Sunday, December 7, 2003

You spin me right round, baby, right round

by Suw on December 7, 2003

The fact that it's taken me a week to get round to writing down my thoughts about Matrix: Revolutions should give you some inkling of how underwhelmed I was by it. Even sitting there at the IMAX, watching it on a huge screen that should make me feel like I'm part of the action, I just found I couldn't get into it, I couldn't get emotionally involved.

The problem was, I think, that I couldn't relate to the characters anymore – they'd become parodies of themselves and there's just no way I could invest any heart in it. Neo, well, we know Neo's pretty much invincible by the end of the Reloaded, so there's not much in the way of tension to be gained from threats to Neo's life. Trinity's more vulnerable, but her role appears now to be nothing more than someone to look pretty (well, I actually thought she looked a bit emaciated, myself) and say 'Goddamnit' all the time.

Actually, just as an aside, what is it with the W. Bros. and the word 'goddamnit'? It's peppered throughout Revolutions – every character has at least one 'goddamnit', although none say the word with any sort of panache or aplomb. Instead it sort of slips out like a vaguely embarrassing utterance that really ought to have been a 'fuck' or a 'shit' or even a 'bugger', although maybe that's straying into rather too British territory for an American film. 'Goddamnit' is just too wuss-ish for an action flick. It's the one thing that bugged me about the original Matrix – Trinity's total inability to convey any sort of real frustration, distress or anger via that particular bit of dialogue.

But yes, back to Revolutions and Trinity. Even when she dies, one is left with the feeling that it's no great loss – it doesn't really affect the plot at all. Her death should have either been some sort of huge sacrifice so that Neo could continue, or it should have affected Neo's path in some significant way. As it is, she get meaninglessly skewered as the ship crashes and a few blubs later Neo's off and running again. Big deal. (Although I did cry when Trinity died, but I feel I should point out that I cried at the bit in Wall Street when Charlie Sheen gets hauled off by the cops, and will in general cry at anything, so me crying is no indication of anything.)

I think one of the bigger flaws in this film is that it has no real plot to speak of, it doesn't tie up the loose ends left from Reloaded, nor does it build on the subplots set up then. Take the Architect for example. All that big long speech bigging up the decision that Neo has to make between saving Trinity but ending all humanity or saving Zion and letting Trinity die, and what impact does Neo's choice to save Trinity have on the plot of Revolutions? None whatsoever. Where were the repercussions of his choice? Where was the implementation of the threat to wipe out every human currently attached to the Matrix?

One thing you learn around small children: Never make threats you can't or won't carry out. The Architect would have done well to heed that lesson.

Admittedly, Bane was developed a little more, but not enough. OK, so Bane is Smith, his conscious having been infected by Smith when he gooed him in the Matrix. Although there's the fight scene where Bane blinds Neo, that particular sub-plot is much underused. They could have really ramped up the tension there to create a serious real-world threat to Neo's safety, but instead they blow it all in just a few scenes.

I think that the big Neo battle scene should have been between Neo and Smith-as-Bane in the real world, not that banal episode of fisticuffs in the Matrix. With Neo fighting for his and Zion's survival in the real world, you would have had a much stronger fear for his life. Neo can still be killed in the real world, can still suffer, so a really big fight between him and Smith-as-Bane, something upon which hinged the survival of all humanity, that would have been a good climax.

Instead, you get a pathetically ridiculous scrap between Neo and Smith in the Matrix itself. Smith has taken over the Matrix, something that again the W. Bros fail to capitalise on. How does the Matrix change as Smith slowly takes over? What is the reaction of the other, more powerful programmes such as the Oracle, the Architect or the Merovingian. Are they scared of Smith? Are they blasé and uncaring? Smith can obviously harm them, as he does goo the Oracle eventually, but what of the others? And is he capable of corrupting the Source, the kernel of code at the centre of the Matrix? If he can get into the Source, what does that mean for the rest of humanity, the people still stuck in the Matrix? What would Smith do with them all? Would he kill them all, even though the machines need them for power?

That aspect of the situation remains completely unexplored, and the film is weaker for it.

And as for the stupid battle scene… well, as I was watching Neo and Smith have at each other, I kept thinking, 'Oh no, it looks like something out of Harry Potter'. Considering that the Quiddich match in the first Potter movie was a really horrible piece of CGI, it's not a complement to Revolutions that I was reminded so strongly of it. It was just how Neo and Smith moved as they spiralled up into the sky and did all that Superman crap, it sucked.

As for the attack on Zion, on the whole that was too confusing. I quite liked some of it, the big roboty exoskeleton thingies, but it was definitely a case of too much happening on screen at once. After a while it became like watching someone else play Doom.

There are saving graces to those scenes though, such as how Zee and her pal managed to figure out how to disable the big drill thing, but that was the only bit of human ingenuity shown in the entire film. It needed more of that, more of people actually thinking things through and using their noggins a bit.

