It’s been fifteen years since the release of The Matrix Reloaded, the sequel to one of the most successful, beloved and influential sci-fi/action films of all time. Eric Bay-Andersen discusses whether time has done anything to improve the less-than-stellar reputation that Reloaded and trilogy-capper Revolutions have received since then…
The first Matrix was a game-changer for me – I was thirteen when it was released, and it came along at a time when I was just starting to view movies as something more than distractions or passing amusements. It’s not an understatement to say it blew my mind – here was a film that was not only exciting, intelligent and off-the-charts cool, but which was also sparking discussions about technology, philosophy and religion amongst the movie-going public and in the media as well. Given my love of the first film, I was as hyped as anyone when the sequels were announced, but could they deliver?
Reloaded split opinion when it was released – some saw it as a bold mixture of highbrow philosophising and blockbuster thrills, while others saw it as proof that the Wachowski’s had finally disappeared up their own rabbit hole. Regardless, it went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time until Deadpool surpassed it in 2016 – however, the mixed reception seriously tainted the hype for Revolutions, which is widely regarded as the weakest of the trilogy, and which took $40m less at the box office than the original. Now, I will be the first to admit that Reloaded and Revolutions are not perfect, but I will also argue until my dying day that they are very underrated – in fact, with so many franchises nowadays delivering sequels that not only fall short of the standards of the originals but seem to go out of their way to forget what made them great in the first place, I’m surprised the Matrix sequels haven’t undergone a critical reappraising in recent years. But before I get to defending them, let’s get the things they definitely got wrong out of the way…
Yes, the rave/sex scene is almost unbearably cringey – I get that Neo and Trinity need ‘alone time’ and that residents of Zion need to blow of steam in the face of extinction, but the film doesn’t need to stop for five minutes while we squirm in our seats watching it! Similarly, some of the characters’ speeches (Councillor Hamann, the Merovingian, Rama Kandra, the Oracle, even Smith) go on for way too long – most of the time they’re relevant to the story and its themes, but they all seriously affect the movies’ pace. However, I personally prefer the big speeches to the uninspired dialogue some of the supporting characters are given – Niobe’s “some things never change and some things do” line gains no new significance with each repetition, and you could make a drinking game out of Roland’s constant use of the word ‘goddamn’. Thinking about it, there’s a comparison to be drawn between the Wachowski’s and George Lucas – the first time we heard their dialogue it was cool and iconic, but when they revisited their respective worlds we found it repetitive and cheesy (maybe it was cheesy the first time and we were too overwhelmed by the coolness of it all to notice, who knows?)
While some of the effects are still impressive, time has not been kind to the Burly Brawl scene – it’s cool when Keanu Reeves is fighting six Smiths, but when it’s obviously a CGI Neo fighting a hundred of them it just looks like a video game cutscene (and the fact that Neo can fly away at any time, which he does at the end, robs the scene of any drama). Another misjudged effects shot was the slow-motion punch during Neo and Smith’s final fight in Revolutions, which now looks laughably cartoony – by contrast, the ‘Bullet Time’ effects in the first film still look amazing because they were achieved using still photography of the real actors.
People seem to forget what an ambitious undertaking the Matrix sequels were at the time at the time – true, the Wachowski’s weren’t the first ones to shoot back-to-back sequels (the makers of the Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings films had already done that), but they were also simultaneously conceiving the tie-in video game Enter The Matrix as well as writing and directing several segments of The Animatrix anthology as (which I highly recommend, even for casual fans of sci-fi/anime). It could be argued that by taking on such a huge cross-platform project they were spreading the material a bit too thin – I personally would have given the characters of Ghost and Niobe more screen-time in the films rather than making their subplot the focus of Enter The Matrix (which is hardly remembered as a masterpiece of gaming anyway), and it would have also been cool to have some of the backstory from the ‘Second Renaissance’ shorts mentioned in the films. Now, onto the things the sequels got right…
The returning cast are all great (Hugo Weaving in particular, clearly relishing playing ‘free agent’ Smith), Don Davis’ scores are superb, the world of Zion is brilliantly realised, Neo’s fight against the Merovingian’s minions is one of the greatest one-against-many fights in cinema history, the highway chase is twenty minutes of sustained action brilliance (for me, Neo swooping in at the last second to save Morpheus and the Keymaker from the colliding trucks is as euphoric a moment as Darth Vadar’s hallway appearance at the end of Rogue One), Neo’s final battle against Smith is undeniably epic, and sacrificing himself so that Smith (his opposite, his negative) is erased from the Matrix is an elegant and satisfying conclusion to their conflict. I would even argue that the Architect is a great creation – his resemblance to Colonel Sanders aside, his introduction is a brilliant twist, and Helmut Bakaitis does a great job of giving him some Orson Welles-esque gravitas. Some people complained that the character’s dialogue was impenetrable, to them I say – pick up a thesaurus! He’s a program communicating with a human, so it makes sense he’s going to use the most specific terminology the English language has to offer.
I am always more willing to forgive or overlook the flaws of an auteur’s film than those of a churned-out committee-written studio product, because artists have the right to take their stories in whatever direction they want, regardless of whether we like them or not. Quentin Tarantino once remarked in an interview that the first Matrix was one of his favourite films but that the sequels killed the mythology for him. I would argue that the main thing the Wachowski’s got right with the sequels is that they saw the story through to its inevitable end. The films may have taken turns that some found unsatisfying, but they never betrayed what the central story was always about. Personally, I’ve always viewed the Matrix trilogy as a critique of organised religion, in that most of the population are happy to accept the illusion they’re presented with by those who secretly control them, and the harshness of the ‘real world’ (i.e. the truth) is the price the minority who refuse to accept the illusion must pay. Consider the ending in that context – Neo realises that machines have evolved to the point where they are just as intelligent, complex and deserving of life as humans, and they do indeed need each other to survive, so he fights not to overthrow them but to foster a peace between the two races. An epic series about warring tribes that ends with co-existence rather than the ‘good guys vanquishing the bad guys’ – how often does that happen? Neo has always been one of my favourite screen heroes because he’s actually much more deep and interesting than his cool trenchcoat-and-sunglasses image would suggest, and the sequels deserve more credit for the bold and unusual directions the story took.
In my opinion, most of the problems with the sequels could have been solved if they had simply made one two-and-a-half hour film rather than two separate films (in fact, geek that I am, a few years ago I even attempted to create a fan edit, cunningly titled ‘The Matrix Recut’, where I trimmed every scene or speech that went on too long and cut out all unnecessary subplots – it worked quite well). Nowadays it’s not uncommon to have super-long blockbusters (The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers: Infinity War both clock in around 160 minutes), but for budgetary reasons it just wasn’t feasible when the sequels were made. It’s a shame, because I truly believe that by trimming certain scenes and simplifying and condensing all the characters and subplots (basically reducing all of Revolutions to a third act), the Wachowski’s could have created a epic to rival Terminator 2 or Return of the King. As it is, we’re left with two sequels that fell short of their potential and the high standard of the film that preceded them, but which are far better than general opinion would suggest. It is my hope that in time people will re-visit and re-evaluate Reloaded and Revolutions, take some of the hate they feel towards them, and dump it on Jupiter Ascending instead (a film which, even as I die-hard Wachowski fan, I cannot find a single nice thing to say about).