The Matrix Revolutions was released this past Wednesday with very little fanfare, in sharp contrast to the hooplah that preceded The Matrix Reloaded last May. Raking in $24 million in the US/Canadian market ($47 million globally), Revolutions is enjoying a doubtless short-lived status as the 3rd-highest first-day gross in history. The first weekend figures are similarly impressive. The film has brought in an estimated $50 million in box office receipts, catapulting it to the number 1 spot.
The first Matrix film zoomed to the number 1 spot the day it opened and kept that position for four weeks, staying in the top 10 for more than four months before beginning a rapid descent. The Matrix Reloaded, the second film, also opened at number 1 but stayed there for only a week and dropped out of the top 10 after seven weeks. The Matrix Revolutions has once again opened at number 1. I anticipate that its fate will be much the same as that of The Matrix Reloaded.
What the Matrix series is not
The Matrix is not, and so far as I can tell was never intended to be what many critics complain that it is not: A deep, introspective, philosophical science fiction film with a bit of action and a few special effects tossed in to enhance the story. Anyone looking for a film of that sort should rent 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original Solaris.
The Matrix series contains little if anything that is new or original. Without doubt the themes of the film are new to moviegoers with only a casual exposure to science fiction, but in reality the film (or films, if you prefer) brings no new or creative concepts to the screen. Instead, it is simply a fast paced, action packed retelling of a story based on a theme well known to science fiction fans.
Computers taking over the world? Hardly new. The first film treatment of that idea that I recall was Colussus: The Forbin Project in 1970. In science fiction literature the idea dates back at least to Thomas Ryan's 1977 book The Adolescence of P-1.
Humans "jacking in" to enter a computer generated, wrap-around reality? William Gibson brought that idea to life in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. In fact, most of the concepts at the core of the matrix are found in Gibson's works. The idea of a cyberreality indistinguishible from "real" reality is hardly new either. Tad Williams' 1996 Otherworld series is one of the latest iterations of this theme.
Well then what about the idea of humans creating machines that "wake up," frighten their makers into trying to pull the plug, resulting in retaliation by the machines and all-out man versus machine war, the near destruction of humanity and the desperate attempts of a small number of militaristic humans on a ravaged Earth? Can you say Terminator? A good argument can be made the underlying idea of this theme dates back to the 1950s and Fred Saberhagen's berserkers.
So what does the Matrix series offer us that is really new? Not much. In fact, I would say nothing at all apart from the fact that it has popularized a theme previously limited to science fiction afficionados.
What the Matrix series is
If the Matrix series is short on story and offers little or nothing that is new to science fiction, what is it? What does it offer that has thrice made it a box office winner?
The Matrix is a special-effects and action extravaganza with shallow but likeable characters. It is a diverting two hours for fans of that genre. For fans of Hong Kong kung fu cinema the martial arts sequences are very recognizable, high-tech versions of kung fu sequences in many films of that genre. In fact, the Wachowski brothers hired Yuen Wo Ping, well known to fans of the kung fu genre, to train the actors and choreopgraph those scenes. Wo Ping's entire career before the Matrix series was with Hong Kong and Chinese kung fu films. His highly stylized choreography is a pleasure to watch. Pitting human kung fu against software agents is one of the few novel and original ideas in the Matrix series.
Revolutions departs from this theme until the final battle, focusing instead on more technological battle. The battle for Zion is fought not in the matrix, but in the real world; not with hand to hand combat, but with heavy artillery reminiscent of the oddball machines of the Star Wars world. This part of the film is less interesting, but far louder than the hand to hand scenes. I found that while I could easily and uncritically lose myself in the beauty of the kung fu scenes, during the seemingly unending battle for Zion I was wondering why the machines weren't returning fire and why, despite their obvious technological superiority, they were not using any projective weapons. If the electromagnetic pulse weapons (EMP) were so effective for the humans, why would these intelligent machines not simply drop one into Zion, disable all of their defenses, then follow it up with an invasion of projectile-vomiting, gravity-defying infantry?
I found Revolutions to be a fitting and well-done ending to the Matrix series. But then, unlike the authors of many reviews I have read I never expected more than a fast-paced action flick with lots of wonderful computer generated special effects.
Little in the Matrix series is award-winning material, unless it be perhaps for special effects. Nonetheless, the series including the final installment is a wonderfully entertaining diversion that is well worth seeing.
Credit where credit is due: The facts and figures about sales and performance of the Matrix series are thanks to http://www.boxofficemojo.com/.
Sunday, November 09, 2003
The Matrix Reviewed
(We saw The Matrix Revolutions Saturday. Brady, who was seeing it for the second time, had the following commentary, which I asked permission to republish here. Please note: It contains a minor spoiler about the plot that might upset a fanatic Matrix fan—though such fans, presumably, would have already rushed out and seen the film by this time.--MT)