Monday, January 08, 2007

Archive 2: The Matrix 3

Not trying to get out of proper posting by posting unpublished archive material but I never managed to get this piece published, a review of the Matrix trilogy having just seen the third film.

The Matrix Revolutions

They said it was a trilogy. It was. If you hadn’t seen any of the movies and watched all three back-to-back it would be a fine experience (recommend a break for lunch though). And I enjoyed Revolutions. Let’s make that clear at the start. It was a fun couple of hours and it made me think, a bit. But somehow we had it figured as being answers not issues and there weren’t any. Is it another example of our propensity to set things up so we can knock them down? After all, some people were making outrageous claims for this film three years ago. Of course it wasn’t the Directors. Their silence over the whole project, and especially in the short gap between Reloaded and Revolutions has been outstandingly maintained, perhaps growing the sense of significance. Sometimes it does you good to remain quiet.

But Revolutions is loud - not only the third part of a trilogy, but also a stand-alone good versus evil movie and a brilliant piece of science fiction. Without the viewer having to understand all the where-exactly-are-we-in-reality stuff it’s a shoot ‘em up with a romantic sub-plot. The good guys win, well sort of, and enough holes are left for at least the possibility of a Part 4. We were never promised Resolutions. That could be a Douglas Adamsesque increasingly improbable Part 5 after Revelations. No. Getting silly.

Look, the fifteen year old who wants to see lots of action will be pleased; those who want to wrestle with deep questions of life will come away with a few more for the after movie pint.

And there is some pressure to talk matrix. One Sunday columnist said, ‘So here I am, busy learning The Matrix as a foreign language in case I am called upon to speak it, or at lest nod knowledgably while someone else (at the so-called ‘water cooler’) throws some of its irregular verbs into the conversation. …My secret fear is that … I will be hopelessly undone at some nightmare social occasion.’[1] Movies increasingly set the agenda for conversation in a way which song lyrics might have done thirty years back. Today everyone likes different tunes but by and large we all watch the same films together.

In Revolutions Neo wakes up in an in between world – a halfway house between the matrix and the human world of Zion. He is lying on a pristine underground station platform (so it can’t be the real world) called Mobil Ave. Significant that it’s an anagram of ‘limbo’ anybody? Thought not. I’ll try to get out more.

Neo chats to a couple, of Indian appearance, who are trying to get their daughter out of the matrix. The underground train is the only way out and they are waiting for the Trainman. Neo is surprised that programmes (for that is what they are) can love their daughter. The reply he hears is, ‘Love is a word. What matters are the connections the word implies.’ Hard to fathom why they are sending their daughter away on the basis of a few connections. Why should two programmes have a daughter they care for? What does that mean?

Neo isn’t allowed on the train. The train man sees to that, ruining the clean walls in the process. When Neo runs down the track to follow the train he finds himself back where he started. Expletive. Rescue needed.

Back on one of Zion’s hovercrafts the real Neo is comatose. He lies next to another casualty, Bane, who has been taken over by Agent Smith. But Neo’s neural patterns exhibit signs of still being in the matrix, even though he is no longer plugged in. He appears to have gained the power to connect with the machine world without having his head wired up. Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph prepare to get him out.

The Oracle (herself revealed as a programme) has changed appearance since Reloaded. Probably not so much part of the plot as a way of coping with the death of a cast member? Consulted by Morpheus we learn from her that there is no easy way to get Neo out. Really? So they’ll have to fight? Guns and shades ready folks.

The Merovingian (French restaurant owner from Reloaded) controls the route. The only way to rescue Neo is to enter his den. He has vacated his classy restaurant from Reloaded and now runs an S. and M. club. It, ‘…could only inspire more laughter if it included Leslie Nielsen in nipple clamps.’[2] Needless to say some serious trash-the-place action (underground car-park, lift, lobby, club) needs to happen and many wall-walking bouncers are wasted in doing a deal – you give us Neo and we won’t kill everyone. OK? There is the best we-all-point-our-guns-at–each-other moment since Reservoir Dogs. In fact at one stage so many guns are pointing at so many people it must have been a genre joke.

Merovingian: ‘Where some see coincidence, I see consequence. Where some seechance, I see cause.’
Trinity: ‘I don't have time for this shit.’

