In 1999, the film industry underwent a seismic shift that would change cinema forever when Lana and Lilly Wachowski released The Matrix. The film was an immediate cultural phenomenon and proved to be a massive box office success. Beyond that, it is one of those films that has truly endured since it exploded onto the screens. Everyone recognizes The Matrix, and it has displayed a true staying power that very few films can claim. It’s also a film that has been discussed so much, that there is realistically no new perspective that I could add to its discourse. I love it, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time, but the purpose of this article isn’t to sell anyone on The Matrix.
After the massive success of The Matrix, the Wachowskis were naturally handed a blank check to make more films in this universe. They settled on a trilogy and planned to shoot the second and third films back to back in Australia. Filming took place from March of 2001 to August of 2002. Like the first film that came before them, the sequels were incredibly ambitious productions that would utilize the most cutting-edge technology available at the time. Beyond that, the Wachowskis were incredibly ambitious with how they wanted to deliver the story of this world with them using the video game Enter The Matrix to tell the story of Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Ghost (Anthony Wong) that takes place concurrently with The Matrix Reloaded. Additionally, in June of 2003, The Animatrix was released which provided the history of this universe (in the brilliant segments The Second Renaissance Part I & II) as well as smaller stories that added further context and depth to this world and the characters who populate it. The sequel films would then both release in 2003: The Matrix Reloaded in May of 2003, followed by The Matrix Revolutions in November of 2003. By the time that 2003 rolled around, the hype for these films was, like Neo in the final shot of the first film, sky-high. However, upon the release of the films, a tragic realization would be faced:
The general consensus was that The Matrix sequels were disappointments.
Now, my personal experience was quite different. I watched The Matrix for the first time when I was about ten years old and my mind was completely melted in the way that a film only can when you at such an impressionable age. I was immediately obsessed with the film, and after my first viewing, in a move that would shock and horrify filmmakers who gatekeep how individuals view their work, I acquired the film on my PSP and I watched it over and over again. The film became one that I knew in my DNA. It wasn’t long after that I discovered there were sequels, and as soon as I could get my hands on them, I watched them, and once again, my mind was blown.
Interacting with the sequels over a decade later allows for a deeper knowledge and greater capability to grasp their heady themes, but I provide this context because even as a child, I loved these sequels because I was moved by Neo and Trinity’s journeys. I was able to recognize that these films were a love story (something that by all accounts, the fourth film is doubling down on).
I would say that I can be a hyperbolic person, but what I am about to say I say without a hint of irony: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are off of the top of my head, the most underrated and undervalued franchise films ever made.
Let’s start with The Matrix Reloaded.
Where The Matrix was a beat-by-beat utilization of the structure of Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Heroes Journey’ in a way that we have never seen, The Matrix Reloaded is a subversive, challenging narrative that questions the concept and purpose of the hero. This is an ambitious film that never chooses the easy route and as a result, it is a perfect sequel to the first film. The two are in conversation with one another in truly interesting ways and I struggle to consider anything beyond the fact that the Wachowskis were wildly ahead of their time with this one.
The film finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) plagued with dreams of Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) death. It is causing a tremendous amount of internal turmoil and he is questioning the likelihood of the dreams becoming a reality. However, keeping him from dwelling on it too much is that (as chronicled in the video game Enter The Matrix) Niobe has discovered a file from the rebel ship Osiris that an army of sentinels is digging their way to the underground human city of Zion (as chronicled in The Animatrix segment ‘The Final Flight of the Osiris’). Additionally, Neo destroying Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has allowed him to break free of his programming and now enables him to function as a computer virus as he corrupts programs and duplicates himself throughout the Matrix. During a briefing within the Matrix consisting of the captains of the rebel ships, Smith attacks and corrupts a member of the rebellion named Bane (Ian Bliss) effectively rewiring his mind causing Smith to essentially enter the real world through Bane’s body.
The Matrix Reloaded is undoubtedly a complicated film, but it is bursting with ideas. The next section of the film introduces us to the human stronghold of Zion. The Wachowskis deliver a truly awesome city design. It feels massive and intricate in its planning. It also introduces us to Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) which raises an interesting notion, there are groups within the humans who see Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) as a zealot and extremist. Lock is far more bound to reason than faith and has serious doubts in the prophecy that Morpheus has committed himself to. A common complaint surrounding the sequels is that Morpheus isn’t given anything to do, but I think these complaints are misguided. Morpheus spends the sequel films grappling with the idea that the cause he has committed himself to is nothing more than a calculated system to provide the illusion of hope.
After their brief respite in Zion, Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus reboard the Nebuchadnezzar and leave Zion to re-enter the Matrix to seek the Oracle’s guidance. Before their meeting, we are introduced to Seraph (Collin Chou) who essentially functions like a log-in screen (or a “click the pictures of the fire hydrant” window) for the Oracle (played once again by Gloria Foster who tragically passed away during production of this film). The Oracle informs Neo that he must seek an old program called The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) who holds another program called The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) hostage. Neo needs to get to a part of the Matrix called “The Source” and only the Keymaker can get him to the door that leads to the Source.
At this point, we get an action sequence known as ‘the burly brawl’ that sees Neo fight an army of Smith’s and essentially sees the threat that Smith’s ability to duplicate himself has become. If there is one flaw with The Matrix Reloaded, it is how poorly the CGI in this scene has aged. Despite this, the visual realization of the fight is cool and the choreography, when practical, is awesome.
