Ever since the name of the fourth film in The Matrix series, The Matrix Resurrections, was announced early this month, people on the internet haven’t been able to stop talking about the cyberpunk sci-fi quadrilogy. And with the first trailer for Resurrections out this past week, it seems everyone’s been abuzz with Matrix fever.
Of particular interest is a wave of relitigation of the series’ second and third films, both of which received a lot of ire when they came out and in the years since. In the wake of 1999’s The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions had a lot to live up to, and fans and critics alike were disappointed when they felt those movies went in different directions than audiences were expecting. Some acolytes of the first film still outright disavow the existence of the sequels today.
It had been years since I watched all three of these movies before I sat down to binge-watch them this week. I realized I hadn’t actually seen Revolutions since it came out, probably because of how critically condemned it was. But upon revisiting the franchise, I found that the sequels aren’t only necessary, but perfectly innovative and astounding in their own right.
The original Matrix film tells the story of Neo (Keanu Reeves), the series’ protagonist and the supposed messiah of a dying human race liberated from The Matrix (a computer simulation we all live in where it’s always the early 2000s). In it, we see his awakening to reality and introduction to the dystopian real world. We’re also told of the ongoing battle between the last vestiges of humanity and the machines that have enslaved them.
The Matrix was a groundbreaking film in Hollywood with its mind-bending story and use of action sequences and style heavily influenced by Hong Kong action films. But while The Matrix is a fantastic cyberpunk romp that questions the status quo, it was never meant to be self-contained. Yes, its focus is on Neo’s origin story and the small crew of humans helping him come into his powers as The One, but its talk of a growing resistance hacking into the Matrix is an entry point that begs to be expanded upon. That’s exactly what The Matrix Reloaded did, introducing us to the last human city of Zion and showing more of the real world Neo and his comrades are fighting to protect.
The Wachowskis introduce the stakes of Reloaded not through an action sequence, but through a testament to human expression. When we first see the people of Zion, it’s just as they’ve been told that there are a quarter of a million machines coming to massacre them. In response to this terrifying news, they have what is either a horny cave rave or an orgy, with bodies of all different colors sweating and grinding and gyrating upon each other in euphoria. While modern films make a big deal about their diversity while doing very little, this depiction of a liberated, unified people of all ethnicities feels effortlessly thoughtful. The film is full of characters soliloquizing about control, causality, fate and purpose, but here is a moment of mass bliss and adrenaline for no other reason than pleasure.
In Reloaded, Neo is no longer new to his powers. He’s now able to stop bullets with his mind, defeat a hundred Agent Smiths with his bare hands and fly around the Matrix like a goth Superman. It’s easy for a story to lose its stakes when it has an unbeatable messiah at its center, but the film mostly avoids this pitfall by focusing on philosophical questions and the difficult decisions Neo has to make, none of which can be overcome with raw power. And when Reloaded does rest on its action laurels, it creates the most graceful combat and chase sequences of the series.
While all of Reloaded’s big action took place in the reality-bending Matrix simulation, Revolutions spends most of its time outside of it, focusing instead on the squid-like machines’ assault on Zion and its inhabitants’ desperate and brave attempts to protect their home. It seems the films had a progressively lower critical reception as they started to focus less on the world of the Matrix and Neo and more on side characters, but this is one the sequel’s greatest strengths — things could never stay in cyberspace when the story is about the liberation of the last vestiges of humanity. The action of Reloaded was elegantly choreographed wire fu, but the action in Revolutions is rough around the edges, speaking to the more human nature of its characters.
So, why didn’t people like these films?
Hyped to death with multiple multi-media tie-ins (such as several video games and a direct-to-DVD anime anthology), they were perhaps weirder than people were ready for at the time. The first film had come out in 1999 and told a story of terrorists questioning the status quo. By the sequels’ release in 2003, 9/11 was still fresh in our minds and we weren’t looking for media that would question our purpose, reason or way of life. Or as film critic Peter Travers (then of Rolling Stone) succinctly put it, “The Matrix Revolutions sucks.” Perhaps audiences were more attuned to sequels like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which was just as full of Judeo-Christian imagery but was a more obvious story of fantasy heroes and didn’t tend as much toward existential philosophy and horny latex vignettes.
It could be said that the latter two Matrix films are missing a lot of what made the first film so iconic, but that assumes they were supposed to repeat the patterns and beats of the original film rather than attempt something different and equally ambitious. They were sequels that didn’t feel like the same type of film that came before them, with Reloaded amping up its action and philosophical pondering and Revolutions feeling like the closest white people have ever come to making anime.
The first Matrix movie is near-perfect, but given how heavily parodied it’s been over the past two decades, it can be challenging to rewatch The Matrix without intrusive thoughts of all the memes that have spawned from it. In contrast, while the latter two films don’t hold anywhere near the same cultural cache, that also gives them room to stand on their own.
With director Lana Wachowski back at the helm for this fourth installment, I’m stoked for the new Matrix film. From the trailer, it looks like Neo has no concrete memories of his past as The One, and with the press release stating it’s a direct sequel to the first movie, some fans think it might take the story down a different rabbit hole in which the story of the sequels never existed. But even if the canon of the series is changed, those of us who are sequel-pilled will always try to open more minds to the truth.