The original "Matrix" took moviegoers by surprise when it debuted four years ago. Audiences weren't expecting its singular uber-cool sensibility--seamlessly fusing Hong Kong action, computer-geek hipsterism, otherworldy special effects and a science-fiction plot dense with philosophical discourse--from a filmmaking duo whose previous directorial experience had been limited to the femme neo-noir thriller "Bound." And "The Matrix Reloaded" only upped the ante with grander set pieces, more elaborate fight scenes and more complicated ideas constantly charging the dialogue.
Unfortunately, the Wachowski Brothers blew it all on the second episode and saved little for the third and final chapter. Gone are the exhilarating fight scenes. Gone are the mind-blowing special effects. (The only new bit of business involves walking on ceilings--not all that impressive compared with what we've seen before.) Gone are the big ideas. What's left is an enigmatic ending that's vaguely unsatisfying to an audience looking for more from this franchise than a message amounting to "Can't we all just get along?"
When "The Matrix Reloaded" left off, reluctant hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) was only beginning to understand his role in the salvation of the human race--or the destruction of it. He was also only beginning to understand his power, stopping a swarm of sentinels merely by thinking it. The move has drained him, however, and he is in a coma, over which lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) holds vigil, when that chapter closed and this begins.Turns out Neo is trapped in a no-man's land between the Matrix and the machine world, a train station through which the Trainman (Bruce Spence) shuttles programs between the two realms. It is the first of many underdeveloped plot points that ultimately go nowhere in a narrative that up until now has been tightly woven. One supposes it's an opportunity to illustrate once again just how much Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) loves The One, how much she's willing to sacrifice for him--"The Matrix" is, at heart, ultimately a love story--but fans of the franchise already knew that.
Once Neo is rescued, the group splits up, with Neo headed to the Machine City to fulfill his destiny with Trinity at his side and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and crew headed back to Zion where the machines have punched through and the last of the human race is fighting for survival.
One could argue that this battle scene is the amplified version of, say, the car chase from "Reloaded," but in comparison it's sterile. Obviously CGI was heavily involved in both, but the previous film's action set piece featured, well, humans: flesh and blood. Here it's all shiny, silver, metallic: armor, guns, bullets, the sentinels--a swarm of futuristic insects--and the giant drill that has pierced their underground hive. There's nothing gasp-inducing here; it's all been created inside of a computer, and it lacks the human element to give it emotional weight.
Similarly, Neo's ultimate showdown with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, still brilliant) is anti-climactic. The battle between these two polar opposites--one only exists because of the other, to balance out an equation--is a clash of titans. Even the elements are affected, the downpour of rain rippling out from their blows in giant waves and the very fabric of time-space buckling and ripping. Like the burly brawl in the second "Matrix" film, the score here is operatic, the choreography balletic, but ultimately we've seen Neo take on Smith and his ever-multiplying replicates. Here he's fighting just one.
There are other flaws and missed opportunities: With all the talk about love and sacrifice and with the people of Zion battling for their lives, there is more opportunity for melodrama. There are lot of meaningful "Oh. My. God."s sprinkled throughout, as well as earnest "She's in love"s and eager "The war's over!"s.
Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle in the first two films, passed away during filmmaking and was replaced by Mary Alice, who resembles Foster. The switch is explained away as the Oracle having taken a new form. But, if so, why not really change her up, put her in the body of a small child, for example?
Most disappointing is the conclusion to the trilogy. For all the big ideas expressed in the first two installments, it feels pat and, frankly, too conveniently poised for yet another film. It's not one we need. We'll have to be content with the first two. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving and Jada Pinkett Smith. Directed and written by the Wachowski Brothers. Produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. release. Sci-fi/Action. Rated R for sci-fi violence and brief sexual content. Running time: 129 min