Conventional wisdom will tell you there is only one good Matrix movie, and it’s called The Matrix. Conventional wisdom is wrong.
The Matrix Reloaded does everything movie lovers claim they want in sequels, and complain that Hollywood so rarely delivers: it expands the cast of characters while still taking care to enrich the returning players, it delves deeper into the themes of the first film while widening the scope to include even more, it explores the fictional universe in ways that illuminate the character’s motivations, it ups the ante on cutting edge special effects, and expertly raises the stakes for a grand climax in a promised third film.
It’s smarter, has more exceptional action set pieces, and even a more consistent sense of morality than the original The Matrix. It always bothered me that Neo and Trinity casually sacrifice innocent humans by the dozens in the first film. I am sure it was a deliberate creative choice that in Reloaded, the heroes battle only virtual “programs”.
So why the popular opinion that both Matrix sequels suck? Here’s my theory: the concluding film in the trilogy (The Matrix Revolutions) fails to live up to everything set up by Reloaded. The mediocre third film makes all three look bad in retrospect. With time, I maintain people will look back and reappraise the entire trilogy and recognize The Matrix Reloaded as the best of the three.
Now that the Lostfiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, BP). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet “fan”. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.
As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and the Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”
Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A) strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B) focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.
In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy. As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowskis, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).
If, in the end, Cuse and Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for them to fall back upon:
That Lost‘s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.
I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:
Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”
Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with The New York Times:
our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.
Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the nerve to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.
As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”
Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, our third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.
Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Similarly, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie. One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) to write new scenes to be directed by their protege James McTeigue (V for Vendetta). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.
After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.
One of the Wachowskis’ late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.
The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and the Wachowskis’ reduction to the lowest common denominator. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.
A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).
Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodriguez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today? Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.
The good news is that the Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much new. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.
The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.
The film is also modeled after video games and anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.
Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.
Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences (apparently not designed by The Matrix‘s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (characteristic of manga). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).
If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.
For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowskis were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this blogger would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), and they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd). With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.
Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).