The universe created in the Matrix films is indeed astounding. Let me start the discussion of the films there. The concepts at play and philosophies brought to light due to the nature of that world are remarkable, clever and, most of all, extremely relevant. The design of the films, especially of the “Real World,” are gripping, detailed and majestic. I only wish more of the Real World had been depicted, but more on that later.
The first ninety minutes of The Matrix are terrific; visually speaking there isn't a negative word to be said about it. The Wachowskis manages to seamlessly blend styles and themes from sci-fi, neo-noir and martial arts films. Especially the sequences depicting the Real World are masterfully designed. The image of the giant microphone-shaped walkers harvesting the stalks of human eggs is particularly breathtaking, and will stay with me for quite a while. This amalgamation of aesthetics, especially in those first ninety minutes, creates a singular visual style that doesn't really exist in the two sequels.
Thematically speaking there are some things lacking, however. The main philosophical angle of the film is epistemology: the examination of knowledge and what can be said to be true and real. Until Neo ingests the red pill, his reality is the Matrix and everything contained in it; his job, his messy apartment, his hacker friends. But once that pill is ingested and Morpheus shows him the Real World and explains the nature of the Matrix, Neo's entire sense of reality and existence is irrevocably shaken. In is out, left is right, asleep is awake. Things as simple as household objects no longer maintain their value; “There is no spoon.” Considering how shattered his understanding of reality has become, Neo adapts to it a little too well. He blindly excepts that over here is reality, over there is the Matrix, and never the 'tween do they meet. Not once does he question “How can I know whether this reality isn't still a part of the Matrix, or yet another program?” To snap open the jar of confusion that is epistemology and not have at least one breakdown from someone question the existence of his own body and mind feels cheap to me, and does a disservice to the field of philosophy.
I will say, however, that the film does well to explain the nature of the Matrix, the discord between it and reality and why it exists without coming across as tutorial. Given the massive amount of information needed to make the audience understand this universe, the film breaks it down succinctly and clearly without reading like stereo instructions. The film also does well to leave the decision of which pill to take up to the viewer. The film presents both arguments as valid, through the characters of Morpheus and Cypher, and allows the audience to weigh the costs and benefits without preaching one answer over the other.
My biggest problem with the film, however, is the last forty-five minutes. The first ninety are set up as a genre-splicing mystery story, with heavy importance placed on visuals, character development and its underlying themes. That changes drastically, however, when Neo starts doing cartwheels during a massively overdone, eye-raping gun fight. There are action sequences in the first part of the film, but they are mostly hand-to-hand combat and are within the scope of an admittedly fast-paced, but ultimately still a mystery tale. The ending becomes a simple, cheap, long special effect, filled with helicopter crashes and oversized explosions worthy of Michael Bay. The film is great at foreplay, but when it comes time to get down to business the film ejaculates prematurely. The delicious can of jelly beans the film opened turned out only to be filled with stupid spring-loaded snakes.
Moving on now to Reloaded, which was superior to The Matrix in some ways, inferior in others. Visually it was inferior. The look and feel of the second film was much more clean and sterile than the first. It didn't have the same noir style, grit and edge that the first did and felt more like other sci-fi films of the last decade plus. Also the city of Zion – the Real World capital of the rebellion – was visually cool but not as striking or mesmerizing as anything from the first film. Also with Zion evolving into a lively if somewhat primitive metropolis makes the discrepancy between the Real World and the Matrix seem less great, and therefore the theme of the value of truth and reality versus the ignorant bliss of the Matrix is less pertinent, and the choice between the two less daunting.
I guess it's good then, considering the development of Zion, that the philosophical underpinning of this film shifts from that of the first. Epistemology and the choice between reality and illusion are replaced by the new debate of determinism, of freedom of choice versus cause and effect. Like the first film, the Wachowskis choose to leave the ultimate decision more or less up to the viewer. It could be argued that by virtue of Neo saving Trinity at the end of preventing the outcome he saw in his dream that freedom prevails, but it could also be argued that the recurring existence of The One as explained by the Architect that causation prevails. The viewer is free to choose which argument holds water and which does not (or perhaps each viewer is predestined to select one argument over the other).
For the majority of the film the philosophical debate felt forced. The characters seemed to argue their points back and forth without a lot of plot development to reinforce the necessity of their debate other than the recurring imagery of keys and doors, referring to a common hypothetical used to summarize the debate. But once we meet the Architect, that all changes. His existence – more precisely his role and his manner – his explanation as to the existence of The One as the “systemic anomaly,” and the recurrence of Zion and The One, make the idea and debate over free will more than just a passing bout of mental masturbation. The question now takes on much greater importance, to both characters and viewers, and makes it all the more difficult to select an answer.
The action sequences in this film were certainly more frequent than in the first film. From the opening sequence we have gun chases, slowed bullets, crashes and explosions. This makes the action a more definitive and constant player in the film. The freeway scene, about half way through the film, is not only wonderfully choreographed, shot, and kept within a reasonable scope, but establishes action sequences as part of the overall pacing and mood of the film. That way, when we get to the climax of the film, the conclusive battle doesn't feel out of place and cheap, the way the ending to the first film does.
The third film, Revolutions, exists only as a conclusion to the series. It brings forth no new philosophy, no new character development, and cannot stand alone the way either of the first two films can. Some of the visuals are beautiful and exciting, but there's no meat behind them to make them valuable. It's nothing but action sequences that include mini-Transformers, a blind Neo who now sees with heat vision, a strange talking head inside Machine City, and an ultimate fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith that starts off well but goes on far too long and ends poorly. Not to mention the aimless subway-station sequence that goes as quickly and unexpectedly as it comes and really adds nothing to the film. Ultimately it feels way too rushed and simple.
When looking at the series as one entity, I have to give immense credit to the Wachowskis for creating such a marvelous fictional universe. It is unique, poignant, intricate, visually stunning, and it makes you think about so many things on so many levels. However, when it came down to how they executed their films, I have to chastise them a bit. If I could travel back to when they were first planning The Matrix, I might advise them to slow down their thoughts a bit. I'd ask them to think more about what Neo is going through, not just the upheaval of his perception, but his role through the hero's journey, his path to accepting his new role as this Christ-like figure and what it means to him. I'd ask them to clear up their themes relating to religion, which grew quite scattered over the three films – Isn't it strange and ironic that the group that advocates the acceptance of reality over the comfort of illusion, a common secular opinion, also holds dear concepts of belief and hope and deify Neo as The One and their savior? Most of all, I'd want them to determine how much action they want to put in their films, and to keep that level of action more or less constant over the three films, so that the end of the film does not seem an aberration compared to its beginning and middle, and the third film an aberration to the first two. If the Wachowskis had done these things, The Matrix franchise might arguably stand alone as the greatest sci-fi achievements of all time. But, unfortunately, it will stand in my mind, despite its few triumphs, as a disappointment, a failure of execution to live up to the promise of its premise.