Shoulda Quit When They Were Ahead

Yesterday N.Y. Post critic Kyle Smith noted the 15-year anniversary of Andy and Larry Wachowski‘s The Matrix, which opened theatrically on 3.31.99. I remember paying to see it at the old multiplex at the Beverly Connection, on the southeast corner of La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard. I remember floating out of the theatre and listening to the chatter as the crowd trudged down the stairway exit. A visionary knockout. The first grade-A cyber adventure. Bullet time, baby! Obviously a hit.

For the next four years I was convinced that the press-shy Wachowskis, who’d also directed the brilliant and hot-lesbo-sexy Bound, were pointing the way into 21st Century cinema and that everything they would henceforth create would dazzle as much as The Matrix, if not more so.

And then The Matrix Reloaded came out a little more than four years later (5.15.03) and the millions who’d flipped over The Matrix were standing around with dazed expressions going “wait…what? ” And then The Matrix Revolutions opened on 11.5.03 and that was it…dead, finished, imploded. Larry and Andy who?

“We’re approaching the four-year anniversary of the final collapse of the Matrix theology that came with the release of The Matrix Revolutions, ” I wrote on 8.27.07. “Too bad it’s not the fifth anniversary or I could tap out a stock-taking piece. It was a pretty amazing meltdown; hard to believe it all happened the way it did.

“Are the second and third Matrix films still the most despised and discredited franchise films ever made? Is there anyone in the world except for the 300 or 400 remaining Wachowski geeks out there who’s even watched Matrix Reloaded or Matrix Revolutions on DVD over the past three or four years?

“I wrote a piece called “Neo Schmeo” that summed it all up back in October 2003:

“I never would have guessed after getting my first look at The Matrix — a movie that freed my heart and made me levitate — that the sequels-to-come would turn out as badly as they have.

“Now the word is spreading like a huge fart and it’s all over but the revenues. This franchise went spiritually belly-up after the release of The Matrix Reloaded last summer, and now here’s The Matrix Revolutions to drive the final stake in and kill it for good. The legend, the faith, the magic…dead.

“You may be able to figure out most of what’s going on in Revolutions…or not. Point is, if your experience is anything like mine you’re going to stop caring anyway because you’re going to find yourself realizing with a jolt you’re totally done with looking at Carrie Ann Moss and fat Larry Fishburne doing that deadpan superhero thing in those shades and leather outfits.

“It hit me around 25 minutes in. I said to myself, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to watch this shit any more…ever.” I see the Matrix Reloaded DVD on the shelves at my local DVD store and a thought never even occurs to me about renting it. I don’t want to look at a scene, a snippet…nothing.

“I could go on for six or seven paragraphs trying to pick through what made sense to me and what I’m still trying to figure out, but why should I write anything in this column that will pay even an oblique tribute to something I believe everyone should wash their hands of?

“I saw Keanu Reeves in Nancy MeyersSomething’s Gotta Give last night (i.e., Monday) and I was so grateful he wasn’t wearing his leather Neo outfit I almost teared up. He looked so normal and natural and regular guy-ish. Considering the metaphorical implications made me feel light in the head.

“It doesn’t matter what Revolutions makes. Either it gets people where they live (like The Matrix did) or it doesn’t. Millions are going to go this weekend and what of it? Ticket sales don’t mean anything. Not with big-studio tentpolers.

The Matrix Revolutions is like a bowl of narrative spaghetti, meant to be savored (I presume) for being a wonderful tangle that geek boys can dive into and try to put together in some fashion. But there is no one strand that leads to any kind of thematic core or foundation that seems to support the whole thing. The story hasn’t been told — it’s been heaped upon us like some kind of bizarre attack of live pasta and CGI squid.

“The big attack sequence on Zion is too overwhelming to make much of an impact. Too many millions of sentinels, no way of keeping score, and I don’t want or need this in my life.

