The Franchise That Had It All and Lost It

     October 13, 2008

Written by Andre Dellamorte

At this point we all know how badly The Wachowskis shit the bed with their sequels to The Matrix. And, sadly, with the failure of Speed Racer, these guys are going to have a tough time getting their visions made. And that’s too bad. Though I was never that crazy about Bound, the first film, The Matrix, is a damn great film, and bested George Lucas in 1999.

If you don’t know by now the first film follows John Anderson, or as he becomes known, Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he’s introduced to a number of Cyber-hackers/cyber-terrorists with names like Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moss) and Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne). Allow me to stop for a second. People on the internet (self excluded) often have stupid referential names. That works here because we’re introduced to these characters as by having net names. When other characters in the world have similarly silly names but live in Zion in the sequels, you wish at least one person was named Steve.

Neo is being tracked by some agents of some sort (headed up by Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith) who want to stop him from getting close to Morpheus and his gang. But Neo does meet Morpheus, and he takes the red pill, which wakes him up literally. Guess what? It’s 200 years in the future, and computers run the world, using Humans as their Duracells. There’s a squad of freedom fighters led by people like Morpheus who are working against the machines. But what Neo has to realize is to beat the machines, he must conquer their code, and manipulate their created reality. This led to the film’s great training room fight scene where Morpheus challenges Neo to use the Kung Fu he learned all but hours ago on him. Their fight is still breathtaking in its conciseness. There is so much going on in their fight, from freedom, to control, to understanding. It’s everything a good fight scene should be.

Building to a perfect moment of self-realization/actualization cluttered by a little bit too much business, the first Matrix film has a great look, feel, and attitude. The staging of the action scenes – combining a couple sensibilities with the wire work of Yuen Woo-Ping – was inventive and suggested an evolution of form. The wire work of Hong Kong meeting the technical savvy of the states. Sadly, it only took one Charlie’s Angels film to ruin this. But at the time you got the feeling that you were seeing some ideas that had been percolating, mixed with a great head-trip style and modern effects. Bullet time, and all that was an evolutionary leap into what you could do with effects, and the Wachowskis slow motion movement stuff really hasn’t been equaled in the action realm. The story itself has it Joseph Campbell element of the journey of the hero, but you also have that Baudrillard in their as well. But in the text there is a great sense of balance, something lost in the follow ups, but is well maintained in the original.

Following this, our first taste of something came with The Animatrix, with one episode shown before Dreamcatcher. It was computer animated, and offered little but a taste of what was to come.

I was at the first public screening of The Matrix Reloaded. Watching it was similar to watching a balloon deflate for two and a half hours. It was chilly and embarrassing. I remember the hoopla when the film came out, and Reloaded opened huge and many tried to find it interesting. There were a lot of open doors with the second film, and people were having fun making guesses about what was significant, and what wasn’t. I don’t like sounding like some sort of spoilsport, but my sense watching the film was that there was no way in hell these guys would be able to tie it up with the next film in a satisfactory way. I didn’t want to be right, but I could tell that whatever balance had been maintained in the original was thrown out the door. The rave scene suggested that this wasn’t going to be as fun or as witty as what had come before. It suggested something a little more plodding.

In the second film, after Neo has revealed himself to be a god in his world, agents get upgrades, and the destroyed Agent Smith comes back as a self-replicating virus. Any one he touches becomes a Smith. All the while Neo and Co. are waiting for messages from the Oracle, and then get sent on a quest involving the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his wife Persephone (Monica Belluci) to get the keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) to open a door from the prophecy, which will offer something that could lead to salvation or something.

Watching the second film again, I was struck with how much of what’s going on adds nothing to the narrative. The middle section has maybe a little less than an hour of important shit, and a lot of going in circles. I think this intrigued a lot of audiences, but left just as many pissed off. In retrospect, watching the film again, so little of the things that people were stoked on got paid off. It’s really unfortunate.

I think, though, that their biggest mistake was that the filmmakers are likely gear-heads, and so what they did was refine and perfect a number of the techniques they had done previously. The problem was that audiences didn’t care to see a ten to twenty percent better version of bullet time, or the mass fighting of the Burly Brawl. They were hoping for a story or effects that gave them something more or greater than what they’d seen before. Instead they got improvements. A car is fast at 120 and 140 mph, and a passenger might not know or care the difference. They just know they’re going fucking fast. And there is sadly a sense of “oh, this again?” with a lot of the set pieces.

That said, time has been kinder to these films. The boys know how to put scenes together, and if the whole series doesn’t add up, you can still be awed by the skill that goes into empty set pieces. Sadly, my best viewing of Reloaded, I was high as a kite. These are good drugs films, what with all the green settings and such. Oh well.

