Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Sacrifice Of Philosophy For Effects Drags Down The Complete Matrix Trilogy

The Good: Interesting setting, Surprisingly good acting, Great initial idea, DVD bonus features, Effects
The Bad: Characters become progressively less interesting, Plot becomes rather formulaic, Themes gutted for effects
The Basics: The bonus features for The Complete Matrix Trilogy are amazing, but not quite enough to overlook the poor (but great looking/sounding!) source material.

Once upon a time, there was a great idea for a film. One brother went to another and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a movie where we presented the idea that all of our lives right now are just simulations controlled by machines to keep us all in check while they drained us of energy to power themselves?" And the other brother said, "The people would never buy that, it's too complicated." And the first brother said, "But we could make it with incredible special effects and popular actors and intriguing characters and hide our themes of the values of life and freedom in among the gunshots and car chases!" And the second brother said, "We should do just that!" And they wrote it. And they directed it. And it was good.

And it was The Matrix.

And then the screwed it all up by adding onto the film with the vastly inferior The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions! Why couldn't they just quit while they were ahead?! I have rated a number of film trilogies this year, like The Indiana Jones Trilogy (reviewed here!) and the Back To The Future Trilogy (reviewed here!) and while they might have had their issues, none of them take quite the nosedive away from what they were than The Matrix Trilogy, now compiled into a 3 disc set.

For those unfamiliar with The Matrix Trilogy, this was a series of three science fiction/action adventure films that pitted humanity vs. machines in an all-out battle for survival and control over a ruined Earth.

In The Matrix (reviewed here!), Thomas Anderson - a hacker who goes by Neo in the virtual world of cyberspace - is approached by a group of hackers who offer to wake him up to the reality of the world by helping him break free of the Matrix. Neo accepts and suddenly finds himself in a war-torn, barren world on the run from giant Sentinel machines that are slaughtering the last free humans on the planet. The rest of humanity is plugged into the machines, their minds existing in the virtual reality world of the Matrix (an ordinary world and life by any objective standard) while their bodies are used to generate energy for the machines! Trained by Morpheus, Neo soon takes up the mantle of savior to the people trapped within the Matrix and he returns to the constructed world to free the people there.

In The Matrix Reloaded (reviewed here!), Neo appears to have not blown the minds of everyone in the world of the Matrix, but instead created a monster in the construct in the form of Agent Smith, who now has the ability to replicate himself by absorbing individuals within the Matrix and making them into himself. As Smith goes on a killing spree to absorb everyone he can in his hunt for Neo, Neo works to balance his role as savior with his love for Trinity and formulate a way to destroy the Matrix while Morpheus desperately tries to protect Zion, the last human city.

The story is concluded (or is it?) in The Matrix Revolutions (reviewed here!), where Neo finds his way out of the Matrix with the knowledge of how he may defeat the Agents Smith and liberate the humans still trapped by the machines only to discover that one of the Smiths has managed to enter the real world. As Neo fights to save the enslaved humanity, Morpheus marshals the forces needed to try to prevent the millions of Sentinels boring down into Zion from killing every last free human there.

The fundamental problem with The Matrix Trilogy is that it starts as a fairly well-conceived, highly philosophical exploration of reality, perception and the nature of freedom and the value of freedom over tyranny. What it degenerates into is a pretty mindless giant special effects battle movie that shoots everything and does not care much for sensibility or reality and instead goes for the glitz and the shiny objects. Where The Matrix ended was perfect and if the films had continued in that direction, instead of a big-budget special effects movie, the next films would have been allegories about the responsibilities of a god to the world it has dominion over. But no, instead, in order to continue the trilogy, The Matrix reboots with stories that allow the films to continue by retelling the first story but with a different ending. In other words, this was a poorly conceived trilogy. Great first film, mediocre and abysmal sequels.

Now, don't get me wrong, if you like mind of mindless, big battle special effects movies with less in the way of talking and characters relating, The Matrix Trilogy works out just fine! This set gets most of the talking out of the way in the first half and allows for the second half to be filled with giant action sequences, massive amounts of gunplay and hand-to-hand battles that will make your nose bleed just watching them! (They gave me a headache anyway . . . ). The problem - for those of us who like something more and who like some measure of consistency - is that the first film, while packed with action and more than enough intrigue to keep us rewatching it over and over again, is not set up that way. It is anything but mindless and so when we go into the Trilogy and discover there is a great deal of thought and philosophy behind it, we are ultimately disappointed by the abandonment of that by the time the final film comes around.

That said, there is a lot that The Complete Matrix Trilogy does right. First, the stories do have interesting characters, even if their characters get somewhat gutted by the end of the three films. The principle, consistent characters throughout the Trilogy include:

Neo - An ordinary working class man who has a glimmer that something is wrong in his world when he discovers he is not living in the real world. Freed from the Matrix, Neo succumbs to suggestions from Morpheus that he has a greater destiny and might well be the one to end the war between the humans and the machines by freeing the enslaved minds trapped within the Matrix and bodies that are plugged into the machines powering it. He soon discovers he has powers that verge on godhood and his exploration of them is complicated by a growing love for Trinity,

Trinity - A tough-as-nails sidekick of Morpheus, she falls in love with Neo when helping him realize the extent of his powers. Uncertain how she fits into his life when he becomes something of a religious icon to the freed people of Zion, she redoubles her commitment to freeing everyone from the Matrix by any means necessary, even if it were to cost her her life,

Morpheus - The mentor to Neo who helps free him from the virtual world and becomes obsessed with the idea that Neo is the One and therefore somewhat infallible at destroying the Matrix. He devotes his attention to protecting Zion and leaving Neo to himself once he has set him on that path,

and Agent Smith - One of the defense mechanisms of the Matrix, he starts as a simple human security program designed to stop dissidents within the construct. After Neo overcomes him, he finds his programming altered and he goes rogue. Obsessed with destroying Neo and all biological life, he begins to clone himself through the Matrix becoming a threat to everything and everyone!

