(Mostly) Untimely Movie Review: The Matrix Series

Continuing my strong stretch run through the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, I now get to tackle The Matrix.  However, with a fourth Matrix film recently in theaters, and, strangely enough, not having seen any of them, I decided to watch all four movies in about three days a few weeks ago.

I “get it” now.  I understand why The Matrix was such a phenomenon in 1999.  What is less clear to me is why the sequels are considered so weak by comparison, and, in particular, why the third film is rated so much “worse” than the other two in the trilogy.

First, the original.  The Wachowskis had three major assets working for them.  One, a simple-but-compelling concept, around which they could add layers of (occasionally excessive) complexity.  The premise is so terrific as to seem obvious in hindsight, as technology has advanced so much that watching the original film today makes it land a little closer to “science” than “fiction.”

I assure you that, in 1999, the notion of a fully virtual, ultra-realistic world was still visionary.

Next, they had revolutionary special effects.  Few effects-driven films from this era still seem this impressive visually.  Compare The Matrix to the CGI-heavy Star Wars prequels.  While there’s no question the effects in Episodes I-III are high-quality, they seem a little dated, whereas most of the effects from the Matrix trilogy seem spot-on even 20 years later.  The exception is the fight between Neo and the myriad Agent Smith duplicates, parts of which seem to have been rendered on a souped-up PlayStation 3.

Finally, there’s the fight choreography.  Even when it seems overdone (which is more-than-occasionally), and even when it goes on too long (likewise), it is still incredibly impressive.  Yes, it gets intentionally cartoonish, but it’s dazzling more often than not.

In terms of plot and story, The Matrix has strong world-building, even though there’s a lot to absorb.  It tackles some large philosophical questions about the meaning of existence, usually dealing with those questions in an interesting way.

There’s also an element of style-over-substance, though.  The original, especially, leans into cool clothes, ever-present sunglasses, and techno that is unmistakably late-90s.  The other movies use less of that, and, as such, don’t seem quite as anchored to a particular date and time.

Still, The Matrix is a fascinating, modern hero’s journey, and well worth its acclaim.  I still think Dark City does a better job of telling a tight, single-film story in a similar vein, but The Matrix is the more ambitious, if not the better of the two films.

While I liked The Matrix, I probably like it slightly less than critics do.  The reverse is true of all three sequels.

I agree that Reloaded and Revolutions aren’t quite as good as the original, but they are still good, and, more particularly, they are consistent with the trajectory forged by the first film.  The second and third films are really one story, and, although there are a few . . . interesting choices in the finale, I think the 40-point drop on Rotten Tomatoes from the second to the third film is highly questionable.

I watched all of these films in quick succession so that I could get to Resurrections while it was still in theaters.  Resurrections is a completely unnecessary film, but I loved that they squarely addressed that truth with significant meta commentary throughout the first portion of the movie, even going so far as to call out Warner Bros. explicitly.

Resurrections checks all the boxes.  Style.  Effects.  Choreography.  Further exploration of the world the Wachowskis created.

One negative—and an unforced error—is that the film brings back a couple of characters whose actors didn’t return, and at least one of these (Agent Smith) really didn’t need to be involved.  In fact, I think the events of the original trilogy have a lot more impact if Smith stays dead.

That aside, the movie was enjoyable, and Neil Patrick Harris steals it with his performance as Neo’s analyst.  Perhaps the biggest issue I had with the film is Trinity’s inexplicable transition to messianic status, which undermines one of the fundamental points of the trilogy (hint: “The One“).

Still, even with no nostalgia in play, and that weird choice, I was willing to look overlook some minor flaws and enjoy the movie.  The first is the best, but I liked all of them to varying degrees.  I suspect I’ll revisit the entire series in a year or two, once I have Resurrections on disc.

Bottom line: worth the wait.

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