Movie review: 'The Matrix Revolutions'

2 stars (out of 4)

"Jesus H. Christ!" someone shouts near the beginning of "The Matrix Revolutions," providing, in more ways than one, a succinct review of the movie. The exclamation could be an expression of incredulity at how far afield this "Matrix" trilogy has ventured or a literal declaration of hero Neo's ultimately obvious role model.

The original 1999 "Matrix" was the story of a seemingly ordinary guy who discovers mind-warping layers of reality as well as his own considerable powers. "The Matrix Reloaded" and now "Revolutions" are about an iconic figure's ascension to deity as the human race staves off extinction while puzzling out the meaning of existence. Whee!

"Revolutions" sets out to answer all sorts of cosmic questions, though the one most frequently asked is more mundane: Is it better than "Reloaded"?The answer is a matter of degree. Despite another ponderous beginning, this trilogy's final entry is more evenly paced than its predecessor, with amped-up action and fewer interminable stretches of pompous yakking. We're also spared the '80s disco-style thunkety-thunk that played over the "Reloaded" action scenes, and there's no citywide rave scene or Dave Matthews song over the end credits.

But if you weren't keen on the direction of "Reloaded," you're not likely to do an about-face as "Revolutions" continues down the same road. These last two movies, shot together and released six months apart, eschew the human scale and clean conceptual lines of the first "Matrix" in favor of an epic science-fiction canvas and grand notions as easy to scan as an Escher drawing on acid.

You could react on a gut level to the first movie's idea that life as we know it is just an illusion, an artificial-reality "Matrix" designed by machines to keep humans distracted as their imprisoned bodies are used to provide battery fuel. But that basic premise has been all but lost by "Revolutions" amid the philosophical smoke thrown up by the writing-directing Wachowski Brothers as they ponder levels of control systems, rogue computer viruses, programs indistinguishable from humans and a man-machine war involving space fleets, massive armies and didactical leaders.

"Reloaded" came alive only when the heroic trio of Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) finally left the embattled subterranean city of Zion - where the last free humans live - and returned to the Matrix. Almost none of "Revolutions" takes place in the Matrix.

Next train out

It picks up with Neo trapped in a pristine subway station that's the equivalent of limbo between the Matrix and the real world. This sequence, with its deliberate exchanges between Neo and an Indian family awaiting a train, is reminiscent of the more maddening episodes of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."

The station is under control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence), who's under control of the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), who's that snooty French-affected guy whom Neo and the gang bested in "Reloaded." He fits into the overall scheme of things in a way that probably isn't worth the effort of diagramming. Suffice it to say that his beautiful, formerly rebellious wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci) is given just one line of dialogue here, and Neo is not going to spend all of the trilogy's finale in a subway station.

The primary story lines seem to merge the "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" universes. As in both series, the principal characters must split up to fight on different fronts: Morpheus and former gal pal Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) try to blast his spaceship back to Zion before the machine army destroys the place while Neo and Trinity go into Frodo-and-Samwise mode as they whiz off to the dark, evil Machine City to confront the all-powerful Deus Ex Machina.

Much of the action is kinetic, though most of it, with the notable exception of the gravity-defying "Bullet Time" gun and martial-arts battle in Club Hell, wouldn't be out of place in a "Star Wars" movie. Zionites (Zionists?) defend their home in oversize battle-bot outfits, swarms of multitentacled machine Sentinels attack at lightning speed, and spaceships career through sharp turns while firing away.

So long, Neo

It's a kick to watch, but you can't help but notice that the most exciting stretch - this epic battle for Zion - leaves Neo and Trinity off the screen for a hefty chunk of the movie. Neo used to be the heart of this thing; in "Revolutions" the transition from compelling protagonist to bloodless symbol is complete.

Everything climaxes with Neo doing Superman-vs.-Anti-Superman-style battle with ex-Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who proved himself so adept at self-Xeroxing in "Reloaded" but whose purpose has otherwise been unclear. I won't (and probably couldn't) reveal exactly what that purpose turns out to be, but Smith is a conceptual villain rather than someone to make your blood race.

You don't long for this confrontation the way you did the one between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; this fight is between an expression-challenged superpowered human (that would be Reeves as Neo) and a computer virus designed to balance out his energy in the universe. Rooting for a charismatic hero against an evil SOB just would be more fun.

But the Wachowskis have loftier notions in mind. The central character of these last two movies turns out to be the mysterious, homespun sage known as the Oracle (Mary Alice replacing the late Gloria Foster for "Revolutions"). This older woman dispenses wisdom to Neo and the gang and also offers the audience supreme guidance as Neo adopts Electric Christ-like poses while fulfilling his fate.

The ending is a lulu, an attempt to squeeze a tangle of heady philosophy into a tidy bag of Christian allegory. It illuminates the hubris of the whole project even while it leans on the most basic cliches of faith and love. Love here is often mentioned, rarely felt.

The Wachowskis are to be commended for trying to engage viewers' intellects in the context of action movies and for presenting an especially diverse group of empowered characters, with women and people of color front and center. But everything comes back to the great white hope, Neo, who moves further from our reach with each film. He's a figure made for theology or philosophy classes, but some of us prefer our movie heroes to thrive in flesh and blood.

"The Matrix Revolutions"
Written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers; photographed by Bill Pope; edited by Zach Staenberg; production designed by Owen Paterson; music by Don Davis; produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: R (sci-fi violence, brief sexual content).
Neo.....Keanu Reeves
Morpheus.....Laurence Fishburne
Trinity.....Carrie-Anne Moss
Agent Smith.....Hugo Weaving
Niobe.....Jada Pinkett Smith
The Oracle.....Mary Alice

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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