The Matrix: The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Coming only six months after The Matrix Reloaded premiered to record profits and mixed reactions, The Matrix Revolutions seemed doomed from the get-go. This was largely related to the second film’s subversion of the hero’s journey narrative and cliffhanger ending, which put intense pressure on this sequel to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, However, the ending to The Matrix series could not course-correct to the reactions to its predecessor, as it was filmed back-to-back with Reloaded and locked in from the moment production ended, over a year before the actual release. So like the Star Wars prequels before it or the final seasons of Game of Thrones more recently, The Matrix Revolutions had the deck stacked against it, prey to a fanbase that wouldn’t accept anything but the most calculated and hollow endorsement of their own perspective as fans. Suffice to say, The Matrix Revolutions is not what people expected, nor is it the grand success that The Matrix is, but it’s still a fascinating film. It’s not necessarily satisfying as a concluding statement, but it’s thematically-rich, largely because of its refusal to provide a conventional ending, instead delving into the cyclical nature of the series and the world it created.
Perhaps people misread the title from the moment it was announced, thinking it portended “revolution”—as in armed strife and battle, which is present, to be sure—instead of “revolutions”—as in, repetitions and cycles, a never-ending karmic journey that we enter into and out of, but can never fully escape or conclude. The lack of definitive resolution was promised in the title, but viewers didn’t pay much attention.
Picking up right where The Matrix Reloaded left off, The Matrix Revolutions centres on the defense of Zion from the machine army and Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) journey to the Machine City to attempt to end the war between humans and machines. After a brief opening where Trinity, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and the Oracle’s guardian, Seraph (Collin Chou), take on the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) to secure Neo’s release from limbo, Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus part ways. Neo and Trinity head to the Machine City—the Source—to confront Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and secure peace with the machines, while Morpheus and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) head back to Zion to help in the defense of the city.
Like in other blockbusters such as Star Wars and the Harry Potter series, The Matrix series operates best when its core trio is together, but The Matrix Revolutions breaks up that character trinity almost from the outset. In fact, it almost entirely ignores Morpheus as a character, forcing him to play second-fiddle to Niobe on the return to Zion and rarely exploring the crisis of faith he’s having as a character. For a character who looms so largely in the first film and still commands a significant amount of narrative and thematic attention in the second film, it’s disappointing that Morpheus is essentially ignored in the third film. Following the failure of the prophecy in The Matrix Reloaded, Morpheus is a broken man, proven to have dedicated his life to a faith system he didn’t understand. And yet, The Matrix Revolutions never takes a moment to explore this breakdown. The ticking clock element of its narrative won’t allow it the breather that’d let us understand what his failures have done to him as a person. Thus, in terms of character, there’s something lacking in how The Matrix Revolutions doesn’t provide closure for our core trio, and Morpheus in particular.
There are other aspects of the film that are also not as successful as the films that come before it. The recasting of the Oracle, for instance, was necessitated by Gloria Foster’s death in September of 2001, after she’d filmed her parts for The Matrix Reloaded, but prior to the scenes for The Matrix Revolutions. But it’s a disappointing transition, especially considering that having a new, elderly black woman (Mary Alice) play the Oracle proves to make the character a form of the Magical Negro instead of a savvy decision in casting. Other moments in the film veer dangerously close to camp, especially any scenes having to do with Agent Smith, who accrues more emotions the more individuals he infects within the Matrix—his laugh after consuming the Oracle is straight out of a 1930s horror movie—and Bane (Ian Bliss), whom Smith controls in the real world. Ian Bliss may play a good facsimile of Hugo Weaving in his moments as Bane, but his lines are almost parodical, repeating speech patterns and talking points from the first film as if he’s baiting Neo to recognize him for who or what he is.
Luckily, there is much more that does work in terms of pure narrative, especially the decisions to kill Neo and Trinity. Back in 2003, Trinity’s death after crashing in the Machine City seemed like an anticlimax, especially coming after the miraculous way that Neo saves her in the climax of The Matrix Reloaded. But the death here is fitting, not only because it sends Neo out to his final confrontation alone, but because it finally allows Trinity a measure of peace. There are several scenes in Reloaded and Revolutions that focus on Trinity’s willingness to die for Neo. However, in the climax of Reloaded, Neo refuses to let Trinity die, essentially robbing her of her agency. Here, she finally gets to sacrifice herself for him, ultimately proving her love for him, but also fulfilling her own prophecy. If the spectacular finale of Reloaded that should’ve ended with Trinity’s death has Neo save her from the brink, it’s fitting that Trinity’s actual death is subdued, a quiet moment that emphasizes the bond between these two lovers. It’s a touching scene and a relatable, human one in a film that often veers towards the abstract and inhuman.
Neo’s death is even more meaningful, thematically and narratively, but the scenes that come before it are also fascinating, furthering the messianic imagery from the first two films, while extending them in ways both classical and modern. For instance, after Bane blinds Neo during a fight aboard the Logos, we learn that Neo is still capable of second sight, able to see the machines even if his actual eyesight is gone. He defeats Bane and later can chart a course to the Machine City, further proof of his miraculous powers. The blind messiah is a common trope in storytelling over the centuries. If we think back to Sophocles’ plays about Oedipus, not only is the prophet Tiresias blind, which grants him otherworldly wisdom and prophecy, but Oedipus also blinds himself after discovering the truth about his parents. Only once he’s robbed of eyesight is he able to comprehend the truth of his circumstances.
The Matrix Revolutions operates much the same way with Neo, although it doesn’t stop with mythic references. In particular, the film draws on Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert’s sequel to Dune, in which Paul Atreides, the messianic emperor of that series, is blinded by a bomb blast, but still able to “see” what is happening around him by aligning his own actions perfectly with his prescient visions of the future, essentially seeing his prophecies play out around him. The way that Neo’s own second sight operates in The Matrix Revolutions is nearly identical to Paul’s in Dune Messiah, in both a narrative sense, as it allows him to carry out his actions despite his physical disability, but also a thematic sense, as it subverts the messagery of heroism that the first film creates and begins the process of self-extinguishing that closes out the film.
Of course, such subversion of the heroic narrative and the characters plays into why The Matrix Revolutions is superficially unsatisfying as a conclusion. It does not satisfy the expectations of the viewer, nor does it play as an easy triumph, with a clear victory and validation of the hero at its centre. At least the film is unambiguously fascinating as a work of action filmmaking, as yet again, the Wachowskis prove themselves savvy filmmakers and maestros of choreography and on-screen violence.
The Matrix Revolutions has fewer action scenes than the previous films, but it devotes a significant amount of time to the action. In the first key action sequence, Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph break into the Merovingian’s complex to force him to release Neo from the Train Station, a limbo program between the Matrix and the Machine World. Before they get into the kink bar where the Merovingian is held up (another example of the Wachowskis’ dedication to depicting LGBT culture), they have to fight through a lobby of guards, which deliberately parallels the famous lobby scene from The Matrix. While this new lobby scene is not as iconic as the original, it is another dazzling example of action filmmaking, with the propulsive mixture of kung-fu acrobatics and gunplay that we’ve come to associate with The Matrix films. Furthermore, it adds a new wrinkle to the familiar, switching up gravity so that the Merovingian’s henchmen can run along the ceiling and fight Trinity and Morpheus while upside down. This scene is a good example of how sequels often operate. It delivers the familiar while amplifying the stakes and adding some novelty to justify the repetition. It’s familiar, but satisfying nonetheless.
The second major action sequence is the machine assault on Zion, the last human city, which is a full-fledge anime mech battle and essentially science-fiction cinema’s answer to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Although The Two Towers had only come out a year earlier and obviously did not influence the filming of the Zion battle in The Matrix Revolutions, it’s impossible not to view the battle in light of Helm’s Deep, which has remained the golden standard of sieges in film and television. As well, there are other parallels that make it impossible to avoid comparison. Like Helm’s Deep, the battle of Zion involves a motley crew defending a fortification against a vastly superior force of inhuman monsters. As well, it also has the heroes simply staving off defeat instead of hoping to secure absolute victory. The humans cannot defeat the machines at Zion. They can simply buy time for the Hammer to arrive and use the EMP to wipe out the machine army, and even that is only a delay in the inevitable, as everything relies on Neo saving the humans elsewhere. It even has civilians hiding within a cave structure, like in Helm’s Deep.
Unlike Helm’s Deep, the battle of Zion is almost entirely unbroken in its presentation, only cutting to Morpheus and Niobe aboard the Hammer throughout its 30-minute runtime. The result is a rousing sequence with unbearable tension, even resorting to a ticking clock sequence near the end, where Kid (Clayton Watson) has to open the gates to let the Hammer enter the dock in time and activate their EMP. The core of the battle splits between two perspectives: Kid and Captain Mifune (Nathaniel Lees), who is essentially an anime character come to life, devoid of any nuance that doesn’t communicate his toughness, but a badass nonetheless, who defends the dock with mechs and Zee (Nona Gaye), who heads through the pipes above the battle to try to blow up the machine drills working their way through Zion. Both sequences recall Aliens with their boots-on-the-ground perspective and the way that both men and women take part in the battle as an unspoken proclamation of gender equality. The sequence is tense, but also thrilling, especially as Captain Mifune takes on the entirely of the machine army that shapes itself into a giant fist in a terrifying demonstration of its hive mind. As I said earlier, the entire battle of Zion is anime come to life.
The final action sequence in The Matrix Revolutions continues the anime aesthetic as it shows Neo battle Agent Smith inside a Smith-infected Matrix. If the battle of Zion plays on the mecha anime of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Wing, the battle between Neo and Agent Smith draws its inspiration from Dragon Ball Z. It’s a superhero battle before superhero films were the dominant force in Hollywood, and a spectacular demonstration of impossible feats on screen. Of course, its greatest impact comes not in the action imagery, which is striking, nonetheless, whether it’s Agent Smith framed against a backdrop of lightning, or Neo and Smith colliding in the air, the force of their impact causing all the water droplets falling in the rain to be swept aside, but in its imagery of repetition and cycles, drawing out the thematic interests of the filmmaking.
At the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect reveals that there have been five previous iterations of the One. Thus, Neo is not the chosen One of all time, but merely one of a sequence. This decision not only subverts the hero narrative of the first film, but it pivots the entire series away from the linear and towards the cyclical. It’s an indication of the Wachowskis’ interest in Eastern religions that they start to incorporate more Buddhist and Hindu concepts into not just the filmmaking, but the world they are creating. Thus, in the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith, the Wachowskis do not position the battle as the culmination of all that has come before, but as a repeat of the battle between Neo and Smith in The Matrix, and as a battle between life and death in general. In key moments, Neo repeats movements from the battle in the subway station at the climax of The Matrix. He begins to understand his place within eternity and repeats the cycles of death and life in order to put an end to the conflict with Smith.
This transition away from the linear towards the cyclical begins before the final battle. It’s embodied in the Train Station sequence, which takes place in a program between the Matrix and the Machine World, where Neo is stranded at the beginning of the film—the station name “Mobil Ave” is simply an anagram for “limbo.” Inside the Train Station, Neo meets a family of programs, who take the form of a kindly Indian family. It turns out that the programs are sending their “daughter” to live inside the Matrix while they return to life in the Machine City. This sequence expands on the notion of machine life that we learn about in The Matrix Reloaded, most notably through the sequences with the Merovingian, but it also begins to explicitly introduce Eastern concepts through the dialogue. The father program, Ramachandra (Bernard White), mentions the notion of karma and Neo asks him if he believes in karma. He responds, “Karma is a word. Like love,” which disputes the notion of real and fake as we’ve come to understand. It puts forward a sense of the true as the personal, and the false as the external—which fits perfectly into the Wachowskis’ beliefs in self-determination and self-discovery.
If the impermanence of reality in The Matrix hints at Buddhist and Hindu concepts of reality, its main focus is on Cartesian dualism, between the true and the false, the real and the simulation. However, the sequels, and especially The Matrix Revolutions, take this concept one step further and posits that all of reality, even the world outside of the Matrix, is immaterial and not necessarily “real”. And by film’s end, Neo has to subsume himself, deny his individuality, and give up his life to escape the cycle, breaking the cycle of the One, and the cycle of samsara, at the same time.
The film furthers this exploration by creating a dualism between Neo and Agent Smith. At one point, the Oracle tells Neo, Smith “is you. Your opposite. Your negative.” He is the yang to Neo’s yin. Not only is this important within the world of the Matrix, where Neo and Smith have powers above and beyond the program itself, but in terms of theme and the film’s interests in subverting linear storytelling. The Wachowskis deliberately position Agent Smith as embodying the linear and the finite vision of the world. For him, “The purpose of life is to end,” and his transformation into an embodiment of death is “Not impossible. [But] Inevitable.” If the human characters increasingly reject the notion of prophecy over the course of the film, Smith takes up the language of prophecy, speaking of his ascent into a super powerful being as a predestined inevitability.
