Rewatching: The Matrix Trilogy

I was happy to find that the first movie still holds up. I think part of why it works is because it is largely set in a 1999 that is frozen in time. It also helps that the basic structure of the movie is classic: naive youngster is shown a wider world, told of a prophecy where they will save the world, then begins to fulfill that prophecy.

The relative roles of the other main characters in the story bothered me this time, though, where they didn’t before. Morpheus is still amazing, but step back a bit and he’s one more wise black man guiding a white kid to a greatness that he can’t achieve. Trinity kicks ass, but squint and she’s a kung-fu wielding female who’s only there to fall in love with and support the male hero. For a film set in the future with a nominal theme of breaking down mental boundaries, these elements feel distinctly old and out of place.

The second and third movies are still complete failures, though. I enjoyed the second movie at the time, and remember hating the third one along with everyone else. But rewatching them showed me how much the two final films are really one film, and it’s not a good one.

I think a large part of the problem with the last two movies is that they violate the narrative expectations set by the first movie. The trilogy sequence setup in The Matrix was: a nobody becomes special (first film), then learns more about their specialness (second film), then pursues and achieves the mission for which they became special (third film).

But they skipped the second step, and padded the third step out over two movies. Mistake.

There’s a whole chunk of story missing, where we’d normally see Neo rescuing people from the Matrix – maybe getting frustrated that he can’t convince more people it’s fake? – and learning about what he can and can’t do. For example, he can’t do the Keymaker’s trick with doors: if we saw other people do it for an entire movie, but didn’t know how they were doing it, the Keymaker reveal would have a lot more punch.

Skipping that piece of the story prevents us from watching Neo learn and grow, and drops an opportunity to deepen the characterization of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar along the way.

Given the current structure – and the large narrative hole in it – the last 2 movies should have been compressed into one. Cut out Zion, the attack on Zion subplot, the scenes with the last stand on the docks, etc. Stick to the thread of Neo and his crew chasing down the Keymaker and getting to the Source, then Neo taking a ship to the Machine City and ending the war.

Everything else – the machines attacking the docks, the sabotage of the ships by the Smith-infested human – can come to us as reports that Morpheus relays to the crew. This lets us keep the focus on Neo’s story, since we don’t have time to give the other plots and characters their due. Trying to squeeze them in – like the second and third films do – weakens Neo’s plot and doesn’t deliver any emotional heft. There’s simply not enough screen time.

The best course would have been to make the second bridging movie that’s missing, and then made the trimmed down third movie to wrap it up. Instead, we get one and a half good movies: the original Matrix, and the half a movie buried inside the latter two.

Ron Toland @mindbat