The Matrix: Revolutions (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I would by lying if I said that I approached this film with anticipation or optimism.  The third and final installment of The Matrix Trilogy, I expected Revolutions to be just as mind-numbingly bad as its predecessors.  The Matrix was a well made film with some solid concepts, but had very tedious and drawn-out fight sequences; Reloaded was just a mess – so I was not hopeful.  However, I am willing to concede that I was wrong in my predictions for Revolutions.  It’s a film very much in two halves.

The first half appeared to be continuing the pattern of the first two films.  It trudged on with the repetitive action and irritatingly vague riddles in the same vein as the others.  By the point they were sharing incomprehensible statements with ‘The Frenchman’ I was losing the will to watch; by Neo’s conversation with The Oracle (“you know why” ad infinitum) it was more the will to live.  The acting was wooden all round – Hugo Weaving excepted, of course, and one or two others – every sentence delivered in a monotone drone through expressionless eyes, or no eyes at all when they wear those infuriating sunglasses.  In the first half there is no sense of threat.  These machines are digging down, still, and the characters just wander about being dull.  Then, Neo decided to pilot a hovercraft to the surface.  Why?  Because he’s The One – don’t question The One.  The characters tell him he is being ridiculous, and with good reason, but irrational faith in The One wins out and he is allowed to go.  It just didn’t make sense to me.  The only explanation is that “Neo is The One and therefore knows what to do; The Oracle’s veiled riddles told him what he needed to know.”  That’s the sort of plot point which would work in a novel, where you are exposed to the character’s thoughts and ideas, but just falls flat in a film.  Finally, the first half just seems to lack any narrative structure – I remember thinking it felt like it was written by 10 different writers, none of whom had spoken to each other about where the story was going.

Yet… Something changes, half way into the film.  It’s roundabout where the battle for Zion begins – that 20 minute long or so, huge onslaught between the humans and the machines.  Finally, an action scene with actual consequence and interest!  It’s hard to assess why everything from this point on works so much better.  I did consider it might be that the action takes place outside of the Matrix, so there is a real threat, and real things at stake.  But it’s been established that people are in danger within the Matrix… I suppose the characters no longer act like overconfident martial arts trainees and they become more human, more relatable, when thrown into situations which stresses their physical limitations.  One criticism I had for the battle was that the geography of Zion hasn’t been well explained.  Where was this dome in relation to the civilians?  How much threat were they under?  But that’s not a major problem, for once.

The film continues to improve from this point onwards.  The machine city on the surface was well-realised – and then my favourite moment in the entire trilogy, when Neo and Trinity fly above the cloud layer and see the sun and sky for the first time in their lives.  “Beautiful,” is all Trinity can say.  It’s a wonderful touch.  Neo’s confrontation with the machine authority is really, really good, and I enjoyed the design of the machines; they’re so alien, so… organic yet metallic at the same time.  Even the final fight scene between Neo and Smith didn’t irk me for once, because it actually had reason, it actually had purpose, it had been built up to and developed.  And the writing!  It has completely turned around.  Take this speech, gloriously spoken by Weaving, as Neo looks close to defeat:

“Do you believe you’re fighting for something?  For more than your survival?  Can you tell me what it is?  Do you even know?  Is for freedom, or truth?  Perhaps peace?  Could it be for love?  Illusions, Mr Anderson.  Vagaries of perception.  Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose.  And all of them as artificial as The Matrix itself.  Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love.”

Of course Smith would be a scientific materialist.  The philosophy finally works.  His role as a virus within the machine world is really clever, too.  I read an analysis of the trilogy in which it argues that Neo and Smith contrast, Neo being ‘The One’ [only just noticed that’s an anagram of his name] and Smith being ‘The Many’.  I didn’t pick up on that.  This is now, finally, come incredible writing, and confirms my belief that this story would be better told as a novel.  In fact, I think this is the main reason I have been ambivalent towards the trilogy.  The ideas are sound, the philosophy is fascinating – if often badly executed – but it’s too often ruined by the film trying to be a conventional blockbuster.  I’m not saying action films can’t have depth, or films focusing on philosophy can’t have action, but… far too often, here, one is sacrificed for the other, with the result that neither really feels satisfying.  Again, in a novel, that would be less of an issue.