“”I know this: When inquiring minds feel they need to compare notes in order to get their heads straight about what may or may not have happened story-wise, which I was doing with friends in front of the Fox Village last Thursday night and then on the phone and internet after that, the movie hasn’t done its job.. Journo after journo raised their eyebrows and gave me that ‘look’ after the all-media screening.

“One guy said, ‘Oh, well…!’ Another said, ‘I hated it!’ Another said, ‘Who was that big Wizard of Oz guy with the big deep voice at the end? Where was he during the last two installments…?’

“The single best bit in the whole thing is when Neo tries running on foot out of the train station, and finds himself right back where he started a second later.

“The second best scenes in the film both belong to Hugo Weaving. His scene with the Oracle, and his scene at the end when he talks about the meaninglessness of it all, blah, blah. That was great.

“They should have left it alone with the original The Matrix, and been proud of that triumph, and gone on to something new and fresh. But no — Joel and the boys and Keanu Reeves wanted to make all that money. And money’s all they’re going to get.”

  • bentrane

    And yet – and I am expecting to be pummeled for saying this – ‘Speed Racer’ is a gloriously candy-colored piece of pop candy, and ‘Cloud Atlas,’ which I was dreading, since I love the book and thought it was unfilmable, is a really solid piece of work, and quite moving at times. So maybe the Wachowskis haven’t totally lost their mojo, ya know?

    • Michael Gebert

      Speed Racer is a visual blast, just skip the long speech about corruption in the middle of it.

      • Rashad

        The editing, and visuals are phenomenal, but they over-estimated how many kids are interested in stock manipulation, and corporate fraud.

        • Michael Gebert

          Also how many adults.

          Still, the all-time champ in “You’ve been in Hollywood dealmaking too long” is The Lost World, the family dinosaur adventure movie with TWO presentations to a board of directors during its running time.

          • joeybot

            I also like how the movie presents the Greenpeace character as the good guy, and you could attribute what, 30-40 deaths to what he did?

    • The Wachowskis once held mountains in the palm of their hands. Then they blew it. Now they’re just another couple of hamsters on the treadmill.

      • Mark

        That’s your perception. The reality is that they are still securing $200M budgets and whatever actor they choose for original scripts they’ve written. Only a handful of people have this power.

        • Sumo-Pop

          I think Jeff’s point is more about relevance. I don’t think anyone is looking at Jupiter Ascending with great anticipation. Not just because Channing Tatum looks weird either. They are essentially the Brothers Shyamalan now.

          • JeffMc2000

            Sadly, when Jupiter Ascending tanks (and I only needed to take one look at Channing Tatum in his makeup to know that it will) the Wachowskis are going to be running back to the Matrix well again. And when those under-perform, maybe they’ll make another Bound. I hope.

            Either that, or Warners will hire them to reboot Superman for the fourth time.

      • joeybot

        Dude, they made an amine comic book kung fu movie. And they still are.

  • zygzag

    i fast-forwarded through much of reloaded/revolutions. very superficial, with a high sheen.

    movies like that, if i dare see them at the theater, put me to sleep. literally. it’s like i’ve popped a downer. have to do breath exercises to stay conscious. usually just walk out.

    on dvd, at least, you can take a break after each scene, maybe get back to it the next day

    • Magga

      I do this with all superhero movies. I feel like I have to see them to be allowed to have an opinion, so I watch them at home in increments while taking breaks to clean the apartment, take a walk, re-watch an episode of Louie etc, then pause and continue the next day. Then I forget I’ve started watching, so I still have half of The Avengers, Iron Man and other films to suffer through.

  • Mark

    I remember Jeffrey’s initial column after The Matrix. The drool was on the screen; one of the pivotal columns in his blogging career.

    Regarding the franchise, there’s been some recent revisionism upgrading Reloaded to a very sound and interesting action movie with one bad dance sequence, and laying most of the failures of the trilogy at the feet of Revolutions. I agree with this, and even admit that Revolutions ended well if you could make it that far. It was great to end it with an uneasy peace agreement; that’s how most things end afterall.

    • Michael Gebert

      No, Reloaded has all the same problems as Revolutions. Characters who were once enigmatically terse now run at the mouth like speed freaks, and a movie series that was built on being fleet of foot compared to the standard headslammer of the day now concerns itself with cars and trucks loudly smashing into each other for an hour straight.

      • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

        About 60% of Reloaded was good — keep the set pieces and ditch/condense the rave scenes and, well, anything happening in Zion, and you’d have a pretty solid movie.

        Even still, had the series not gone so far up its own ass with Revolutions but ended on a satisfying note, we’d probably be willing to forgive Reloaded’s flaws. But, alas…

        • Michael Gebert

          There are things that may be good in it in abstract, but I just had the overall feeling of it going badly off the rails from the beginning, and fundamentally misunderstanding what was good about The Matrix.

          Basically The Matrix went straight from Star Wars to Attack of the Clones.

          • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

            fundamentally misunderstanding what was good about The Matrix.

            +100.

  • embling

    larry wachowski? never heard of the guy.

  • You’re definitely right, Jeff … the Wachowskis should’ve stopped with THE MATRIX.

    However, a caveat: MATRIX RELOADED has a couple of fantastic action sequences in it. This one is visionary and pure white-knuckle tension:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF9AC2Ce2ow

    • moviewatcher

      The problem with many of the action scenes in Reloaded and Revolution was that they just went on and on and on. This is one of them. The scene where Neo battles a million hugo weavings in the second film is horribly over the top and long.

      • joeybot

        Nope, those were great.

    • Michael Gebert

      Gotta say, I don’t think this looks this great. You can tell the truck is only going 15 miles an hour when the actors are on it, and a lot of the action makes no sense (Fishburne slices an SUV and it flips over… why?) The motorcycle part going backwards is good, but the reverse chase in To Live and Die in L.A. is better because those feel like real cars going WTF? The normal people in The Matrix are all blips on a screen.

    • JeffMc2000

      It’s only tense if you give a shit what happens to the characters.

  • Rashad

    Love the sequels, and Revolutions is superior to Reloaded, and almost on par with the first film. I’m dead fucking serious too.

    The biggest mistakes were two-fold: ending on a cliffhanger, and the horrible CG in the street fight vs the Agent Smiths.

    That said, Revolutions is an awesome war pic, and finally led to the war they’ve talked about since the first film. Really, the fans of the films NEVER gave a shit about Zion, or the “real world” and only cared for the kung-gu bullet time stuff in the Matrix. That’s why Reloaded also gets a better rep than Revolutions, since it mostly takes place there.

    I just love how the sequels excise the traditional hero path, and make Neo just another cog in the system, albeit a very important one. In order to save Trinity, he refuses to the save the world, and selfishly goes for what he wants.

    I also think the fact that the trilogy ended in a truce, pissed people off.

    • I don’t think I can possibly disagree with any comment more than this one.

      The worst aspect of the entire trilogy was the conceptualization and CG execution of the real-world stuff, especially the sentinels. REVOLUTIONS is FILLED with this kind of video game bullshit, with cartoony characters riding in exoskeletons endlessly firing at cheesy-looking mechanical squids flying around Zion. It’s impossible to take seriously.

      • Rashad

        The sentinels were the same as they were in the first. This just adds to my point that most people didn’t give a shit about Zion, and just wanted more Matrix stuff.

        • Yes, I know … I wasn’t implying that they weren’t. I despised the sentinel crap in THE MATRIX, too … They’re just awful looking and pretty silly. However, the rest of the film is pure genius, so they can be overlooked. Not so much in the sequels.

    • DuluozRedux

      Agreed about Revolutions being way better than Reloaded. It had a ton of problems, and Trinity’s death scene is atrocious, but it was a solid action movie.

      • Magga

        I remember hating revolutions less than reloaded, but that’s all I remember about these movies

    • Michael Gebert

      “I also think the fact that the trilogy ended in a truce, pissed people off.”

      You think? Luke Skywalker agreeing to live under the Emperor’s rule and not blow up the death star didn’t work for people?

      • Rashad

        Completely different. Most people actually would love living in the matrix, compared to the real world.

  • Ivan__Drago

    Midway through Revolutions opening night in the theater it became apparent that there was no salvaging this thing and the Wachowskis were not going to pull it out. It was a unique vibe. I remember when Trinity died a guy yelled out a sarcastic “Boo Hoo Hoo” and everybody laughed. It was the big dramatic moment and no one cared.

    The point of the original Matrix was that by the end, Neo had transcended the Matrix, he could manipulate it at will and destroy the agents effortlessly, to just have him regress back to hand to hand combat in the opening minutes of part two was a let down. That said, part 2 still goes to some interesting places, 3 was just awful.

    • “I remember when Trinity died a guy yelled out a sarcastic “Boo Hoo Hoo”
      and everybody laughed. It was the big dramatic moment and no one cared.” Ha, I actually bailed on the film during that scene – one of only a handful of walkouts in a lifetime of cinema-going. To this day I haven’t seen the end of the damn thing. I thought 2 wasn’t that bad at all, but man Revolutions was the kiss of death – the antithesis of everything which had the first movie so cool.

    • joeybot

      2 could have been great…it all depended on what they did with 3, which was terrible. They set up a lot of interesting stuff in 2, and then ignored ALL OF THEM.

    • JeffMc2000

      That was it. The Wachowskis didn’t seem to know what was interesting about their own movie. The hook is that the Matrix could be OUR world, and some day a dark-shaded messiah could come along and wake us up and teach us to fly. It’s a great superhero premise, and a clever way to make impossible powers actually believable—it’s all happening in a computer, so fuck physics.

      Instead, we just get another dirty war movie full of fistfights with characters who remember halfway through that they can just fly away. and they’re not even good kung fu fights. They all look so over-rehearsed that the actors seem half-asleep. I think I saw Hugo weaving checking his watch in the middle of one of them.

  • Sumo-Pop

    The highway scene in the second film is amazing. All that shit wrapped around it? Not so much.

  • GhostOfGigli

    Isn’t Reloaded one of Poland’s all time favorite movies? I seem to recall an exhaustive series of articles from him on why it was so amazing.

  • Eve

    “The Matrix” was great, if perhaps a bit overrated story-wise. But it was a visual treat, and I loved it (geek that I am). The other two are good visually, but for all that, I found them boring in long stretches.

    However, I love “Speed Racer” — eye candy, indeed. I’ve watched it a few times now and it grows on me a little more every time. I used to watch the cartoon, and I love finding the little touches that go back to it. “Cloud Atlas” was a surprise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when it was done, I felt like it’d been a real treat.

  • chien_clean

    The lesson to be learned from this is: Never give a blank check to a bunch of geeks.

    Sad thing is, Hollywood still hasn’t learned.

  • It’s been a while (11 years? damn), but I think I recall digging Reloaded pretty solidly until the last half hour or so, when apparently somebody’s dog sat on the FF button on the remote and the storytelling started skipping beats left and right. It was like reading an essay test by a student who suddenly realized he only has three minutes left to hit the rest of the points before the teacher collects the papers.

    As far as the most despised and discredited franchise films ever, I’d say the Jaws sequels probably achieved about the steepest nosedive possible.

  • moviewatcher

    The Wachowskis did Cloud Atlas two years ago. They are forgiven for all their sins as far as I’m concerned.

  • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

    An HE post that I can get behind fully.

    Reladed was OK enough that if Revolution hadn’t been a shit storm, I could have forgiven it. But, good lord, Revolution and it’s endless machine guns shooting robots.

    And the half-baked, quasi-mysticism/philosophy. I remember once looking at the Wikipedia article on The Matrix to try to figure out just what the hell was supposed to be going on, and even that didn’t make a damn bit of sense.

  • BrianBrightblade

    I remember 1999 as being a terrible year to be a Star Wars fan. I had just returned from a decade of living in Japan to teach high school and discover teens didn’t know shit about the holy trilogy. BUT they loved the shit out of the Matrix which I stubbornly refused to acknowledge because it kicked the ever-loving shit out of The Phantom Menace which was like a a thousand swift kicks to the nuts.

    Then the Matrix trilogy plummeted with the second film and Attack of the Clones resurrected some of the Star Wars love and the Revenge of the Sith was better by Revolutions by a mile even though both films are subpar.

    • Scott Thomas

      Nope…Sith is just as bad if not worse. Eh hem…and i quote… “Noooooooooooooooooooooo…..”

      • abbey normal

        I could not stop laughing during the end of Sith. Literally had to cover my face and stifle myself so as not to piss off other patrons. So hilariously terrible, that movie.

        • Scott Thomas

          Has there ever been a character (Darth Vader) so revered and iconic – brought so low by a set of (supposedly) serious films. You might say Superman in S3 and S4 Quest for Peace – but then those films didnt profess half the sincerity of the SW prequels. I was shocked that so much talent, money and tech could create so much onsceen excrement.

        • JeffMc2000

          You know what? I like the first ten minutes with that coughing robot and the comic relief R2D2 stuff. That and the water planet detective scenes with Ewen MacGregor in Clones are the only substantial chunks of any of the prequels I sort of enjoyed watching.

      • BrianBrightblade

        Both trilogies are awful but you can’t deny that Matrix always trended downward while the new trilogy went upward—from pure shit to diluted shit, but still less shit.

        • Scott Thomas

          No I dont think you can say that. Reloaded was weirder and more disjointed than revolutions. Matrix is a better film than any of the Star Wars films and is overall much more consistent as a trilogy. The prequels were abysmal right out of the gate. The kid, Jar Jar, midichlorians, large trade wars, a queen with the personality of a rock, the two most interesting guys are both killed – only ObiWan and the Emporer come off slightly unscathed. OH no WAIT – I forgot about ObiWans scene at the Star Wars 50’s diner, forget what I said, hes crap too.

  • Scott Thomas

    I think the Star Wars Episodes I,II, III are far worse offenders in terms of not paying off on their potential. Agreed however, that the Zion scenes were super crappy. More celebration cave raves?! No thanks.

  • HarryWarden

    The Matrix trilogy is garbage. Pseudo-philosophical gibberish surrounded by overly cgi-infused video game action sequences with a plot that ripped off The Terminator films, which themselves were already rip offs so the Freakchowski’s films were second rate copies of a copy.

  • I was 9 when ‘The Matrix’ dropped into theaters, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Rewatching it now still gives me that exhillirating buzz of how the filmmakers were going to usher the movies into a new age, much like Lucas did with ‘A New Hope’.

    Then came ‘Reloaded’ and the cracks began to seriously show. The themes presented in the first film were interesting and compelling; in the second installment, the talk of ‘everything happening for a reason,’ ‘purpose’ and prophecies and the explanations behind them felt like pretentious crap. The effects from the first film, which were splendid and a great mix of camerawork, CGI and practical effects (along with excellent fight choreography from Yuen Wo Ping) took a backseat to more action instead of telling a story and overuse of computer effects. The fight between Neo and the Smith clones bordered on cartoonish instead of thrilling. It’s almost as if the Wachowskis were showing off their bigger budget rather than continuing to explore new ideas and expand on the world they helped create.

    And the less said about ‘Revolutions’, the better.

  • Magga

    The lesson for the new century that studios learned in 99 was that even though The Matrix was seen as humiliating Phantom Menace in innovation and entertainment, the latter made much more money because it was called Star Wars. Even the lesser Matrix-movies later made money because they were “The Matrix”, and owning the name of any best-selling series of novels or comic books or amusement park rides is a much bigger guarantee of success than anything in the actual movie. And so here we are

  • DougW

    When WB promoted the sequels on dvd all they said was “Complete the collection.”