Do we have time? Does the philosophy get in the way of the action? Newspaper journalists tend to review movies against some very complex and masochistic movie-world standard. If it don’t disturb it don’t work. Only the most gruelling get five stars. The movie buffs magazine Empire at least tries to see a film from the point of view of those of us who get to a couple of films a month. They say:

‘Some viewers will indeed be completely satisfied, their questions answered, as the final credits roll, but they're the ones who have done their homework. Without filling in plot gaps by watching The Animatrix or playing derided computer game Enter The Matrix, a sense of confusion reigns. And those who are confused can't emotionally engage with the characters, thus rendering any amount of sacrifices and love themes null and void. In the original film, the casual viewer could relate to a slave race of pod people and their need to be freed, but the Wachowskis seem to have moved the goalposts as the story has progressed, sidelining what began as a focal point of the plot.’ [3]

Dare we suggest that if you were spending lots of time playing Enter the Matrix you probably weren’t looking for answers to life’s deep questions on the side. If you have the time there are some issues worth pursuing. They’ve been around since Part 1 but they are raised once more. What is real? Are machines becoming too powerful? Is love useful or a distraction from purpose? How important is faith and belief? Do we just exist to make choices?

On the way through the Merovingian’s club he comments further on love, ‘It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.’ Some of the clubbers are insanely lovely. Or is that lustly?

Later Agent Smith, revealed to be a programme so rogue it is an enemy of the matrix and the human world, says, ‘Only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love.’ But a human mind invented the machines therefore invented him. Confusing isn’t it? And what did love do to get such a bad press? Maybe the film is telling us that love is the difference between humanity and the machine world. We might love our laptop but it doesn’t love us back. But then those Indians did love their daughter. Can some of the machines do love? Is it programmable? Can you wire up a series of connections so that the result is indistinguishable from love? Anyone who has watched an apparently happy couple announce their divorce will know how hard it is to tell the difference between real and apparent love.

Other conversations about love take place between Neo and Trinity. Trinity says, ‘I wished I had the chance to say what really mattered. To say I loved you.’ Revolutions can’t tell its eros from its agapé. Many of us still haven’t forgiven the mosh and sex scene from Reloaded.

So what happens next? The underground city of Zion is under attack and needs to defend itself. Cue shell-making, sixteen year olds fibbing about their age to volunteer for fighting, a rescue only achievable by Niobe steering her craft down an impossible-to-navigate tunnel, a kick-ass loading machine versus sentinel battle that goes on for ever and much self-sacrifice. Cliché ridden but it rocks.

There is a certain sort of movie character known as ‘bear-food’. You know they aren’t going to make it. They will either give their lives sacrificially or die stupidly. Revolutions is good at unpredictability on this score. It’s hard to spot the bear food. I had the kid down as a goner from the word go. Cue a sixteen year old who saves the day.

Zion is an interesting place. Governed by a Star Wars style Council it boasts high tech weapons for which the gunpowder has to be ground by hand. A huge gated entrance can only be opened by blasting a retaining chain in two; this to admit a hovercraft so advanced nothing breaks off when it bounces on the ground. A barrage of bullets, scary as hell when saving Ryan’s privates, becomes meaningless when the opponents are machines. Only a couple of times do we see the damage a sentinel does to human flesh. It’s the nastiest thing since Starship Troopers paraded its amputees.

We might pause for a moment to ask ourselves about the relationship between humankind and the machine world. On Zion the fighting machines in the loading bay are a mechanical extension to the human body. They can shoot almost endlessly but then need manual reloading. Are we taking on new technology at a controllable rate or is there any possibility that at some point the machines will take over? This has been the premise of many movies. It is probably the matrix trilogy’s biggest question.[4] We tend not to notice that we love our mobile phone so much that we use them to take our friends with us everywhere and don’t develop any new relationships. Do slippery slopes and thicker ends of wedges beckon? Worth talking through.

Revolutions reminds us that it is easier to believe in, or at least trust, the people close to us. We have a natural distrust of politicians, authorities and powers yet gladly put our confidence in people we can get to know, often despite their credentials.

Morpheus: ‘You've never believed in the One?’
Niobe: ‘I still don't.’
Morpheus: ‘So why are you doing this?’
Niobe: ‘I believe in him’ (gestures to Neo).

