I see the follow-ups to 1999's The Matrix and 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean as having the same basic approach and the same basic problems. Both of the original movies had memorable characters and clever premises, and were basically good blockbuster action movies that were breaths of fresh air compared to all the generic sequels and remakes cluttering the big screens. They were good summer thrill rides, both in the action and the peripheral stories, in genres that most audiences hadn't recently seen.
9.2, 9.3, 8.9... Annnnnd, the Iranian judge gives her a 9.7.
When sequel time came for both films, the studios and filmmakers took the same approach: bring back the original director (or directors, the Wachowski brothers, in The Matrix's case) to make a pair of sequels filmed back-to-back so that we could have #2 and #3 released within a short time of each other, with the same actors guaranteed to return. And since these were both no longer daring gambles, but rather pop culture phenomena, let's make sure all the sequels are mega-budget, extremely long epics that take the small casts and nicely contained storylines of the originals and nuke them with complex subplots and tons of peripheral characters. And at the same time, let's lie to the press and pretend that these were intended to be trilogies all along, even though the first movies ended with satisfying and conclusive finishes.
The Secret Service under Barack Obama.
And both sets of sequels had the same results: #2 made the most money of the respective series, due to huge advertising budgets and the massive exposure of the original films, but left audiences confused and bored. They realized that the original films were the Skittles of moviedom: the first handful is pretty darn sweet, but you realize that they're a lot less appealing when you have to get through a whole bag of them. So #3 in each series ended up taking far less than its predecessor, in stark contrast to the excellent Lord of the Rings series that made more and more money with each subsequent installment, or even the Star Wars prequels, which at least ended on a comparatively high note.
The Secret Service under John McCain.
As for The Matrix, the sequels had some other things going against it. Less than a month after the original's release, the Columbine massacre shocked Americans, and quite a few commentators noted that the black trenchcoat-clad, dispassionate, gun enthusiast heroes might have been an influence. I don't think the filmmakers are to blame for real acts of murder, but if the film wants credit for its allusions to religion and philosophy, it needs to also accept its allusions that glorify terrorism. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter having started just two months before TMR's release), Neo and Morpheus and Trinity's religious zealousness to attack government buildings and bring down the system might have been a bit difficult to ignore anymore.
"And I can assure you that I run a perfectly respectable castle and that it's someone else who's robbing your graves."
"...And did I ever tell you about working with Robert Davi? Oh, surely you'd like to hear some more. Well, I had always been a great admirer of his work, and there's an interesting story there as well, because..."
"Do not mock me. The store was all out of sunglasses in my size. I am not certain why."
We finally get done with shore leave, and it's back to action! Time to talk to the Oracle! Oh crap. After fighting with her bodyguard in a completely superfluous action scene--seriously, a one-on-one fight against an unknown character is supposed to interest us at this point?--Neo is led through the staff corridors of the Matrix to a park bench and the Oracle. She tells him he needs to go see some Matrix AI kingpin named the Merovingian. Why? Because he's holding the AI program called the Keymaster hostage. Why? Because the Keymaster can unlock any door in the Matrix. Why? Because he can open the door to the Source. Why? Because... I'm not really sure. It's apparently the control room for the whole Matrix, so you'd think Neo should be able to do something relevant in there, but I'm not sure he's bright enough to figure it out. Oh well. The Oracle leaves, having out-winded Anthony Zerbe.
"We've come for your lunch money, Misssster Andersssson."