By the time Revolutions came out, these films were not only done, but the audience had turned. Advanced screenings signaled that the resolution was not going to make people happy, and having seen the film, it’s easy to see why. Most of the main characters die, there is no happy ending, and so much of the minutia that made people interested in the first and second film are forgotten about. Indeed, the biggest problem with Matrix Revolutions is that at the end of the film, you’re not supposed to think about how humanity is in a bunch of tubes living in a dream world. Seriously, what the fuck? Yeah, the earth’s all fucked up and shit, but I thought the idea was that Neo was looking to free all of the humans. Instead… whatever. Something else happened.

The third film concerns itself with some human who’s been taken over by Smith, and Neo gets trapped in Limbo but saved by Trinity and then Morpheus has to rush back to Zion with his ex-GF Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) to stop the sentinels. And then Neo makes a deal with the head of the Matrix to fight Smith and then shit happens. Man the third film is underwhelming. I mean there’s good things in it, but also Neo gets blinded about halfway through and you’re like – dude, he’s been horribly scared, I can’t imagine this is going t be a fun upbeat ending.

I wonder, and I think it go either one of two ways. In the first formulation, The Wachowskis wrote The Matrix and kept at it. Kept refining it until they had something awesome. When it came to the follow ups, they were so rushed that they weren’t able to hone the material as much as they wanted to, and so the end product was a rush job, and it didn’t turn out as they thought, because – literally – at the end of the first film Neo is a god, and so they had to start over to do anything interesting. The second is that with the first film they had to make a number of compromises, and were forced to update the draft over and over, and had more watchful eyes, making it more and more palatable for a mainstream audience. With the sequels, with their success, so freed were they, that they shit their bed out of hubris. It’s hard to say.

But Jesus, the Blu-ray edition is fucking definitive. The films are presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in both 5.1 surround and 5.1 TrueHD. The transfers are fucking excellent, and that much better than the DVD versions. All three films come with commentaries by critics David Thomson, John Powers, and Todd McCarthy, and a second track by Philosphers Dr. Cornell West and Ken Wilber, while the first film comes with a track by Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, editor Zach Staenberg, and Carrie-Anne Moss, and composer Don Davis along with an isolated score. The three films come with the text commentary by the Wachowski. Also, all three films come with In-movie experience, which is made of much of the footage that exists in other supplements, but is packaged well to cover the feature film.

This basically covers all the territory from the DVD release, but offers the In-Movie Experience (or IME) and the leftover supplements from DVD’s, which comes to a total of 36 hours of supplements. The first film comes with The Matrix Revisited which is supplemented by a selection of 41 of the songs that accompany the film and 17 featurettes (mostly taken from the original Matrix DVD) running 58 minutes. Reloaded features “The Matrix Reloaded Revisited” features 42 minutes of cut scenes used in the tie-in video game “Enter The Matrix” along with 21 featurettes running 137 minutes, and includes the MTV movie awards parody with Justin Timberlake and Seann Williams Scott. The third film offers “The Matrix Revolutions Revisited” with 28 featurettes running 178 minutes. That’s a lot of supplemental shit.

This set also comes with The Animatrix (2003), the collection of nine Matrix-related animated shorts (one CGI, the rest cel animation) presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 and True HD 5.1 audio. Extras on this disc include two behind-the-scenes featurettes (running 77 minutes) and commentaries on four of the shorts. It’s the exact same disc as before, except the cartoons are now in 1080p, and the transfers are eye-poopingly good. The last cartoon of the set, Matriculated, is a great head-trip of a cartoon, and though I think the collection as a whole is more fun for form over content, that doesn’t take away from the artistry on display.

The rest of the supplements from the standard definition box set are here, but in standard def on standard def discs. Since they were likely shot in 480p or 480i, it’s not the worst thing. Side one: “The Roots of The Matrix” features two documentaries: “Return to Source: Philosophy and The Matrix” and “The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the Fiction,” both running 61 minutes (or 1:01 — get it?) There’s also 20 minutes worth of Easter eggs. While the flip side offers “The Burly Man Chronicles” (94 min.) which is a behind-the-scenes look on the shooting of the sequels, supplemented by white rabbit icons offering 23 additional featurettes that run 82 minutes. The final disc is “The Zion Archive” features the leftovers: still galleries for storyboards, characters, ships, machines, and sets, while also featuring five trailers, 22 TV spots, and two music videos (all the trailers, TV spots and music videos are also available on their respected features). Also included is the “Rave Reel” (9 min.), which focuses on unfinished effects shots, and “The Matrix Online Preview” (10 min.), an advert for the online game.

In what may the most noticeable acknowledgement of the failure of the sequels, the package comes with a digital copy of the first film, but none of the sequels.

The passage of time have enshrined the failures of the sequels, but also allowed them to be enjoyable separated from the hype. The Wachowskis know how to make movies, even if these aren’t the ones anyone wanted.

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