Although in The Matrix, the prophecy of the One promises freedom from bondage, in The Matrix Revolutions, prophecy promises enslavement. The linear is associated with the finite, the limited, and the doomed, while a broader view of the cyclical nature of the world leads to salvation. Agent Smith embodies the first view, Neo the second, and in the end, Neo’s view of the world wins. He not only destroys Smith, but he secures freedom for the humans within the Matrix and peace between the machines and humans. However, he does not force freedom from the Matrix upon everyone. As the final conversation between the Architect and the Oracle makes clear, only humans who want to leave the Matrix will be granted freedom; those who do not wish it will not receive it. This imbues the world with Buddhist meaning, as if the Matrix itself is the cycle of samsara, and nirvana is achieved by those who actively pursue it, not those who passively accept it. So again, Neo becomes a kind of bodhisattva. He has secured the means of freedom for people, but people have to choose it.
As well, Neo’s defeat of Smith is a inward action, not an outward one, again furthering Buddhist messaging. He defeats Smith by subsuming himself, coming to understand his own role in the universe and extinguishing his own identity (by allowing Smith to infect him) in order to defeat the cycle of suffering itself (embodied by Smith). His victory follows the pattern of nirvana; victory is breaking the cycle, not ending it or starting a new one, but escaping it altogether.
It’s no wonder that such thematic messaging was disappointing to casual fans of the series. But it fits into the tripartite vision for the series, with the first film representing life, the second love, and the third death. Of course death is the least satisfying of the three, but it’s also a necessary part of the cycle, and a fitting theme for a film concluding a popular series.
As well, in The Matrix Revolutions everything comes back to personal choice, which brings the series full circle as the key moment in any of these films is Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix. Neo chooses to let Agent Smith infect him, thereby destroying Smith, just as Trinity chooses go with Neo to the Machine City and die, and just as Morpheus chooses to walk out into the machine swarm in Zion to prove the war is over. Salvation from the Matrix is there for those who choose it, but they can only choose it if they know themselves and take hold of the truth within them.
Destiny and salvation is rooted in the personal, not the general, which is why, even as The Matrix Revolutions subverts prophecy and speaks against absolutes, such as the One, it puts evermore faith in individuals. For instance, it’s important that when both Morpheus and Niobe discuss their struggles with faith in the film, they speak of trust in Neo individually. This connects back to the conversation with Ramachandra in the Train Station, where he says he does things because of love, which is a word, but a word he believes in and acts out with his daughter. This subjective approach to meaning helps us understand that everything in this series comes back to the inward journey, the discovery of an individual’s capacity to transcend reality and capture the essence of their existence.
In the final battle, when it’s clear that Agent Smith has outpowered Neo, he asks Neo, “Why do you persist?” Neo responds, “Cause I choose to.” Neo’s choice is all that matters. The last lines of the film also emphasize personal choice. Seraph ask the Oracle, “Did you always know?” She tells him, “No, but I believed.” Even for the all-seeing Oracle, the truth is not achievable without faith, in herself, in Neo, in hope, and in the truth she sees within.
During her final conversation with Neo, she points out the placard on the wall above the door of her kitchen. It reads “Temet Nosce,” which is latin for “Know Thyself.” This classical maxim, which was written over the doorways of ancient Egyptian and Greek temples, sums up the message of the entire series in the clearest way possible. For the Wachowskis, with their investment in personal journeys, the truth of the inner light, and the cyclical nature of reality which has to be transcended by the personal experience of the individual, self knowledge is the foundation of all freedom. The Matrix Revolutions may be about the end of the war between the machines and humans in the particular, but at its core, it’s another statement about the need to discover the world within to impact the world without.
7 out of 10
The Matrix Revolutions (2003, USA/Australia)
Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (as the Wachowski Brothers); starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mary Alice, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, Harry Lennix, Lambert Wilson, Nona Gaye, Anthony Zerbe, Nathaniel Lees, Collin Chou, Ian Bliss, Clayton Watson.