Friday 19 March 2010

The Matrix films revisited

I seem to be watching more films than reading books lately, probably because I recorded a lot of the Christmas TV schedules so I've been playing catch-up ever since.

As a result, I saw the Matrix trilogy again recently, for the first time since they were newly released (was The Matrix really over ten years ago?). I was impressed with the first of the series when I saw it originally and it has worn well, rich in SF ideas and with a complexity which makes the story in the visually wonderful Avatar seem as simple as a child's cartoon strip. I think that The Matrix is not far behind Blade Runner in the elite group of the best SF films ever made, and it's a lot more inventive.

Sadly the two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, released four years later following the huge success of the original, were a major disappointment. The impression I get is that the Wachowski brothers poured all of their ideas into The Matrix and were stumped for what to do next. Reloaded has just one really good, original SF scene (and the only one which significantly carries the plot forward); the climactic meeting between Neo and the Architect of the Matrix, the inventor of the virtual existence in which most of humanity is unwittingly trapped. Neo learns that he is the sixth version of himself to face the Architect and that his repeated appearance was due to an inherent flaw in the programming. All the time this meeting is taking place, the wall of TV screens is showing the varied reactions of his predecessors at their meetings with the Architect. As for the rest of the film, the brothers evidently decided to please the teenagers and fill it with combat and car chase scenes. While technically good, these go on and on interminably, well past the point of tedium, until you are praying for the bad guys to kill off the good guys just to put an end to it all. The only relief from this comes from the occasional pretentious speech, which is scarcely an improvement. Amazingly, Reloaded was more successful at the box office than The Matrix. There's no accounting for taste…

Revolutions is better, largely because the plot actually progresses to a conclusion rather than just marking time. Events begin to make some sort of sense - I particularly liked the notion that the evil Mr Smith programme was the inevitable balancing force to Neo's existence - and the ending was satisfactory. The various fight sequences were still tediously long, though, and Trinity's death scene was ludicrously unrealistic and protracted.

The decision to split the sequel to The Matrix into two separate films was presumably motivated purely by money (hey, we've got all this footage, instead of doing a decent editing job let's use all of it and make the fans pay twice over!). This is emphasised by the fact that there is no proper separation between the two; Reloaded ends in the middle of events and Revolutions picks up immediately without any kind of lead-in or introduction, so they need to be seen in quick succession or the viewer will lose track of what's going on. The problem is that there is barely enough worthwhile material to make one decent film out of the pair of them. So come on, brothers, now you've made your pile let's have a proper "directors' cut" which will do exactly that, combining the best one-third of Reloaded and two-thirds of Revolutions to make the single film which always should have been released. Call it The Matrix Revisited if you like! This could make a worthy sequel to The Matrix - even if it still wouldn't be as good.

One point of detail caught my attention in the first film, concerning the traitor who was tired of the grim reality of life and wanted to be returned to the Matrix, provided that he was assigned a wealthy and famous identity. What intrigued me is that he wanted the memories of his nine years of life outside the Matrix removed so that he would have no idea that his virtual life wasn't real. The thought crossed my mind that if that happened, he wouldn't be the same person; it would be as if he had been killed and a stranger had taken over. So how would he - the essential "he" - have benefited from that?

This reminded me of a similar issue I have mentioned before concerning Star Trek's transporter system, in which individuals are scanned and their complete data transmitted elsewhere to be instantly recreated. In this process, their existing bodies are destroyed. No-one would be able to tell the difference between the original and the copy as they are identical in every detail, but in one important respect they are not the same: the original is killed and a copy is made. The copy has all the memories of the original, and believes he is the original, but he isn't. This problem is more clearly laid out in The Prestige by Christopher Priest (I haven't read it yet, but I have seen the highly rated film). In this case a copy is made by the Tesla machine but the original remains in existence. So, the key question is this: if you entered the Tesla machine and a copy of you appeared in front of you, would you be happy to be killed, knowing that your exact copy would survive? Personally, I wouldn't - which means that I would never want to use a Star Trek type of transporter, because that is in effect what happens.

The same issue of identity is involved in the idea of uploading your mind to a computer so that you can live a virtual and theoretically immortal existence. But it wouldn't really be you living the virtual life, but a copy of yourself - as would be obvious if your corporeal mind remained in existence. Oh well, we won't have any practical cause to worry about such issues for a long time to come…


Fred said...

James Patrick Kelly's short story, "Think Like a Dinosaur" deals with this issue, the one left after matter transmission, in a very direct way.

If you haven't read it, I would recommend it highly.

I agree with your comments regarding _Matrix_. I saw all three and ranked them as you did.

Anthony G Williams said...

Hi Fred,

Thanks for that. I've not heard of the Kelly story - is it available on-line?

Ivar T said...

Personally I have no issue with having an exact copy of myself created and having the original me destroyed. This is perhaps because I perceive myself as a pattern, and not necessarily a single object.

Anthony G Williams said...

Ivar, I'm sure that your copy would have no issue with watching you being killed, but I suspect that you may feel differently when the gun is being pointed at YOU and the trigger is being pulled...

Fred said...


It was written in 1995, so it's too early to be in public domain, unless Kelly releases it.

I haven't been able to find it on the net.

Below is a list of the collections that it has been published in.

It's also appeared as an _Outer Limits_ episode in 2001, which I just now discovered. I think I will see if that's available at my library or on Netflix.

Year's Best SF (1996, edited by David G. Hartwell)

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirteenth Annual Collection (1996, edited by Gardner Dozois)

Nebula Awards 31 (1997, edited by Pamela Sargent)

Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (1997, by James Patrick Kelley)

"Think Like a Dinosaur" episode of The Outer Limits (2001)

The Hard SF Renaissance (2002, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer)

Jon Connington said...

Part of the problem I had with the last of the Matrix filsm wasthe way they tried to tie it in with the Matrix MMORPG...which turned out to be a complete dud.

Anthony G Williams said...

I take it that's a computer game?

Ivar T said...

Yes, The Matrix Online was a massive multiplayer online game (MMORPG), like World of Warcraft, that was shut down due to low popularity.