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11 November, 2003

Review: The Matrix: Revolutions

I was at the cinema last night, to see 'The Matrix: Revolutions'. The original is one of my favourite films, but I've yet to hear a good review of this, the second sequel, so my expectations weren't high.

It's a bit of a mess. Certainly spectacular, with a distinct comic book feel. A problem for me is that key scenes looked artificial and studio-based. One of the main things that really grabbed me about the first film was that these were originally ordinary people, doing extraordinary things in basically ordinary locations. It was largely filmed on location, in realistic settings, with an element of, well, dirt making it seem more real. The artificiality of some settings in '...: Revolutions' was probably deliberate, with valid narrative reasons, but that sacrificed realism, and hence made suspension of disbelief harder. For example, Neo's big confrontation with Smith at the end of the film is set in a stripped-down version of the Matrix city - there are streets and buildings, but minimal street furniture and the buildings are just shapes, with minimal details or texture. The rain, though a very nice parallel with the famous cascading green text, somehow doesn't look like real rain. The lighting doesn't seem quite natural, either. This might all make some sense - Smith is in control of a collapsing Matrix, (itself mirroring a disintegrating Zion) and his contempt for the human environment is well-established - he mightn't even know, or care, about maintaining the realistic little details of a street scene, so the Matrix doesn't render them. Maybe. Whether or not it can be justified, it looks a little false. Another unrealistic scene was rather surprising - the closing image of the whole film, a sunrise over a city skyline, just looks totally fake - a yellowish light behind a matte painting. I can only presume it was deliberately artificial, but the reason eludes me.

My first criticism, only a couple of minutes into the film, and sustained throughout, was that the dialogue is bad - trite, cliched, and unconvincing. People just don't talk that way, and compared to its somewhat verbose predecessors, the dialogue of the second sequel was surprisingly poor.

A key element in the success of the first film, for me and many others, was the creation of a fascinating fictional world, and exploration of the core concepts that it raises. I don't think that was adequately sustained in the sequels. 'The Matrix Reloaded' had confused and confusing philosophy, and the motivations for much of the plot were under-explained i.e. characters went off on 'a mission' without adequate understanding (on the part of the audience or characters!) of the reason for the mission. In 'The Matrix: Revolutions', the reasoning was a little clearer, or less relevant, but to an extent it degenerated into a series of set pieces and linking elements, with a rather poor overall story. The interesting conceptual elements were gone, or at least sidelined.
The first film was well thought-through, making good use of existing and novel philosophies to intellectually engage with the audience. The sequel made a bit of a mess of attempting to follow that; having watched The Architect's exposition three times, I still don't really 'get' it, and can only see the glaring holes in its logic and alleged chain of causality - to be fair, in the second sequel, The Oracle does say that The Architect's world view is severely flawed. However, I can only describe the underlying philosophy of 'The Matrix: Revolutions' as a trite reworking of christian mythology, with the Architect as God, The Merovingian as Lucifer (the efforts to stress his role as 'fallen angel' of the machine world and ruler of the Matrix's corrupt/'darker' side are a bit too obvious to take seriously - even his wife is named after the Ancient Greek queen of Hades), and Neo very overtly as a sacrificial christ. The climactic battle in the Matrix is the bittersweet triumph of blind (literally, at one point) faith over the personification of atheism. Somewhat crude, once the flashy presentation is stripped away.

I was a little disconcerted that an extended block of the film seemed a sideline, totally irrelevant to the overall plot, introducing an interesting new setting and character but not really going anywhere. The idea of a limbo between the machine world and the Matrix, controlled for The Merovingian by a separate program entity, The Train Man, and the visit to The Merovingian to bargain for Neo's return, were interesting in certain respects, but had that entire section of the film(s) been omitted, the overall film wouldn't have been very different.
One element I did like, though the implications were subtle (perhaps not even intended!) was the mirroring of the rave/sex scene in '... Reloaded', which strongly emphasises the raw, organic humanity of Zion's inhabitants, with the fetish club of '...: Revolutions', a somewhat dehumanised version (that's not a criticism - perhaps I'll return to this theme in another blog post) of very similar situation.

Still, I did enjoy it; it's a 'big', fun film, and on the most part the 'look' is excellent.

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