In the 2003 film The Matrix Revolutions, Hugo Weaving as the character Agent Smith stands over Keanu Reeves’ beaten and muddied Neo. It’s a short reprieve in their baroque and awe-inspiring final confrontation. Rain pouring down, lightning flashing as billions (with a “B”) of copy-and-pasted Smiths watch as the original Smith grits his teeth with genuine frustration and confusion as to why Neo won’t simply stay down when it’s so clear that the odds are against him. “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?!?” Agent Smith snarls in annoyance. Even though this moment is about the triumph of true choice and the human will to simply keep going (Neo responds, “Because I choose to”), I understand Smith’s frustration. I understand the frustration of watching people ignore something that’s sitting right in front of their face. In my case however, it has to do with outright refusal and reluctance to reevaluate ambitious and purposefully subversive films that have been written off as cut-and-dry failures for a decade or more. I am, quite obviously, talking about the two sequels to the 1999 film The Matrix.
I think it’s fair to say at this point that The Matrix has reached a point of canonization that I don’t really need to belabor its bona fides as a risky mid-budget smash success that completely shifted genre filmmaking and popular culture for nearly a decade, followed by ironic and aesthetic punching down, and finally a sincere and deeper exploration of queer and trans themes from writers within mainstream publications. It’s been through enough scrutiny that you can mention it in the same breath as, say, Vertigo without people giving nary a wry smile or snicker.
However, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions never quite received this cycle of critical reassessment in the 17 years since their release. Sure, there have been a dedicated and vocal few who have stood and made their opinions clear that these two movies have more quality, value and ambition than most cinephiles are willing to give them credit for. Writer Emily Vanderwerff, someone who has talked and written extensively about these films and her own journey coming out as a trans woman, tweeted a disgruntled jab to Film Twitter: “Some of you acting like the Matrix sequels are bad like this is 2005 or something.” David Sims of The Atlantic and co-host of the increasingly popular Blank Check with Griffin and David podcast gave a bravura defense and welcome left-field reading of The Matrix Reloaded (and a similar, yet more mild defense of The Matrix Revolutions) as, among other things, an exploration of the inner lives and purpose of personified computer programs (“Seraph is a login screen,” he espouses to his co-host and producer).
But a few lone voices do not a reevaluation make. Largely, these films are seen as colossal failures and disappointments (despite being box-office successes) when held up next to The Matrix itself or tested on their own merits. The late Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Matrix Revolutions that the sequels could only ever be looked back at as empty amusement:
“When the dust has settled and we all look back on the trilogy from a hype-free zone, we’ll realize that the first movie inspired its fans to imagine that astonishing philosophical revelations would be made, and the series hasn’t been able to live up to those anticipations. Maybe that would have been impossible. No matter how luridly the barker describes the wonders inside his tent, it’s always just another sideshow.”
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, while giving The Matrix Reloaded a largely positive review, couldn’t get past or see through the allure of the first Matrix film:
“Let’s admit it. This sequel to the smash-hit Matrix — the second of what producers Warner Brothers now airily claim was the trilogy envisaged all along — is not as good as the original. It hasn’t got that enigmatic feel, and the recondite philosophy of the Matrix, once so beautiful and strange, is now a tiny bit camp.”
Ignoring the fact that Peter doesn’t understand at this moment that all Lily and Lana Wachowski movies and projects exist on a spectrum of camp (yes, including The Matrix — an essay for another day, I’m afraid), I’d think it’s fair to say that his and Ebert’s opinions on these movies have inadvertently been the general consensus for general audiences and large swaths of cinema fans for years. I think this mindset comes from a few different places, the first and most obvious being that sequels are typically supposed to function as “more of the same” for the average moviegoer. This is usually derided as a lazy way to think of continuing a non-episodic story but “more” doesn’t have to be a dirty concept. The Godfather Part 2 is more of Michael Corleone discovering just how ingrained his families’ past struggles, traumas, and sins are within him. Terminator 2 is more of the “action-slasher” genre James Cameron pioneered, now with the budget to realize a spectacle that’s best seen in a movie theater instead of grainy VHS. The immaculate pacing and technical filmmaking still intact from the first film — that’s what comforts a moviegoer.
The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions directly transgress against that formula. The Matrix Reloaded isn’t really so much as more of The Matrix as it is a direct challenge and expansion of what The Matrix stands for. The Matrix Reloaded asks the question (in its own gloriously laborious way) “aren’t the oft-repeated stories of the triumph of the white male hero a form of control in its own right?” and The Matrix Revolutions deepens the question with “how do we choose to move past that?” There is no real appeasement to an audience seeking more psychological validation for enjoying the tried-and-true hero’s journey formula. It’s a confrontation of those ideologies. You can see a refusal to wrestle with these concepts in reviews at the time, in favor of praising the incredibly ambitious action escalation present in the sequels.
In a way, the Matrix sequels join a unique club of media that directly challenges pre-established thematic concepts in popular media. Gremlins 2 spent most of its legacy as being seen as a brainless Looney Tunes goofball sequel to the original instead of the antagonistic and bonkers commentary on why sometimes more isn’t always a good thing. The video game Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty was lambasted for years for its unlikely and unlikable new protagonist and its fixation on deep state conspiracy, when in reality it spoke to the more unsavory elements of the first game and the way media can control and influence our actions. Hell, we are now in year three of people being salty about the thematic zags and subversions in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. People don’t seem to take too kindly to having their assumptions challenged.
Which makes these sequels such a strange beast in their lack of reevaluation. The Matrix itself is a transgressive piece of late 20th-century queer cinema about self-actualization and violent disruption of the status quo snuck into theaters under the auspice of a being a sci-fi action movie. You’d think that two films born out of that pedigree would have a wider, more vocal contingent of people singing its praises in a time where two generations of filmgoers have grown tired of media meant for mass consumption that doesn’t challenge its audience or uplift undersung voices. The similarly maligned Star Wars prequels have undergone a somewhat radical 180-degree shift among younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the same cynical point-of-view that influenced older generations of fans when those films came out. They tend to find the political commentary, tragedy, and excitement that George Lucas buried within those films when they don’t have the baggage of the original trilogy seeded in their psyche. While I personally still struggle with the more apparent flaws present in those films, I appreciate the turning of the tide to help me look closer at them as pieces of ambitious and flawed media.
And yes, I do admit the Matrix sequels are flawed in their ambition as well. I still wish that we could get to the point where those flaws could be briefly set aside (but never excused) in favor of rallying behind its more visceral and philosophical delights. Much like The Oracle played jointly by Gloria Foster and Mary Alice throughout the trilogy, I can’t really offer many answers to the question I posed in the title of this article, only the possibilities. It’s up to the leaders of popular culture and art media at large to put aside their preconceived notions of what makes a Matrix movie good and instead start asking what the Matrix as a whole is about in the first place (*whispers* it’s about love) and let people start making the choice for themselves, instead of old, played-out opinions from nearly two decades and what feels like a hundred lifetimes ago.
IU Cinema previously screened the entire Matrix Trilogy as part of its The Matrix Revisited program in the summer of 2019.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.
David Yoder has two degrees in drawing comics, but he probably spends more time watching movies than drawing comics. He’s watched the 5-hour TV edit of Fanny and Alexander and also every Planet of the Apes movie (including the Tim Burton one).