Saturday, July 28, 2018

Rewatching the Matrix Sequels

Morpheus in The Matrix Reloaded

Like many teachers of philosophy who love science fiction, I show clips from The Matrix whenever I teach anything to do with external-world skepticism.  It's a nice way to dramatize the question: how you could know that you're not in some radically different world like the Matrix right now?

Another thing I often mention to my students is that I pretend the sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) never happened.  The Matrix is a science fiction classic.  The sequels ... not so much.

But was I right?  Could my assessment of the sequels when I first saw them 15 years ago be as wrong as Neo's belief that he's not in the Matrix?  These questions were there like a splinter in my mind.  (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

So the other day I thought I'd conduct an experiment to answer these questions by rewatching the sequels.

What were the results of my experiment?

First of all, my general impression that Reloaded was better than Revolutions was largely upheld.  But I do think I've been a bit unfair to these movies over the years.  Having rewatched them, I actually think Reloaded is a decent sequel even if it's not on par with the first one.  Revolutions... well, it has a lot of problems but it's not the utter trash I thought it was.

Three general thoughts: First, sometimes it seems like Hollywood just discovered the idea of diverse casting a couple years ago, and some corners of it (e.g., whoever keeps hiring Scarlett Johansson) have yet to discover it at all.  But the Matrix movies should've shown that a racially diverse cast can work, although I don't want to downplay the fact that the white people are often more central to the plot even if they have lots of friends who are people of color.

Second: I know it's cool to make fun of Keanu Reeves, but I really like him in these movies (it probably goes back to my love of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - and be sure to check out those John Wick movies).  Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, and the rest of the cast are generally pretty good, too.  But the greatest of them all in my opinion is Laurence Fishburne.  Is there any way Morpheus could possibly be cooler?  I doubt it.  At least not in any iteration of the Matrix I can think of.

Third: The movies do feel slightly dated, especially the early 2000's techno-backed action scenes and what today sometimes looks like clunky CGI.  But for the most part, I think they've held up pretty well (any whipper snappers out there may beg to differ).

The Matrix Reloaded

So let's get into Reloaded.  A challenge with any sequel is coming up with new ideas that are in some sense continuous with or at least grow out of the original.  We get cool old stuff (Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity, the Oracle, Agent Smith, etc.), but there are some cool new ideas.  I like the independent programs.  The Merovingian and Persephone storyline is an interesting (if a bit clunky) way to dramatize the issue of freedom and determinism.  The ghost twins are badass and creepy.  It's interesting to see Zion and how Neo and friends fit into life in the real world.  That council (which includes Cornell West!) is pretty cool. The Architect provides some nice context and backstory, even if he's a pretentious Colonel Sanders.  Hell, I even like the cave rave/orgy (although it seems the Wachowskis missed a chance for some diversity of sexualities, a promise they would later fulfill with Sense8).

So Reloaded has a lot of cool ideas, and some of them are executed pretty well.  It's not perfect. As a friend of mine noticed, the little bits of humor from the original are mostly gone.  There's a sense that the movie is maybe taking itself just a tad too seriously.  The whole Neo-as-Messiah thing is still interesting, but maybe getting a little old (still not overdone as much as it is in Revolutions, though, where he - spoiler alert - literally dies to save everyone...).

The best thing about Reloaded, though, has got to be that epic car chase on the highway.  It's definitely one of my all time favorite action scenes (maybe only outdone by Mad Max: Fury Road).  There's fighting on top of moving semis.  A daring rescue of the key master.  The ghost twins are ghosting all over the place, one with a razor.  Morpheus takes down an SUV with a katana!  It is all a bit silly?  Sure, but it's a movie.  And they're inside the Matrix.

It all ends on a cliff hanger.  If I remember correctly they made the sequels roughly at the same time, so we only had to wait a few months.  I was actually pretty excited for the third one back in 2003.

The Matrix Revolutions

Fast forward to 2018: I was kind of dreading the third one because I remember being so disappointed by it in 2003.

So, The Matrix Revolutions...  It's not all bad.  I like what they do with the programs and Agent Smith.  That fight scene between Neo and Smith is pretty cool.  And (with one major caveat to be discussed below) I liked how it ended with (spoiler alert, but I mean, c'mon) an interesting uneasy truce rather than a bellicose wanton destruction of one side or the other of the kind that ruins so many Hollywood science fiction movies.  That was refreshing, especially the way it, for lack of a better term, "humanized" the AI programs.  Isn't it just boring to see the good guys decimate the bad guys all the time, even if they do that stupid thing where they nobly try to save the bad guys who end up dying anyway?