And that, to my mind, is the essence of what's wrong with Reloaded and Revolutions. In Reloaded, Neo and the Scooby Gang are led by the nose by the Oracle, the Merovingian and the Architect. They are told where to go and what to do, and they do as they are told, yet they achieve nothing. Revolutions should have been Neo reacting against that and doing something intelligent. Instead, he just faffs about, then pops off to the big Machine City for a wee chat with the Amorphous Face.

Now, I'm all for negotiation and diplomatic resolutions to difficult situations, but I did feel that that particular plotline came out of nowhere. Had Neo fought his way back into the Matrix and negotiated with the Architect himself, then that would have been logical, or if there was some sort of build up to this new machine entity, but it was all just a bit too convenient for me.

Where, in these two films, was the self-determination, the thought, the strategy, the cunning, the guile? Where were the ingenious solutions, the clever hacks, the calculated risks?

Matrix was great because it had layers. You could delve deeply into the symbology of it if you wanted or you could watch it just as a great action film. I fear that Reloaded and Revolutions fail on both of those levels. They're too badly thought through to succeed, either as explorations of philosophical concepts or as big shoot-em-ups.

I suspect that what happened was that the W. Bros. had years of planning and thinking and script development under their belt before Matrix got the greenlight. When that turned out to be a bit of a hit, suddenly they had all these other ideas for two sequels, but not enough time to fully explore and develop them before they had to go into production. So you end up with an ill-considered and badly written script, and a plot with more holes in than your average colander.

Either Reloaded and Revolutions should have been one film, with the crappy bits cut out (i.e. trim the fight scenes by half, ditch the Architect and get the Merovingian to shut the fuck up shortly after his long and amusing French curse); or they should have made the protagonists more active, fully developed the sub-plots, cut out the crappy bits (i.e. ditto), and given a lot more consideration to the philosophical questions asked in the original and what their implications are for the sequels. Give the script a good going over: fill in all the holes; take out all the goddamnits; tighten up the fight scenes to the bare essentials; take out the crappy Harry Potter moments.

Maybe then they would have been worthy sequels to what was a fantastic original.

My expectations for Reloaded were pretty low, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. However, the redemption of the crappier bits in Reloaded hung entirely on Revolutions, and although I had marshalled and managed my expectations to an ever greater degree before going up to Leeds to see it, I was somewhat disappointed that it didn’t rise to the challenge.

I could pick further holes in Revolutions, such as the pointless fight in the Merovingian's club, or the irritating 'Mobil Avenue' scenes, but I think you've already got the gist of my opinions and I don't really feel the need to explore them in more detail at this juncture.

Yet, Revolutions isn't a bad film, per se. It has some good bits and a lot of mediocre bits, but at least there are very few really bad bits. However, it is a disappointment. The film world was ripe for a really good scifi trilogy, and The Matrix promised us that. Parts 2 and 3 could have been something really special, they could have been spectacular, they could have been mindblowing. Instead, we've one great film, one good film, and one kinda ok-ish film. What a shame.

I will, though, undoubtedly buy the Reloaded and Revolutions DVDs when they've gone down in price a bit, if only to study an excellent example of how not to write a great scifi script.

Meantime, let us just hope that although the door has been left open for Matrix 4, the W. Bros. choose not to step through it.

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The Monmouth Ash

by Suw on December 7, 2003

Just watched the last episode of Charles II – The Power and the Passion. One thing the BBC does do very well is period drama, and you don't come much more dramatic than the reign of Charles II. The power struggles between the King and the treacherous Buckingham; the conniving and scheming Barbara Villiers; the easily lead and slightly stupid Monmouth.

Of course, it helps if your King is played by the delectable Rufus Sewell, but the script was well written and the production values lush, yet intimate. Where most costume dramas leave me cold, this just left me wanting more.

As a by the by, there's a pub in Verwood where we're moving to called The Monmouth Ash and the story goes that when James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Charles II's eldest bastard son, returned to England to take part in an uprising against James II, he was captured beneath an ash tree.

I doubt that anyone knows exactly where that tree was, but I suspect it was very near Monmouth Ash Farm, which is just up on the heath here. I've been told, although I don't remember when or who by, that the exact tree is on the hill that I can see from my window and up which I have walked more than once, it being only the other side of the back field and nearby to Monmouth Ash Farm.

All the history accounts say is that it was 'near Ringwood in Hampshire', which is indeed an good description of this place, although it hardly pins down the location.

I find it interesting that our local oral history, something I’d always thought to be inherently unstable and inaccurate, should turn out to be potentially so near the mark. That history is even more fascinating now that I know a little more about who Monmouth was, and why he should have been rising up against James II in the first place.

Still, I find myself in sympathy with Charles II. He seemed to me to have done the best he could do in the face of unstinting deceit and betrayal, and his commitment to the cause of religious ‘toleration’ was something that many people now would do well to emulate.

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