Revisiting the Matrix

Well, it’s a…I hesitate to call it a wonderful Friday because I’m still not 100%, but it’s a Friday, and that will have to do.

I’ve been thinking about the Matrix Trilogy this morning. Not a total surprise since I managed to get the whole thing for a song on Amazon, though that’s really neither here nor there. Although I suppose its price is relevant to what happened to the series – and that’s what I’m thinking about this morning: the trilogy as a case study.

While the first movie is a very well-crafted, interesting tale, the second and third ones famously disappoint. I have several theories about why the other movies failed. I think they were partially rushed, which is of course one of the common things that we hear about novelists’ sophomore efforts, but I also think they let the concepts get ahead of the characters. The presence of philosophers on the commentary tracks says a lot, and didn’t sit right with me.

I was a huge fan of the series after the first movie. I had a couple of the books, I got the Animatrix (which I still think is excellent, by the way), I preordered tickets, and I got all lined up ready to see the sequel. Then…hmm. I didn’t think the second movie was terrible at first, but I thought it was impossible to form an opinion on it because it was an incomplete work. By that token, it was a complete failure because not only was very little resolved, there was very little character development as compared to the first movie.

I thought, “well, okay. Maybe they have a plan here. Maybe their vision was big enough that it had to be cut into two movies. Wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll give it a chance.”

Everything about this image makes me laugh.

Then I saw the third movie. Well, what I could stomach of it, anyway. They had just descended into complete wankery…though I can sometimes forgive wankery if it doesn’t commit the sin of being boring, which is the biggest problem with the third movie. All these action scenes and yet it all felt so hollow.

But I am here to talk about writing, not eulogize a movie franchise, so let’s examine a few flaws from a writer’s perspective:

  • Neo‘s character arc. In the first movie, we see Neo go from being an everyman to being a superman. Where do you go from there? I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve only seen one and a half truly satisfying Superman movies since the 70s – how do you develop a character who’s essentially perfect? I mean, yes, I’ll admit that Neo continued to have some character flaws. Minor ones. And you can’t develop those away because then he would truly cease to be human. Ultimately we’re stuck with a lead with whom we can’t identify.

  • Over-reliance on philosophy. This is one of the core problems, I think. Don’t get me wrong, building philosophy and deep themes are good ways to captivate the imagination. I like books that challenge me on an intellectual level and translate philosophical themes to a fictional setting – when done properly. This series did not do it properly. So many of the ideas and concepts are half-baked. The only one that really applies is Plato’s Cave in the first movie (where it’s used well), but once you get past that, it’s no longer applicable because people are aware that they’ve been in the “cave”. The problem is that I think they tried and failed to build the other movies around philosophical concepts, yet they turned into data dumps rather than items in motion within the plot. See the Merovingian and the Architect, who, by the way, is a problem in and of itself. The problem is that they wanted to build this philosophy as a core of the plot, but they had no real idea how to do it. So it ultimately comes off as hamfisted and in the process neutering the story and rendering it boring – it’s a tale of ideas rather than people.
  • The “Real World” was boring. I suppose that might be a commentary in and of itself, something intentional on their part to show why some might want to escape into the Matrix rather than the real world, though that idea goes nowhere after the first movie. And for God’s sake, don’t make the viewers/readers suffer through the boredom that the characters are feeling! Not to mention, we’re not given a compelling reason for why a person would want to stay in the Real World after all – yes, freedom, of course, but again the story becomes about high-handed ideas rather than personal drives. We don’t really see the upside to this freedom (and no that ridiculous rave doesn’t count). Everything is unrelentingly gray and depressing. They’ve placed the humans into such a hopeless existence that the idea of living in that world doesn’t make too much sense. One could make an argument about facing reality, but they’re even insulated from the consequences of running from reality if they stay in the Matrix. I mean, let’s face it – what kind of freedom do they have, even if they defeat the machines? Certainly not freedom of movement, as the surface of the planet is destroyed. I could go on and on, but my point is that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, and we have no example of what they really want to fight for.
There are other flaws, but I have one other topic to cover today, so I’ll leave it there for now. I think these flaws illustrate three important points, points that we can learn from:
  1. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. You can’t create somebody to be a perfect superhuman and expect to develop their character arc very far. If you do develop someone into this in the first part of a series, it may be time to hand it off to another character, someone with whom the reader can relate. Imagine if we had experienced the rest of the movies from another character’s point-of-view – someone who had been liberated by Neo and was trying to ascend through the ranks? How different would that experience have been?
  2. Themes are great, but don’t build your story around them. If you build your story around a theme, it will probably ultimately collapse. Themes are things that naturally evolve as a story is written. That’s why, in a good work, themes seem so intrinsic, and I think the Wachowskis failed to grasp this. None of it feels natural to the story – it’s all shoehorned in (see the Architect).
  3. Present alternatives. Situations in real life are rarely black or white, one choice or another. That’s something that was missing with Zion. Give your characters a glimpse of the “Valhalla” that they may be chasing, and they’ll have an array of choices to make. What if they abandon Zion to chase that other goal? What if they debate over that but ultimately end up choosing Zion? You see what I’m saying here.
This has all given me something to think about in my own writing. These are concepts that hadn’t really been an issue for me, but it’s good to be aware of them.
Okay that’s it for this entry – keep an eye out for a separate entry covering my last four influential novels.
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