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There’s a simple reason sequels never live up to their predecessors, and it’s the same reason originals are so beloved. Nothing can quite live up to that first thrill of seeing a film race through your mind and take your breath away. The shock of something new is a powerful thing.
Never has that been more true than in The Matrix trilogy. Arriving in 1999 on a wave of digital angst, it said everything that was being felt about the onrush of technology at the time. The Terminator may have created a nightmare of robot rebellion 15 years earlier, but the Wachowski sisters updated that vision for the virtual age.
Commenting on digital identities, the mental landscape of the online world and most damningly our symbiotic relationship with machines, The Matrix offered such a clear and powerful message, it’s still relevant today. Not only relevant in fact, but revolutionary. After all, in the 18 years since its release who else has offered a story so audacious or a visual language so ground-breaking?
It’s no wonder The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are widely considered inferior to the first film with all that expectation weighing them down. They could never offer a story quite so surprising or invigorating. But what they could do was build on it.
While The Matrix is essentially a sci-fi film with some glorious fights thrown in, Reloaded doubles down on the action. Where The Matrix had to provide a learning curve introducing viewers to its gravity-defying martial arts and bullet time, Reloaded gets to offer the upgraded version.
At first this is almost a problem; Neo is suddenly so lethal in battle you never expect him to lose, or even break a sweat. The ever-present shades might make him look cool, but they don’t help us identify with him as a flawed human fighting an extraordinary enemy. One way Reloaded sidesteps that problem is by giving Morpheus and Trinity far more to do, most notably in the legendary freeway chase.
Fleeing with the Keymaker in tow, they slalom through traffic pursued by the ghostly Twins and a team of Agents, turning every innocent driver into a potential weapon. The entire sequence is a masterpiece of action filmmaking, so complex and destructive the Wachowskis built their own mile and a half stretch of freeway in which to film.
It features some of the best action scenes of the series, like the fight between Morpheus and an Agent on the roof of a truck, all of which is capped by the glorious moment Neo does “his Superman thing” and flies in to save them from a fatal explosion. The choreographed chaos is a step above anything The Matrix offered, making full use of the bigger budget to expand the scope of the film’s destruction.
Likewise, Reloaded develops the series’ philosophy, building on the first film’s post-apocalyptic digital dream world. We’re introduced to The Matrix’s version of Hell, whose Satan is the Merovingian, an eloquent and sinister Frenchman - which somehow feels very appropriate. We also visit Zion, the last remaining human city, built miles underground to escape the machines. The rave in a cave that dominates this sequence is one of the worst parts of the trilogy, dragging badly and adding little to the story, but otherwise the trip to Zion is vital for introducing the people that Neo is fighting for.
That becomes essential in The Matrix Revolutions when the genre shifts brilliantly again to become a war film about the defense of Zion. The previous two films were more about Neo discovering his purpose and learning the secrets of the Matrix, but now that is settled he has one simple objective: destroy Agent Smith to save Zion.
Before that can happen, Revolutions finds itself saddled with some of the weakest sequences of the trilogy. Neo’s time in the limbo-esque ‘train station’ and Morpheus and Trinity’s attempts to free him by fighting the Merovingian in Club Hel both feel irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully Revolutions well and truly hits its stride once the battle for Zion begins.
The Wachowskis and editor Zach Staenberg cross-cut the defense of Zion and the attempts of Morpheus, Niobe and their crews to return there to brilliant effect, building the tension to breaking point. On one side you have Zion, its soldiers strapped into mech-suits and its civilians taking arms against the onrushing flood of Sentinels. It’s a testament to the Wachowskis’ storytelling ability that these people’s plight feels so real and frightening despite spending so little time with them.
The attack they face is a sensory overload, countless bullets downing countless enemies amidst twisted metal and burning flames. The Wachowskis’ skill is in keeping the action coherent despite its vast scale. Every skirmish makes sense as part of the larger battle, and little moments like Link’s wife Zee taking out an enemy drilling machine help to ground the horrific spectacle of war.
These kinds of CGI pyrotechnics are one of the things most often criticized about the final two films, claiming that they go a bit over the top prioritizing spectacle above all else. While that criticism ignores the visceral power of a brilliant action sequence it also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the series. It’s always been about hyperbole, whether in its ideas or its visuals. Restraint is not a word well understood in The Matrix.
That’s true more than ever in the climactic final battle that pushes the abilities of Neo and Agent Smith to incomprehensible levels. The Matrix has always been the construction of an alternative mythology for our future, with Neo as a Christ-like superhero and Agent Smith his opposite and equal force. Here they both ascend to the level of Gods, fighting in the skies amidst thunder and rain. They smash each other with punches, crush their rival into the ground, and get thrown through walls so many times that soon the blows become meaningless, the power of each attack cancelled out by the defenses of its subject. It’s the ultimate version of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
In the end, the battle is won not by the body but the mind. The series is so great because it adds a mental dimension to the feats of remarkable athleticism and skill, embodying the idea that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it. Neo wins not because he is stronger or quicker than Smith, but because he refuses to give up. “Why Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?” he is asked by Smith. His answer: “Because I choose to”.
Nothing in Reloaded or Revolutions quite lives up to the way the first film pulled the rug from beneath audiences, introducing them to a mind-blowing future. But, they do build on those ideas, developing the philosophy and fight scenes of The Matrix to incredible heights. Taken on their own, they’re still better than pretty much any rival blockbuster of the 21st century, offering thought-provoking spectacle that’s unmatched to this day.