March 16, 2006

The Matrix: Devolutions

What began as promising and profound ended in disappointing and formulaic, highlighting Hollywood's reluctance to explore the cutting-edge in speculative fiction

By George Dvorsky, November 24, 2003

I was coming down with what turned out to be strep throat and was utterly exhausted from a long and trying day at work. But it was opening night for The Matrix: Revolutions, which I had planned to see that evening.

I considered postponing but my resolve proved weak. For some inexplicable reason I found my way into a packed movie theater at 10:30 PM to see the final installment of the trilogy. Two hours later I left still sick and exhausted, and to my list of ailments I could now add mild depression and disgust.

Yup, they blew it.

The Wachowski brothers, who four years earlier climbed into the genius category faster than Neo can dodge bullets, turned a visually spectacular and philosophically engaging piece of speculative fiction and fantasy into a conventional and ultimately meaningless action thriller.

Consequently, the significance of The Matrix series as both groundbreaking and entertaining silver-screened speculative cyberpunk was squandered. Instead of expressing something important about humanity's place in the Universe, the Wachowskis resorted to clich├ęs, formulaic plot devices, stock characters and stunningly conservative approaches to the science fiction genre. The brothers that we came to know and admire from the original Matrix seemed to be replaced by Hollywood hacks.

It didn't have to be this way. Hollywood can't seem to get its head around the fact that there are many good stories and unconventional concepts worthy of consideration. What's more, as witnessed by the reaction to the first Matrix, there's an audience that's very thirsty for this type of speculative fiction.

Welcome to the real world

The original Matrix, in its exploration of the nature of reality, existence, perception and knowledge, spawned nothing less than a cultural revolution. Its effect on pop culture, visual aesthetics and the zeitgeist has been nothing less than extraordinary. In the four short years since its initial release, The Matrix had as large an impact as Star Wars did in the late 1970s. But unlike George Lucas's swashbuckling space fantasy film, The Matrix contributed as much to philosophical discourse as it did to special effects wizardry.

University professors are constructing lesson plans based around the film. Graduate students are writing theses about it. Philosophy and religion sections in bookstores are littered with Matrix books. The cosmological suggestion that we may in fact be living in a simulation was suddenly given added credibility. And recently, in his book Matrix Warrior, author Jake Horsley argues that we are in fact living in nothing less than the Matrix as portrayed in the film.

It was against this backdrop that the The Matrix sequels were released, with much anticipation. Considering how cutting edge and provocative the original film was, most fans, me included, were desperate to know just how far the Wachowski brothers would take the franchise.

Squandered potential

Unfortunately, they didn't take it very far at all. The second installment, Reloaded, wasn't great, but it was memorable. But where Reloaded was entertaining and interesting, Revolutions was predictable and thin. It was like a retread action movie, with tired themes of faith, Christian mythology and sacrificial messianism thrown in. How boring. How banal.

Hence the reviews have been anything but flattering, reflecting near universal disappointment. Curiously, however, a number of reviewers commented on how nicely everything was resolved.

This is strange to me because I felt that virtually nothing of import was resolved, and that's part of the problem. At the conclusion of Revolutions, the Matrix construct remains intact, same as it ever was. An uneasy peace has been established for a completely inexplicable reason, and the machines still clearly hold the cards. Then there are Neo's superpowers outside of the Matrix, which are never adequately explained. The movie forces viewers to suspend disbelief to the point of psychosis. It's as if we're supposed to feel stupid in not getting it—scriptwriter laziness passed off as inaccessibly deep thought.

And I'd say that the ending was designed to leave the door open for further sequels. The nothing-has-really-changed finale is evidence that the Matrix world will forever remain a static one, a franchise that can be easily marketed across different media. Consequently, compelling speculative science and philosophy has been sacrificed for the sake of the almighty dollar. The Boys, as the Wachowskis are called, sold out.


Admittedly, much of my disappointment in Revolutions stemmed from the fact that it didn't even come close to matching my predictions and expectations. The first two films had enough concepts in them to suggest something profound and, well, revolutionary, was going to happen in the finale.

There were a number of questions that I hoped to see answered in the conclusion. Could the inhabitants of Zion find a way to overthrow or merge with the machines and, if so, could they leave their squalid underworld and create a new virtual home for themselves in a Matrix of their own design? In this new world of cyber-Hegelian resynthesis, could humans continue to reprogram reality and morph it at will, marking the next stage in the evolution of intelligent life?

Or, as implied by the Architect in Reloaded, could there be other, deeper realms of existence unknown to humanity? Does the Creator have a Creator? Would Neo find a way to transcend his humanity and his surroundings and become a superhuman who can explore alternate realities and dimensions? Just how far would the hacker motif be developed?

And how far would the Buddhist and Eastern philosophical themes be taken? Would Neo finally realize that Agent Smith was the physical manifestation of his own ego? Would he figure out that to end the suffering caused by his ego attachment he would have to seek a reconciliatory union with his splintering psychologies? Could Neo and the others jacked into the Matrix free themselves from the illusion that imprisons and misleads them? Could Neo break the endless cycle of death and rebirth? Would such a perceptual and epistemological breakthrough allow the inhabitants of the Matrix to achieve a state of enlightenment? Nirvana?

It can be done

Frustratingly, the failure of Revolutions was a deliberate failure of imagination. Innovative ideas such as these exist in today's science fiction; the genre is as strong and compelling as it has ever been. These themes have in fact been explored across different media, including film.

Back in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on the now classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the time of its release, sci-fi movies typically meant four-eyed monsters chasing scantily clad women across the screen. Inspired by what Gene Roddenberry did for the genre on television through his Star Trek series, Clarke and Kubrick showed through 2001 that concept can in fact be conveyed on the silver screen in both an entertaining and thoughtful manner.

2001 chronicles no less than four million years of human history, exploring humanity's relationship with its technology, its lack of psychological development over the course of that time and its place in the Universe and ongoing evolution. The movie concludes with David Bowman's transcendent (or is that trippy?) journey as he is transformed from man into posthuman Star Child.

And like any great science fiction movie—the original Matrix included—great visuals need not be compromised. 2001 featured cutting edge special effects that have stood the test of time, revealing a universe of awe, danger and magnitude.

As for current science fiction, however, the written word is clearly where it's at. Authors such as Vernor Vinge, Greg Bear and John C. Wright continue to explore the realms of science and the future.

Perhaps the most talented science fiction writer of today is Greg Egan, who is both the H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov of our time. Egan, who displays an uncanny grasp of science and technology, has an almost preternatural gift for speculative fiction. Reading Egan, your mind is blown with each turn of the page.

Egan has grasped the future's potential unlike any current author. In his 1997 novel Diaspora, he envisions humanity speciating out in different directions, including uploaded humans who live in supercomputer-run simulated realties that are buried deep underground. Other posthuman forms include cyborgs, robots and genetically modified biological humans. And Egan doesn't stop there, as the heroes of the novel journey to the jaw-dropping limits of the Universe and beyond.

Unfortunately, Hollywood tends to be about 20 years behind written science fiction at any given time. Excluding 1982's Blade Runner (which was ahead of its time and largely ignored as a science fiction classic until the 1990s), The Matrix marks Hollywood's first successful foray into cyberpunk, a reimagining of William Gibson's 1984 classic, Neuromancer.

So, the good news is that we'll eventually see the visions of Vinge, Bear and Egan hit the big screen. The bad news is that we're going to have to wait a while. And in the meantime, we'll just have to suffer through more boring and unimaginative Hollywood films. Science fiction movies such as the original Matrix, it would seem, come about once every 20 years.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, November 24, 2003.

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