Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Making sense of “Matrix Revolutions”

I saw “Matrix Revolutions” a couple days ago, and have been reading various reviews, mostly scathing, of it. Once again, critics miss the point, by judging the whole “Matrix” series as A) a movie, featuring B) actors, speaking C) dialogue that advances D) a plot. Once you put aside your prejudices based on the misapprehension that all four apply, things become much clearer.

Let me explain.

A) The claim that “Matrix Revolutions” isn’t a movie may seem odd: after all, you watch it in a theatre, you buy tickets to it through Fandango, there’s popcorn– sure seems like a movie, right?

My son, who’s just shy of two years old, likes to put random things on his head and say, “A hat? Nooooo!” then dissolve in giggles. Likewise, “A movie? Noooo!”

Sure, it fits on your head like a movie, but it’s best though of as a fusion reactor of popular culture: a two-hour trailer to the massive multiplayer game, the setup to the Playstation adventure, the subject of the edited volume published in the Routledge cultural/postcolonial studies line. “Movie” is so single-media, so isolating, so two-dimensional. No one was ever going to make a “Titanic” multiplayer game, or a “Casablanca” first-person shooter, or a line of clothes based on “Castaway.”

In contrast, you enter the “Matrix” (as it were) knowing that the story, characters, visuals, etc. are going to reappear in multiple media– much as Neo appears in both the real world, and the simulation world of the Matrix. The very premise of the movie encodes and foreshadows, yet determines and guarantees, the fate of the characters in the simulacrum of global cultural capitalism. I think.

B) Yes, it’s bad “acting.” But repeat after me: Keanu… Reeves. Okay? Now try saying, “Keanu Reeve’s brilliant, nuanced performance.” Impossible to say out loud, isn’t it? Keanu isn’t exactly Kenneth Branagh– he isn’t even Russell Crowe or Nicholas Cage, two actors who sometimes show up in vehicles that are beneath them (“Gone in 60 Seconds”? wha?)– nor should we pretend that he is. How about, “Carrie-Ann Moss’ sensitive portrayal?” Another tongue-twister, isn’t it? Meryl Streep she is not. But the point is, that’s okay. She had that shiny Catwoman suit.

As I’ve said before, Keanu is best understood as an organic synthespian, and there’s a deep purpose to casting him in this movie:

Yes, they’re carbon-based life-forms, but they have the kind of humanity that you’d get if humans were grown in a vat. The total lack of affect in Keanu’s acting is not a failure of humanity, but rather a triumph over it. Thus we have the peculiar genius of M and MR (which will carry into MR2): an organic synthespian playing a human who must find the line between humans and machines, atoms and bits, reality and simulation. Who would know more about how hard those lines are to find?

C) Is the dialogue “bad,” in the sense that very few lines in the film are ones you would say or hear in the course of your normal day existence without wincing? Yes. But repeat: Science… fiction… movie. This is a genre in which William Shatner (“Spock… try… the SWITCH“) is treated as a serious figure, and Gene Roddenberry got away with having Uhuru say nothing but “Captain, communications are not responding” for 81 episodes. (Or however many.)

The point is, bad dialogue is practically a tradition in science fiction films. Even “serious” SF has undistinguished dialogue: remember Keir Dullea saying “Open the pod bay doors, HAL?” for, like, half an hour? And HAL upstaging him?

D) The fact that the film is but the beginning of the circulation of characters and situations in an endless procession of video games, online worlds, IM chat icons, etc. should clue you into the fact that the movie’s totally mystifying ending is intended to create precisely the open-endedness necessary to allow that traffic. In essense, that weird, painted-on-velvet sunrise that ends the film is a gigantic red pill. Or maybe it’s a blue pill. I have to go back and play that scene again.

So if you must, judge it by the standards of “movies,” with “actors,” and “dialogue.” Even think it should have a “story,” or “logic,” or “an end that doesn’t leave you thinking, what the Hell happened, and why didn’t those 20,000 Agent Smiths gang up and deconstruct Neo like an episode of ‘Seinfeld’?” But realize that it is you who misunderstands the Matrix, not the Matrix that is misunderstanding. Or something.


  1. I’m just pissed off because I was waiting for the RED level of reality. And then, well, poop. At least we used gift certificates. And are you suggesting that there’s an “Exit the Matrix” PS2 game coming? I thought “Enter the Matrix,” a brilliant easy-yet-challenging game, was the B-team interlude between “Reloaded” and “Revolutions.”

    Finally, how weird is it to see Monica Bellucci in both MR2 and “Kill Bill V1”?

  2. Are you kidding? “Kill Bill V1” is nothing– Monica Bellucci plays Mary in the upcoming Mel Gibson Jesus flick.

  3. Except I’m actively boycotting that already, so I hadn’t known that she was cast as Mary. I’m sure that my boycott of that movie will be as effective as my boycotting Wal-Mart, in that neither non-action will have any effect whatsoever.

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