Second of a three-part series exploring the development of the blockbuster film trilogy over the 2000s.
“To be concluded.” These are the words that close out The Matrix Reloaded, and for this series – in which I argue for the 2000s as the peak of blockbuster cinema – they are invaluable. That the Wachowki sisters chose “concluded” instead of the more traditional “continued” is proof they saw trilogies as a distinct form of storytelling: one that allowed for larger ambition than a single movie, but was still designed to tell a finite story. A form of storytelling that was designed to end. This common denominator among the trilogies of this time period is also one of their greatest strengths. Compared to the franchise blockbusters of the 2010s, which are designed to continue on endlessly, these self-contained trilogies feel like the height of idiosyncratic, auteurist filmmaking. With that in mind, the case of the Matrix movies is particularly interesting as it stands alone among its peers for not being based on pre-existing material. In theory, this should have given the Wachowkis the freedom to steer their ship according to their own interests and expectations. In reality, the Matrix sequels were not only received with deep disappointment, but their infamous reception played a key role in ushering away the golden age of blockbuster trilogies.
When The Matrix hit hard and became an instant phenomenon in early 1999. The story of a computer hacker who leads a rebellion after discovering he’s been living in a simulation run by oppressive machines couldn’t have come out at a better point in time. Coming amidst the first internet boom, and on the eve of Y2K, the only thing that was more exciting than The Matrix‘s prescience was its incredible action sequences. Borrowing heavily from hong kong action cinema of the previous decades, it was a mix of martial arts brawls, maximalist shoot-outs, and “bullet time” set pieces that turned The Matrix into one of the most influential action movies in Hollywood history. Sequels were a no-brainer, but when The Matrix Reloaded arrived in Spring 2003, it was met with dubious disappointment. David Edelstein of Salon said the movie was “as messy and flat-footed as its predecessor is nimble and shapely.” Nathan Rabin of the A. V. Club lamented the Wachowskis were “so enthralled by the convoluted mythology of their own private universe that they’ve lost touch with its human core.”* Some reviewers held up hope for the third installment, but by the time The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy that Fall, all hope had been lost. If Reloaded was too convoluted, Revolutions was an outright failure. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wondered: “How did something that started out so cool get so dorky?”
Despite the initial pile-on, the Matrix sequels have been reconsidered in the years since their release. A younger generation of cinephiles has rediscovered the movies, and argued for them for their trailblazing allegories of the trans experience (especially after the Wachoswki sisters both came out and transitioned), as well as their clever deconstruction of the hero’s journey, their sly political commentary, and their astonishing action sequences. The perception around the movies has changed so much that not only is a fourth Matrix installment coming later this year (that in itself wouldn’t be surprising in our franchise-addicted times), but it is written and directed by Lana Wachowski herself. Following the history of how these movies went from disappointments to underrated gems to beloved classics is the best way to build an argument for them as a pivotal point for blockbuster cinema in the early 2000s.
Let’s start with Reloaded. Like I said above, the complains at the time were that the movie was convoluted, messy, and boring. What’s important to keep in mind here is that one person’s “convoluted” is another person’s “densely packed.” Yes, the movie features many lengthy scenes in which two characters sit down and deliver cryptic, pseudo-philosophical exposition to each other. If you have no idea what they’re talking about, you will surely be lost and bored. In this regard, it’s interesting to compare Reloaded to the first Matrix. The original also has its fair share of long exposition dumps – most notably the scenes early on in which Morpheus explains what “the Matrix” is. But while the exposition in the first movie is presented in much more visually engaging ways than the sequel’s preferred “two people talking” set-up, I would argue that the biggest difference is not in how things are explained but in what is explained. Not only does the first movie benefit from building itself around the very familiar “hero’s journey”/”chosen one” narrative that has dominated popular movies since Star Wars, it also benefits from “the Matrix” being basically a modern-day reworking of Plato’s analogy of the cave (and if you had seen The Truman Show the year prior, the movie’s conceit would have been even easier to follow.)
The Matrix Reloaded is doing something much more original, something pointedly different from the way in which blockbusters are usually structured. One of the biggest turn-offs for first-time viewers, but one of the most exciting scenes for fans, is Neo’s conversation with the Architect. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how having your action movie build towards a very dense, and very theoretical, conversation might be seen as deeply anticlimactic. But on the other, the Architect’s revelation that Neo’s quest as “the one” is not a challenge to the machine rulers but a feature that the system has designed in order to quell humanity’s revolutionary instincts is the most thematically exciting development in the series. There are many reasons why it’s ironic that the “men’s rights” movement uses the “red pill” metaphor from the first Matrix as a keystone to its ideology, and one of them is definitely the fact that Neo’s centrality to the plot is so thoroughly undermined in the second movie. Watching Reloadedfor the first time in more than a decade, I was absolutely riveted by this revelation, and deeply excited to see how the Wachowskis would follow through on such an unusual concept in the third installment.
