Updated: Oct 7, 2021
So the Matrix Resurrections trailer dropped this week, and despite telling myself I wasn't going to watch it and go in blind, I caved and watched that shit about ten times in a row! And it looks good! It seems we might be getting a subtle remix of the first film with some twists. The film will have to answer some big questions, primarily how the very dead Neo and Trinity are alive (is it the same them? Is Neo the eighth iteration of The One? And hey, is that a young Morpheus?). Not only is Lana Wachowski back (Lilly sat this one out) directing, but she is co-writing with one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, who previously worked with the Wachowskis on their excellent adaptation of his Cloud Atlas novel.
So riding high on some Matrix buzz, I decided to rewatch the original trilogy for the first time since 2004, on DVD no less, so it was high time for an HD experience. So let's dig into The Re-Watchrix:
The Matrix (1999)
The sci-fi action classic that blew minds back in 1999 holds up exceedingly well. Despite some slightly dated stylistic choices (those outfits!) the film works as well as it did back in the day, a striking vision of dark future shock and kung fu mixed with a heady dose of philosophy. We are taken down the rabbit hole with Neo, discovering the secrets of the digital reality along with him. All the actors are great, with Keanu nailing one of his most iconic roles as a man searching for meaning and finding it as the One, one of the best versions of that hoary old trope. The action is still some of the best ever filmed. Yuen Wo Ping's stunning choreography combined with amazing camerawork clearly shows us every block, parry, and kick. The bullet time sequences still wow and are better than anything the sequels served up.
When it was released in '99, the marketing cleverly hinted at the nature of The Matrix itself while also giving away nothing. Sitting in the theatre during opening week, my mind was blown when Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a slime-filled pod in an infinitely huge body farm, one of the great awakening scenes revealing the nightmarish extent of his new reality. The Matrix was also the first DVD I ever bought at the pricey sum of $50 (when DVD players cost $1000!).
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The four year wait for the sequels was a long one and given the rise of film news websites like Aint It Cool and Dark Horizons, fans were kept up to date on the behind the scenes goings on in, from the deaths of Aaliyah (originally set for the role of Zee) and Gloria Foster (the Oracle) to the miles of freeway built exclusively for the epic chase scene in the third act.
When it was released in May 2003, I was travelling through Europe with some friends. We finally got to see it at a theatre in Istanbul. By that stage, we had been living in a van for months and free camping around Europe, so going to a cinema felt like a novelty. And despite the many flaws in the sequel, we loved it.
The action was bigger, and the stakes were higher with the machine launching a final attack on the human city of Zion (only talked about in the first film - here a major setting). But there were some glaring issues that only get bigger in retrospect. The smart use of pop philosophy in the first film became drawn out and very much on the nose conversations between characters that go on for much longer than they need to. Councillor Haman's spiel to Neo about machines is thuddingly bad, like a stoned fourteen year old's ramblings. Having said that, the Architect's equally long speech works, as it is the machines doing the classic Bond villain speech, pompous and confident in their success.
All the new characters barely register and aren't convincingly played - there are some terrible performances in the two sequels by the bit-part actors, and given that these characters play a big part in Revolutions, is a significant problem.
Thankfully Hugo Weaving returns as Agent Smith (X 1000) to add some humour to the deadly serious proceedings. Smith is one of the great villains - like the T-1000 but with self-awareness and a seething hatred of humanity. The movie comes alive again whenever he is on screen, and both the sequels could've used more of him. The Burly Brawl is a fantastic mix of choreography and FX, though the CG Neos are pretty egregious, especially when placed under the scrutiny of slow motion. The freeway chase is probably the best action sequence of the sequels as Morpheus and Trinity fight agents and those weird albino twins inside cars on trucks and motorcycles.
The film then ends on a weird cliffhanger with Neo seemingly in a coma, which brings us to….
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Coming out six months after its predecessor, the second Matrix film of 2003 felt oddly anti-climactic, even though Reloaded was generally well-received. It has its moments but commits some major storytelling sins, the main one being the lengthy Battle of Zion, an otherwise stunning bit of sci-fi action which features none of the main characters, instead elevating the aforementioned bit players to unearned hero status. Neo and Trinity disappear from the film for half an hour and Morpheus is relegated to co-pilot on Niobe's ship. It's here where I stopped caring about the story, despite the still amazing FX and action.
Another issue is that we are constantly being reminded how close the machines are getting to Zion while our main trio is fluffing around in the Matrix, engaging in long philosophical discussions with the Merovingian and others, deflating the urgency of the narrative. By the time we get to the big battle between Neo and Smith, we've almost reached saturation point, and the superman kung fu fight is more wearying than exciting.
The character of Neo himself is problematic in the sequels. In the first film, he was relatable, now he is a dull superhero, and as a character, he is fairly static, often asking question after question of pretty much everyone. And Morpheus has lost the playful tone from the first film and is now painfully self-serious and ponderous.
So after the Re-Watchrix, my opinions have been re-confirmed: the original is a sci-fi masterpiece, the second a flawed but fun follow-up and the third an ill-advised and disappointing conclusion. Let's hope Resurrections can restore the franchise to its former glory.
The Matrix: 5 stars
The Matrix Reloaded: 4 stars
The Matrix Revolutions: 3 stars