Most authorities seem to believe that Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace was a bigger disappointment than The Matrix: Reloaded. The Phantom Menace scored 61% on the Tomatometer, with a 65% audience rating. The Matrix: Reloaded scored 74% on the Tomatometer, with a 74% audience rating.
Star Wars, The Phantom Menace is so bad that people have created hours of detailed criticism from a deep underwelling of anger from their past. The Matrix: Reloaded, on the other hand, gets largely a "Meh" response.
But the critics and the internet are wrong — Matrix: Reloaded was actually a bigger letdown than Phantom Menace. Here's why.
We Already Knew (or Should Have Known) The Phantom Menace was coming
George Lucas deserves lots of credit for Star Wars. Less credit for The Empire Strikes Back. More credit for Return of the Jedi. There is a pattern here. He directed nothing for over twenty years. Think about that for a minute. No matter how gifted you may be, if you don't practice your skills for twenty years, there's going to be some atrophy. Look at the guy's list of writing credits. Now seriously, look at it again. He didn't write anything of note for ten years, either. Now, I'll say right off the bat that I adore Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I love Star Wars. I consider Willow to be a guilty pleasure. American Graffiti and THX1138 both deserve credit for being good films. What the heck else did this guy do for all this time? Turns out, not so much. This should have been a huge red flag.
Really, there wasn't much of a need to do anything new with The Phantom Menace. It really didn't have anywhere to go. Tangent: see Terminator: Salvation for another movie that had a whole plot already ready to go, and mucked it up as well – why is this hard? We already knew the story, at least the bones of it. Anakin Skywalker grows up, becomes a Jedi under Ben Kenobi, turns bad, gets knocked into a volcano, becomes Darth Vader. Now, George did a wretched, horrible job of living up to executing that story, but still, this is like going to see someone sing the Star Spangled Banner and seeing them Rosanne Barr it. The worst thing is, it's a bad rendition of a song you've heard a hundred thousand times.
The Matrix, however, left us off with a major sense of anticipation. Neo is The One. He can do whatever he wants in The Matrix (as far as we know, but they sure pushed this pretty hard). It ends with him taking off and flying like Superman! Whoo! What is he going to do next?
Turns out, uh, that's it.
Wait… that's it? Yep, that's it. Well, he's still really good at Kung Fu. He can still stop bullets. But hey, the Kung Fu thing he already had down. So basically he can now fly and stop bullets. C'mon, man, The Sphinx can cut guns in half with the power of his mind! Really, if you can do whatever you can imagine, what's the deal with flying? I can imagine teleportation, among other things. Apparently it never occurred to anybody that they should hand Neo a stack of old comic books to give him some ideas about what he ought to try imagining? Oh, I hear you saying, "But it turns out there are limits!" Well, okay, but then make that discovery process an integral part of the story.
Sure, there's an obvious need to provide some tension, or nobody is going to watch this movie. We already had a mechanism for that, though: Neo's superpowers only work in the Matrix. Outside, he's a meat popsicle waiting for one of those squid things to show up and rip him into itty bits. Seems to me you can solve the "it's hard to have tension when your good guy is Superman" problem pretty easily; the machines push a bunch of the squids through production and make it harder to find a safe place to jack in. Running chase scenes! Instead, they just sort of have Neo learn and/or try nothing new.
At the end of The Matrix, we have the following bits of information: Neo can do anything he wants in The Matrix (except as previously noted, this ain't all that) and the machines live in another system that is protected from the Matrix by the Agents, who "hold all the keys and guard all the doors". Neo can beat the Agents. The only thing stopping him from freeing everybody all at once is that most people are so dependent on The Matrix that they'll short-circuit if they get unplugged. The Wachowskis have solved the fate problem inherent in having a precog as part of the story line with a deftness that is remarkable: they've kept free will and just made the Oracle into somebody who sees enough to pull mental ninjitsu on people and results in them making choices that are predictable to her.
Lots of balance. Well done. Now let's tear it all down!