I concede that The Wachowskis are masterful directors.  I knew this already from Cloud Atlas, and here it is confirmed.  The Battle for Zion is one of the best directed battle scenes I have ever watched, even if it did drag slightly.  I read a comment praising the final fight between Neo and Smith for its ‘effortless’ animation of water, and I have to agree.  The only thing which bugged me was the flashing which often occured; first during Neo’s fight with the Smith-possessed human, and secondly during the constant lightning flashes.  My terror of lightning aside, I found it really hard to watch and almost began to develop a headache.  Were they trying to induce epileptic fits?   But yeah, on the whole I was very impressed.

Overall, The Matrix: Revolutions – and, indeed, the entire trilogy – is highly varied.  First half: terrible; second half: actually pretty good.  I really enjoyed the bits which worked, and can almost forgive the bits which didn’t.  I’m a little worried that I have been too harsh – I think I’m finally seeing what everyone else sees in the films.  But I stand by all of the comments I’ve made.  These have been very interesting to review!

Final Rating: 6.5/10

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The Matrix: Realoded (Review)

I’m going to be honest.  I did not get on well with The Matrix.  It was a good film, sure – I could recognise that much – but it was not to my personal taste.  But, if I didn’t like The Matrix, then I positively loathe its first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded.  Directed and written by the Wachowskis and released in 2003, this was a successful and popular sequel to the cult film, though most critics agree that its quality is less than the original.  Unlike the first film, this is neither to my personal taste nor well made.  Sure, it’s directed well and stuff, etc. etc. but, after having seen it all before, this doesn’t alone make the film good.  Why continue watching these films, you may ask?  Largely because a couple of my friends have are really big fans of the franchise, so I would like a full insight into what the fuss is about.  And while I’m here, I might as well get it finished.  So, anyway, here are some brief thoughts.

Firstly, I just simply didn’t really get the plot, or see any reason why I should care.  The machines are digging down to Zion!  The humans bizarrely react by having some kind of orgy-celebration.  They need a key! For, uh, some reason.  Then Neo saves the day because he’s ‘The One’.  Or something along those lines.  Most, if not all, of the plot was explained through a dull excess of expository dialogue, so I really should be following.  My conclusions are that the plot really is that boring and unintelligible, or I’ve stopped caring.  Possibly both.  I generally just felt frustrated that the robots hadn’t slaughtered them all yet and ended it all.

The characters are no more likeable or endearing in this film.  I welcomed Harold Perrineau, who played Link, for providing one of the few characters in the film who actually acts like a human being, albeit a clichéd one at that (I wonder if the irony was intentional).  Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and Niobe might as well have been machines themselves – although that would possibly be an insult towards the talents of Hugo Weaving, whose performance as Agent Smith was one of the few things which kept the film watchable.  Pity he was wasted in drawn out, excruciatingly tedious action sequences in which he got beaten up and then the characters escaped, presumably deciding they too had had enough.

In terms of structure, it felt all over the place.  Granted, I couldn’t distinguish between ‘scenes where dull people in sunglasses talk in riddles trying to sound smart’, nor ‘scenes where they fight with martial arts for no apparent reason’.  The chase on the motorway is the exception, which was a piece of masterful direction, but even that just went on and on.  Another scene I genuinely did enjoy was when Neo met the creator of the Matrix, who explained – correct me if I’m wrong – that the human insurrection is not only permitted, but ensured by the machines, and that by giving people a choice to stay in the matrix or not is the solution for stability.  I think Neo’s cop-out ‘One’ powers are also the work of the machines.  That was a genuinely engaging twist.

But overall, I’m afraid, I really, really did not like this film.

Final rating: 3/10
(+1 for Hugo Weaving, +1 for Neo’s fabulous cloak and +1 for occasional displays of genius direction).
[Yes, that is a worse result than any four of the Twilight books.  In fact, it’s the worst result I’ve yet to give on this blog].

Cloud Atlas [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Where to begin?  I honestly don’t know how to review this film – I suspect, much like the book was claimed to be “unfilmable”, this unfilmable film is “unreviewable.”  But I’ll take a stab at it anyway.  I first stumbled across the film when I happened to watch the trailer, and instantly fell in love.  I felt inspired and awe-struck by the trailer alone, and I knew that this is a film I had to see.  I hoped it would not let me down.  The original novel was written by David Mitchell, an author whose work I know of shamefully little.  The film is directed by the Wachowski Siblings – whose most famous work, The Matrix, I’ve recently had an ambivalent encounter with – and Tom Tkywer.  At nearly 3 hours long, this film is not for the faint-hearted.

Within the first five minutes we witness the old, scarred Zachry speaking in a strange, futuristic dialect, journalist Luisa Ray travelling to a nuclear power plant to uncover a conspiracy, Timothy Cavendish writing on his typewriter, Robert Frobisher loading a pistol into his mouth, Adam Ewing seeking out Dr. Henry Goose, and the final interview of the clone Sonmi-451.  The film doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cloud Atlas can be described as 6 separate stories woven together, although the more you watch the more it comes to resemble one story with 6 differing facets:

  1. 1849:  On the South Pacific Ocean, after visiting a slave plantation on the Chatham Islands, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) helps a self-freed slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), while his doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), slowly poisons him to steal his possessions.  Upon arriving home, he joins an abolitionist movement.
  2. 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), inspired by Ewing’s journal, helps musician Vivyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his compositions, culminating in the composition of the Cloud Atlas Sextet.  During this time he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
  3. 1973: Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an older Sixsmith, who now works as nuclear physicist.  After Sixsmith’s death, she works with Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the conspiracy to allow the nuclear reactors to fail.  She is driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of Frobisher, whose letters she reads.
  4. 2012: Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), fleeing from gangsters to whom he owes money, is tricked into a militant nursing home by his brother, Denholme (James D’Arcy).  He then escapes.  His work as a publisher continues when he receives a manuscript based on Rey’s life, and also writes about his own story.
  5. 2144: In the dystopian city of Neo-Seoul, South Korea, the clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and enters a resistance movement.  A film based on Cavendish’s adventure helps to cement her beliefs.  However the rebellion fails and Sonmi-451 is executed.
  6. 2321: In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society.  Plagued by cannibals from another tribe, the people look towards their Goddess, Sonmi, for guidance.  When the technologically advanced Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives, Zachry takes her to Sonmi’s temple, but they return to find his tribe has been wiped out.

I truly admire the way in which the action cuts between characters and the six time periods with such ease, finding links to tie certain sections of the stories together.  For example, one moment Autua is balancing across the ship’s yard avoiding gunshots, and then the film cuts to Sonmi and Hae-Joo running across a walkway between buildings over the city, avoiding lasershots.  Both Luisa and Timothy are chased by Hugo Weaving’s characters in a sequence from different stories edited together.  When Sonmi discovers the grim fate of every clone, Zachry simultaneously discovers that his village has been massacred.  When Adam and his wife Tilda decide to join the abolitionist movement, Tilda’s father’s speech, in which he claims the movement is destined to end in failure, is interspersed with shots of Sonmi’s execution.

As I described in the summary, events in one story directly impact another.  As well-crafted as these initial connections are, the further you delve into the story you discover the subtler hints.  The comet birthmark is one, although I believe, in the novel, this is supposed to indicate one character living again and again in different lives, which the film chose to change and do by actor – leaving the birthmark rather redundant.  My favourites are the small connections, such as Vivyan’s house eventually becoming the care home Timothy (both played by Broadbent) is confined within.  While Nurse Noakes threatens to make Timothy eat soap, the clones in Neo-Seoul are fed a substance called soap, which it’s later revealed is protein recycled from former clones.  There is also, arguably, a development of the soul for each character: Hanks’ characters begin as scheming, selfish souls but develop into humble heroes.  Broadbent’s follow a similar pattern.  Meanwhile, Berry’s start off as persecuted characters – first as a Moriori slave and then a Jew in the 1930s – but develops into an independent journalist until finally becoming the most powerful character in the period as Meronym.  I say arguably because I don’t think these were Mitchell’s original intentions, and is merely an interpretation.  But, of course, the nature of Cloud Atlas leaves it open to so many interpretations.

