Remember the anticipation of the second and third Matrix movies? People seemed to love the first one and expected to like the rest of them just as well. As with many sequels, that did not happen. Nate’s comments are a pretty good example.
Why didn’t they work?
Before I answer, I should mention that I had much lower expectations for them than most people. What people seemed to love about the first one was the mixture of philosophy, the discovery of the world, the anime/kungfu style of action, and the sheer coolness of the look of the movie (the old west style black leather costumes). The combination impressed people.
I was not as impressed. Having watched various forms of anime and kungfu films, that style wasn’t new to me. Owing to the fact that I’d read a largish chunk of the writings from the cyberpunk movement (and run a cyberpunk-based role-playing campaign), the combination of black leather, virtual reality, and martial arts action didn’t seem new to me either. Finally, as someone who’d been a religion major (with a strong intrest in medieval theology/philosophy), the philosophical aspects didn’t seem particularly deep (Plato anyone? Or Indian philosophy’s concept of Maya?) and the “Neo as messiah” theme felt kind of tired.
Worse, as someone who’s spent time in writing workshops, I found the idea that machines would use humans as power generating devices a gigantic plot hole. Scott Kurtz phrased the same idea in a much funnier way just a few months later.
From what I just wrote you might think that I didn’t like it. You’d be wrong. I enjoyed it. Its just that I would have enjoyed it a lot more when all the ideas were new to me–10 years earlier as a Hope College sophmore.
Nonetheless, when you remove all of the cool ideas from the mix, all you’ve got left is a reasonably well done science fiction action movie.
With a massive plot hole.
My observations of the second and third movies go as follows:
Matrix Reloaded: Not bad. Certain scenes seemed unnecessarily long (the burly brawl, the car chase, the Zion orgy) or just plain unnecessary (the bit where the Oracle’s protector tested Neo by fighting him). By the time Neo ended up unconscious with Bane (possessed by Agent Smith) lying unconscious next to him, I realized that I was supposed to care about this, but I didn’t.
Matrix Revolutions: Ok. No worse than any of the others. Some clunky dialogue. Some plot holes (Zion should have EMP devices everywhere…). Some scenes that went on too long (Trinity’s death). Some bravery on the part of the writers–they did kill off two popular characters. If they’d humanized them a bit more, it might have been moving. One plot criticism: Having Agent Smith’s death as the climax of the movie felt a bit off to me. Smith taking over the Matrix didn’t seem like the main tension in the series. Zion’s destruction was also pretty low on my list of anxieties. I felt more tension about the machines holding humanity captive in an illusion of reality.
Miind you, the way the series ended is perfectly consistent with the “coexistence and co-dependence” theme that entered in the second movie. So, it did at least wholistically fit together.
How could that not work?
My general belief is that if you want a sequel to work, you shouldn’t have it be a sequel. It should be a continuation of the story, planned as part of the story from the very beginning.
The Matrix’ sequels greatly test my beliefs. My theory as to why it didn’t quite work goes like this:
1. If you found the setting and ideas new in the first movie, you will not find them new in the second movie. The first third of a science fiction or fantasy novel is generally spent introducing the world. After that, the world is background and you need good (enough) characters and plot to pull things off. All three Matrix movies had rough spots in these areas.
2. A four year gap between the first movie and the other two. This allowed the first movie to become more than the first third of a story. It was an entire story. We, the movie going public, were expecting something that fullfilled the themes of the first movie, not something that simply included the first movie, changed some assumptions and went merrily onward. Agent Smith’s metamorphosis from agent of the Matrix to common enemy of both human and computer potentially works in the second situation.
3. Finally, I blame the clunky dialogue, bad pacing of some scenes, and the somewhat “unfullfilled and unresolved” feeling I had upon watching the last two on one thing: process.
By that, I mean the process of making the last two movies. During the first movie all they had to worry about was making the first movie (which is quite a lot). The second two movies were shot together with the video game. A collection of short Matrix animations was created around the same time. Actors were involved in both the video game and the movies. So were the directors/writers.
Even over the course of 4 years, that would be a lot to keep track of.
I’d argue that when you’ve got that much going on, you’re going to have a lot less time to edit, reflect and, if necessary, reshoot and revise. I suspect that a lot of details get dropped when a project gets that big.
Unfortunately, details are also what makes a work of art feel right. Fail to pay attention and feel your audience’s wrath.
While certain problems would remain, I suspect that if the Wachowski brothers had concentrated on making 2 movies, we’d all be much more satisfied with the Matrix today.