Every trilogy of posts that have a beginning also have an ending – defending a controversial series like The Matrix Trilogy demands it. What follows is Part Three in this series from The Contrarian. Check out Part One and Part Two of ‘The Matrix’ Trilogy Defended.
It is a perverse twist from a decidedly atypical franchise: The Matrix Reloaded intentionally left its rabid audience high and dry and angry. Two films worth of mythology built was betrayed in one of the darkest turns at the close of a second act ever. But put clever twists aside, with a known third film not only in post-production at that point, but its teaser trailer attached to the end of the credits, the slash-and-burn of the second act had to be somehow redeemed by the third act.
As filmgoers left the multiplexes, their eyes straining to adjust to the bright, summer sun, on the other side of the globe the aftermath of President George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln began to manifest. Violence was returning to Iraq, post-invasion, though the specific players were now changing.
Violence was swelling in Iraq’s “Sunni Triangle” and instead of the well-paid and well-trained Republican Guard that had been loyal to Saddam Hussein, US forces were being targeted by Iraqi civilians who considered the US presence in Iraq an occupation. It saw that occupation as one borne of an interest in cheap oil and administered with a belligerent, careless disregard for the balance of power within Iraq’s Islamic community.
Though perhaps initially “greeted as liberators” by some, the longer the timeline drawn, the more skeptical the view of America’s presence in the country. For those playing close attention, moral relativism was a concept visiting the minds of many watching Iraq.
As The Matrix Revolutions bowed in the fall of 2003, America was embroiled in a fierce debate regarding its responsibility to Iraq, having supplanted an oppressive but stabilizing government. Unbeknownst of what we had set in motion, we stood on the edge of a bloody year of insurgent attacks, for which we were woefully under-prepared.
The Oracle’s prophecy, as it was revealed in The Matrix, held that Neo would destroy the Matrix and free humanity of its bondage from the machines. Where Reloaded had betrayed that prophecy and revealed it a tool of the Matrix itself, the audience was left without any real reason to anticipate the conclusion, aside from how the directors might dig themselves out of the narrative hole. After all, Neo was apparently not a god-given hero, and indeed the diviner of that prophecy was herself revealed to be a program from among the machines. There would be seemingly nothing left to do but watch humanity raise a final, futile defense as Zion inevitably falls.
But … this is a movie … and depending on your point of view, it is a superhero or religious or fantasy or sci-fi movie and one with a heavy debt owed to traditional, Campbellian, narrative structure. If we’re seeing this thing to the end, then certainly there must be some opening for redemption. Even if we’d nothing left to believe in, we must have a reason for continuing on with the story. Whatever could it be?
Yes, Revolutions does drag in a few places early in the film and after the wild goose chase that was Reloaded, being sent on missions to collect a “Train Man” and fight ceiling-running S&M fiends can seem like so much of the same, overly-explored diversions. That said, it’s still a joy to watch, even if hints of Matrix fatigue have begun to set in. Too much candy will make you sick after all, but man oh man is the candy ever sweet along the way.
The abiding face of the original Matrix‘s oppression was via Hugo Weaving‘s masterful portrayal of Agent Smith. While initially seen as a mere dogmatic enforcer of the Matrix’s order, Agent Smith evolves through some very nice character development to reveal that even programs from the machine world find the system lacking. His discontent is grounded in much of the same reasoning, albeit defined from a distinctively different perspective. At the close of the film we see Smith seemingly destroyed, but in truth, what has happened is that where Neo has established himself as a separate entity from the Matrix, Agent Smith has had his own purpose redefined and now he too stands as a separate entity.
At the open of Reloaded, we see this confirmed, and through the two sequels, Smith begins absorbing and destroying any remaining independent minds still populating the Matrix — be they machines or humanity or whatever. As his disgust with humanity and the machine world’s interdependence reaches a zenith, Smith is overcome with nihilism to the point that he would rather destroy the entirety of the system than see humanity and the machines battling back and forth for supremacy any longer.
But where Smith stands as a force for nihilism, Neo as his counterpart must stand for the opposite, and as the film opens, his role in the conclusion of the story is revealed thus. Trapped in the machine world, albeit via psychic link instead of digital broadcast, Neo’s mind is disconnected from his body and exists within a hidden corner of the Matrix, unable to escape. While trapped there, he encounters a family of programs and learns that these programs have evolved to feel compassion and love and concern for each other and would do anything to protect one another. Neo is only rescued from his purgatory when those who love him fight their way to his rescue. The parity of the machine world and humanity is underlined.
Then, having opportunity to redress the Oracle’s deceit, he confronts her (this time played by Mary Alice, replacing Gloria Foster who died mid-production) and hears that his own reluctance to accept his destiny has been that which held him away from full enlightenment. The Oracle concedes that she has made her choices, but despite knowing why she has made these choices, cannot say whether or not her plans will lead to the her desired outcome. She affirms Neo’s destiny is to return to the source and ultimately stand in opposition to Smith’s nihilism, which threatens to not only destroy humanity but the machine world as well.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Zion is the setting for one hell of a visually-astounding war film. If you haven’t seen Revolutions since it was released, if nothing else you really owe to yourself to see a high def transfer of the battle at the docks again. Of course, humanity’s technology is ultimately of lower sophistication than that of the machines and they’re reduced to fighting them with improvised, homemade explosive devices … yea humanity (?).
