Friday, April 09, 2004

'The Matrix': How the mighty series has fallen

—Originally published 4.9.04

Five years ago, I swallowed the red pill. Now I almost wish I'd taken the blue one, instead.

What in this artificial world happened to "The Matrix" franchise? (Hint: That last word may be the answer.)

"The Matrix" was released to mild fanfare in the spring of 1999, but became a worldwide phenomenon based on tremendous word-of-mouth. The first must-have DVD, it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking (sci-fi or otherwise), that includes the fabulous "bullet time" technology, now one of the most copied techniques in Hollywood.

When I saw "The Matrix" for the first time, I didn't know Nos. 2 and 3 were even in the works -- nor did I think such things were necessary. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes off at the end and Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up" explodes through the speakers, what could be a better conclusion? Neo says he will free the world's people from the machines, and who am I not to believe him? He's flying, after all.

If the "Matrix" movies prove anything, it's this: Some stories are better left to the imagination.

Brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed the entire trilogy, bit off more than they could chew -- or more than the public was willing to swallow, anyway -- with the sequels.

"The Matrix Reloaded" (May 2003) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (November 2003 and out this week on DVD) have more of the cool clothes, bullets and bullet time, but none of the qualities that made the original such a charmer -- wit, humor and fun. Unfortunately, there is much, much more of what seemed a little excessive in the first one -- corny dialogue, bad acting and too much philosophizing.

Some of the latter was necessary in "The Matrix" to set up the story. But there's so much talking in "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" -- it goes on, and on, and on with no other purpose than pure exposition to explain the Wachowskis' "deep" (or convoluted) mythology. At some points, I wondered how the actors could say their lines with a straight face as they introduced yet another character from seemingly out of nowhere. When they talked like actual humans, it was almost shocking.

The visuals in the two sequels are excellent, of course. But it's the story and script that are lacking. If I wanted to watch Neo fight Agent Smith over and over, I would just pop the original into my DVD player. The sequels do resolve the story, sort of, but by the time I got to the end of No. 3, I didn't care anymore.

My loudest complaint with the re-loads, however, is they have screwed with my love for "The Matrix." I'm reminded of "High Fidelity," where Jack Black wonders, "Is it, in fact, unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins?"

In this case, absolutely.

Unfortunately, this happens too often in all forms of entertainment, be it an athlete who hangs around too long (Michael Jordan, some would argue), a TV show that outlives its creativity ("The X-Files" without Fox Mulder? Hello!), or musicians that should have packed it in a long time ago (Aerosmith onstage with Britney Spears at the Super Bowl comes to mind).

The "Matrix" sequels, though, don't just tarnish their predecessor -- they make it COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT. The first -- and best -- movie, as explained in the following chapters, was nothing more than a predetermined programming glitch. Whoopee.

I know we live in the real world (at least I hope I do, after watching these three flicks), and in the real world people do things to make money. The Wachowskis certainly made the right financial move with "Reloaded" and "Revolutions," which grossed more than $420 million in the U.S. alone. ("Revolutions" was the least successful of the trilogy, however, at $139.2 million.)

But the Wachowskis cloak themselves in their "art." These boys claim to be above self-serving, moneymaking notions like press interviews, audio commentaries on the DVDs, and, I would assume, sequels for the box office's sake.

By those same standards, then, "Matrix" Nos. 2 and 3 are two of the most disappointing movies I've ever seen.

Artistically, I wish they'd left well enough alone.

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