Cookies need love like everyone does.
You cannot have a film as anticlimactic and boring as The Matrix Reloaded segue into a sister project (they were produced and photographed concurrently) as propulsive (albeit very messy) as The Matrix Revolutions without realizing a mistake was made. Whether it was the filmmakers (Lana and Lilly Wachowski), the studio (Warner Bros.), or both, the decision to continue The Matrix through sequels seems to have been motivated by probable box office success rather than actual artistic merit. The idea of two new pieces set in this world was exciting and releasing them six months apart meant they could play as two halves of a whole, but you still need enough material to justify the length. With so many subplots dropped or ignored anyway, five hours should have been cut to three.
It’s no more obvious than watching how fun Hugo Weaving‘s scenes as Agent Smith are in Revolutions. Sure, he’s present in Reloaded, but he isn’t doing anything. Smith duplicates himself, engages in a decent fight with Neo (Keanu Reeves), and pontificates about being the Antichrist to Neo’s “The One.” He comes and goes as easily as throwaway characters like Link (Harold Perrineau) and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith)—two periphery examples of “love” that ultimately drag the pacing to a crawl while adding nothing to the central, universe-defining romance shared by Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). And without a clear adversary, Reloaded becomes one big distraction of programs: good (The Oracle, now played by Mary Alice after Gloria Foster‘s death), bad (Lambert Wilson‘s Merovingian), and indifferent (Helmut Bakaitis‘ Architect).
Revolutions falls prey to a similar issue early with its Trainman (Bruce Spence) and introduction of machine free will via Bernard White‘s Rama-Kandra. The Wachowskis are trying so hard to drive their theme of “choice” down our throats that they refused to see where overlap and convolution set in. The Oracle is enough to bolster the idea of machines embracing autonomy because she provides the yin to Agent Smith’s yang. He conversely epitomizes that notion by going rogue for no other reason beyond the emotional desire to defeat Neo, choosing to remain and destroy out of spite to prove he could too. This was always going to be about Smith and Neo going toe-to-toe. Use some external plot to give it greater meaning, but don’t assume we’ll care.
Because we can’t care if you don’t. Faith this and duty that all you want, but military man Lock (Harry Lennix) pushing Zion’s bigger picture governmental council to the brink of frustration provides nothing but words while Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Niobe and frontline fighters Mifune (Nathaniel Lees) and Kid (Clayton Watson) act. Not that those actions mean anything more than stalling for time while Neo and Trinity go it alone for half the film en route to Machine City. Zion was a McGuffin in the first film and remains one now. Its existence as a home for humans outside of the Matrix is necessary and it provides Neo and company a purpose, but whether it stands or falls pales in comparison to whether “The One” fulfills prophecy.
Why then take us away from Neo for so long? Why pretend Agent Smith isn’t worth keeping as the sole antagonist? The only answer I can see is that the Wachowskis needed to pad the runtime. They needed to stall gratification and the only way to do so was to throw more useless characters our way with the justification that bigger is better. But it’s not. Especially not when The Matrix was such a fantastic financial and critical success because of how great its characters were within its high concept universe. To suddenly push the characters to the background is a gross misinterpretation of why people got on-board in the first place. That initial film was tight and self-contained. Its sequels are sprawling, excessive, and hollow.
As I said above, however, Revolutions is at least propulsive enough to maintain our interest even as we shift to Zion’s bullet hell of Mechs versus Sentinels. Does it matter? No. All it does is show us what Niobe will do for her love of humanity, Kid will do for his love of Neo, and Zee (Nona Gaye) will do for her love of Link. The Wachowskis want to show us that Neo and Trinity’s bond isn’t an outlier regardless of whether doing so is necessary. The examples do give us some cool sequences and emotional moments, though—something that I can’t say about so many of the dialogue-heavy monologues from Reloaded. It’s superfluous, but it has enough weight beyond the Merovingian’s wink-wink nature to appear crucial.
And then Weaving returns to remind us that the self-seriousness was always supposed to be comical. While all the new characters are seemingly told to play their melodramatic dialogue with earnest, his Smith remains a consummate ham that makes the severity of those around him work as part of the joke. His relish (and later fear) when dealing with The Oracle is just as good as his indignant fury when dealing with Neo. Smith is so good that you must wonder whether any of the other potential villains had a chance of being successful in his shadow. It’s all just noise. We knew it. The so-called Deus Ex Machina (yes, that’s the name of the source code) knew it. I only wish the Wachowskis did too.
Because that’s the fight. Neo saving humanity against Smith destroying it. The machines want to annihilate Zion so they can maintain their power, but they still need bodies to supply them energy. Smith doesn’t care. He wants chaos. He wants to spread himself like a virus in the system and wipe out everyone so he can retire in peace (think a less altruistic—yes, I said it—Thanos from the MCU). To delay that reality is to delay the inevitable. I might not have seen that upon release being caught in the hype like everyone else (I loved Reloaded and thought Revolutions a disappointment), but I do now. Reloaded was a nothing bridge to Revolutions‘ meat-and-potatoes climax. Neither does their predecessor justice, but the latter is thankfully fun.