A local messiah you can see and touch is far more believable than a distant one. John had to reassure the readers of his Gospel that those who had actually seen the Messiah were a privileged few. ‘… do you have faith because you have seen me?’ says Jesus, ‘The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed.’[5] Just a thought. In our real world gullibility is the flip-side of trust; ‘grief is the price we pay for love.’[6]

Neo and Trinity head off to visit the Matrix hardware (the size of a city and equally impressive) rather than plugging it to the software, coping with a stowed-away Bane (the bane of their lives?) on the journey. Bane comments on the human body, ‘… it is difficult to even think encased in this rotting meat ... nothing this weak is meant to survive.’ So that’s what it’s like to humble yourself and take on flesh. Bane loses the battle on board ship but robs Neo of his sight in the process. He goes on to say, ‘The blind Messiah. You are a symbol for all of your kind, Mr. Anderson.’

Crashing the computer city costs Trinity her life too but, once inside, the machines realise that Neo (who can see in a different way now) can help them eliminate Smith. Co-operation beckons.

Smith meanwhile temporarily assimilates the Oracle and sees with her eyes. He thinks he can see ultimate victory but the Oracle has never revealed the truth, only the next thing people who consulted her needed to know. She offers hope not certainty. The Gospel parallels are coming thick and fast now.

The oracle has an obsession with cookies. Challenged she says, ‘Cookies need love like everything does.’ ‘Cookies’ is of course also the name given to those little internet calling cards that your browser leaves to remind itself where it has been before. They tell everyone where you have been with your computer. Those with guilty secrets delete them regularly. Someone could be very nearly all-seeing if they had access to the world’s cookies. How much do those nice people at Microsoft know about you and me? We keep leaving them cookies so perhaps we’re getting to know each other rather well. Then again, just because you know where I’ve been all day it doesn’t mean you love me. It makes you a stalker not a friend. Revolutions confuses love with infatuation.

Neo, in machine world, is plugged fully in to the Matrix and deals with Smith, who still has the knack of duplicating himself. But the final showdown is a one-to-one. In Reloaded all the Smiths piled in. This time it’s, ‘You and me - outside’ because Smith, seeing with the Oracle’s foresight, knows, or thinks he knows, that he will win. So the other Smiths only need to stand and watch. A new bit of technology adds a slo-mo punch to the effects armoury. Watch that face crease. Some of the glory of this moment had already been stolen by a pre-movie seat-belt advert which showed a face uncrumpling. Is nothing sacred?

Smith: ‘You can't win, it's pointless to keep fighting. Why Mr. Anderson? Why keep fighting? Why do you persist?’
Neo: ‘Because I choose to.’

In this and other snippets of dialogue we are left with the impression that belief and choice is everything for the Wachowskis. Make the right choices and believe in what you believe in and you will be OK. It’s all existentialistic at heart.

Neo wins by accepting defeat. He is apparently assimilated. He’s inside Smith, or part of him, or joined to him or something. Unlike the Oracle’s assimilation Neo disappears. Because he’s human? He destroys Smith from within. We don’t know if Neo dies in the process but his Messianic end-pose makes anything Michael Jackson ever did look bland.

Some have mused that Smith somehow represents death. ‘Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming,’ the Oracle said. Smith tells Neo, ‘It was your life that taught me the purpose of all life. The purpose of life is to end.’ The Oracle refers to death as a he. Neo responds ‘Smith’. Is Smith the grim reaper? Is it significant that he’s clad in black? If that is the point then death appears to be conquered but you probably have to believe that rather than being certain of it.

Perhaps Agent Smith is not unlike the snake in Genesis 3. He represents the possibility of evil built into creation. The Oracle described Smith thus: ‘He is you, your opposite, your negative. The result of the equation trying to balance out.’ Smith claims, ‘This is my world! My world!’
‘It is finished.’ That’s what messiahs are supposed to say when they head back to ‘Dunredempting.’ At the end of the crisis we hear the words, ‘It is done’ from the machine world.
As a coda the Architect chats to the Oracle:
‘Did you always know?’ (Neo would save the day, leading to peace.)
‘No. But I believed.’
‘Just how long do you think this peace will last?’

Probably until someone decides to continue the franchise.