Turns out, the Agents aren't all that. They also don't guard everything (in fact, they apparently don't guard anything, that is a different guy's job) and they don't hold all the keys (in fact, there's a guy who actually does hold all the keys, and we know this because his name gives it away). We've got a whole slew of new characters who aren't Agents. They are actually more important than Agents. Oh, and we have Agents 2.0, because we need an excuse for more kung fu. Neo has apparently been freeing people all over the place (I thought this was a bad idea?) The Oracle is an AI – this was predictable. Tension in meatspace comes from the dumbest mechanic in the world: the leader of the free human world's armies doesn't like Neo because he doesn't like Morpheus.
It's like the first movie was written by a couple of really smart scriptwriters who set up a lot of nice potential plot threads that could have turned out to have character and nuance, and the second movie was written by a couple of kids who got really stoned for about a week and then wrote the script in crayon.
The highway chase scene gets a pass. For the purposes of this post. There were some really noteworthy parts about this scene that made up for the complaints I have about it, plus a lot more.
Let's talk about the dogpile fight scene between Neo and the Smith Formerly Known as An Agent. It didn't look real, it looked like a CGI Keanu Reeves fighting a bunch of CGI'd Hugo Weavings. Compared to the fight scene between Morpheus and Neo in the first movie, this was a pile of bat guano. I'm a kung-fu movie fan. I've seen good fight scenes and bad ones (I'll write a post about good fight scenes some day). This wasn't a fight scene, it was like a quick session of the old 80s video game "Gauntlet".
"Our Hero Beats Up 40+ Opponents" has been done in almost every kung-fu movie. Bruce Lee beats up the Karate School in The Chinese Connection is one of the better instances. This scene isn't even as good as The Bride vs. the 88s. The fight scenes in Phantom at least were well choreographed lightsaber fights.
The Bad Guy
My favorite scene in the first movie is Agent Smith's interrogation of Morpheus. The motivation of the character comes through. "It's the smell… if there is such a thing." Great line. He wants out of this job of caretaking the monkey cage. So… what's his deal in the second movie?
We never really find out. Why is Smith after Neo? Why is Smith after the other machines? Why is he trying to take over The Matrix, when he hates it? Why on Earth would this entity become a human being and enter the real world? Why doesn't he just strike a deal with Neo to take over the machines, so that he can live back in the machine mainframe, where he wants to be? The Agent Smith of the first movie is understandable. I can connect to him; he's human, in many ways. The Agent Smith of the second movie is incomprehensible. He don't make no sense! This might be the point (it is a science fiction gig, after all, and "we don't understand our enemy" is a theme in SF), but if that's the point, they handle it hooooooribly. There isn't any inquiry on the part of the good guys, or of the other bad guys. There's no theme to this theme.
Reality is the Anchor of Fantasy
I need to write a full post about this topic, but this is my final complaint. Shortest possible version: the byplay between reality and fantasy (including the character part of the fiction that you're supposed to find real and accessible) is the balancing act of good speculative fiction. The characters, the place, the social interactions, the technology, and (in the case of movies) the special effects need to combine the real and accessible with the fantastical and unreal in a way that lets the reader or audience become immersed in the story.
The first movie did this. The second movie did not. My suspension of disbelief didn't suspend. The effects relied too much on things that weren't real to look and seem real. The characters didn't seem like people. The bad guys didn't make any sense. The story was wooden where it needed to be supple, plastic where it needed to be crystal, and tin where it needed to be steel. It looked, sounded, and felt like a cheap plastic toy version of the first movie. I ordered X-ray specs out of the back of the comic, and I got junk.
This, in the main, was a greater offense than The Phantom Menace, which felt like one of Donald Trump's apartments. Everything was covered in gold, and underneath it wasn't interesting. It was just tacky.
Patrick Cahalan is an about-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. He has worked in IT in Southern California since 1993, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in IS (albeit very, very slowly). He is married, with two kids, a dog, and one cat. He's been a board game player since he could walk, a poker player since he was thirteen, an amateur card-counter, and has had Strong Opinions about video games since 1980. He claims no party affiliation. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution with which he may have an affiliation. This post originally appeared at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.