“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”
20 years ago a couple of up-and-coming auteurs released a little film called The Matrix. Drawing on the science fiction ideas of authors like William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick, and incorporating lofty philosophical themes, the movie was a bit of a risk. On top of that, there were a couple of familiar faces in it, but they were by no means blockbuster action stars (except Reeves perhaps).
But it turned out to be a gigantic success, and a cultural touchstone that’s stilled copied and parodied to this day. It helped that the film had some of the best special effects, action sequences, and overall aesthetic of any film before it. The leather, the slow motion, the sunglasses, the bullet-time, the characters – it all comes together into something iconic and thoroughly nineties.
Now, twenty years later (and with talk of a Michael B. Jordan-fronted continuation on the horizon) we’re taking a look back at The Matrix trilogy and the universe that built up around it.
The Matrix (1999)
The first film. The original – unrivalled and still unsurpassed (though we’ll be considering that question when we look at the other films). Going back and watching this now, it’s surprisingly straightforward. And by that, I mean it’s straightforward compared to what comes after. Compared to other films from the time it’s mind-bending.
We meet a hacker that calls himself ‘Neo’ – also known by the less cyberpunk name ‘Tom Anderson’ – played by the legendary Keanu Reeves. Now I won’t go on and on about how great Reeves is, you can go to any other corner of the internet for that, but the man is a gift from the heavens and we should all appreciate him. He’s great here, and grounds the film in some of the wackier moments. He’s learning about all this stuff for the first time too, and Reeves is the most likeable man you could pick for an audience to latch on to.
Neo soon meets Morpheus (sunglasses-wearing Lawrence Fishburne) and Trinity (a leather-clad Carrie Anne Moss). And you know the rest. Neo takes the red pill, stays in Wonderland, and finds out how deep the rabbit hole really goes. But twenty years later it’s still thrilling. And as technology continues to play an increasing role over every aspect of our lives, and as we get more and more plugged in to the digital world, it gets more and more relevant. Watching it in 2019 makes it seem almost like a premonition.
The action upped the ante too. Firstly for what could be done in an action film. You could have big, crazy action setpieces and deep philosophical conversations in the same film. The action could be dumb in a smart film. And on the subject of those big, crazy action setpieces, this film has some all-time classics. The lobby shootout is probably one of the best shootouts put to screen, and the subsequent fight with Smith in the subway is so great.
The big thing The Matrix did when it came to action was bullet-time. This effect was relatively easy to do and looked amazing (and still does – check out some behind the scenes clips and you’ll be surprised at the hidden CG in these scenes). Since then it’s become something of a cheap parody cliché. You couldn’t watch an animated film until 2010 that didn’t have a character either dodging something or doing a Trinity-esque high kick. But even 20 years on, and despite all of the poor imitations, it’s not lost any of it’s giddy coolness.
I can see why the first film in the trilogy is still considered the best by most. It feels original, daring, and like nothing that had ever been attempted before. The characters were fun, the performances were committed. It was and still is perfect for both fans of hard sci-fi and fans of over-the-top John Woo-esque action. And like any good science fiction story, it’s still fantastic even if the world it was written in has moved on. It’s a near-perfect mix of pathos and action – but my argument would be that there’s another film that did it even better…
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Yes, The Matrix Reloaded! After watching the trilogy again and having a bit of time to digest everything, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sequel The Matrix Reloaded is actually the best film in the trilogy. No wait, come back. Hear me out.
Set a few months after the events of the first film, Neo and Trinity are now a fully-fledged couple. But there’s trouble brewing on the horizon, a huge mass of machines are gathering to finally take down Zion; the last human stronghold (this news came from the ship Osoris – the star of one segment of the Animatrix which we’ll be looking at down the line). This puts Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo on the warpath to prepare for the impending battle. That plot sounds pretty simple, though the actual film is anything but.
This film has quite a few long scenes of expository dialogue. I think The Wachowskis are usually great writers, but they have a habit of writing very lengthy scenes talking about something that could have been explained in a third of the time. The scene with The Architect is a perfect example of this. He explains that Neo and the concept of “The One” is ingrained in this version of the Matrix, and that Neo can help restart Zion again (for the seventh time) or everyone in and out of the Matrix can die. There’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Now I could listen to this pretentious dialogue in my sleep, I’m a sucker for it (and Revolutions is worse for it) but scenes like this kill any notion of pacing that the film might of had.
But the ideas are good. The concepts are interesting. You’re never bored, at least I wasn’t. Things are weird, but in a good way. Like the first film, Reloaded presents some extremely exciting ideas. The difference here is that they’re not quite as simple to understand. But going into it you just need to remember that you might not understand every single detail, but you’ll understand it on the whole. Things don’t work literally a lot of the time; the universe has its own logic. So just go with it. And as Morpheus says, “Free your mind.”
