When The Matrix was released in 1999, it was met with a resounding rush of enthusiasm. It was the kind of cool that only the advent of a new millennium could create. While Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace brought new interest (and heaps of criticism) to the franchise that had started a science fiction revolution two decades earlier, the Wachowskis pushed science-fiction forward, blending the excitement and fear of the internet age, anime, black leather, and sunglasses into something refreshing and mind-bending. At the start of the millennium, there was nothing more current than discussing bullet time and listening to Destiny’s Child singing “Say My Name.”
With the amount of hype that was built up for the release of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, expectations were always going to be impossible to live up to. The sequels, the third more so than the second, were torn to shreds, while the box office provided a final green glow before the age of superhero films started in earnest. And now, a little over eleven years since The Matrix Revolutions was released, many of the pop culturally minded look back on what was a great first installment without bothering to revisit the sequels, which leads me to my question. Assuming it’s possible to be let down by the same movie more than once: Are The Matrix sequels still let downs, still the cinematic equivalent of diarrhea that so many critics and former fans have made them out to be for the last decade plus? Allow me to blow your minds by telling you that The Matrix sequels were never bad and never deserved your feelings of disappointment. Feel that ripple around you? That’s just me altering your world. So give me your best Keanu Reeves “whoa” and follow me down this rabbit hole.
The Wachowskis have always been ambitious, overly so, and sometimes to the point of alienating their core audience. Even with their first feature, Bound, they pushed the envelope and tried to take viewers out of their comfort zones. They did this more recently with Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas (the latter a more triumphant success than the former, I’d argue), and I hope they do it with Jupiter Ascending. In each instance, the majority of critics and audiences have rejected their attempts, leading many to wonder what happened to the brilliant directors who gave us The Matrix. I’ll tell you what happened: they red pilled us. For all of its advances and creativity, The Matrix provides comfort. It’s just twisty and philosophical enough to make sure the masses aren’t left behind. Like the Wachowskis scripted V for Vendetta (a film I enjoy quite a lot, though not as much as the work on which it’s based), The Matrix is a simplification of something that’s not simple at all, a means for us to pat ourselves on the back and feel intelligent for figuring it out, while leaving just enough questions for water cooler discussions. (Do those even happen anymore?)
With, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, the Wachowskis get full on philosophical and mythological, without directly providing us with all the answers. I still won’t pretend I fully understand how exile programs have resulted in our legends about vampires and werewolves, and some of the new concepts are introduced far too fast and frequently to digest on the first go round. The scene with the Architect is filled with enough information that each sentence could be unpacked line by line. While the sequels don’t provide absolute clarity, they do provide the means for us to find the answers, to seek knowledge outside of the film, but the Wachowskis stop spoonfeeding us and make us work for sustenance and satisfaction. After all, “there is no spoon.”
I’m not saying the films are without their flaws; there’s some shoddy, texture-less CGI and the sweaty, grinding party in Zion goes on for an uncomfortably long amount of time (what kind of dancing was that anyway?). But even if we call ‘bullshit’ on the Wachowskis’ examination of the nature of free will and Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero’s Journey,’ there are visual highlights of the films that cannot be denied. The freeway battle in Reloaded and the finale battle between Neo and Smith in Revolutions are still two of the standout big-budget action scenes of the last two decades. There’s also the fact that the Wachowskis create the most racially diverse depiction of the future ever put on film. Seeing people like me represented as sci-fi heroes is one of the reasons why the franchise was so impactful growing up. So the sequels are not as streamlined as the first, and there are times when they sag under the weight of what can only be called “too much muchness,” but for every flaw or supposed flaw, I see achievement and a willingness to do something different when so many blockbuster sequels play it safe and ask nothing of their audiences.
As a story without a true ending, Reloaded isn’t a fully formed sequel. And as the second half of a story that’s revealed as a cycle, Revolutions isn’t a fully formed conclusion. But this serialized sort of storytelling is exactly what audiences are clamoring for with the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now. If we view Reloaded and Revolutions not as two distinct films but as halves of one story, I think they work much better in terms of narrative. I can empathize with the reasons behind some people’s dissatisfaction with the conclusion. After all, the film does end on a note that Neo’s heroics may ultimately be for nothing and it never entirely answers whether he has free will or not, but aren’t these notions the ultimate question of life? In this world of sentient programs with God-complexes and overpowered digital messiahs, The Wachowskis are only providing a cinematic path to get us to consider the questions we face every day, whether they be consciously or subconsciously addressed. If it’s been a while since you’ve entered the Matrix, I encourage you to watch all three films and consider them in a new light. After all the big-budget films I’ve seen and important questions they have posed, I still stand by the fact that there’s nothing like The Matrix sequels, and I doubt there ever will be again.