The biggest problem with Revolutions for me was that it was just kind of boring.  Say what you want about Reloaded, at least it was entertaining and had some cool new ideas.  A lot of Revolutions was a standard Hollywood science fiction war movie, complete with mechs and grumpy sergeants (I may have dozed off a few times during those parts, but I don't feel like I missed much).

All in all it feels like the Wachowskis got sort of bored with the project by Revolutions and started running out of new ideas.  Which is fine.  They went on to do some cool stuff, like Sense8, which I already mentioned, but I also really liked their adaptation of Cloud Atlas even if David Mitchell's book is better.  I even kind of liked Jupiter Ascending, or at least the sheer audacity of it.

Back in 2003 one of my major disappointments was this: The sequels seemed to spend a lot of time hinting (or outright telegraphing?) the idea that Neo's powers in "the real world" showed that there was another layer of Matrix, so that the "real world" was actually another Matrix.  I was so ready to see that in 2003, both because it would be philosophically cool and because it would open up the universe considerably.  (Is this precisely why the Wachowskis didn't go that route?  Maybe because they wanted to foreclose the possibility of having to make more Matrix movies?)

In 2018 I knew that wasn't going to happen, so I wasn't disappointed.  Maybe I'm too much of a Buddhist or a Stoic, but I wasn't about to get worked up about something I knew wasn't going to happen.  For the record, I still think that would've been cool.  But what're you gonna do?

But you know what?  I still think what's called the "Matrix-in-a-Matrix theory" is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of the sequels!  Is it possible that Morpheus, Trinity, and pals are really inside another level of computer simulation?  For the sake of my personal amusement, let's call it the "Schmatrix."  How would you rule out the Schmatrix, especially when there seem to be so many clues in both Reloaded and Revolutions that this could be the case?

So perhaps the greatest gift of the Matrix sequels is that they don't answer all the questions, that they keep some space open for philosophical speculation after all.  It's possible the Wachowskis even did this on purpose just to excite nerds like me.  And for that I am grateful to the Wachowskis and everyone else who made these movies.


  1. I'm glad that you didn't experience nostalgia backlash -- that moment you realize something you loved growing up is actually pretty terrible.

    1. Not at all. If anything it was the opposite: I didn't like them very much at the time and I like them more now.

  2. Ah, the Matrix. Love that series.

    Do you ever bring up Dennett's concept of the Blind Demon? (Am fairly certain it was Dennett...) Or how Pascal's Wager and Descarte's Discourse on Method cogito ergo sum proposition?

    There's a lot of interesting research around that topic from modern day philosophers, including some of the work produced - and exemplified in fictional format - by Canadian philosopher R. Scott Bakker, in his books Neuropath, The Prince of Nothing trilogy, and The Aspect-Emperor series.



    1. I generally show scenes from The Matrix when I cover Descartes (usually the Meditations, sometimes the Discourse) or Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses. I've read some Dennett, but I don't recall the Blind Demon.

      I've read Bakker's Neuropath, but not the other ones you mention. Thanks for the tip!

    2. (Finally managed to update my Blogger/Google profile so as to use my real name. Huzzah!)

      Bakker's books are excellent across the board. If you can find his Disciple Manning books, they to merit one's time, as they are hard boiled fiction novels a la Raymond Chandler, and analyse human blind spots, cognition, and memory through the point of view of a detective with an eidetic memory. Hugely fascinating books.

      Re: the Blind Demon - I was misremembering the name of the concept - it was the Evil Demon, which Descartes talks about. Bakker, Dennett, and I believe Cordelia Fine as well, at some point, somewhere, discussed the more modern concept of this same idea: the brain in a jar, where one has to prove that what they're experiencing is valid and real. Which is to say, epistemological analysis.

      It's terrific stuff, and wonderfully overlaps with the equally engaging and criminally under-read Matthew Woodring Stover, aka Matt Stover (not the USian grid iron player).

      His Caine books - particularly Caine's Law, veer into that area of exploration. And his New Jedi Order novel, Traitor, was famously referred to by some Star Wars fans as being "too philosophical" for Star Wars (Jacen Solo undergoes an intense bit of Jedi deconstruction at the hands of a Yuuzhan Vong). It's terrific stuff, and I cannot recommend it enough, particularly as it does something that I think, as a philosophy grad myself, is *vital* to the importance and legitimacy of the field of philosophy: it makes it accessible to the larger public. It's inclusive.

      Which is hugely important in a field that's famous for being incredibly inclusive, littered with industry terminologies and jargon, and unfortunately, tends towards legitimising elitist attitudes.