Agent Smith is aptly played by Hugo Weaving, who played Elrond in The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (reviewed here!)! Weaving reveals his versatility in the role of Smith by going deeper and darker than most of us have seen him before. Weaving is stone-faced and ruthless most of the film so when he emotes - like when he wrinkles his nose in complete disgust at the smell of perspiration coming off Morpheus - it is powerful and expressive.

Carrie-Anne Moss plays Trinity and she is a worthy successor to other science fiction heroines like Ellen Ripley, Wonder Woman and . . . hmmm . . . pretty short list. Moss , like Fishburne and Weaving, plays the role with a duality of stone-cold affect and highly emotive. Her acting chops are won not when she opens the second film with a bang, but when she relaxes her body language and becomes vulnerable for the love scene, which illustrates her humanity and the depth of her character's love.

Lawrence Fishburne plays Morpheus and he is wonderful . . . in establishing his character. Fishburne plays the mentor role wonderfully and establishes Morpheus as a guide and sage with the body language of a warrior and guardian, but as the films progress, he is given less and less to do and while his character stagnates, Fishburne allows his performance to remain fairly static. He's good, but the Trilogy simply does not know what to do with his talents and they come to neglect him and his character.

But Keanu Reeves is the one with the burden of making part of The Matrix Trilogy make real sense and this is the role he was born to play. Reeves with his understated acting is the everyman Neo, the awkward man coming to be a deity. He plays the role with a slouch that evolves with his character until he owns the part. His deliveries are almost never melodramatic and he has a quality to him that lends itself perfectly to the more muted superhero role.

But for a giant special effects series, the devil is in the details. In The Matrix one of the wonderful visual cues to humanity's desperation - made all the more clear on Blu-Ray - is how threadbare the costumes are. Humanity is on the run, of course there are no sweatshops, er, factories making new clothes. But in the two sequels, with a budget, suddenly the people of Zion are pretty well coifed!

Similarly, for a film series that pays so much attention to style and look, it's amazing how much they cheat on some of the special effects. Yes, the big climactic battles are SO tremendous and huge in scope and scale that there is no possible way to take in all that is going on on the screen at any given moment. On HD-DVD the battles look good . . . what you can see of them. They move at a pace that is oppressive and overwhelming such that one gets the idea of the battles, the ebb and flow, but no specifics stand out.

I've long argued against the whole Blu-Ray/HD-DVD concept (I gladly admit that). My reasoning is simple: DVD is a wonderful, durable, enduring media and the highest grossing form of entertainment in the world for the past few years has been DVD Boxed set television series'. A lot of people have a lot of money tied up in DVDs and with television shows being the primary place they have their money invested, there is not much a higher quality DVD can (affordably) do for most consumers. Upgrading to any form of Blu-Ray is just milking people for their hard-earned money a second time (unless players are all backwards compatible) and that's just wrong.

My other reason for pretty much despising (well in advance of its release) the HD-DVD medium is that the vast majority of consumers cannot possibly afford all the equipment needed to fully take advantage of the enhanced medium. Well, my huge splurge in recent years was my HD-TV (reviewed here!) so I've had occasion now to occasionally test out an HD-DVD or Blue-Ray disc from time to time. Honestly, The Complete Matrix Trilogy is what this medium was made for! With a kicking system these films (especially the first) look and sound absolutely amazing! This DVD set is enough to make one believe in the Matrix it looks so real and sounds so vibrant on screen and over the speakers.

On the three discs, (one per film) there are commentary tracks (which have the cast and crew and philosophers discussing the making of and implications of the movies), 18 featurettes, music videos, advertisements, and trailers. This is essentially the "lite" version of the "Ultimate Matrix Collection," which also includes the Animatrix and some other goodies that tied together the franchise. The Complete Matrix Trilogy is just the cinematic Matrix adventures in HD and there are ample goodies for the fans. The nice thing is, for those who purchased any other version of The Matrix on DVD or HD-DVD, there is NOTHING exclusive in this set to make you want to buy it as an upgrade to what you already own. Conversely, one is not losing anything by purchasing this set; it includes ALL of the DVD bonuses from the "Ultimate Matrix Collection" as well as the picture-in-picture HD options from the HD version of that set. The only reason to buy this set is because you do not have the Trilogy and you're starting at the HD level and you don't want the Animatrix.

And honestly, I can't even recommend it for those people. The only one of these movies worth seeing is The Matrix. I'm sure there is (or will be) a single-disc DVD version of it with all the same bonus features. Go for that instead, this is not worth it, even though it makes magnificent use of the medium!

For the other film saga reviews, please check out my reviews of:
The Star Wars Saga
The Twilight Saga
The Dark Knight Trilogy


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Hi !

    Matrix was good movie. I liked it

    But it's one movie that shouldn't have become a trilogy. Because "episodes" 2 and 3 were boring and not that good.

    1. Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading!

      Yeah, this was definitely a series they should have quit while they were ahead!