“Everything that has a beginning has an end.”
That phrase is spoken several times throughout The Matrix Revolutions. It was on the posters and hung over the trailers. This was it, we were told. What it had all been leading to. The war with machines would reach its climax. The Matrix would be destroyed, the humans would be freed. Our heroes would celebrate victoriously in Zion.
But instead of a revolution, we got a reset.
There are few final chapters as highly derided as The Matrix Revolutions. After The Matrix Reloaded brought in $280 million at the domestic box office, the third and (for then) final chapter was released just six months later and limped to about half that. It is the only “Rotten”-rated film in the original trilogy, splatting with an abysmal 35% at Rotten Tomatoes. It killed the franchise for nearly 20 years as Lilly and Lana Wachowski were accused of spinning wheels in order to feed a video game that launched in its wake.
I saw The Matrix Reloaded opening night. Like everyone else, I was amped to see how the Wachowskis would bring this all in for a landing. I was aware of the flaws inherent in The Matrix Reloaded, but confident that in hindsight it would all appear according to plan. I could not wait to see what it would look like when the plug was finally pulled and the Matrix was decommissioned.
But rather than all-out war and revolution, the film ended with a truce. Two hours and 10 minutes later, I sat in the seat with my mouth agape, feeling like my four-year investment in Neo’s story had been utterly wasted. It would be another 16 years before I watched the first film again; I wouldn’t revisit the rest of the trilogy until writing this recent series. It was, until How I Met Your Mother’s finale, my go-to answer for how something brilliant could utterly betray its fanbase.
Nearly two decades on, my feelings are a bit more complex. So, before The Matrix Resurrections brings on the true ending (maybe?), let’s take one last red pill and jump back down the rabbit hole.
The Matrix collapses
The film picks up shortly after The Matrix Reloaded’s cliffhanger. Neo is in limbo, in a train station that exists to smuggle programs from the Machine City into the Matrix. Meanwhile, Trinity and Morpheus are willing to make a deal with the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) to get him back. Zion’s forces are marshaling to defend themselves against the sentinels, which are tunneling toward the city and are just hours away from breaking through. And the Machines have their own problem, as Agent Smith is replicating like a virus, assimilating programs and causing the Matrix to destabilize. The stage is set for an epic showdown…but The Matrix Revolutions seems hesitant to provide it.
Those who came to The Matrix for bullet time and kung fu were likely supremely disappointed by the film, which spends most of its stretches not in The Matrix but in the Real World. There’s an opening shootout in the Merovingian’s underground club (Club Hel), but even as Morpheus walks on the ceiling and Trinity cartwheels behind pillars, it lacks the energy and verve of the previous films’ action sequences. The Wachowskis pushed the limits of these effects in Reloaded, and they seem disinterested in trotting them out again.
Instead, they structure the movie as part war film and part epic journey, seasoned with the usual philosophical musings and a greater increase in sentimentality. If The Matrix Reloaded built a case for the Machines having thought out every contingency to maintain control, Revolutions explores human perseverance in the face of certain annihilation, and argues that love doesn’t win wars — it ends them.
Once everyone is reunited in the Real World, the quests embark. The forces in Zion try to hold their own against the oncoming onslaught of the machines. Morpheus joins Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) on a dangerous mission to cut them off. Neo and Trinity head off to the Machine City in hopes that Neo can broker a deal with the Machines and save the life of all the humans.
It doesn’t feel like a Matrix movie, and that’s likely why so many reacted harshly to it, especially after Reloaded reveled in car chases, Matrix ghosts and slow motion. The leather jackets and sunglasses are gone; most of this takes place in Zion and the tunnels outside. Keanu Reeves spends most of the movie blindfolded, the result of an attack by Bane, who’s been taken over by Smith in the Real World. And at two hours, the film can barely contain all of these plot points plus follow Agent Smith as he absorbs other programs and threatens to shut everything in The Matrix down.
And there’s definitely something disappointing in the way Revolutions sidelines so much of the cast of the original film. Reeves is always solid as Neo, but he spends most of the film sitting down, thinking. While his cohorts are blazing through Club Hel, he sits in a subway station. Through most of the middle half of the film, he’s piloting a spaceship. And it’s not until the film’s climactic showdown with Smith that he gets to do any Matrix moves; and even that fight feels oddly truncated for a trilogy-cappoing brawl. But that’s still better than the franchise turning Trinity from a badass heroine in The Matrix to The Girlfriend here. And the Wachowskis seem to forget Morpheus is even in the film; in the back half, he’s simply Niobe’s co-pilot. It’s surprising to see the heavy hitters relegated largely to the background.
Audiences went into The Matrix Revolutions expecting a bombastic, thrilling and epic conclusion to their characters’ stories. But that’s not what The Wachowskis delivered.
But the movie they made instead…it’s actually not bad.
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The sidelining of the main characters is intentional, woven into the film’s themes in a way that is resonant, even if it's structurally clumsy.
The Matrix franchise evolves from a story about Neo being The One to a story in which humans must band together to fight for their survival. Neo doesn’t take the lead; instead, he understands his role as having a connection to The Source, and flies out to negotiate with the Machines. Morpheus is not a prophet; he’s confused by the reveal about Neo’s real state, hesitant to believe in anything (the film could have given him some sort of closure, though). Trinity accompanies Neo and…well, there’s no excuse for how badly Trinity is characterized here, the fawning girlfriend brought back to life at the end of the last film only to die at a more emotionally manipulative moment here.