I don’t think these movies have any idea what you should believe but clearly see it as better to believe in something than nothing at all. It is pick ‘n’ mix philosophy for a post-modern audience. You can bounce off this film, as you can the previous two in the trilogy, to discuss issues of faith – possibly more than any other series of films ever. It’s big. It’s brash. It’s a bit pretentious. It has lots of things to talk about and absolutely nothing to say for itself. Which isn’t a problem. Raising issues has always been an interesting use of the medium. Searching for deep answers to life’s intricacies in a multiplex is a poor use of time. They sell popcorn not bread.

From the matrix, everyone who wants to be freed will be freed:

Oracle: What about the others?
Architect: What others?
Oracle: The ones that want out.
Architect: Obviously they will be freed.
Oracle: I have your word?
Architect: What do you think I am, human?

Remember - that was the point. All the people happy in their false-reality pod-world were really prisoners. If they want out (how would they know – Anderson was deemed pretty unusual to know he might want out) they can be released. Will anyone tell them first that pod-life might be better than rebuilding Zion. The blue pill. Take the blue pill.

While the little Indian girl programme makes glorious sunsets a black cat walks by. To philosophy and religion we can add art and superstition. They are all part of life’s glorious palate. Believe what you want and hope you made a lucky choice. Then all your sunsets will be beautiful. There’s not been much levity amid the sacrifice and the ending doesn’t feel happy. I almost longed for Eric Idle to walk past singing ‘Always look on the bright side of life.’ In fact the credits roll over a Hindu chant. It’s a cinematically satisfying conclusion but not much more. It’s a great film if you’re 12 so the 15 certificate is a shame; it’s an interesting film if you’re inclined to think about the deeper things in life and want your thoughts kick-started.

The teenagers behind me (bless ‘em) laughed at all the philosophical musings. I was irritated but with hindsight think they may have been right. ‘As a monument of design the films are top of the heap, and will be for some time to come … as an intellectual enquiry into faith and responsibility, they are a non-starter.’[7] Not quite so. They are a starter but that is about it. They didn’t start these particular young people though.

Most of the interesting things to talk about were probably in part one. Did the Wachowski brothers know they were going to do this with their loose ends? The movie-chattering classes will probably be divided between whether the religious/philosophical clues lying around (yin and yan earrings, Latin wall posters, symbolic names, anagrams, messianic postures and so on) are just left splattered over the screen like bits of broken sentinel or whether three further viewings are necessary to unravel the mystery.

‘The singular vision that propelled The Matrix is gone, replaced by the same post-apocalyptic fury found in any number of sci-fi films. It's a dispiriting end to a series that once promised more.’[8]

You can choose to like or dislike this movie. Of course you can. As long as you can see past the choices you don’t understand. Lots to chatter on about, but I wish Revolutions hadn’t left me this way. I feel Chinese-mealed. It was great to eat but two hours later I wanted another one.

Any first reaction to a film runs the risk of being terribly wrong after repeat viewings. I’ve tried to make these words tasty enough for the day I have to eat them.

Steve Tilley
Leamington Spa
14/11/03

[1] Phil Hogan The Observer 9/11/03)
[2] Gregory Weinkauf. The Dallas Observer 6/11/2003
[3] Empire online (www.empireonline.co.uk/reviews)
[4] Discussed by Peter Williams in ‘Philosophy from the Matrix Part 2 – Splitting Up Is hard To Do’ on www.damaris.org
[5] John 20:29 (Contemporary English Version)
[6] A line used by HM the Queen of England when offering comfort to the American people post 11th September 2001.
[7] Anthony Quinn, ‘Guns and Poses’ review in The Independent 7/11/03
[8] Daniel Eagan film Journal Internatonal 13/11/03 www.filmjournal.com

2 comments:

Matthew P said...

Isn't one of the great things about art not being able to always understand it?

Sometimes if we try to dissect things to too fine a level of granularity we lose sight of the overall concept that the artist is trying to portray.

I've never seen the Matrix films, and to be honest one of the reasons for this is that too many people kept telling me about what they meant and what the hidden meanings were. I'm stubborn like that.

p.s. Can you keep the length of your posts down a bit, some of us are trying to work.

St said...

Sorry Matthew. Will try and put a note at the beginning of such long posts in future.