Wednesday, 19 August 2009

'The Matrix Revolutions' (Wachowski, 2003)

Buried beneath the blockbuster blanch is a towering achievement of cinematic experimentation and literary excellence.

The second half of a four-hour narrative, or the third act of a trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions is the conclusion to the most commercially successful science fiction franchise outside of Star Wars. But what does it set out to achieve as a work of art? And does it succeed?

"Our films were never intended for a passive audience. There are enough of those kinds of films being made. We wanted our audience to have to work, to have to think, to have to actually participate in order to enjoy them."
-- The Wachowski Brothers

The Matrix Revolutions is the ultimate payoff for every story strand, every thematic thread, and every character arc in the trilogy. To pinch Ken Wilber's use of the idiom, it is the Rosetta Stone of the overall piece; the thing that defines the meaning of everything that has gone before it. Some mistakenly believe that the third film offers no answers, that it supplies only rhymes and riddles that are lacking in logic. This, however, is not the case. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) or Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), this is not a film that gives up its secrets with ease. But that doesn't mean they aren't lying in wait, eager to be discovered. This review-come-analysis will attempt to unearth some of these secrets and to shed light on the retrospectively obvious aspects of the third and final installment of The Matrix Trilogy.

There were three primary obstacles that prevented people from properly engaging with, and thus becoming frustrated and dissatisfied with The Matrix Revolutions:
  1. A lack of understanding of the film's payoff-oriented NARRATIVE STRUCTURE;
  2. A lack of understanding of the film's PLOT POINTS; and
  3. A lack of understanding of what the film was trying to say (i.e. its THEME).

No-one likes to be told they don't understand something. They believe it calls into question their intelligence, their integrity, their sincerity. Ironically, the truth is that those who didn't understand aspects of The Matrix Trilogy are probably the smart ones - smart enough to not waste so much time decoding a silly little movie. Of course, those of us who do decide to spend so much time digging into the darkness that is The Matrix Revolutions do so out of a genuine passion for the material and an arguably misguided belief that it is important enough to scrutinise and analyse with such sincere effort. What I hope to share with more sane-minded cinéphiles are the discoveries of myself and other Matrix fans who have spent so many years in the company of what we believe to be a modern masterpiece.


In order to fully appreciate the nature and narrative of The Matrix Revolutions, one must first understand its place in the overall scheme of the story. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are two halves of a single, four-hour narrative. Consequently, Reloaded contains Act I and the first half of Act II (Act II.1), whilst Revolutions contains the latter half of Act II (Act II.2) as well as Act III. I've included an explanatory diagram below (something I refer to as 'The Reloaded-Revolutions Superstructure') to clarify the point:

Here is an overview of what each act contains and what its purpose is:
ACT I (Reloaded, Hour 1):
This sets up the politics and geography of Zion, which will be paid off in Act III. It also sets up the need to save Zion from an impending army. Neo is told that in order to save Zion he must reach the Source (a.k.a. 'the Machine mainframe') and in order to do that he must first retrieve a program called the Key Maker. She also tells Neo that programs can only be deleted at the Source - something else to be paid off in Act III. The saga's primary antagonist, Smith, is also shown to have become an endlessly multiplying virus who copies himself onto other programs and people, and even copies himself onto Bane - a Zion warrior - who then carries the psyche of Smith within the real world and who then becomes obsessed with killing Neo. Once again, this will be paid off later in the story.

ACT II.1 (Reloaded, Hour 2):
Neo and company race to reach the Source, capturing the Key Maker and then making their way to what they think is the end of their journey. Unfortunately for them, there is a big reversal in store - Neo is merely part of a larger control system and must return to the Source in order to restart the Matrix. He refuses and soon discovers he has abilities outside the Matrix to destroy Sentinels...but he falls into a mysterious coma in the process.

ACT II.2 (Revolutions, Hour 1):
Neo's friends discover that Neo's mind is no comatose, but is actually trapped in a world between worlds - a place used to smuggle obsolete programs out of the Machine world and into the Matrix. They succeed in breaking him out and Neo marches into the Oracle's apartment to ask for answers. She reveals that Neo has a connection to the Source (the Machine mainframe) and can consequently broadcast his own signal into the Matrix without the need for jacking in, and can interfere with the Machine frequency thus allowing him to destroy sentinels. Meanwhile, the Machine army is almost upon Zion and the remaining rebels must decide what to do...when Neo suddenly comes in and asks to take one of the ships to the Machine City. He manages to secure a ship to the anger of some, but before he and Trinity can leave, they are ambushed by Bane - who is now operating as Smith - and Neo's eyes are gouged out.

ACT III (Revolutions, Hour 2):
The Machine army breach Zion's dock walls and an enormous battle occurs using the geography of Zion as set up in Act I as a basis for the audience's orientation of the scene. Morpheus races against time to make it back to Zion with their last remaining EMP to wipe out the Machine army and succeeds...only to be met with a second wave of Sentinels even bigger than the first. Neo and Trinity make it to the Machine City and Neo, connecting Smith to the Source and using his body as a sacrificial conduit, destroys Smith after brokering a truce with the Machines in exchange for Smith's head. The Matrix is reborn anew and in balance and a new era of peace begins.

Although this is just the tip of a very large iceberg, you can still see that much of what occurs in the Revolutions portion of the story is directly dependent upon what was set up in Reloaded. Indeed, this is why advise people not to watch one without the other, particularly Revolutions, which enjoys the least narrative autonomy of all three installments.