But the Wachowskis zoom in instead on the people who are doing the day-to-day fighting while the zealots are venturing into the Matrix. During the epic siege on Zion — which, despite the lack of kung fu and bullet time, is still one of the most thrilling action sequences in the trilogy — the Wachowskis focus on how small actions by “normal” men and women keep humanity alive, from the women delivering weaponry, to the Kid closing the door, to Captain Mifune leading the band of warriors in the mech suits (I loved Nathaniel Lees’s ever scream of “knuckle up!”). Niobe gets to save the day and be a badass pilot. To have stakes in the future of humanity, the film has to give us more than just exceptional heroes; putting the spotlight on these minor characters and their smaller stories gives Neo’s quest passion and urgency.
The Matrix Revolutions also features some of the most memorable moments in the saga. Hugo Weaving is unleashed and has a blast devouring the scenery; his maniacal laugh once Smith assimilates the Oracle skirts the edge of parody and is gleefully deranged. Carrie Anne Moss gets to shine in a brief moment where Trinity gets her only glimpse of blue sky. I love the horrifying cyber-baby design of The Source and every single moment of the Zion siege. And while the final fight between Smith and Neo feels short, there is some great imagery, from the digital rain mixed with the real raindrops to the windows on every skyscraper blowing out when Neo and Smith collide in mid air.
A mess of a plot? Absolutely, and it’s something the Wachowskis are known for; their ideas and their passion often gets in the way of coherency and pacing. But there’s good stuff in The Matrix Reloaded when it’s allowed to be divorced from prior expectations.
And its denouement, rather than baffling me this time out, was surprisingly moving.
The real Matrix was love all along
The key scene to understanding The Matrix Revolutions takes place on that train platform early on. There, Neo encounters a young girl, Sati. She’s the daughter of two programs, and she’s scheduled to be deleted because she has no purpose. But Neo’s actions at the end of Reloaded, when he chose love for Trinity over submission to The Matrix, have changed things. The programs now feel love for their daughter, and are smuggling her into the Matrix and sending her to the Oracle, who believes she has a key role to play in the end of the war.
Neo’s love for Trinity has ripple effects. It’s changing the Matrix. And the programs are portrayed as having just as much at stake as the humans. Smith is the anti-Neo, assimilating programs to his will and causing the Matrix to destabilize; humans obliterating the Machines will also obliterate these sentient programs, which have evolved to have their own hopes, dreams and loves. And what of the humans who aren’t ready to be free, who would prefer to stay in the Matrix? If Neo’s story has been one of shaking off the Matrix’s control and choosing his own path, isn’t he ripping that path away from his fellow humans? It’s the path of Smith to destroy the Matrix; Neo finds a better way, one led by love. He proposes to fight Smith and destroy him; in return, the Machines agree to a truce. They’ll retreat from Zion; all the humans who wish to be freed will be. How long it lasts is up for question (and I guess we’re going to get our answer next week), but for now there will be peace.
If it all sounds a bit churchy, it’s because this film — perhaps more than any other recent blockbuster — leans hard into its Christ imagery. Church groups loved to claim The Matrix as their own in 1999 because of all the vague spirituality, but they seemed to back off once Reloaded showcased an orgy. But Neo’s path of love as a better way, his ability to heal, his willingness to absorb all of Smith’s evil and die for both the Machines and humans (being transported to The Source in a crucifixion pose, for crying out loud) really hammers home the parallels, intentional or not. And while my 24-year-old self was disappointed not to have the film end with fireworks, my 42-year-old self is moved by the decision to let love, not violence, have the final word. The Matrix Revolutions has a bit too much fun with its battle scenes to be an anti-war film, but it’s refreshing to have a blockbuster end with a reminder that violence destroys, love perseveres.
The Matrix became a cultural sensation in 1999 because it eschewed sentimentality and embraced cool. It was sleek, and disaffected; except it really wasn’t. While the scenes in The Matrix were badass and iconic, the Real World scenes were always pensive, hopeful and awash in sentiment; how else to explain Trinity resurrecting Neo through a declaration of love in its climax? As the sequels continue, the Wachowskis lean harder into this, letting the cold intelligence of the Matrix stand as the ultimate challenge to the irrational hope and love of humanity. In The Matrix Revolutions, love wins, and not one moment of this journey feels grafted onto a by-the-numbers plot. It feels like the story the Wachowskis wanted to tell, bringing up themes of connection, community, love, humanity and hope that they would revisit throughout their careers. It’s a mess, but it’s their mess. And what I once hated, I now find myself quite fond of.
Which is an exciting and kind of terrifying to be on the cusp of The Matrix Resurrections’ debut. No longer do I feel like Lana Wachowski has to redeem this franchise, but my fear is that she’ll succumb to pressures to rewrite her previous ending. I can’t wait to see how she brings back Neo and Trinity, and what new wrinkles might be added to the mythology. And maybe this time, I’ll learn not to listen to my first reaction.
Other films in this Franchise Friday series:
Note: Given that next Friday is Christmas Eve and the following is New Year’s Eve, there won’t be any Franchise Fridays until January. But on January 7 and 14, get ready for two double-feature Franchise Fridays, as we return to Woodsboro to tackle the first four Scream films.