DATE: 11/15/2003 04:10:00 PM
My Take on the Matrix
(and some other shit)
OK, part of my twelve step program is owning up to my mistakes, so I must publish here that I went out and bought books last night. I know, I know. Only three. And two CDs. I know!!
Look, when the first day of Borders Employee Appreciation 40% off weekend happens to coincide with the day my boyfriend--a Borders employee--comes up to visit, and that happens to coincide with the end of one of the more hellacious weeks of my life, can you really blame me?
At least admit you're not suprised.
Yes, this week reminded me of something from my childhood: the monkey bars. I loved the monkey bars. I'd climb all over those things like a little pigtailed ape. I especially liked challenging myself to get from one end to the other swinging by my arms. By the end, my triceps felt like they were going to snap like rubber bands and tear away from the bone, and my shoulders burned like hot coals. I'd make it, though, and jump down to a tooth-jarring, ankle-spraining landing. That's what getting through this week felt like. Except not as fun or rewarding.
But let's not talk about that shit.
What I do want to get to is The Matrix: Revolutions, which I saw at precisely midnight last Friday. I must warn you, however, that there are spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen this movie yet, there's something really, deeply wrong in your life, and you need to correct that, pronto, before you surf the Internet any more.
Anyway, for those of you who have seen the movie already and care what I have to say (which works out to about three people), here's my analysis: I fucking loved this movie. I loved the whole series. I can't wait to own it in box set form, on DVD. Matrix memorabilia is beginning to take over my bedroom. I can honestly say this movie even changed my life a little bit.
Which is why, essentially, I insist that no one speak to me about these movies until a proper digestion period has passed. I have some friends whose way of enjoying movies is to pick them apart, from beginning to end, before the credits stop rolling. I respect, but do not understand these people. I like to let things sink in.
I also didn't want to hear anyone pick at this movie. I know it's not flawless, and that people who disliked the Matrix trilogy have every right to their opinions, but for a little while after the movie I didn't want to have to defend it to criticism. The way I see it is, you either get it, or you don't, or you're a movie critic, and if you're either of the last two, I don't want to talk to you about this anyway. Of course, if you do get it, you don't need me blabbing on about it to understand the movie, but, well, I'm going to do it anyway.
As I said, this series of films is not without its shortcomings. The Warchowski brothers set themselves a high bar, indeed, and then gave themselves no choice but to clear it by six inches--and make it look easy. Obviously, they don't always succeed. Dialogue is sometimes wince-worthy. Keanu Reeves hasn't entirely exorcised the plywood from his screen presence. Even some of the computer graphics leave a bit to be desired, and probably in twenty years young whippersnappers will laugh at how crappy they are.
To say, "Well, hey, it beats sitting through Terminator 3", true though that may be, is merely damning with faint praise. This movie exists on a totally different level from every other film, with the exception of American Beauty, that I have ever seen. Before seeing the final installment, I lived in fear that it would fall, Icarus-like, back into Hollywood banality. Some said it had done so with Reloaded, but even if I had agreed, I would still need to see Revolutions to make my final judgment. And even if Reloaded had been a flawless piece of film work, Revolutions could still have brought the entire series crashing to a cliche-ridden halt.
To avoid doing so, this movie needed to do two things for me: bring the ideas and concepts advanced in the first two films to a coherent conclusion while avoiding a sappy, too-easy Hollywood ending.
To review: in my previous review of Reloaded, I stated that the central concepts of the earlier movies were time, as well as free will and man's capacity for choice. More specifically, as I stated then,
"Of course the fight scene [between Neo and hundreds of Agent Smiths] was useless. As a matter of fact, the entire point of the movie was that all the fighting was useless--adversity put in place by the system to engage Neo and make him fight to do what he was really supposed to do all along, because otherwise, he wouldn't have done it."
Also, given the Biblical allusions tightly woven throughout the film, we know that Neo, as a Christlike figure, has to die in order to save Zion (by the way, for those of you disappointed to see Trinity expire, I share your pain, but she of course needed to die as well. Otherwise Neo would've still had something to live for).
Revolutions does not disappoint. The central concepts, as well as the Zen-Buddhist emphasis on the absence of moral or rhetorical meaning, are admirably developed. "Choice," Neo says at least twice. "The problem is choice." In his fight with Agent Smith at the end of the movie, Smith actually puts to Neo out loud the essential question at the heart of the human condition: "Why do you keep getting up? Why keep fighting?" Neo's only response? "Because I choose to."
This ties in nicely, as a matter of fact, with the various Christian-myth elements to the story. Neo is fighting Smith in order to free humans from the Matrix--or, rather, to free them to choose between the Matrix and the "real" world. All the way back in the first movie, if you'll recall, Cipher (played by Joe Pantoliano) was so despondent about the realities he faced outside of the Matrix that he was willing to kill just to be reinserted into the system. Morpheus even tells Neo that some people are too ingrained in the system ever to be freed. So lest you expect some type of jubilant freeing-the-slaves ending where everyone gets unplugged, think again. Here, Revolutions continues the film's admirable tolerance for ambiguity.
What Neo is sacrificing himself for--in a very Christlike way, it turns out--is to give people the option to be freed from the Matrix. Essentially Neo is giving every human the opportunity Morpheus gave him--between the red pill and the blue pill. "Whosoever believeth in me shall not perish but shall have eternal life," is a famous line of Christ's--the Matrix emphasizes the corollary that one must believe before one avoids perishing. Still, unlike Christianity, the movie does not sit in judgment of those who choose not to be freed from the Matrix--more of a miracle than anyone could expect.