But the thing that absolutely makes this the best Matrix film is the action. The so-called ‘Burly Brawl’ where Neo takes on the many Agent Smith’s might look a little dated now but it’s still thrilling to see the ridiculous number of Hugo Weavings the film gets on screen. And the highway chase is a masterclass in action, from the effects to the insane choreography. The highlight is the scene in which Morpheus whips out the katana and takes out the twins. For me however, the true standout action scene of the film is the château fight. This sees Neo take out a bunch of henchmen with fancy wire-work and ornate medieval weaponry. It shows that it doesn’t all have to be about CGI and huge set-pieces, and I think in the 16 years since the trilogy concluded people forget about how much great old-school hand-to-hand fighting there was.
So, for me, The Matrix Reloaded is the best of the trilogy – for having the best mix of action and brains. But what if there was more action? And far less brains? Well that brings us to the conclusion of the trilogy.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The end of the trilogy wasn’t particularly popular with a lot of people – having a pretty pathetic 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s get something out of the way first though. It’s the weakest of the trilogy, but it’s not that bad.
Filmed concurrently with The Matrix Reloaded, this was to be the ending of an iconic trilogy. Sure, a lot people weren’t as keen on the second installment, and leaving it on a cliffhanger was a bit of a cop-out. But the story of ‘The One’ was being wrapped up, and there were a lot of heady questions to answer. So imagine a lot of people’s surprise when those more pretentious elements are seemingly thrown out for more action. A lot of the reviews at the time talk about how the pathos was gone, in it’s place; CGI and action.
But oh boy the action is astounding. That’s what surprised me about this film. Yeah it’s not entirely satisfying, but it has some of the best science-fiction action I’ve seen. Namely, the scenes of the soldiers in exo-suits defending Zion. The Wachowski’s anime influences are clear here, as the mech-suits fire thousands upon thousands of bullets at the incoming machine in what looks like a cross between a gorgeous baroque painting and a bullet-hell shooter. And whatever you think about Zion, it looks realistic. It looks lived-in and as if everything you’re seeing would actually work – all the gears on the mech-suits serve a purpose, every spinning turbine in the background is important.
Speaking of anime, the last battle between Neo and Smith is straight out of Dragonball Z. By the conclusion, Smith has assimilated everyone in the Matrix and now controls it totally. Neo and him start battling and it sees them throwing each other through concrete, flying through lighting storms and battling like Superman and Zod, and just punching each other in slow motion. It looks pretty great, but it’s far removed from the more grounded shootouts of the first film – so I can see why some people weren’t happy. Inter-cutting these CGI punch-fests are scenes of Smith and Neo battling with some proper kung-fu. These scenes are the highlights and you’d be crazy to not get hyped when Neo gets thrown across a room, only to get back up, taunt Smith, and carry on fighting. But that’s exactly it, a lot of this wacky over-the-top fighting is held together by the sheer charisma of Reeves and Weaving.
And they need all the charisma they can get in this film, as the writing does little to help them out. There’s little levity in it, intentional or not. This means that the serious, expositional writing of The Wachowskis has to do all the heavy lifting. And while there is less than in the previous films, some scenes really needed a few minutes shaved off in the editing process. The main one is Trinity’s death. After being impaled by debris on her an Neo’s suicide mission into the machine city, she takes an agonising five minutes to die. It’s sweet, and I do believe in the love between the characters, but it drags.
Despite how much I enjoyed this film, there is a fatal misstep in perhaps the most important part of the film; the ending. Going into this, fans wanted to know what would happen to Neo. Would he survive? Would he die? But what we get is…difficult to describe. Neo makes a deal with the leader of the machines (the Deus Ex Machina) and takes out Smith. Or let’s Smith kill him, thus killing Smith. Or something. It’s not super clear. And it’s not 100% obvious whether Neo dies or not. Worst of all, in a film that can stretch scenes three times longer than they need to be, the ending feels rushed. And it feels an awful lot like a cliffhanger, which is kind of insulting after three films. But on the other hand, a lot of people will find more than enough closure in the ending of Neo’s story, even if it’s not 100% successful. The ending is up to interpretation, which is a risky move, because it seems that the majority of viewers interpret it as a letdown.
Overall, it’s a messy ending to the series. But it feels like every part, every strange moment, every questionable choice was 100% intentional. So even though it might not be the ending you want, it feels like a natural ending to the story The Wachowskis wanted to tell, for better or for worse. And it’s easy to nitpick when looking at the film on it’s own, but as a whole it works.
And if you’re still not sold, the first film is near-perfect and can exist on it’s own. The sequels take place years afterwards, giving the first one an interesting standalone quality. So you could always take the blue pill and just forget about the sequels.