Reappraising the Matrix
A look at camp, kitsch, bad movies, good movies, and the Matrix franchise.
With a fourth Matrix film on its way, there is a renewed interest in the original trilogy. The Matrix (1999) stands somewhat removed from its follow-up films. This is partly because of the four-year gap between them (the other two movies were filmed together and released in rapid succession in 2003), because befittingly they tell a far more interconnected story and because neither The Matrix Reloaded nor The Matrix Revolutions come close in quality to their predecessor. Indeed, it was widely held then, and I would argue remains the case, that they are truly bad , suffering from so many flaws that whatever their virtues, they are worthy classics of the bad film mould, archetypes of their kind.
There is a certain type of movie that regularly gets called so good it’s bad. Three examples always come to me. The first two are Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and the Evil Dead trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992). However, truthfully, only the former properly fits. The hammy acting, melodrama, strange characterisation and bewildering plot and setting choices of Evil Dead are too eminently self-aware, and this is textually obvious. It is something the Ash vs. Evil Dead comedy horror series (2015-18) actively capitalises on. But when the usually brilliant Jeremy Irons delivers the most unimaginably overacted Machiavellian speech to a wizard parliament in Dungeons & Dragons (among other such scenes), what makes it funny is the obvious earnestness of this moment in cinema history. It was not intended to be funny.
Evil Dead is pure cinematic camp; that is to say, it is a kind of self-aware kitsch (Susan Sontag’s useful definition of camp). Whereas so bad it’s good is always just kitsch, unselfaware objects that are excessive to the point of undermining themselves. And there is an enjoyment in such good kitsch just as there is subtly differently to good camp. It was only right that neither The Matrix Reloaded nor The Matrix Revolutions were highly regarded, they are my third example of so good it’s bad, and it strikes me as a shame that they are not better appreciated in this vein. That is not said to rub salt into wounds, these films and their technically bad productions have a genuine charm that still serves as a decent vehicle for the great ideas (more on which in a bit) that they are intended to convey.
The sequels are incredibly self-serious, but riddled with moments that are simply comedic in delivery. Such as when a character named the Merovingian demonstrates his philosophy of causality with a Matrix dessert coded to give a woman an orgasm as she eats at his restaurant. Or the previous incarnations of the Agents that police the Matrix are revealed to be cartoonish Hammer Horror monsters. Or a guy who looks like Colonel Sanders to be the mastermind behind the Matrix program, peppering his conversation with words like ‘vis-a-vis’, ‘concordantly’, ‘ergo’ like a teen blogger over-relying on a thesaurus. Or when the protagonist Neo fights an army of his antagonists’ clones, and uses one such Agent Smith as a bowling ball against the others. Even the length and frequency of the fight sequences are ridiculous. Like all such films, so bad it’s good movies have the quality of being beyond parody. (And there were unfortunate attempts in an MTV Movie Award skit and one of the risible Scary Movies bits).
And because I halfheartedly appreciate these two films when watched in that spirit, I have been bemused by attempts to rehabilitate them. Not annoyed, anyone is free to make a case for a work of art. But it is confusing to me that people have been arguing this for a long time. There is quite a dedicated community keen to make the case that Reloaded and Revolutions are underappreciated gems. More specifically, and where I have sympathy, some have attempted to recover the trans allegory that does thematically run not only through The Matrix, but its successors. Ultimately judgments of taste, while not arbitrary, are hard to settle. Nonetheless, I have a fundamental problem with these arguments; none of them address, it seems to me, what is wrong with these films, and why they are best enjoyed (if at all) as accidentally humorous.
The trans allegory, clever bits of philosophy, moments of genuine filmic brilliance (the car chase sequence in Reloaded adds to the already excessive set-piece action sequences, but is masterfully accomplished on its own terms) are all there. I would accept the majority of these arguments for why the films are good, except that none of them fix the aforementioned complaints. Or compensate at all. Indeed, even where the ideas are genuinely good, as I feel they often are in the final exchange between Neo and Smith in their last battle, they remain overblown, weighty and frustratingly didactic in how they are woven into the film. The first film was imperfect, but there was an elegance to the balance of plotting and ideas, fights felt momentous rather than protracted, the philosophy was sometimes too dependent on expository dumps, but at least flowed from the characters situations in the story. In that one, Morpheus served as a wise instructor, Neo as an understandably uncertain initiate to a new way of understanding the world.
What does all of this mean for the upcoming The Matrix Resurrections. Must it be just like the other Matrix sequels? I would argue that rehabilitating the previous sequels is not needed to have some hope in this one. There are genuine reasons for hope. The trailers emphasise a sense of layered realities a la Philip K. Dick, which feels more in keeping with the first film than the second and third's more grandiose concerns. The franchise, with its notions of realities within realities and hidden, God-like entities has always had a highly gnostic bent, so the involvement of writer David Mitchell to accompany one of the co-makers of the earlier films, Lana Wachowski, and another writer of the weird, Aleksandar Hemon, is a good sign. Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, itself adapted into a good film by the Wachowski sisters, is very much a gnostic sci-fi in its own right. The subdued tone of the adverts also looks like a return to form.
And the temper and ethos at least seems updated, which is important. The Matrix was very much a film rooted in late 90s early 00s sense of office ennui, whereas this instalment appears to be more concerned with a moment of profound crisis and confusion and uncertain nostalgia. If so, that is apt for our moment. Moreover, precisely because it was not the ideas that undermined the earlier movies, but their execution, the fact of Resurrection following from them is no indication that it will be burdened by their problems, and perhaps a way to give those ideas a new and deserved attempt. Certainly we need trans allegories today, during a moral panic against the trans community. Certainly we have as many reasons as ever to challenge the ideology of the real.
Appearances can be misleading, as these films suggest explicitly at the textual level. This film could still be bad, and if it is, I then hope that it is in the spirit of Reloaded and Revolutions. I.e. that it is so bad that it’s good. That its unintentionally silly rather than just a slog. For that, it need ambition, which this franchise has always had. Either way the title (another portentous R title!) is truly bad, really inexcusable, and so far the worst thing that can be said about this addition to the mythos of the Matrix.
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