After watching the new-live action Ghost in the Shell, I felt inspired to re-watch The Matrix which, not surprisingly, was inspired by the classic 1995 anime film. My review of the film now is the same as it was when I watched it for the first time in the early 2000’s. It’s a groundbreaking, awe-inspiring film, one that stands the test of time that doesn’t necessarily condemn tech or A.I. but rather serves as a warning of what things may come. It was the first fully-realized movie universe that I became obsessed with, watching the film several times on repeat, pondering the philosophical themes and buying all of the of Neo-esque sunglasses I could get my hands on before they would inevitably break and I’d have to buy a new pair.
The Matrix could have just existed as one film. It told a story from beginning to end, and even though it did leave the possibility of where things could go after this journey, it didn’t necessarily create a need to see what Neo would do next. This is the type of movie kids that will get kids into action and sci-fi films 30 years from now and they will be stunned that it came out in 1999. I think the Wachowskis only planned for one film, but that final scene literally created a desire to see more of Neo flying. We don’t care what the story is, just give us Keanu Reeves flying around for 90 minutes. Neo’s flying ended up creating the first sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded.
Warner Bros. did something really interesting with this sequel. They released a video game called Enter the Matrix around the same time of the movie’s release, maybe earlier, and also a 9-part anime series called The Animatrix, diving more into the Matrix mythos and cannon. The Matrix: Reloaded still makes perfect sense on its own, but Enter the Matrix and The Animatrix actually filled in some holes you didn’t know were there. Enter the Matrix is essentially the story of Niobe and Ghost, taking place just before and right after The Matrix: Reloaded. You got to run around as both characters and do the things you really wanted to do after the first movie came out: dodge bullets and karate chop bad guys. The Animatrix is a collection of 9 short stories within this universe, two of which tell the entire history of humans vs. machines (spoiler alert: it was totally our fault this whole human enslavement thing happened), one about the events that directly inspire the video game and The Matrix Reloaded, and one about the kid who is obsessed with Neo in the two sequels.
It was a truly immersive storytelling experience I’ve never seen before, where a film extended both into a video game and anime series, that you’d need to play and watch all of them to get the full picture, but still wouldn’t be confused if you didn’t. Star Wars and Star Trek do something similar, with extended novels, movies and TV series adding to their cannon. But Star Wars has never done something like releasing a video game that you’d have to play in order to get the whole picture of what’s happening in The Force Awakens. All of what The Matrix did for Reloaded, Enter the Matrix and The Animatrix was truly revolutionary, and probably wouldn’t be possible in today’s internet landscape because people would just post spoilers and synopses of everything that would happen in the game and anime series.
In the film itself, character development is lacking, and some performances are just plain silly, but It took a movie that didn’t need a sequel and transformed its fictional world into a full-blown universe, and that made it great. That all, sadly, falls apart with The Matrix: Revolutions.
Shot back to back with The Matrix: Reloaded, this final chapter receives the most praise when you consider it and Reloaded just one, really long sequel instead of two films. But judging it as a film on its own merit, its like the Wachowskis demanded too much money from the studio and handed off their baby to an inexperience director and/or screenwriter to finish. Some of the storytelling is nonsensical or just plain lazy. The final battle between Neo and Agent Smith breaks our disbelief, trading in waht should be a gritty shootout and kung-fu battle into a live-action version of Dragonball Z. Sadly, there is no point at all for this final battle, as the millions of Smith clones could just dogpile Neo and shove their hand into him and just get the job done right then and there (it’s also never explained how or why Smith could fly, except that it’s The Matrix, that kooky digital enslavement place where anything can happen!)
Watching this last sequel again, you also realize there really is no point for Neo to broker a peace between the machines. Sure, Smith has grown out of their control in The Matrix, but The Matrix only exists to enslave humans, and if they’re truly cold-blooded, calculating A.I., they wouldn’t have any regrets killing us all in one fell swoop and just switching to wind or solar power. Even the battle for Zion seems tedious and non-rewarding, especially when the stoic, anti-Morpheus commander tells Niobe “yeah, you pretty much doomed us all with that EMP.” We spend the whole of this movie quite literally waiting for it to end, waiting for the Neo-Smith battle to happen, and just wanting to see how Neo will defeat the machines. Everything else is just filler, like a college student desperately trying to meet a required word count on a midterm essay.
But The Matrix trilogy really is a representation of the best and worst things the studio system can offer. We saw a successful movie evolve into the most interactive marketing and storytelling experience of the early 2000s when The Matrix: Reloaded came out, but got an atypical, lackluster sequel with the final chapter. If we’re to take Morpheus’s suggestion of “Free your mind” seriously, it’d be by breaking the standard movie-going convention that you need to watch all three of these films to get the whole picture. Just stick with the first one, because watching the second, even in its glory, means you’ll have to watch the third. You can’t just eat half of a banana or an apple when you get full, you have to finish the whole thing. Just keeping things at the original The Matrix, though, makes us realize we were never that hungry for bananas or apples in the first place, and that our stomachs are perfectly satisfied with this groundbreaking, movie-going meal.