Paradoxically, it is these connections between characters and times which was one of my favourite and least favourite aspects of the film.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the links come together, but I felt it could have gone further with them.  At the film’s end I was left wondering what the overall point and message had been.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw.  Maybe, being so used to linear plots, I feel as there needs to be an overarching idea where the film could work perfectly well without one.

One part of the film done absolutely perfectly was the acting, make-up and costumes which  successfully disguised the actors in their repetitions across the 6 stories.  Half of the characters I didn’t realise were played by recurring actors until afterwards, such as Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs.  It is a crime that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar.  I was particularly  impressed when actors played a character of a different gender and race to their own – particularly Hae-Joo and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (which is perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film).  While these changes were never 100% convincing, I don’t think they were supposed to be – the audience is supposed to understand that this is the same person in a different life.  I cannot praise this aspect of the film highly enough.

Another thing I loved about the film – something which probably hasn’t been mentioned by critics much – is the dialogue.  Quite simply, it all felt so real.  This is down to both the writing and the acting.  When characters spoke to each other, I believed they were having a spontaneous conversation rather than performing in a well-rehearsed scene.  Compare the dialogue here to the forced conversations in Shetland – for instance – and there’s really no contest.  Best of all, I was stunned to discover that, in the post-apocalyptic world, I was not being dense by misunderstanding the characters but they were actually speaking in a futuristic dialect.  Dialects and languages are complex things which evolve staggeringly quickly when isolated from the rest of the world, but to artificially create one is beyond impressive; it’s utter genius.  It appears to be an extension of Southern US dialects, where certain beats of speech are given further emphasis and twangs.  Artificial idioms and figures-of-speech are thrown in, making the dialect even more realistic.  Read these excerpts:

  • “Yоur аugurіn’ соmе truе, Αbbеѕѕ. Βrоkе brіdgе, јuѕt lіkе yоu ѕаy. Μеrоnym were thеrе, yibberin’ hеr аbout trekіn’ uр Μаunа Ѕоl. Why does this Ρrеѕсіеnt wоmаn соmе сurѕіn’ and twіѕtіn’ up my lіfе?”
  • “Fееlіn’ I оwnin’ yоu a real соwtow, fоr іnvаdіn’ yоur hоuѕе wіth nо ѕаyѕо. Τruе ѕоrryѕоmе… Ѕо, yоu mіndіn’ а ѕtrаngеr querin’ аbоut yоur troddin’?”

It has a poetic effect – almost Shakespearean.  The irony being that if someone spoke like this today they would be lambasted for mutilating the English language with rotten colloquialisms.  I found the dialect a beauty to listen to, though I can appreciate that other viewers would become irritated at the difficulties of understanding the words.

There’s much more I could say about Cloud Atlas, but the review has to end at some point.  Perhaps in another life I will review it differently.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative, thought-provoking films I have ever seen.  Watching it is an experience.  I have the opportunity to go see it again in a cinema but I don’t think my brain could cope with watching it from start to finish, all in one go, again.  It simply isn’t big enough.  But what I will say is that I feelin’ this move-move is mighty good, and that’s a tru-tru.

Final Rating: 10/10

The Matrix (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Matrix (1999) is one of those cult films which enjoys massive popularity and is frequently parodied or referenced to the extent that even if, like me, you are slow on getting around to watching it, you will know the basic premise and concepts of the film.  The images I had in mind were of immersive, frantic worlds based on green numbers and revolutionary action sequences involving that ‘slow motion floaty-through-the-air thing. (My interest in film making is a bit amateur…)  Directed by the Wachowski Siblings, I had very high expectations.