But Neo is ambushed! Not by the normal Agents, but by the one he thought he killed in the first movie, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, playing the role of Samwise and hauling this movie up Mount Doom on his back whenever he or his CGI stand-ins are on-screen). Turns out Smith wasn't blasted from existence after all, but had the self-awareness to come back into the Matrix as a rogue program that's now unhinged from the main system and discovering the joy of his newfound superpower: the ability to copy himself onto anyone in the Matrix, including other Agents (like a computer virus, get it?) to make an army of Smiths. Seeking sweet revenge, he first comes after Neo with about ten of himself, which is pretty interesting. When that doesn't work, since Smith's let his fighting skills rust even worse than Neo has between films, he ups the count to about fifty, which is a bit silly. When Neo's skill kicking his butt, Smith jacks it up to a hundred, which would be funny if we weren't about 45 minutes into a fight in which nobody ever really gets hurt or gains or loses tactical advantage. They try to spice things up by having Neo bounce of heads in the sea of Smiths like he's Super Mario, and toss Smiths into other Smiths, knocking them down like bowling pins, complete with cartoon sound effects. I think they deleted the scene where Neo plays every position on the baseball field against a line-up full of Smiths. And despite the fact that neither he nor any of the Smiths appear remotely hurt or even disheveled after three hours of fighting, Neo decides he's as bored as the rest of us and flies off. And we can get back to the movie, and away from the longest video game engine technology demo ever.
On to the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). So what purpose, exactly, did the perfectly logical robot creators of the Matrix have when they designed a program that functions as a French mobster who sits in his restaurant all day and spouts off about causality like a second-semester college student who thinks he's found his major? I'm not really sure, but then, if I were the evil robot high commander, I'd probably have just kept all the humans sedated in the first place and ditched the whole Matrix idea. But we have the Merovingian, and he acts very smarmy and very French as he refuses to give up the Keymaster. Fortunately, his moll, Persephone (busty import Monica Bellucci), is willing to betray him and lead Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus to the Keymaster in exchange for a real kiss from a real human being. Also fortunately, she settles for Keanu, and after a complete throwaway scene in which she shoots some vampires (they're glitches in the Matrix, which is actually kind of clever, though I won't fault the movie for not turning into yet another black trenchcoat vampire flick), she gives them the Keymaster (Randall Duk Kim, not Rick Moranis, unfortunately), a little old Chinese guy with lots of keys. How clever.
Great. Of all the Star Wars stuff they could rip off, it had to be the Jedi Council scenes.
"You, behind me! Run, all of you! Save yourselves! I do not know how much longer I can hold it!"
There, he finds a very white room full of television monitors, along with the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), and judging by his costume, he's either going to give up the secrets to the Matrix or to Kentucky Fried Chicken. He tells Neo something that takes a long time to say. I don't know. I'm not the brightest bulb in the box, but I comprehended maybe half of what he said, and not the most important half either. It didn't help that he spoke in monotone at a hundred miles an hour, or that I would rather have been watching the damned ESPY Awards at this point. All I could gather was that there had been lots of Ones and lots of Zions before, and that Neo's not really fighting the system, but he's actually a part of it. The Matrix lets its malcontents escape to Zion as a way of flushing the system, then the robots wipe out Zion and the One takes a small band of survivors to repopulate Zion and start the rebellion all over again. I know that this series has always required some massive suspension of disbelief, but this doesn't make sense to me on any level. Particularly when, by refusing to take on his Noah role, but to instead return to the Matrix and save Trinity, Neo apparently dooms the entire human race. Hell, I don't know. That's what the computers get for making Ted a minor deity. But remember, Neo's doing what he's doing because he chooses to do so, which is both a very important concept in religion and humanistic philosophy, and something I don't give half a $#!% about here.
Legitimate use of the carpool lane is very strictly enforced in Los Angeles.
"You are no longer in the Matrix, Neo. You are on TBS. We will show you three times every weekend for the rest of your life. Resistance is futile."
Whereas the first movie had lots of non-action scenes that were presented creatively and taught us about the major characters and their motivations, this film introduces all of its major concepts with a lecture. Whereas the first one had a small number of major characters and a handful more minor characters that were amusing for one or two scenes, this film feels the need to have a heart-to-heart with tons of underwritten characters who are only being introduced for small roles... in another movie! Yes, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars had cliffhangers, but allowed each movie to really stand on its own as well: The Two Towers ended with the fall of Saruman, and The Empire Strikes Back ended with the reunion of the rebels. The Matrix Reloaded ends with some kind of marginal plot twist that amounts to a dead end for the good guys. This movie is a 2 1/2 hour trailer for The Matrix Revolutions, and as I might mention in an upcoming review sometime in the near future, that one isn't a whole lot better.