There seem to be three main sources of confusion with regards to the plot of The Matrix Revolutions. The first is the nature of Neo's expanded powers outside the Matrix. The second is the nature of Mobil Ave; the train station Neo finds himself stuck in. And the third is how Neo destroyed Smith.

With regards to Neo's powers, it is important to understand that Neo, by simple definition, is a cyborg. His central nervous system has been cybernetically augmented to send and receive computer signals, hence why he can jack into the Matrix. But the powers he exhibits in the real world are of an electromagnetic nature. This is suggested when (a) the visual vocabulary that has already been established during deployment of EMPs is used again to show Neo stopping the oncoming Sentinels at the end of Reloaded, as well as when (b) Neo is able to broadcast his own electromagnetic signal into the Matrix without the help of hardware. He is therefore a cyborg who is equipped with electromagnetic capabilities, and - according to the Oracle - he is connected to the Source, the Machine mainframe. Animé and cyberpunk fans would do well to think of this as Major Motoko Kusanagi from Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell being hooked into a wireless computer network. It is fundamentally the same principle.

With regards to Mobil Ave, the Oracle explicitly states that it is "a place between [the Matrix] and the Machine world". The character of Rama-Kandra even explains that he is in charge of recycling the humans who die, feeding them to the humans who are still alive. Thus the 'Machine world' is literally a reference to the pod fields, the Machine City, etc. And Mobil Ave is a path that connects that world with the Matrix - a forum for free (albeit exiled) existence for programs who are on the run for one reason or another.

And finally, with regards to Neo being able to destroy Smith, the Oracle establishes that programs can only be deleted at the Source, and Neo defeats Smith by connecting him to the Source. It's quite simple, really.


I will be as clear as the film is supposedly cryptic. The theme of the film and, indeed, of the entire trilogy is that of unity. Balance. The integration of opposites. It is a theme that is made manifest in every fiber of the trilogy's being. Neo and Smith merging. The Oracle and the Architect co-operating. Man and Machine co-existing. The constant Yin-Yang symbols, the symmetrical shot compositions, repetitions of Buddhist quotes that "everything that has a beginning has an end", the fact that Neo is an anagram for 'ONE' and that 'Trinity' represents the meeting point between two opposites... The list goes on and on and on and on. Even the overarching ethos behind the aesthetic of the film's creation (i.e. the bringing together of disparate disciplines of film genres, cultures, philosophies, theologies, mythologies, etc) reflects the theme of unity and balance and oneness that pervades any perspective that one may wish to approach this piece from.

The idea that difference is a delusion, and that unity is illumination.

If anyone wishes to contend this interpretation, I'd be only too happy to oblige. Thus I give you my personal assurance that this is indeed the theme of The Matrix Trilogy. This is what it's about. All those symbols, all those analogies, all those esoteric external references...they all had a purpose. A reason. A "Why?". And anyone who says that these elements were merely thrown together as a haphazard assortment of random references is just plain wrong.

And, as with any well-constructed film, its theme is made manifest through its characters. Neo, who started off in the first film complaining, "I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life," ends up in the second film understanding that, "It was inevitable." That the universe is unified. That it can only happen one way, and that true peace doesn't come from denying your destiny, but from accepting that you are but a small cog in the cosmic wheel. To "know thyself" and to consequently know your place in the universe. Trinity is already at peace with her place in the universe - as her name suggests, she is the 'third way'. The path between paths. The place where opposing forces resolve, dissolve, and only peace remains. And her peace comes through her love for Neo. And finally, we have Morpheus becoming a more integrated, more holistic human being. For so many years he has shut off his humanity in favour of an intangible myth. An escapist abstraction. Something that kept him from truly connecting with his fellow humans on a personal level, as represented by his initially failed relationship with Niobe. A relationship he gets a second shot at now that he is fully present. Now that he is whole. Now that he has become unified.


Not in a million years. Just because you understand the inner workings of a story, its characters and its themes, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to suddenly get a visceral kick out of watching the film. But, like explaining a joke after the moment has passed, those who initially berated the it with unabashed vitriol may just take a moment to stop and smile with a wave of realisation, thinking, "Ah, yeah... Okay... I get it now..." So even though you may not 'enjoy' it, you may at least gain a sense of appreciation for it. And when you see it again in a few months, you may even get a little giggle out of it.

Like Michael Jackson's Invincible album, The Matrix Revolutions is something of a 'grower' - the more you play it and the more time you spend with it, the more you are convinced that you are experiencing a work of unrecognised genius that was simply too ahead of its time to be appreciated by its contemporaries. And then you sit slack-jawed in awe of its greatness, unable to get enough of it.

The mystery and danger of Neo's first act predicament, the thrilling gun battles Morpheus and Trinity stage in order to secure his escape, the tension of Smith in human form scurrying about the ships waiting to strike and the inexorable midpoint confrontation between him and Neo, the spectacularly staged siege sequence whose equivalence may never come, the final battle in which the directors employ all their action acumen to deliver one of the greatest scenes of lyricised violence known to humanity, and all the ideas, all the visuals, all the story turns, all the concepts the Wachowskis roll into this massive monument to moviemaking - all these things are the reasons why I love this film and why I think that it is not just the superlative sci-fi or cyberpunk experience, but also the ultimate cinematic experience.

No other film delivers so much craft and content in so fickle a frame.


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