Zion’s efforts are as futile as predicted and it is Neo’s charge to sacrifice himself for the good of human and machine alike and balance Smith’s cynicism with optimism. He travels to the source and forces the machines’ collective consciousness (curiously depicted with an amorphous, baby’s face) to concede that they’re as concerned with Smith’s rise as humanity is of theirs. He bargains for one final bid to save humanity and they conspire a final ploy.
In the climactic battle Smith queries Neo why he bothers to fight and ultimately Neo concedes that he persists because he chooses to. That is, to say that his optimism continues to leave possible an open-ended future, where Smith’s cynicism allows only one, ultimately dire end. Neo’s reason is hope and hope always carries greater value than acquiescence. The Oracle reveals herself still hidden amidst Smith’s code and Neo opens himself as a conduit between the machine world and Smith’s virus. Smith hacks Neo and Neo becomes a Smith, and the machine world reverse hacks Smith and destroys the virus. Hope defeats cynicism and humanity and machine begin the road toward learning to live symbiotically.
Among the primary complaints I often hear associated with the film is the implication that Neo carries an unnecessarily Christ-like role as the martyr of our story. Admittedly, he does endure a bit of passion along the way, and as his sacrifice is sown, his arms flail outward in something of a cross-like pose (though he is instead plugged rather than nailed and to no armature of note).
Is he meant to symbolize Christ? Not likely Christ specifically, but no doubt this is a Christian-dominated society. Indeed, some of us were rather aware of that at war in a Muslim country such as we were, and the reference carries weight. Reinforcing Neo’s role as martyr was no doubt the Wachowskis’ intent, but as polytheist as the Matrix films are, it is difficult to see it as a Christian statement. And anyway, he was the One/Neo. His rise was prophesized. He saves everyone. It was kind of Christ-y from the beginning. It’s not like he was killing cops and having premarital sex with Trinity to a soundtrack of Jars of Clay, Audio Adrenaline, or DC Talk.
Speaking of Carrie Anne Moss‘s Trinity, let me touch on her death scene. I hear a lot of men/critics complain that her death falls hollow and that it is utterly unaffecting. While I will defend it personally as I was genuinely moved at it, I will also report that as I have seen this movie with four different intelligent and empowered women and every last one of them was a veritable puddle after this scene. I do not doubt that it is possible to get through the scene unaffected (mileage will vary), but I haven’t seen it happen personally with anyone I know.
While in theory I don’t personally need more Smith vs. Neo kung fu hyperbole, again I watch the film’s final battle and I recognize the reason it is there (apart from being visually amazing). As the two godlike beings are battling over a rain-soaked Chicago/Sydney sky, shockwaves of rain ripple through the air and craters are carved into asphalt as bodies are thrown to and under the earth. The ridiculousness of the impasse has to be established, not only for the audience to understand that two equals of supreme strength and power will always simply cancel each other out, but also because Smith has to believe that Neo truly is trying to battle him to the death, not just set him up for a sucker punch. Which of course, he does, despite Smith’s unmitigated sense of relief and victory moments before he is destroyed from the inside out once more.
At the film’s culmination, a scene in a green city park is lit up by a golden sunrise, and three programs from the machine world concede that peace through symbiosis is now possible, if unlikely to endure. In the final moment, Neo’s sacrifice is honored with beauty as it is known in the world above the conflict, above the clouds. Hope proves not the quintessential human delusion, but rather simultaneously the source of humanity’s greatest strength and the machines’ unwitting salvation against purposelessness. Watching those who we were to regard as the enemy appreciating and thankful for a peace that the hero’s sacrifice has made possible is a staggering step for an audience to resolve, especially in an era fraught with war and terror. For some it is absolutely contradictory to one’s instincts.
Nonetheless, it is a beautiful resolve to a conflict borne of insecurity and despair not only for humanity but also its creation. Where there is no reason for conflict but fear, hope is that which creates the potential for peace. Indeed everything that has a beginning has an ending, and how we choose to confront the challenges that come with existence define how that ending is resolved. In peace or in death. But the Matrix Trilogy doesn’t tell you that outright. It asks you to assemble the parts yourself and hopefully arrive at the same conclusion. But that might have been asking a bit much of its audience. Especially in the fall of 2003.
Of course, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, that year’s other epic, final chapter would be released just a little more than a month later on December 17. With a very defined line between good and evil, and with that evil decidedly defeated at film’s close, it would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and leave its audience soundly satisfied, any moral relativism crushed and thrown to the wayside. At least for a couple months more, until the shit truly hit the fan.
The entire series of ‘The Matrix’ Trilogy Defended from The Contrarian: