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 [Novel] Analysis

Contains spoilers.

Having watched the film of Cloud Atlas, and loving it, I decided I had to read the book, originally published in 2004 and written by David Mitchell.  I don’t think I’ll write a ‘proper’ review, on the basis that the novel is very similar to the film, but there are still interesting points to discuss and this may well end up morphing into a review of sorts.

The most apparent aspect of the book is the sheer skill of Mitchell’s writing.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.  Each of the six stories within the novel are told in a different style and in a different genre.  You have:

  1. Narrative in the form of fictional journals.
  2. Narrative in the form of fictional letters.
  3. Narrative in the form of a fictional novel first draft – a novel within a novel.
  4. Narrative in the form of an autobiography.
  5. Narrative in the form of an interview transcript.
  6. Narrative in the form of spoken word.

I didn’t quite get this from the film, but I think each section is supposed to be real documents/records – very much harkening back to the 19th century style of writing fiction as fact.  It is complete genius.  Mitchell gets into the head of each character, creating wildly different personas: from the modest and likeable Adam Ewing to the narcissistic and delusional Robert Frobisher, gutsy Luisa Rey to pernickety Timothy Cavendish, and revolutionary Sonmi-451 to troubled Zachry.  The variety of vibrant personalities, literally dozens of them, which are stacked into the novel is astonishing.  The idea of each person being real beyond the confines of the novel, of their work really existing, is reinforced through their ripples into other stories; when Robert finds Adam’s journal, I almost believe it to be real.  Tiny details like The Prophetess casually maintained in the background in San Francisco, 100 years after Adam travelled on it; or Timothy receiving a draft of The First Luisa Rey Mystery – it’s just brilliantly done.

If I had to suggest a criticism for the novel, which would not be easily done, it’d be that some of these connections between characters are rather superficial.  The connections between characters are signified by the comet birthmark, and occasional déja vu, but otherwise the reincarnation aspect is a little flimsy (more on that later).  One of the ideas that most attracted me to the film was the idea of characters’ influences rippling through time to impact the lives of future people, to inspire revolutions, etc.  This is not the case with the novel.  Adam’s Pacific Voyage can only loosely really have a direct impact upon Luisa, or Sonmi’s revolution, and has no literal impact whatsoever upon Zachry on the ‘Ha-Why’.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are far subtler links, such as, going back to Adam, his rescue from Henry’s poisoning coming when they reach Hawaii; after The Fall, one of the final refuges of civilisation is on the same island.  Oh!  And, in the dystopia, Hawaii is where fabricants are told they’ll go for ‘exultation’.  Hawaii symbolises salvation.  I have only this moment realised that – another testament to the layers upon layers of depth this novel has.  Though, the fact that Hawaii falls to barbarianism at the end of chapter 6 suggests salvation does not truly exist.  Gosh, analysing this novel is fun.

Adding to that idea, the novel’s greatest links are thematic in nature.  The theme of conflict between the weak and strong, “the weak are meat, the strong do eat“, recurs again and again (The Maori invasion of the Moriori, Henry’s poisoning of Adam, Vivyan’s power over Robert, the power of corpocracy to subjugate a population first seen in 1973 and again in Neo-Seoul, Timothy’s incarceration in the Aurora House and then, back to savagery, the cannibal Kona terrorising Hawaii).  Belief also permeates through the pages: at the beginning, Christianity is being spread throughout the globe as ancient Polynesian religions in the Pacific are wiped out; by the far future Christianity is a long-lost myth nobody can remember, and has been replaced by a belief in Sonmi and other Gods.  This is chronologically foreshadowed when The Prophetess stops at the island of Raiatea, and the theory is given that all religions will eventually fail.  After doing some research, I was also alerted to the theme of ascent and descent: both Adam and Zachry begin their journeys after climbing a mountain; Autua earns a place on the The Prophetess after climbing the sails; Robert falls in love after climbing a tower with Eva, and his downfall occurs progressively after he returns to the ground; both Luisa and Sonmi experience a great fall whilst travelling in a Ford, which indicates the beginning of violence in their stories; Felix inch is killed by Dermot by being thrown off a building; the process of awakening within Frabricants is called ‘ascension’, and Sonmi must literally ascend an elevator to escape from Papa Song’s; and the collapse of civilisation is termed ‘The Fall’.  Humanity is a species on a rollercoaster, the book seems to scream.

The brilliant characters, backstories and historical settings Mitchell creates are aided by his mastery over language.  Each of the six stories are written differently: the Pacific Journal is written very archaically, as would be expected for the 19th century, with great circumlocutions and vast descriptions, making this a literary analyst’s goldmine.  Robert’s letters are much swifter, often using sentenced excluding pronouncs and beginning with verbs (so, stuff like: “Thought I’d go down to the shops.  Didn’t like them one bit.  Found Vivyan intolerable when I returned) which is a realistic way for someone to write informal letters.  Robert also writes using much musical imagery and with many exaggerations, creating a clear personality for the character.  Half Lives is written in the present tense and, as Timothy comments, is divided into small, serialised chapters, making this a very distinct genre and allowing the action to be swift.  Timothy’s autobiographical writing moves to and fro between the present and the past, making references to the reader here and there as he goes.  Sonmi’s story is told in interview format, which is a neat way of allowing small details to be explained and also of determining society’s attitudes through comments the interviewer makes.  Language begins to change here, with ‘ex’ always becoming ‘x’ – so, ‘xcitement’ and ‘xcercise’ – and finally, by Zachry’s time, it’s just gone mad.  I commented on the future dialect in the movie, which was bravely kept in, but the novel was staggeringly well-developed on this front, with a good 80 pages written in it.  To quote a random example:

   “Yay, but what’d we do?  My thinkin’ was stormin’n’fearing’. The Valleys is raided’n’burning’, prob’ly … an’ if Hilo ain’t fallen yet, it’ll fall soon…
My friend jus’ tended my wounds’n’hurtin’s with bandagin’s’n’stuff then raised a cup’n’med’sun stone to my lips.  This’ll help fix your busted body, Zachry.  Shut up your yibberin’ an’ sleep now.”

You can’t fail to be awed by the level of detail in this.  Typing that, it’s incredibly difficult even to transcribe, let alone create and write consistently for 80 pages.  I still maintain this is Cloud Atlas‘ finest feature.

The central idea of Cloud Atlas appears to be reincarnation, though this is only symbolic at most.  Mitchell explained:

“Literally all of the main characters, except one [Zachry], are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature.  The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
(shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)

I very much like this explanation, though it doesn’t immediately come across from watching the film.  I think it would be futile to examine the progression of the birthmarked character through the novel, because any connections would be purely accidental on Mitchell’s part.  As he explains, the reincarnation is simply a loose device to make his case for human nature’s consistency throughout the ages.  It is interesting to compare the film’s take to the novel, which had a very deliberately different interpretation.  Reincarnation was signified by the recurring actors, so it would go: Henry => hotel clerk => Isaac => Dermot => an actor for Timothy => Zachry; slave => Jocasta => Luisa => Meronym; Hugo Weaving always played the villain; etc.  And the transition of the soul would go along the lines of: Tom Hank’s characters begin misguided and villainous, but redemption begins with Isaac’s betrayal at Swannekke and he ends as a hero; Halle Berry’s characters begin powerless, first as a slave and then a Jew fleeing persecution, but through Luisa she challenges men’s sexist views on women and, by the time of Meronym, has the most power of any character.  I think this is quite a weak and flimsy interpretation of reincarnation, personally, as what the filmmakers chose to do was limited by the source material.  An ambitious effort, certainly.

Finally, despite the film being very loyal to the novel, there are some quite large differences.  Large sections on the Moriori backstory were cut and the themes of religion; Eva was cut and, in the novel, Robert never shoots Vivyan, quite largely changing the story; Sonmi’s story is highly changed, as she spends a covertly educating herself at a university and it is eventually revealed that Union was a conspiracy by the corpocracy to destroy any public support for abolitionism; and Catkin doesn’t escape Hawaii in the novel.  I can understand why each of these decisions were made in scripting the film, and wouldn’t criticise any of them.

Overall, Cloud Atlas has to be one of the best books I have ever read.  It tops my list of books read in 2013, currently numbering 9 (though, in fairness, the Twilight saga takes up 4 of them).  I feel compelled to read more of David Mitchell’s books, though few libraries seem to have them, annoyingly.  And I see he’s writing another novel now about the ‘stuff between life and death’, which sounds very promising indeed.

Final rating (if I had to give one): 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