But they keep coming. We know that Neo must defeat the machines in order to save Zion and preserve the free will of mankind. How he will do this is hinted at when he stops the sentinel outside of the Matrix at the end of the first movie. The fact that doing this will kill him is also hinted at when doing so puts him in a coma. And yes, he does do his "the power of Christ compels you" gesture to short circuit several sentinels again, as Trinity flies him into the machine city, 01. But that's not the end of it, and, thankfully, the movie in this regard is about to take you to a completely unanticipated place.
Neo doesn't do physical battle with the machines, but, rather, is reinserted into the Matrix to do battle with Smith, who, the Oracle explains to Neo, is essentially his doppelganger--the yin to his yang (the fact that the Oracle is wearing yin-yang earrings when she explains this is just another example of the movies truly awe-inspiring attention to detail). In the end, Neo doesn't kill Smith outright, standing, Braveheart-like, over Smith and beating his chest. And many of you may have been confused by the sight of the Oracle lying in the ditch after Neo and Smith literally neutralize one another.
Which brings me back to the second demand I placed on this movie: that its ending avoid being cliche, simple, satisfying, or, really, even all that definitive. I couldn't have asked for it to be done better. Everything I'm about to say now is my interpretation--and completely open to debate. There is no right answer. There is no answer, period. The point is that there is no point (getting back to the Buddhism, again). Or, as the movie puts it, There is no spoon, and idea as apt to bend your mind around as the utensil in question. It is this quality--rather than the meaning I ascribe to it--that makes the Matrix easily one of the two best movies I have ever seen, and probably ever will see, in my entire life.
In case you're curious as to what my interpretation was, here goes: way back at the beginning of the movie, Smith did his cloning thing with the Oracle. You'll recall that the resulting Smith clone made the other agents kinda...uneasy, and that the Oracle did not fight him as he took over her body. It is this Smith--the extra-special Supersize Smith--that Neo fights at the end of the movie, while all of the other clones look on. You'll notice, also, that by this time Smith has managed to clone himself into everyone in the entire world. The virus has taken over the system. In the end, when Neo is talking to the gigantic face in 01, he is offering to actually help the system by exterminating its case of the Smiths (but he has to, of course--without the Matrix there can't really be a choice, can there?).
When Neo lets Smith clone him at the end of the film, it is essentially the converse of how he defeats Smith in the first movie, both in the literal sense and in the idealogical sense. In becoming "The One", Neo was allowed to impose himself on Smith. In fulfilling his mission as "The One One" by the end of the third movie, Neo has to let Smith--and the system Smith represents--impose itself on him. Since Smith and Neo are the inverse of one another--two sides of the same coin--their combination essentially neutralizes an equation. They reduce one another, like fractions, to one. What's left is the Oracle--who remained apart from Smith even as he took over her body. When Smith and Neo disappear, she is left.
Which leads us to the ending. The little girl is the Last Exile--Exile being the term to refer to programs, like Smith, and the Keymaker, who resist returning to the Source. They choose to resist deletion, much as many humans choose to resist subjugation. Free will is beginning to creep into the world of the machine.
The Architect, meanwhile, seems to be the last holdover from a world of logic, precision and abstract reasoning. He scorns emotion, chance and choice. The entire story, we learn from the ending, has essentially been a battle of wills between the Oracle--yin--and the Architect--yang. A conflict, an argument, between the forces of logic and the forces of love. Sounds cheesy, but it's true. Neo and Smith have amounted to little more than the alter egos of the Oracle and the Architect, the literal pawns in a chess match or, more appropriately, a video game duel between the two elemental forces of the universe.
It's not a battle, you'll notice, between God and the Devil (the devil being represented by the Merovingian, who remains in the Matrix to rule over its fleshly pleasures--oddly enough incredibly like the Judeo-Christian Devil but for the measure of his power). It's a battle among God, if there is such a theing. And if the idea of the protagonist the move has gotten you to fall in love with being nothing more than a minor character in the whole story makes you feel a little cheated, recall the conversation between the Architect and Oracle at the end of the movie: "How did you know?"
"I didn't know," the Oracle answers. "But I believed." Believed in Neo. Believed that he--and this passage through the cycle of the Matrix--would be different. Neo really did change everything.
So what of the Last Exile? The actress playing her did a real disservice to the importance of her character--she was the one real weak spot in the whole movie. But if you can get past the multiplication-tables recitation of the little girl's lines, her character is actually important. She's the Last Exile just as Neo was the Last Zion. She's the last program--like the Oracle--to withhold herself from the Source. The last program to exercise her free will. Perhaps she is meant to become the leader of those who choose to stay within the system. The presence of Sarif is a signal of her importance--recall his line from Reloaded: "I protect that which matters most."
But it's all open to debate, of course. That's the beauty of it.
And speaking of beauty--I know I didn't mention this earlier, but I have to admit here that a third demand I placed on the movie is that it be as visually awe-inspiring as the others. Two scenes--the battle for Zion and the fight between Smith and Neo--made my jaw literally drop. Whoever designed them has obviously cracked open the human mind, found the visual pleasure center, and set about to stimulate it with singular determination. I would try to describe them, but if you haven't seen them (and if that's the case, why the fuck are you reading this far?), you have to see them to believe them, and if you have, you already know what I mean.
Like I said, you either get it or you don't. And if you get it, I guess I'll see you in line for DVDs.