a new beginning.

And the world sometimes needs a new beginning...

The Matrix Revolutions is not the conclusion to the franchise everybody hoped for, but it remains an important part of what is, arguably, the most ambitious trilogy in cinema history, as I hope my reviews over the last few weeks have indicated.

The Matrix movies are ones about reality itself, and about how -- through Buddhist philosophy, mainly -- we countenance, interpret, shape and accept that reality.  It has been eleven years since the first film was made, nine since the last, and yet the trilogy remain girded with stunning ideas and brilliant visuals.  That's why I prefer these films to, for example, the Lord of the Rings movies.

It's one thing to create an epic story  regarding  the clash between good vs. evil.  It's quite another to  look at the forces underlying that battle.  Forces such free will, karma, phenomenology, and so on.   It's the difference between brilliantly showcasing the specifics of a war, and attempting to explain why human beings go to war in the first place.  One film cycle is about  (admittedly impressive) surface values, and one is about the meaning of life itself in addition to those superficial traits.

Frankly, I could watch The Matrix again next week and write an entirely new review of the film, one that doesn't even gaze at the same concepts I enunciated in my review of two weeks ago.  Not many blockbuster action films so brawnily open themselves up to that  level of criticism, analysis, and debate.

Like the system featured in the films themselves, this is a trilogy that seems to renew itself on each and every viewing.  In that way, it becomes more than the sum of its lesser (Revolutions) parts.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:28 AM

    The defeat of the machines isn't the point. The point is Neo recognizes that the relationship between the Machines and Man is symbiotic in the blackened earth. Neither can do without the other. "The only way forward is together" as the Oracle says.

    Besides, the Machines run the Matrix. They have all the keys and run the system on which the lives of billions of humans depend. All those people can't be freed at the same time. How will they be fed? The Matrix has to endure for a while longer until the earth can be restored to what it once was. But as token of change the Matrix is no longer a system of control. People can come and go as they please. The Agents will exist to maintain the system, but they will no longer stand in the way of any human who decides to enter or leave the Matrix.

    Neo initiates a new Age where Zion endures and there is a real chance that, after hundreds of years of war and Zion being 'reset', Man and Machine will find lasting common ground someday. Neo's personal journey ends... and the journey back to the surface begins for the rest of humanity. He has made the first big step for them. Now the children must find a way forward on their own. Such is life, is it not?