After an incredibly memorable introduction to the Merovingian, the film then becomes essentially a chase/fight to get the Keymaker and results in the famous freeway chase which is the best action sequence in the entire series. There are true stakes behind the action and the film introduces us to The Twins, who are programs speculated to be from the “Nightmare Matrix” who can become ghosts which allows them to phase through solid objects. This results in a truly exhilarating sequence that holds up super well.
After Neo rescues the group, the Keymaker informs them of where they need to go to reach the source, a high-security building that will require them to shut down the power grid. Neo tells Trinity not to enter the Matrix as he suspects his visions could come to pass, but as expected, everything goes to shit and Trinity has to enter the Matrix to enable Neo to reach the Source. She succeeds, and the film provides us with a massive curveball as we meet the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis).
The Architect informs us that he is the creator of the Matrix and he has been expecting Neo. He informs Neo that this is the sixth version of the Matrix, making Neo the sixth version of “The One”. He goes on to explain that Neo is effectively a cog in the wheel, and that “the One” is nothing more than an additional system of control. He provides Neo with a choice, to restart the Matrix to the 7th cycle, or to attempt to save Trinity and to effectively doom Zion and humanity. Neo chooses love.
There is so much that is fascinating about this plot reveal. It calls into question the entire concept of the One and forces the viewer to ponder the concept of free will. The Architect explains that the Oracle is the program that introduced choice into the Matrix which allowed the machines to maintain the illusion of the simulation over the humans. The most important detail regarding the Oracle is that she is the force that nudged Neo and Trinity to fall in love. In this sixth version of the Matrix, she decided to try to push the One down a different path to see if it yielded a different result.
The film ends with the revelation that due to Neo visiting the source, he can now sense machines in the real world. He uses his powers to stop incoming sentinels and collapses into a coma.
The Matrix Revolutions picks up directly following this event. Where the second film was about challenging our characters’ ideas and beliefs about control, choice, and free will, the third film tests our characters through the climactic conflict in the battle for Zion and the Matrix.
Despite not being plugged in, Neo’s coma has him wake within a train station in the Matrix; an unreachable place controlled by the Merovingian where outdated or replaced programs wait to return to the source, or pay a handsome amount to go into exile within the Matrix. The first section of the film follows Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph as they confront the Merovingian to free Neo from his purgatory. This section of the film does feel slightly long in the tooth, however, there are still so many cool ideas sprinkled throughout that I don’t mind it.
After freeing Neo, he informs the group that he needs to go to the Machine City which is a very unpopular idea. Niobe offers her ship to Neo, who is accompanied by Trinity (and unbeknownst to both, Bane) to leave for the Machine City while Morpheus, Niobe, and company rush to Zion in an attempt to provide what little help they can.
It is at this point that we see the battle for Zion which is an incredible sequence that is wildly inventive, thrilling, and emotionally engaging. There are so many awesome ideas here such as the grunts who have to, through the chaos, cart out ammunition for the giant mechs. Or the infantry who utilize hand-made shells and rocket launchers to attempt to disable the drills. The Wachowskis have such a great sense for scale and this sequence feels so epic in its scope.
The battle sees a brief respite when Niobe and Morpheus make it in the nick of time and trigger an EMP which allows the humans time to retreat to their final outpost before the machines destroy them.
Meanwhile, Trinity and Neo are ambushed by Bane who blinds Neo. Despite this, Neo is still able to see due to his power from the Source. He kills Bane and they continue towards the Machine City. However, as they approach they are overwhelmed by Machines and must fly up above the clouds and in a beautiful moment, we see Trinity see the sky for the first, and last time. They crash their ship and Trinity is impaled and killed.
I am always so moved by Trinity’s death scene. I think Carrie-Anne Moss’s performance in this scene is outstanding. She underplays what could be a very melodramatic scene — the tragedy of the scene hinges on how good she is. Keanu is great in this scene despite wearing a blindfold. A lot comes out of his inflection and it brings so much emotion to the moment.
With nothing left to lose, Neo enters the Machine City where he comes face to face with Deus Ex Machina, the central interface of the Machine City. Neo explains that Smith poses a threat to both humanity and the machines. He offers to stop Smith in exchange for peace between the humans and the machines. Deus Ex Machina agrees and Neo is plugged into the source and enters the Matrix one final time.
The final action sequence between Smith and Neo is incredibly effective and dramatic because of the stakes and emotion behind it. At this point, the character of Neo has been on a very epic and costly journey. The entire fate of existence rests in his hands. The CGI in this scene holds up better than that of the burly brawl due to the setting. It is dark and rainy, but that adds an atmosphere to this sequence that feels different and exciting. It also underlines how the Matrix has become an even more bleak and corrupted place. The fight ends with Smith corrupting Neo, who, being plugged into the source, allows the machines to delete the program, destroying Smith.
The film ends with the Oracle conversing with the Architect. The Matrix has been reset and humans can choose whether or not to stay in it.
The purpose of this article is to attempt to encourage readers to either: view these films for the first time or reevaluate these films with an open mind. These are wildly ambitious films that take massive swings. Not every single thing they try is successful, but it’s incredible to see filmmakers with so much imagination and intelligence as the Wachowski sisters, and compared to many modern blockbusters, this is truly an astonishing vision to see realized.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Matrix sequels? Comment down below!
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