What The Film!? – The Matrix Franchise

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What The Film!? is a weekly column exclusive to Under The Gun Review that brings to light the general fuckery Hollywood hoped you’d never notice. Written by Dane Sager, this column shows no mercy to films that try and pull the proverbial wool over our eyes.

If you know a film with major plot holes or those that make you scratch your eyes out, tell us! Email utgjames@gmail.com with the subject “What The Film” and we’ll try to get your suggestion featured on the site.

THE MATRIX TRILOGY

This week marks the 10th anniversary release of The Matrix Reloaded, the first sequel to the highly-successful surprise hit The Matrix. After ten years, has this franchise stood up? Lets take a look!

The original Matrix is a very important movie. It blended a science fiction story filled with lots of ideas unheard of to most movie goers with cutting-edge special effects, kung-fu, crazy actions sequences, and some creative camera work, making a spectacle that has never been seen before. It’s up there with Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as modern-day science fiction classics that pushed the envelope with technology. While Jurassic Park and Terminator 2‘s new technology opened the doors for a 1990s science fiction renaissance, The Matrix took it a few steps further. Beating Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by only a few months, The Matrix the first major movie to have large pieces of the movie composed entirely by CGI.

At the time, CGI was mostly used to play with other traditional special effects. Independence Day used miniature models, compositions, and used CGI only on what they couldn’t pull off in-camera. The later movies in the Alien Franchise used mostly costumes and creative robotic creations, again only using CGI on what they couldn’t do in-camera. Creativity still reigned when it came to special effects, but The Matrix showed the world that the CGI that they’ve been using as a shovel could actually be used as backhoe. It was another technological leap that furthered the science fiction resurgence that is still going on today.

Before then, no one really thought you could make a movie in front of a green screen with CGI motion captured actors. And they certainly didn’t think they’d make almost two billion dollars with it.

The fun part is that this science fiction boom from the birth of new movie making technology isn’t likely to stop. CGI has gone from being a special effect to become one of the most important tools ever given to Hollywood since the addition of sound to movies, if not the most important tool period.

Just like any new technology, there’s a stage where everyone tries to understand what it can and cannot do, similar to how the fifth generation of video game systems had that awkward phase where no one really understood how to make a 3D game work except for a few games. CGI had an (extensively long) awkward stage in movies. Once The Matrix and Phantom Menace came out, people saw the possibilities and used CGI on absolutely everything they could, necessary or not. Just because you have a new backhoe, that doesn’t mean you have to use it for everything when your old shovels still work.

A trend that still continues, with the creatures in I Am Legend being CGI for no reason, and the baby in Twilight looks like an embalmed wax figure made from nightmares about plastic.

It was an exciting brand new technology that not almost no one knew how to use well. Studios, directors, and producers saw the future capabilities (that we’re just now barely getting to fourteen years later) and bit off way more than they could chew at the time. This is why we ended up with characters who are supposed to look human in The Hulk or The Scorpion King looking plastic because we didn’t have the ability to render skin correctly at the time.

A problem we even had in 2009’s Terminator Salvation (and the Matrix sequels)

1999’s The Matrix

To summarize the first movie in the franchise, The Matrix, all you need to know is that it’s a post-Terminator 2 movie adaptation of every college douchebag’s favorite philosophy lesson, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Taking place hundreds of years in the future after a robot-apocalypse, a small sect of humanity has gone into hiding or have been enslaved by robots and placed into a computer generated world. After several generations of births/deaths, this digital world is composed entirely of people born in the digital world. Like The Cave, their view on the world is skewed, as the lie they know as reality is anything but.

The Matrix hits almost every single major point of The Cave in it’s adaption, while modernizing it for the then current audience. A person (Neo) is removed from the Cave/Matrix to see the real world for the first time, they can’t comprehend it at first and ultimately reject it. Eventually this person would either accept their new reality and attempt to free those from the Cave/Matrix (Neo) or they would reject reality and want to return to the lie (Cypher) as it is easier to accept. When attempting to save those from the cave, those who continue to live the lie see their savior as a crazy person who is unable to communicate to its prisoners how the real world is in terms they would understand. To them, this person is an insane outsider who refuses to believe what is clearly reality to them.

Think about that the next time a hobo can’t articulate a conspiracy theory in a way that makes any sense.

