The Brothers Didn't Work It Out
The original The Matrix is one of the best action movies ever made, and not just because it's one of the few ever built around an actual idea. It's because the premise--the notion that reality is a computer-generated construct fed into our brains as we lie dormant, suspended in pods--was so simple and clear that all the action derived from that idea and reinforced it. Some pedants complained that the 1999 film didn't do much with that old Philosophy 101 conundrum. But it did; it made us excited about the concept, which is more than most academics can say.
So why aren't the sequels as good? The Matrix Reloaded, which opened in May, and the new The Matrix Revolutions have a lot of ideas, too, but those ideas are so many and so muddled that they never quite register. They certainly don't seem connected to all the shooting, kicking,and chasing. I'm sure there are fanboys on the Internet who will explain each and every one of those ideas to you. It doesn't matter; the concepts don't work cinematically. And they did in the first film.
As the third installment begins, things look dark for the rebels of Zion--those human beings who have broken loose of the artificial reality to live in the subterranean cavities where the omnipotent machines can't find them. The rebels' hero Neo (the dewy-eyed, pouty Keanu Reeves) lies unconscious on a maglev submarine, where a traitorous crew member waits unrevealed. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving as a sneering bureaucrat) has replicated thousands of copies of himself, and the sybaritic mercenary Merovingian (Lambert Wilson in a snooty French accent) has trapped Neo's soul in a subway station between reality and the Matrix. Meanwhile, a 10-story-tall drill burrows closer and closer to Zion, bringing the marauding machines with it.
But Neo has a secret weapon. (Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers--you have been warned.) Is it his ability to see through the artificial facade of the Matrix and to reveal it to others as mere computer code? No, though that's actually an interesting idea. Is it the ability of the Oracle (Mary Alice, stepping in for the late Gloria Foster) to see into the future? No, her answers to his questions are so vague and contradictory that they're as boring as they are unhelpful. Neo's secret weapon is the love of his dying girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Yes, that's what the whole Matrix trilogy comes down to--it's a sci-fi Love Story. Just as Ali McGraw once had to die so Ryan O'Neal could stare soulfully off into the distance, Moss has to die to give Reeves the will to go on. In fact, this is Love Story doubled, for Trinity died in Reloaded and was revived. I won't tell you if she's revived a second time, but I will tell you that the deathbed speeches and lingering kisses are as gooey and as clichéd as the stickiest of chick flicks.
In the first two films, characters kept wondering if Neo was "the One." The new movie reveals his true identity. He's Luke Skywalker. While his fellow rebels fight a losing battle against superior technology, Neo flies his ship straight into the heart of the Death Star-like Machine City. At a crucial junction, he no longer relies on the ship's instruments or his own eyes; instead he relies on his inner sight, a glowing orange force field that you could almost call "the force."
The Matrix Reloaded may have lacked a coherent idea, but at least it was a lot of fun. The scene where Neo acts bored as he fights dozens of Agent Smiths is one of the year's funniest scenes, and the climactic 15-minute chase sequence provides one of the year's best adrenaline rushes.
The Matrix Revolutions offers neither a coherent idea nor much fun. It does serve up a lot of philosophic gibberish that all seems to boil down to the notion that "love" and "truth" are stronger than cynical pragmatism. Yuen Woo Ping's wire-rigged fight choreography was more exhilarating in the first film, where it seemed to bend the rules of gravity, than it is in this episode, where it ignores those laws completely. There is a big show-stopping scene where the rebels climb into giant robots like the one Sigourney Weaver piloted in Aliens and shoot it out with the Sentinels, those flying octopus robots from the earlier installments, but it's not enough.
Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed all three movies, are gifted filmmakers (check out their 1996 lesbian noir Bound if you haven't), but they seem to have lost all sense of restraint and discipline after The Matrix became a huge hit. And that has made them less interesting rather than more.