It seems so long ago now, but when the original Matrix (1999) was released, it was very much the underdog. The undisputed sci-fi blockbuster of that year was The Phantom Menace (1999); by contrast, the Wachowski Brothers’ fresh contender sounded suspiciously like a low-key retread of Keanu Reeves’ earlier cyberpunk flop, Johnny Mnemonic (1995). But George Lucas’ comeback turned out to be a case study in how to wreck a sequel by misunderstanding which qualities that made the first film work. By comparison, The Matrix proved to be sharp, entertaining and fresh. This, so the whispers went, was what The Phantom Menace should have been like. And it’s all so ironic now, because the Wachowskis’ own Matrix sequels have proved, in their own way, to be just as underwhelming.
Alarm bells started ringing about an hour into the first sequel, Reloaded (2003) – because at that point precisely nothing had happened, except a daft sex scene, an unconvincing rave sequence, an entirely pointless fight and a couple of futuristic council meetings. Every line of would-be meaningful dialogue was delivered in a reverent hush as though the script were holy scipture. New developments in the philosophy of the Matrix seemed less like ingenious, thoughtful storytelling and more like lazy, half-baked tosh. In short, the Wachowskis had indulgently mislaid the verve and wit of the first film and the trilogy’s momentum was completely derailed. But there was still a hope that the third film would be, to use Matrix-speak, ‘the one’. The action would be back, and the myriad unanswered questions and loose ends would be resolved. Sadly, they’re not.
This film picks up directly where Reloaded left off, and delivers the same sense of disappointment. The plot’s a straightforward ticking-clock scenario: the masters of the Matrix have located Zion, the last stronghold of humanity, and a vast swarm of destructive machines are within hours of burrowing their way in. Many of the humans believe in the prophecy that Neo, who has mastered his exceptional powers, will be their saviour, but he lies comatose after the travails of Reloaded. The focus of the action, then, is the ensuing assault, and to be fair it’s technically brilliant, and the scenes in question are clear and focussed enough to quicken the pace considerably. But it doesn’t last, and so much of the rest of the film is hopelessly muddled and insubstantial. The leads have precious little to do; the gifted Fishburne, in particular, just stands around in a tatty jumper throughout, with so few lines that you almost forget he’s there. The other characters are doled out po-faced one-liners such as "The purpose of life is to end" and – wait for it – "Cookies need love like everything does". If the filmmaking thing falls through, the Wachowskis could always get jobs writing greetings cards for Hallmark.
It becomes irritating just how much effort has been expended in making the Matrix seem like a multi-layered philosophical concept rather than a neat but limited idea. Indeed, at no point in the saga has any reason been given for why the machines created the Matrix at all. If they simply need comatose, cocooned humans as a source of energy, why go to all the trouble giving them a problematic virtual reality to believe they inhabit..? In fact, there’s far too many opportunities here to question the Wachowskis’ judgement.
Take the example of the key character of The Oracle, played in the preceding films by Gloria Foster, who died before production of Revolutions. Two options would seem to present themselves: cast someone identical and play it down, or recast entirely and explain the change away on screen. Perplexingly the Wachowskis do both, which just allows for more brow-furrowing chat about ‘new shells’ from her replacement, Mary Oliver. On a larger scale, the people of Zion, the beleaguered vestiges of humankind on whose fate the tale hangs, are dishwater-dull to a man, and it’s impossible to care what becomes of them. The three established leads evaporate from proceedings before the conclusion, which in itself resolves nothing. Rather, it potentially sets the scene for more sequels, which doesn’t bear thinking about. A pack of unimaginative sixth-formers with limitless supplies of illicit smoking substances could probably have come up with something similar – if not better. As 21st Century blockbusters go, it’s a titanic waste of potential and cash.
Peter Jackson, don’t fail us now…