I should recognize, however, that while thrilling to me, hefty thematics aren’t really the bread and butter of blockbuster filmmaking. So it’s time to reveal that Reloaded is my personal favorite of the Matrix movies not only for the architect’s big revelation, but for its action sequences. While the first movie features the most historically influential set-pieces, I have always been more than a little put off by the excessive amount of gun play in those movies – not only because of extra-textual “real world” reasons, but also because (unless you’re John Woo) it’s really hard to make gun fights cinematic. Cutting from one person shooting a gun to another getting shot isn’t my definition of exciting filmmaking. For Reloaded, the Wachowskis abandon guns almost completely, preferring two-fisted kung fu, truck-slashing katanas, and motorcycles speeding against traffic. This results in far more kinetic and spectacular action. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to say that the freeway chase toward the end of this movie is one of the most impressive set pieces of its era – I will even argue for it as the very best action set piece of the whole 2000s.
It is precisely in the action front that The Matrix Revolutions leaves me most disappointed – particularly in the sequences in which Zion battles off the invading machine army. Thematically, it makes sense to present the war against the machines not as the triumph of one character but as a collective task undertaken by the citizens of Zion, but here the movie runs into a couple problems. First, the visual effects haven’t aged particularly well. There’s a lot of rubbery CGI. Second, seeing people make pained faces while they pretend to shoot at CG creatures is not that exciting. Third, we don’t really know any of these characters and would much rather spend time with Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Other than that admittedly very big problem, I find the rest of the movie to be pretty satisfying, thematically speaking. I find Neo’s truce with the machines and his subsequent sacrifice to defeat Agent Smith, as well as Trinity’s melodramatic goodbye, not only deeply moving but thematically relevant for a story in which an extraordinary man, learning the true nature of his abilities, must become completely selfness (literally ceasing to exist) in order to save humanity.
Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, but there is no denying these movies are the product of a singular artistic vision (as much as the vision of two people can be called “singular.”) If nothing else, the Wachowkis subsequent work is proof of their inability to make a movie without pouring their most personal preoccupations onto it. Consider the flexibility of mind and body expressed in their casting decisions for Cloud Atlas, the extraordinary orgy scene in their Netflix show Sense8, and even the way in which they turned their adaptation Speed Racer into an anti-corporate tirade (this last one being of particular interest as it was their follow-up to the Matrix movies, a way of exorcising their disappointment with the industry reception to their sequels, perhaps?) As filmmakers, they have always banged to the beat of their own drum, seemingly unafraid of the consequences (did you catch that George W. Bush cameo on the Architect’s screen during Reloaded‘s montage of world evils?) So, to answer Manohla Dargis’s question, it’s not that something cool became dorky, but rather that only in 1999 did the Wachowskis’s dorkiness aligned with the world’s conception of cool.
With all this in mind, it’s interesting to consider what it means for Lana Wachowski to be coming back to direct a fourth Matrix movie. Almost everything the Wachowskis have done since the sequels could be considered a commercial flop. The critical rejection of Reloaded and Revolutions seems to have laid the ground not only for further rejection of the Wachowskis’s original projects, but for the belief that unchecked creative freedom results in bloated, messy, and convoluted movies. This is a recurrent pattern when figuring out why this short-lived era of creative trilogies came to an end. We saw it in the reaction to Peter Jackson’s bloated and messy King Kong, and we will see it again next time when we look at George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels. Since Lucas sold the rights to his creations, and Jackson has been exiled to making Beatles documentaries, that looming Matrix movie makes the Wachowski case the most hopeful of the three. Thinking that the upcoming movie could bring a new golden age for blockbusters seems a little ridiculous, but knowing how uncompromising the sisters have been in their creative vision, one can cautiously assume that a return to the matrix will be an opportunity for further creativity and not a prison for mindless repetition. Still, we will have to wait and see…
*Curiously, both Edelstein and Rabin bring up George Lucas, who was in the middle of directing the Star Wars prequels. Edelstein lamented The Matrix had become a “Lucasoid,” while Rabin accused the Wachowskis of suffering from “George Lucas” syndrome. But more on Lucas in the next installment.
Read part one of this series on The Lord of the Rings.
Read part three of this series on the Star Wars Prequels.
Conrado Falco III is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. He is the co-creator of the web-series Wormholes and the host of the Foreign Invader and The Criterion Project podcasts. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNY).