Wednesday, November 12, 2003

"The Matrix Revolutions": One Hominid's Appraisal


I had the chance to see "The Matrix Revolutions" on Monday evening (apologies to the Maximum Leader, though I may be open to seeing this a second time).

There are a few angles from which I'd like to parse the experience, so I'm dividing the review into sections, geek that I am. I should also warn you that I'm planning on revealing anything and everything: please consider this post one huge spoiler. If you've been avoiding reviews and want to see "Revolutions" with an unbiased mind, read no further.

Theater Ambience

The AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria, an impressive 22-theater multiplex within walking distance of the Eisenhower Avenue Metro stop, was filled with people who were already set on having a mediocre experience. Lots of jabbering before the film, more than usual. At least two stupid people brought their babies to the theater; I think parents who bring babies to late showings of R-rated movies need to be stuck in intensive reeducation camps that feature a lot of anal probing and genital shock therapy. Common fucking sense, anyone? The couple next to David and me ended up snickering through all the film's tender scenes-- not that I blame them completely, because this movie, more than the other two, is rife with laughable moments. Before the movie started, the nasty Chinese man in the row in front of us refused to move from his seat to accommodate another couple who simply wanted to sit together. He went on and on about his "rights" to the theater staffer who tried negotiating with him (the theater was packed; he had an empty seat on either side of him). All they wanted-- the couple and the staffer-- was for him to move one damn seat over. But I suspect that, because the couple was black and the movie staffer was also black, the Chinese man thought he could get away with being an uppity bitch. He deserved a good kick in the head. "Rights," forsooth. Back in China, your sorry ass would've shifted over one seat without question. Be thankful for what you've got in this country and fucking MOVE.

So I'm afraid the ambience didn't set the requisite tone for an enjoyable Matrix experience.

Artistic Evaluation 1: Aesthetic Aspects of "Revolutions"

Hats off to the CGI people, John Gaeta in particular. Gaeta may not be good at providing voiceover commentary on DVDs (his rambling, "uhhhh"-filled spiel on the first "Matrix" DVD was unbearable), but he and his team know their way around computers and cameras.

Remember the movie version of "Starship Troopers"? That came out in 1997, and one of the most impressive scenes was on Planet P, where the human soldiers find themselves trapped in a massive Bug attack (it's the scene where Michael Ironside gets both legs bitten off). The moment when the Bugs erupt out of their tunnels and surge en masse toward the human outpost was awe-inspiring, and "Revolutions" provides a few such moments, arguably even more impressive if you factor in the religious symbolism (more on this later).

The world of the Matrix remains its green-tinted self; the "real" world of Zion is still somewhat blue-hued, but goes martial-red during the huge battle scene at the Zion docks. I wasn't quite sure why the lighting changed; I suppose Zion, like Asimov's city-planet of Trantor, might use lighting to simulate a day/night cycle. It's also possible that the invading Machines created the dimming and redness as they pressed forward, cut power along the way, and started blowing shit up.

Neo and Trinity embark on a separate mission to visit the Machine City. They take over Niobe's ship, the Logos, and encounter the City's defenses. One of the most beautiful special effects moments occurs when they punch the Logos through the cloud layer and find themselves in the open sky, bathed in the light of a bright, strong sun. On one level, this scene reminded me of the goofy moment in 1989's "Batman" where the Batwing rises above the clouds and stops, silhouetted in front of the moon to form Batman's logo. But where the "Batman" scene was pure cornball, the "Revolutions" scene, while just as cornball, struck me as more meaningful-- not to mention prettier.

Bullet-time was kept to a minimum, thankfully, but it did play an annoying role in Neo's final "Superbrawl" with Smith. One particularly cringe-inducing scene featured a super-slomo of Neo's fist smashing into Smith's face and leaving a deep fistprint. The final scene between the Oracle, the Architect, and the little girl Sati (an "exile" program) also struck me as pure Hollywood sap-- an indication that the critics who noted unflattering parallels between the Wachowskis' and George Lucas's slide into mediocrity may be on to something.

So I'd say that, overall, the Wachowskis delivered the goods on the visual level. The film is as pretty as the previous ones, despite some awkward artistic moments (including some gratuitous lightning during the Superbrawl).

Artistic Evaluation 2: Dramatic Elements

The Neo/Smith Superbrawl reminded me a little too strongly of the scenes in "Superman 2" where the Guy in Blue fights General Zod and his cohorts Non and Ursa in the streets and skies of Metropolis. I suppose one major difference is that Neo doesn't have to worry about protecting innocent citizenry: Smith has replicated himself to the point where every citizen is a Smith facsimile. There are no innocent witnesses to the Superbrawl.

And I do need to note how disappointing "Revolutions" was in the emotions department. This was a pretty cold movie, and it didn't need to be (unless we're being subtly prodded to accept the idea that even the humans are programs who only think they're human-- more on this later). Neo loses Trinity when they crash into the Machine City; Keanu Reeves gets a weeping scene that is mercifully brief (we don't want to tax the man, after all), but that truncation-- the scene cuts away in mid-weep-- detracts from the potential tenderness of the moment (and produced more snickers from the couple next to me and David).

Part of the problem was also the introduction of too many new characters, which necessarily marginalized the old characters and kept any single plot line from dominating. Morpheus suffers greatly from this. While we learn that he is not crazy (a question that arose in "Reloaded" when we discovered that not all Zionites subscribe to the Neo-as-messiah viewpoint), we also see him relegated to the role of co-pilot on a ship not his own (the Hammer). Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is a badass, but Morpheus is little more than a switch-flipping Chewbacca to Niobe's Han Solo.

I have to chalk up the Morpheus character as a big disappointment: Morpheus in particular provided the Wachowskis with a great way to explore the nature of faith, especially as Morpheus suffers major disappointments (cf. "Reloaded" when he learns the "prophecy" is a manipulative device). I suspect that the Wachowskis may not have known what else to do with Morpheus: his primary function in the first film was to be, simultaneously, John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the One, and a Zen master who guides Neo to surpassing enlightenment (anuttara samyak sambodhi).

The Merovingian and Persephone also suffer from the profusion of new characters. We meet them in a nightclub called Hel, if I'm not mistaken (and we'll explore the smack-you-over-the-head symbolism of that name in a bit). Persephone says almost nothing, and the Merovingian of "Revolutions" is little more than an annoying French asshole with an even more annoying evil laugh. His crack about the similarity between love and insanity (Trinity points her gun at "Merv's" head and demands the return of Neo, you see) is about as deep as he gets this time around. Any Foucaultian-Derridean discourses on power will have to be saved for a fourth installment.

The Oracle's change in physical appearance (actress Gloria Foster died and was replaced by Mary Alice for the third film) is given a partial explanation in the movie; I'm not sure I understood it completely, and suspect that "The Animatrix" and the video game "Enter the Matrix" deal with this in greater detail. A second viewing of "Revolutions" may be necessary.

New characters include the Trainman (Dan Darling points out he's an analogue for Charon, the ferryman on the Styx), Captain Roland of the Hammer (he meet him briefly at the end of "Reloaded"; in this film he grudgingly cedes control of his ship to Niobe when her own ship, the Logos, is "borrowed" by Neo and Trinity), the Kid (whom we also meet briefly in "Reloaded"), and crusty Mifune (the actor also appeared as an Uruk-hai in "The Two Towers"), who commands the walking gun turrets.

We get a smattering of Commander Lock and Councilors Hamman and West. Link (Harold Perrineau), the Nebuchadnezzar's "operator" in "Reloaded," barely registers in "Revolutions." There was a question about whether Link would ever see his main squeeze, Zee (Nona Gaye); this gets resolved in the affirmative, but none too suspensefully.

"Revolutions," like its prototypes (think: Lord of the Rings and Star Wars), splits up the main cast in the third act. Consistent with Lucas's three-part recipe, we get Ground Battle, Flying Battle, and Personal Battle. Whether you consider this a cheap concession to Hollywood formula is up to you. I did feel there lacked a certain narrative boldness. We've seen the three-part formula before; I'm not convinced that the Matrix series needed to take the epic route, which we'll see again very soon when "Return of the King" is in general release.

In other ways, however, "Revolutions" defied prediction on the dramatic level. Some of us, including a former co-worker (but still friend) of mine, believed that Morpheus was going to die because of the standard "Black Guy Dies" rule of science fiction and horror movies. As it turns out, both Morpheus and Link live, and it's the white cast members (esp. Neo, Smith, Trinity) who generally end up in the meat freezer.

[NB: Technically, Keanu is off-white like yours truly.]

"Revolutions" sags from increasing pretentiousness-- something that wouldn't have been as noticeable if the series had maintained its sense of fun. Self-seriousness is hubris in the world of film, and the Wachowskis, in cobbling together their cyberpunk mythology, may have started believing their own press too strongly.

"Revolutions" gets very dark before it reaches the light. Dramatically speaking, this makes sense: Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy makes Inferno so gripping that the follow-ups, Purgatorio and Paradiso, are largely ignored. The Wachowskis are wise enough to prolong our trip into hell, which keeps the third act interesting.

So on the dramatic level, I feel that "Revolutions" suffers from the imposition of Hollywood formula. It lacks the sense of play that made the first movie so charming, and its three-subplot structure renders the story unnecessarily diffuse.

But all the above is straw. My primary interest in watching this third installment was to see whether I'd been vindicated in advocating a Hindu metaphysical paradigm.

Let's talk religion.

The Meat You Came For: An Appraisal of Religious (and Other) Tropes in "The Matrix Revolutions"

We have to begin by noting that crucial matters are left unresolved. For example: is Zion in fact another layer of the Matrix? By the end of "Revolutions," we can't be sure. If you watch the opening sequence of "Revolutions" carefully (and I consider both the "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" opening sequences to be crucial, offering clues that help us place what we're seeing), you'll realize that the swirling golden "codestream" you see is the same golden pattern which Neo sees as the Logos flies over the Machine City. In the opening sequence, this entire golden pattern gets subsumed into a single letter of the Matrix codestream.

So is the Machine City real, or is it code? If it's code, and the Machines coexist in the same "reality" as Zion, then we have to wonder whether Zion and its people are real, whether this entire struggle is nothing more than an immense cybermind meditating on itself. There's the possibility that my "God dreaming" hypothesis is correct, but there's no way to be sure.

Christian imagery still abounds. The battle of the Zion docks in many ways evokes Revelation. The sentinels streaming out of huge holes in the docking bay ceiling might be unholy locusts:

"And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit; he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth." (Rev 9:1-3)

Or maybe the sentinels represent some sort of dark angels. I tended to think of the Agents as demons who can possess you, but there are no Agents in "Revolutions," because all cyber-avatars have become Smith.

The resetting of the Matrix, and the new peace between humans and Machines, also bespeaks the "new heaven and new earth" of Revelation.

The Merovingian's nightclub, Hel, offers us a contrast to the righteous rave scene in "Reloaded." Here, in Hel, evil dances, and that's somewhat unfortunate, because in "Reloaded" it wasn't clear that the Merovingian was evil. In "Revolutions," he's got the red necktie and black suit-- so yeah, he's Hades, the ruler of Hel(l), with the unwilling Persephone at his side. Neo's friends have to pass through Hel(l) to rescue him.

People will no doubt have noted that Neo's death is Christlike in many ways. His eyeless corpse is in a cruciform shape, arms spread, legs together. The Machine entity, at the moment of Neo's death, rumbles the line from the gospel of John: "It is done!" (Jn 19:30, but cf. also Rev 21:6 for a different spin)

If the Architect wasn't lying in "Reloaded," then Neo is as much from the Machine world as he is from the human world. This calls to mind the Christian dogma that Christ has two natures; he is fully human and fully divine. It also means that, if we think of the Machine world as Neo's parent, and if the Machines killed Neo in order to kill Smith, we might see this as analogous with Jesus, who is God incarnate, Son of God, God the Son, being offered up as a sacrifice to save the world. Neo, whose machine nature pre-dates the fleshly Neo just as Christ's Christic nature pre-dates the spatiotemporal Jesus, comes from the Logos to talk to the anthropomorphic Machine Face. Given Neo's dual nature, there is a sense in which Neo and the Machines exist in a state of perichoresis or mutual indwelling (literally, "the dance in the round" and a reference to how the Persons of the Trinity relate to each other)-- again, very Christic.

But is Neo's sacrifice really a case of "for God so loved the world..."?

It might be. The Machine intelligence includes a program that promotes "fuzzy" aspects of human existence, like compassion and novelty: the Oracle. If the Oracle and the Architect are polar opposites-- the embodiments of the impulses toward chaos and order respectively-- and if they are both aspects of a larger Machine intelligence, then the Oracle-aspect of this intelligence might indeed be seen as the loving God who desires, along with Neo, a lasting peace. "The Oracle so loved the world..."

In "Reloaded," the Architect claimed that Zion had been destroyed several times before, and that the Machine world had become "exceedingly efficient" at such destruction. "Revolutions" ends with something different: Zion, this time around, isn't destroyed, but the Matrix is still reset. The tentative Machine/human peace seems to represent a new paradigm, one not tried before.

Will it be stable? Indications are that it won't be, if for no other reason than that people are people. The cycle of creation and destruction is going to continue, and there will likely be, as the Oracle herself implies to young Sati (the "exile" program in the form of a little Indian girl), another Neo.

One reason I still feel that the world of Zion isn't real (aside from the "clue" in the opening sequence's codestream) is that Neo, when he gets blinded by Bane/Smith, can see Machine activity as a kind of golden radiance. Once blinded, Neo is unable to perceive his "real" world; all that's left to him is the world of the Machines. This percipience strikes me as yet another miraculous ability no human can possess.

Which brings me to my "metaphysical bet" with the Wachowskis. My original bet was simple: humans in the real world can't perform miracles. This means no bullet time kung fu, no acrobatics, no leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and no funky bullet extractions. It should also mean no stopping Machines with your mind, and no seeing the Machine world even after your organic eyes have been fried out of your skull. Thus I placed myself firmly in the meta-Matrix camp.

But I might have been wrong to do so. We're presented with evidence that Neo does indeed have miraculous powers even in the "real" world. Could his neural implants be acting as transmitters for his mental commands? Could they also be acting as receptors, allowing him to perceive the Machine world, even after being blinded? If so, then the miracles aren't miracles; they're simply a function of Neo's anomalous cyberanthropic nature.

Having said that, I still don't think the movie's conclusion settles the question of whether anything we've seen is real or merely code. Perhaps, in the end, it doesn't matter. In any event, I don't know whether I won or lost my bet.

Neo and Smith, we are told, are twins, products of the Architect's attempts to "balance the equation." Neo may possess two natures, but his humanity gives him the power of choice-- something Smith can never understand. Smith, with all his soulless, selfish iterations, is the conformist Many; Neo is the freedom-loving, individualistic One. And ultimately, Neo knows he can't beat Smith by fighting him directly, which is why he allows himself to be taken over. Smith, already corrupted when he subsumed the Oracle, is destroyed when he takes over Neo. Whether Neo himself is the author of Smith's destruction, or whether the Machines destroy Smith through the conduit of Neo's body and mind, we don't know.

(Aside: It's strange that Smith is a bigger threat to the Machine world than the humans are, but that supports the notion that we're witnessing cyber-solipsism on a massive scale.)

And what of my vaunted Hindu paradigm? Does it retain any explanatory power? Is it in any way applicable to the Matrix series, given what we now know thanks to "Revolutions"?

I'd say that "Revolutions" actually screams Hinduism. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that Neo is trapped between worlds in a subway station called Mobil Avenue (I'm a bit tardy in pointing out that "Mobil" is an anagram for "Limbo"). His cyberself isn't directly connected with his "real" self, which is lying on a medical table in the Hammer, but he's "jacked in" to the Matrix all the same.

While in Mobil/Limbo, Neo meets a young girl, Sati, who explains she is an exile program on her way to the Oracle, who has promised to take care of her. Sati is Sanskrit for "honorable woman," and is also a Pali Buddhist term meaning "mindfulness" (yeom or nyeom in Sino-Korean). Since Neo is always called to be mindful, this makes sense. Sati is in Mobil/Limbo with her "parents," Rama-Kandra (father) and Kamala (mother). Kamala is a Sanskrit word meaning "lotus," while Rama-Kandra refers to a king who took only one wife.

