In defence of The Matrix: Revolutions

Unfairly maligned by critics, the third edition of the Matrix series is the true heir to cyberpunk and a tonic to the cold sheen of Holywood Sci-Fi.
A South Korean soldier runs past a billboard poster for 'Matrix Revolutions' during an anti-chemical weapon attack drill at a subway station in 2003 in South Korea.
A South Korean soldier runs past a billboard poster for 'Matrix Revolutions' during an anti-chemical weapon attack drill at a subway station in 2003 in South Korea. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Matrix: Revolutions opens with an explosion of light out of absolute darkness. From the blast, torques of golden fractals bloom, augmenting infinitely at every possible level of detail. And, then, as fast as we were zooming in through this brilliant, hypnagogic lightshow, we are jerked backwards. The light is no longer gold, but a familiar ghost-green glow as we fly upwards through the stacked blocks of computer code that have replaced the fractals. The direction of motion reverses twice more, the imagined camera plunging downwards, tracing the sharp edge of a skyscraper of code, before rising again, faster than ever, so that within seconds a vast, geometrically organised corporate city has materialised. This time, we zoom out far enough to discern the city’s shape: a footed crescent moon, like a chalice. For a moment, the chalice is the sole symbol on the screen, witnessed from above, ‘as a god might’, so the script suggests, before streaks of digital rain run down and it is lost amongst them. 

Revolutions’ opening sequence gives a measure of what’s to come – the third Matrix film will be confusing, over-determined with signifiers, certain moments too long, others skipped over too quickly, but also, as ever, mesmeric and ambitious in its attempts to crash together a whole range of philosophical and spiritual theory and imagery. Watching the downpour, I experience a rush of recognition, as if, like an operator on the Nebuchadnezzar, I might intuit meaning out of the endless proliferation of figures. For, that green, digital rain is itself a symbol with an auspicious history in science fiction, iterations of it appearing in Ghost in the Shell (1995), William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) – the text in which the terms ‘matrix’ and ‘cyberspace’ came to prominence – as well as Tron (1982) and Alien (1979). 

Matrix: Revolutions was released on 5 November 2003. Filmed contemporaneously with Matrix: Reloaded, this third instalment picks up immediately where the last film left off. The plot has two strands, both of which must occur within a critical twenty hours. The ‘a plot’ concerns Neo, who must find a way to Machine City and convince its leader to accept a truce between man and machine. In return, Neo will destroy the rogue virus programme, Mr Smith, before he manages to eliminate both species by replacing them with copies of himself. Only Neo can kill Smith. The oracle explains this convenience as follows: ‘He is you. Your opposite. Your negative. The result of the equation trying to balance itself out’ – adding a dualistic strain to the already dense network of religious ontologies at play. Meanwhile, in the ‘b plot’, a protracted battle takes place just outside Zion between the men, equipped with unwieldy metal exoskeletons, and the red-eyed army of tentacular Sentinels. Finally, Neo must face off Mr. Smith back where it all began, under the green, saturated hue of the matrix. 

Everyone knows Matrix: Revolutions is bad – its reviews were unanimously unfavourable. For The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw stressed its ‘ungainly clanking and lumbering to the finish line.’ Empire felt the film ‘reduce[d] the Wachowskis’ take on the Judeo-Christian epic to Hollywood gloss,’ objecting, especially, to its saccharine, rainbow-skied set piece ending. The New York Times thought it ‘padded.’ 

Padded, clanking or glossed? I doubt contemporary science fiction blockbusters would receive such diverse stylistic critiques. Because, these days, films conceptualising AI or cyberspace all have the same texture. Whether it’s a great film such as Ex Machina, or a good film like Her, or a bad one such as Tron: Legacy, there is a lack of mess, a cold sheen that is either explicitly or indirectly attributed to our increasingly monolithic experience of technology. As such, films committed to offering us a reading of the future instead reflect back to us an image of the digital world we already spend most of our waking hours staring into.

The Matrix’s origins, instead, are in cyberpunk, the postmodern, science-fiction literary movement of the 1970s and 1980s, of which Gibson’s Neuromancer was the crown jewel. Departing from earlier, utopian science fiction, cyberpunk depicted a bleak vision of the future, of impoverished underclasses living in sprawling, polluted cities, where crime was high and drug dependency prolific, set against a backdrop of accelerated consumer culture fuelled by technological advances that benefited only the elites. Choosing hackers and fringe figures for its protagonists, cyberpunk narratives deployed an amalgam of disparate styles and genres, peppering the text with dialects and neologisms to represent the heterodox worlds they existed in. 

Reading Neuromancer just after watching Matrix: Revolutions, I experienced a similar burst of pleasure at the dense, often inelegant plot and onslaught of characters – cyborgian in their anatomical patchwork of human and mechanical parts. The critic and philosopher Fredric Jameson hailed cyberpunk, and Neuromancer as its best example, the literary construction that succeeded where modernism had failed in giving ‘a sense of our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities to think them.’ He was referring to Gibson’s dizzying invention of the ‘matrix’, which was neither a hologram nor simulation of reality, but rather an imaginary, unplottable city comprised of all electronic data, which humans could access by leaving their bodies behind and ‘jacking in’. Jameson believed cyberpunk, as a form, came closest to expressing what was almost impossible to illustrate in language – our technological future. This is the crux of my apologetics for Revolutions. Its failure to find adequate conclusions that would definitively explain ‘realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping system’ is a necessary part of its project. By cramming in so many ideas and characters and styles, Revolutions stays truest of all three films to its postmodern, cyberpunk origins. 

The scene that best demonstrates this is also my favourite: when Neo finds himself at the apex of a high tower overlooking Machine City. Despite being blinded by Mr. Smith in an earlier battle, Neo’s powers allow him to perceive the machines as bright forms of coursing energy. In this way, we are able to witness two divergent versions of the city. The first, the ‘real’ one, a desolate metropolis of mangled, organic structures – the opposite of the matrix’s neat city blocks – reaching up into a lightning-scorched, night sky. The second, Neo’s perspective, presents a heavenly vista, described in the script as ‘towers of glowing, spun-glass rise up from crystalline structures of radiant light’. When the ‘Deus Ex Machina’ itself appears, Neo sees the machines’ leader in the form of a glorious sun. While, from our view, it is nothing more than a gnarled iron sphere, studded with spikes. The Wachowski sisters refuse to provide us with a singular vision for artificial intelligence. A choice which foreshadows the way our conception of contemporary technology is similarly divided between an imagined immaterial form, ‘the cloud’ etc., and the corporeal reality of massive server farms eating up land and energy. It remains to be seen if the next edition, Matrix Resurrections (remaining true, at least, to its preferred subtitle prefix), will continue to hold in place such tensions, or surrender itself fully to ‘Hollywood gloss’.

Lamorna Ash

Lamorna is the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish fishing town and a winner of the Somerset Maugham prize, 2021.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.

Related

'The Progress of Steam. A View in Regent's Park, 1831', 1828. Steam-powered coaches, horses, tricycles, including one with body like a teapot, are speeding along or blowing up and causing traffic chaos in Regent's Park, London. Aquatint after Henry Alken (1774-1851).

Is energy the god of progress?

American historian Henry Adams’ optimistic creed of progress and energy innovation foundered on technological forces unleashed in the 20th century.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.