Truth be told, it’s a great film adaptation of a 2,500 year old thought experiment (and probably the only one). It took The Cave and explained why the cave existed in this world. Its cave, known within the movie as “the Matrix”, was the digitalized world that everyone lived inside after the robots took over. The robots plugged humanity into this massive machine that simulates normal life while at the same time utilizing our own natural bioelectricity to power themselves.

The very first attempt the robots had at creating the matrix initially created it as a paradise where everyone was always happy and no one was ever hurt, but those plugged into it couldn’t accept the perfect digital world and they had to rebuild another digital world based on the present day. But by making an imperfect world with free thought, they had to create the Agents, digital programs that look human inside the digital world to police it. One of these Agents, Agent Smith, explains to Neo that the time that the machines picked for its digital simulation was because it was the peak of human civilization.

Yes, the late 1990’s truly was humanity’s shining moment.

The problem here is that in The Cave, people are imprisoned, forced to watch shadows dance on a wall in front of them, when removed from this world, reality can’t be comprehended. First they would look for shadows in this new world, for that is his or her reality. The objects casting these shadows would be so foreign to this person that they could not believe what they were dealing with. This isn’t unheard of, as many blind people who have regained sight have had issues understanding what they’re seeing (some even wish to lose their sight again).

It’s because the cave that they were prisoners in distorted their reality so much that reality doesn’t make any sense. Lets say that you’re one of the Super Mario Bros (lets say you’re Luigi, he doesn’t get much love), in the 1980s and early 1990s, they were in countless sidescrolling platformer games. All you know is the x plane of left & right and the y plane of up & down. Your reality has no z plane, there is no depth to this world. You exist in a purely 2D world and it is impossible for your lanky green overall ass to comprehend a 3D world in the same way it’s impossible for us to comprehend a fourth dimension in our reality.

And yet, despite all of this, the machines pick to put their simulated world during the biggest technological revolutions of all time. In a few hundred years, this period of human growth will be viewed in the same light as The Industrial Revolution or The European Renaissance (if not more important). Everything went digital, we have an international communication network that contains all the information in the entire world flowing freely in the air in almost every coffee shop, we have controller free video games, tablets everywhere, and my phone can tell me where I am at any given point and tell me where the closest place to buy any item I can think of and its price instantly. These machines have picked the one single point in the two hundred thousand years of human existence where a digitalized prison world isn’t much of a stretch.

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is” Morpheus states at one point, despite the fact that yes, you can. It’s actually pretty easy for us to grasp that concept.

Once you can view worlds like Playstation Home, World Of Warcraft, or Eve Online with the Oculus Rift, there will be a lot more people rejecting reality.

Warner Brothers was well aware that a film adaptation of The Cave (mixed with elements lifted from The Twilight Zone, Terminator, William Gibson, 1984, and even Total Recall) would be a huge risk, even in the middle of a Sci-Fi resurgence, but it was a risk that surprisingly paid off. The Matrix was a massive hit, making almost half a billion dollars at the box office on its only sixty million dollar budget and went on to win all four Academy Awards that it was nominated for. At the time of its release, it was the highest grossing R rated movie of all time. Warner Brothers immediately signed the The Wachowskis up to create more in the franchise, resulting in two sequels, a straight to DVD animated anthology set in the world, and a video game that takes place at the same time of the sequels. There is absolutely no way that this could be disappointing, right?

It’s a metaphor, fool.

2003’s The Matrix Reloaded &
The Matrix Revolutions

After The Matrix’s massive success, there were a slew of movies trying to jump on the bandwagon. It was similar to how a young person can hear The Clash or The Ramones and when trying their own punk band, it just picks up the shallow surface, loud, fast, and angry; or a teenager hearing a fast talking comedian could walk away from it thinking that the vulgarities and anger was the punchlines. No, you can’t be The Clash because you can string three chords together, and you can’t be Louis CK because you think angrily saying “Fuck those guys!” is a punchline. There are subtitles and more going on than what you picked up. If you break down the jokes/songs/movies and figure out why it works, then you have a better chance of recreating it on your own. You can’t pick a cursory detail about another movie/song/show/joke and assume that applying it to your project and think it will work.

