The Matrix Revolutions ★★★½

Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming. I see the darkness spreading. I see death.

Revolutions offers the thanatos to Reloaded’s eros.

Revolutions and Reloaded obviously directly mirror one another in a variety of ways. However, the visual metaphor of penetration is the most revealing. In Reloaded, penetration was largely an act of love; Trinity and Neo’s sex scene early in the movie, Neo’s literal touching of Trinity’s heart at the climax. In contrast, penetration in Revolutions is all about death. Neo and Trinity’s sex scene in Reloaded is juxtaposed with her death scene in Revolutions, which is the result of another (more violent) act of penetration. Although framed as assault, Smith’s penetration of his victims in Reloaded was an act of procreation and self-extension, which his penetration of Neo in Revolutions is his undoing. Even Neo’s final journey to the Matrix is an act of self-destruction, with the machines penetrating him and then killing him.

This sense of death and destruction lends Revolutions a real gravity. Whereas Reloaded spent a lot of its run time treading water and focusing on plots that felt largely tangential, Revolutions moves with a much clearer sense of purpose. The Merovingian is still a distraction, but at least the early scenes with Neo serve a purpose that is as narratively relevant as thematically important; it is vital that Neo come to recognise that the machines have their own autonomy and their own integrity, just as it is important to establish the idea of something equivalent to a “soul” that can navigate both worlds; that Neo’s body can lie limp in the real world while his essence moves through the machine world.

Of course, this vague and abstract spirituality may be part of the reason that fans of The Matrix reacted so strongly against Revolutions. A lot of online debate focuses on the absurdity of elements like Neo’s ability to control machines in the real world, or to see what looks similar to code (albeit orange rather than green) outside of the Matrix. However, theme and narrative have always been more important to the Wachowskis than any set of rules. The point of these sequences is to deliberately and ambiguously blur the boundaries that exist the two worlds, rejecting the rigid assertion that the world of men must inherently be superior to the world of machines. This is not a story about asserting one reality over another, but instead about attempting to reconcile two radically different realities to one another.

Revolutions subverts expectations in a variety of ways. The big battle for Zion happens towards the middle of the film, rather than towards the climax. For most of the battle, the primary cast are entirely absent. Instead, the audience watches a bunch of people trying to work together as part of a greater whole, without an easy “hero” or “chosen one” character with which the audience might identify. While this is happening, Neo wanders off on his own adventure and Morpheus’ last-minute attempt to save the day just makes things worse. If Reloaded rejected “Chosen One” narratives as just another system of manipulation and control, Revolutions takes that idea to its extreme by arguing that the most important thing that people can do is to cooperate with one another.

After all, Agent Smith represents the antithesis of that value system. If Neo rejects the concept of “the One” as a control mechanism, Agent Smith takes it to its logical conclusion. Agent Smith is the ultimate individualist. He seeks to remake the world in his own image. Agent Smith imagines a world where he is everything and everything is him. This is marked contrast to the film’s focus on Zion, where everybody is an individual, but they must work together for the greater good. There’s something oddly moving in all of this, similar to the idea of the souls caught in one another’s orbit in Cloud Atlas.

Of course, there are still pacing and structural issues here. Agent Smith is absent from the plot for far too long in the second act, between his assimilation of the Oracle and the final confrontation. To be fair, it’s hard to think of what the character could be doing, but it almost feels like a cheat when the third act casually reveals that he has taken over the entire Matrix. A few establishing shots or intercut sequences might help to keep the threat present as the stakes escalate outside the Matrix. Similarly, the Matrix itself never feels like an especially real place in either Reloaded or Revolutions. There’s never a sense of what this means to the people living within its confines - their fate is relegated to a quick exchange between the Oracle and the Architect at the end of Revolutions. Similarly, as impressive as the Zion sequences might be - providing another contrast between the eros within the city in Reloaded and the thanatos inflicted upon it in Revolutions - they could use a tighter edit.

Reloaded and Revolution often feel like they arrived both too early and too late. Too late in the sense that the two sequels are both big existential “what if good and evil (or the concepts of us and them) don’t exist at the end of history?” nineties movies, even more than The Matrix itself. There’s a moral relativism at play that feels very much rooted in the cultural anxieties of the late nineties, the search for meaning and purpose in a world that provides little of either. This is perhaps most revealing in Agent Smith’s big monologue to Neo at the climax of Revolutions, in which he challenges his opponent to explain why he fights. More than that, Reloaded and Revolutions suggest that the machines are more than simple antagonists, and that humanity’s relationship to them is more fluid and elastic (and harder to quantify) than simple dramatic opposition.

That was a tough sell roughly a year or so into the War on Terror, when audiences wanted moral clarity. The biggest movie of the year was the clear-cut battle between good and evil in The Return of the King, while on television 24 was transforming from a cult hit into a cultural phenomenon by tapping into the zeitgeist’s desire for rigidly-defined good-against-evil narratives. For all it’s late nineties trappings, The Matrix suggested just such a central conflict. Although the execution was far from perfect, it is to the credit of both Reloaded and Revelations that they dared to push for something bigger.