The film starts off with an action sequence as Trinity, armed with seeming superpowers, escapes from mysterious authorities.  This establishes the action-orientated tone of the film which, for the time being, I enjoyed.  The narrative then cuts to Neo in an initially confusing sequence of events as he becomes embroiled in what appears to be various conspiracies.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where, on the phone to the elusive Morphius, Neo must escape from his high-rise office block only to submit himself to the authorities.  However these sequences are detriment to the idea that Neo’s life takes place within a virtual reality.  When the final reveal comes it lacks the impact it could have had if Neo’s life in the false reality had been sufficiently developed.  That said, the reveal alone was expertly handled, in a gloriously horrific scene where Neo wakes in a luminescent bath of fluids, his body punctured with metal tubes, suspended in a darkened cavern surveyed by superior technology.  I felt physically uncomfortable and terrified watching this, making it one of the most successful scenes of the film and quite possibly my favourite.

The central concept behind the film, that humanity and artificial intelligence went to war and humanity lost, becoming enslaved as a use for fuel for the machines, is fascinating and chilling.  It also bears striking similarities to a script I wrote three years ago, which is quite unnerving.  The concept is both ‘shown’ and ‘told’ to the viewer in a narrated sequence which works effectively.

It’s at this point, however, that the film declined.  The plot seemed to dissolve in favour of mindless action scenes.  It developed a bizarre obsession with Eastern martial arts as a means of fighting the AI forces policing the reality.  And guns.  Lots of guns.  Too many guns.  Although I liked the idea of ‘downloading’ these abilities to the characters, even if I’m not entirely convinced it made any sense.  Slipping in and out of the virtual reality and the action which ensued did create tension, although more could have been made of the concept.  It’s difficult to explain, but I felt the false world was not clearly defined.  Perhaps that’s intentional, but having seen similar ideas done (Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library and the film Inception, to name a couple) The Matrix’s world pales in terms of development.

After the convoluted and, ultimately, pointless Oracle, and the more effective betrayal from Cypher as he kills half of the resistance team in a genuinely shocking series of events, the film becomes, basically, a shoot-out.  The team leader, Morphius, has been kidnapped and Neo decided to launch a full-on assault of The Matrix to rescue him.  It’s clearly a suicide mission and, for that reason, nobody has ever tried anything like it before, which Neo somehow takes as proof he’ll be successful.  I know the action scenes are one of the main selling points of the film and I’ll concede that they are brilliantly executed – there’s just far too many of them!  My only memories of 20 minutes of the film consist of shooting, punching, escaping in a helicopter, more shooting, more punching, various action shots, running, shooting, etc. etc…

The climax of the film is a final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith, during which Neo is killed.  At this point, I was hooked once again.  Did they really have the bravery to kill off the protagonist, I wondered.  Was this the natural extension of the film’s bleakness? No.  Which is fine, if there’s been a good reason behind it.  Instead, due to some nonsensical prophecy from the Oracle, Neo is “the one” and can somehow defy death.  Okay.  The words deus ex machina spring to mind – readers of recent reviews will know this is a technique I absolutely loathe.  And a romantic subplot is thrown in from out of nowhere, just ’cause.

The film was very well directed, however, and it is from the direction that I can understand from where the film has derived such praise.  I abandoned my desire to pursue a film-making career a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t go into exactly why The Matrix was a revolutionary movie at the time, but I think the fact the effects still stand up well today, 14 years on, in this age of CGI mania, is a testament to the direction.  The Wachowskis do really well to create the bleak tone – is ‘grimy’ the right word?  Or ‘gritty’.  It’s not to my personal taste – along with the excess of guns and sunglasses, which have ruined many a film for me – but I can see it’s done with success.

The acting was, overall, pretty good.  Hugo Weaving’s excellent performance as Agent Smith is the only role which particularly stood out to me, and perhaps Jon Pantoliano as Cypher, but there were no lacklustre performances either.

The Matrix makes up the first film in a trilogy, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge it alone.  Yet, having watched a trailer for the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded, which involves more shooting, more punching, more running about and beating up poor Smith, I feel no desire to watch it.  And I generally feel compelled to finish any story I’ve begun.  I’ll certainly watch it if the opportunity is thrust upon me, but I feel no desire to seek it out myself.  Overall, although there is a lot enjoy in The Matrix and much to marvel at, I was, on the whole, disappointed.  Maybe my expectations were just too high.

Final Rating: 7/10