Rebooting Spider-Man in a dark way because The Dark Knight made over a billion dollars will not make your… wait, this movie made eight hundred million dollars? God Damn it, you guys. Come on.

One of the biggest issues with the sequels is that instead of reclaiming its throne over all the bad CGI, hammed up, action packed movies it influenced, it became one. Like almost all the movies The Matrix influenced in its wake, The Matrix Reloaded & Revolutions was a mess that missed what was good about the original. They kept piling on as much as they could onto The Matrix‘s world that it became crowded. While The Matrix wasn’t subtle, compared to the sequels, it was the most subtle thing in the world. It was no longer a philosophy lesson with added action sequences, it was action sequences with various attempts at making it deeper than it was. This is emphasized even more today, as the action sequences are no longer as impressive as they once were, putting the attention back on the problems with the plot.

Similar to how most sitcoms have two plot lines going on that are connected, the sequels have two plot lines going on. Its A Plot follows Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and the gang inside the Matrix most of the time trying to find a way to free everyone inside. Its B Plot involves Zion, the last real human city, preparing for, and ultimately fighting, a massive defensive battle against the machines that have recently found the city. Oddly enough, its B Plot is more fleshed out, better written, has characters that grow and evolve, and is the story you care about much more. It’s fantastically well done and significantly more engaging than the A Plot. When something goes wrong in Zion, you feel it.  It’s as if they wrote the Zion plot as a logical extension and sequel and realized that you can’t have a Matrix movie that doesn’t have a plot inside the actual Matrix and tacked on a secondary plot. They try to compensate this by making it’s weaker and more prominent plot line more action-packed. Yes, the action sequences at the time were unlike anything we’ve seen before, but you can’t rely on just action to make up for a plot that doesn’t engage you.

A pack of Jon Hamms appear! What will you do?
[Fight] [pkmn] [Item] [Run]

One of the biggest problems was that there were plot points that didn’t make any sense at all unless you watched all of The Animatrix and beat Enter The Matrix. 

The best example of this is about halfway through The Matrix Reloaded. There is a significant chunk of build up to an action sequence on a power plant. If you’ve seen a heist movie, you know how this goes. There is a group of people standing around planning what sounds like a fantastic action sequence. They build and plan this attack on the power plant and… it never happens. 

The action sequence they spent a large chunk of time setting up never happens. Why does this happen? It’s because that power plant sequence was a level in the Enter The Matrix video-game. This was ten years ago. There was almost no such thing as a cross platform tie in such as this. Even today, a move like this would still be a huge mistake. This is almost as if they built up for a huge plot point in The Walking Dead and then the next episode, you see the aftermath because that plot point happened in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. I understand that mutlimedia is cool (and it is) but you have to assume that the people seeing your movies have only seen your movies. Can you think of a part of the Star Wars prequels that didn’t make sense if you hadn’t read the expanded-universe books or comics, played the games, bought the action figures, seen the Clone Wars…

When the prequel trilogy does something better than your franchise, you have made some huge mistakes.

At its core, The Matrix gets sloppy as it progresses, but it doesn’t make it any less important in the grand scheme of things. It was a landmark in movie technology, having a movie showing the world the potential of the tool and having two movies showing the world that we need to seriously be careful with it. The movies have been super-successful, which is even more impressive when you realize that they were R-Rated and ticket prices were both half the price they are now (and didn’t include a 3D charge). Without The Matrix’s success, studios would still be hesitant to make any science-fiction, let alone cerebral and weird. We would be in a world without Inception right now without The Matrix. 

People can complain about Oblivion or After Earth or Avatar being cliched rehashes of stories we’ve heard in pulp magazines sixty to seventy years ago, but that’s not a problem. Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time and while it seems ripped from early 20th century Sci-Fi, the major difference is that we have the technology to create and craft these stories and not have them come off as incredibly corny. Yes, we’ve seen or heard a lot of these stories, but now they’re fully realized.

I mean, they can still be corny, but there’s no Gorn now.

The science fiction boom over the past twenty years definitely isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The advancement of technology drives science fiction and more science fiction drives more innovation in technology. Progress is a wheel and entertainment is its engine.

What are you waiting for? You’re faster than this. Don’t think you are, know you are. Come on, stop trying and follow Dane on Twitter and Tumblr!

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