Gnosticism makes a big deal about pairings and opposites, but this kind of thinking is also prevalent in Hinduism, where it is especially important to note that divine pairings are often distinguished by gender, among other qualities. The Oracle is female; the Architect is male. Morpheus is with Niobe; Neo has Trinity, and both women are powerful in their respective ways, indicative of shakti, divine feminine energy.

The cycles of creation and destruction both inside and outside the Matrix are bound to continue; I doubt the human/Machine peace will last. This being the case, I think it's safe to toss out any thought of eschaton in a Christian sense: there's no finality to be found in this series, meta-Matrix or not. What we have instead is lila, divine play, the purposeless days and nights of Brahma. While it's tempting to stick to the Armageddon paradigm suggested by the battle in the Zion docks, (1) the docking area was just a vestibule; Zion itself remained largely untouched, which leads me to question whether this battle was as epic as it appeared, and (2) if the Architect wasn't lying about the Machines' repeated razing of Zion, then the Hindu paradigm offers a better way of viewing the Matrix cosmos than a one-time-only eschatology.

What happens to the Buddhist angle in "Revolutions"? I'm not sure. Neo's final solution for Smith doesn't involve violence, and that would be consistent with most Buddhist ethics. Unfortunately, it's not a solution that's unique to Buddhism, so we have to be careful here. Is Neo's ability to see the Machine world an indication of siddhi, powers acquired during the journey toward enlightenment? Perhaps, but Neo's inability to see the "real" world isn't consistent with Buddhist notions like "seeing with the dharma eye," which involves direct, unmediated perception/experience of reality, not blindness.


...Neo's penetrating insight, which reveals the Machine world to be a shimmering network of golden light, is an indication that Neo can now see the "code beneath the code," i.e., the basic coding that is the Machine world. If so, we're once again looking at a metaphysics that has no apparent bottom, though for a Buddhist, this would be seen in terms of dependent co-arising (pratitya-samutpada), not "God dreaming."

Is there a single religious paradigm that can make the Matrix series intelligible? I don't think so. And as the beleaguered Martha Stewart optimistically contends, "That's a good thing."

Concluding Remarks

I have to give the Wachowskis credit for outfoxing the two major schools of thought-- The Meta-Matrix School (where I am), and the Zion-is-Real School. Given the way the movie ends (with Sati and the Oracle and Seraph-- not a human in sight-- staring at a beautiful sky enfolding a clean, rejuvenated/renewed Matrix), we don't know for sure what's been going on. Some will cry "cop out!", but I found this ending interesting. I need to watch "The Animatrix" and play "Enter the Matrix" to get a fuller sense of the Wachowskis' cosmos.

Cinematically, I think the Wachowskis are the George Lucases of this generation. Like Lucas, they concocted a filmic mythology that borrowed from all sorts of sources, and which therefore contains elements recognizable to a wide swath of worldviews, offering endless opportunities for interpretation and discussion. This will give the Matrix franchise legs, and we geeks will have plenty to chew on long after "Revolutions" will have sold its 10 millionth DVD.

I hope the Wachowskis don't make a "Matrix 4." To me, that would be the cop-out, not to mention a very Lucasian, money-grubbing move. The series should be left as it is, untweaked, with all its faults and virtues. While I'm disappointed in many ways by "Revolutions," I appreciate the Wachowskis' attempt at aiming for something bigger than what the typical sci-fi movie aims for (consider, for example, the theological vomit splatter that is M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," or the bubble gum goofiness of "Independence Day"). At the same time, I felt that the Matrix series became rapidly ponderous and lost much of its sense of fun, especially toward the end. If the series fascinates me, it's mainly because the Wachowskis tried to give us something metaphysically complex, and they dealt with Big Issues not normally tackled competently in this genre.

I'll probably see "Revolutions" again. I'll have to, because there's a lot to unpack. Consider this review a work in progress; I may end up adding to it and/or revising it, based on what I learn. A decent flick, and a good, meaty series. Pop culture? Pseudo-deep? Of course. "Only a movie"? Yes, sure. But so long as it provides some mental exercise along with the emotional workout, I'm not going to complain too loudly.


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