What Went Wrong

By Walid Habboub

November 13, 2003

I'm sorry, I don't know anyone named Larry or Andy.

Before you read a single word, understand that this column will liberally discuss the plot of the entire Matrix trilogy. Please do not read on if you do not wish to read about the entire story of Neo and friends.

Before we answer what went wrong with The Matrix franchise, let me explain why I know something went wrong and the reason that I can confidently make the assertion that the two sequels that were released this year were monumental disappointments to most fans of the reality-bending film.

I’ll take a simple approach to addressing this question because merely spitting out where in my opinion the films ultimately failed will do good by no one, especially all the hard-working people that spent almost three years of their lives making these two films happen. Instead, I will simply state that I know that a movie (or a pair of movies in this case) is bad when the two leads die and yet I really did not care.

So maybe that’s a little harsh. After all, this could only point to a bad film and not a bad franchise. It is important to note that the characters that sacrifice themselves and die as heroes were created in a film that was extremely well-received and featured unique characters that were well-loved. The bottom line is that a pop-culture icon willingly embraces death to save the human race and the audience doesn’t care. This fact alone is enough to tell me that something somewhere went wrong. But what happened?

First, we must understand that Reloaded was being released with really high expectations from fans, so it might have been destined to disappoint. The audience certainly did not get what they expected. Perhaps the sequels could never live up to the originality and power of the first film simply because they were sequels, but to say that is the only reason that the films were disappointing would be doing movie-goers an injustice.

It is important to understand what the real appeal of The Matrix is. Yes, everybody knows about the kung-fu action, the bullet time special effects and the slow-mo gunplay fluidly mixing with break-neck music, but what was the real appeal of the film that made it stand out? For that, we have to look at the story of the film -- not necessarily the narrative, but the set-up and mythos The Matrix created.

Like any good fantasy, The Matrix creates a fascinating world in which to draw its audience. The appeal of this world is directly related to the fact that it is anchored in our reality, our world as we currently live in it. By making the world of the Matrix familiar and giving the audience the capability to relate to the characters in the film and their journey, the directors of The Matrix created a supremely compelling and utterly fascinating dramatic core. When the directors took this core and surrounded it with a fun shell -- an outer layer filled with high-octane action, karma cool themes and mind-blowing special effects -- they created what was easily the most promising film world since Star Wars. And with Reloaded, it was all taken away.

With the release of The Matrix Reloaded, the focus of the Matrix story ceased to be about our human struggle and became their human struggle. Neo went from the normal everyday man with whom we journeyed along in order to discover the truth to a Superman living beyond all humans. Instead of being a prison in which we all live, The Matrix became an evil and distant empire when the focus shifted from the evil agents of The Matrix to the evil rogue agent, Agent Smith. Zion, instead of being the symbol of salvation and a destination that all humans would want to ultimately achieve, became a wasteland that no one sitting in a movie theatre could relate to. The Matrix had changed from something we might very well be a part of to just another generic futuristic story.

This is where The Matrix story began to distance itself from the audience. Instead of seeing how else The Matrix affects our current lives, we as an audience became disconnected (or unplugged, if you will). The directors did not tap into the human element that came with the original film and instead went on to tell their story. Instead of focusing on what the audience sees, the directors were more interested in telling their story in ways they thought to be compelling. Unfortunately, the audience was left hanging.

Revolutions took that a step further. Having most of the film take place in the “real” world, the audience was further distanced from the original concept of The Matrix. Not only that, but this third film in the series focuses a lot of its time and energy on new and uninteresting secondary characters. So not only was the audience not getting the world they wanted to see, they weren’t even getting the characters they had grown to love. So the audience wants something but they get something completely different. Bit players in a strange setting truly bring the drama down a few notches and helped end the franchise on a cold note.

Of course this main issue is only compounded by a very thin plot that exists merely to drive the action. Much of the plot, in hindsight, seems to have been an add-in and consequently could have been thrown aside for whatever lame excuse can be used to have a big fight. One gets the feeling that the directors sat down and thought out what would be a cool action scene to film and then decided to find a way to shoot it. Make no mistake, the directors made some good choices in some places (such as the doing away with the kung fu, a now tired action device that has already been taken to its limit) but overall, the action scenes seem too staged and plotted out. I hate to dumb it down to this level but it honestly feels like the directors sat down and said “Hey, Mechs would be cool so we’ll add those. And you know what else is cool? If they fought while flying like Superman would” and they set out to film these scenes without really bothering to see how well they fit in to the story. Combine this with the attempt at highbrow dialogue and often confusing subject matter, and The Matrix seems more concerned about looking and sounding cool than with telling an interesting story. In the end, the films come across more like a geek's wet dream than a movie-goer's ultimate movie fantasy.

So the overall disappointment of The Matrix comes in how it has slipped from the sublime to the mundane, from the original to the monotonous, from the incredible to the ordinary. Unfortunately, what really upsets me abut how the real and fictional story of The Matrix has played out is that it is one giant missed opportunity. The Matrix could have been a banner franchise for a new generation. The films could have defined new blockbuster cinema but instead they’ll have to do with just changing it, or even merely strongly influencing it. The Matrix could have defined a generation, a generation that is more and more becoming one with technology. A generation whose entire personality is shaped by computers and thousands of little Matrix-like worlds that people are choosing to exist in. Instead, The Matrix is nothing but a disappointment that, ironically, serves to show that computers will offer you something pretty but that ultimately lacks any real substance or life.