How 'The Matrix' Lost Its Mojo

In November 2002, after spending four days with the main "Matrix" team in Los Angeles and two more with its visual effects crew in Alameda, Calif., I wrote a story for NEWSWEEK's Who's Next special report that marveled at the potential greatness of the forthcoming sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions." I didn't actually view either of the entire films--it was too early for that, but I hung out with the costume designer, the production designer, the special-effects coordinator, the cinematographer, the sound editor, the actors, the producers, even the videogame creator. And everything they told me, everything showed me, was dazzling. I was the first journalist to see the delirious fight scene between Neo and the 100 Agent Smiths in "Reloaded" as well as the epic freeway chase that follows it--a pair of sequences that, no matter what you think of "Reloaded" overall, have spots reserved from them in the action-cinema pantheon. I listened to John Gaeta, the trilogy's ingenious visual-effects guru, insist that his team wouldn't make the same mistakes as George Lucas, that the story was everything and that their contribution was little more than obscenely expensive window dressing. And I did an unseen, internal fist pump as actors and crew members, one after another, assured me that the shooting scripts for the two sequels were "beautiful" and "mind-blowing." Basically, I spent a week soaking up energy from people who truly adored their jobs and were giving everything they had to make sure the "Matrix" sequels were a huge success.

Given all the evidence from a year ago, I suppose it's understandable that I didn't foresee how the "Matrix" would wind up: a splendid beginning followed by an equally disastrous end. But I should've seen it coming. Because in spite of everything I heard and saw during that week in California, there was one tiny thing that didn't sound right. It happened during my very first interview with Joel Silver, producer of the "Matrix" trilogy and guardian of all doors into and out of the "Matrix" universe. It was when he told me, completely innocently, that much of "Reloaded" and most of "Revolutions" was set in real world as opposed to the hyper-real, machine-created Matrix. I felt a twinge of surprise--especially at the part about "Revolutions," the series climax--but I ignored it and we moved on.

The coolest, most visionary thing about the "Matrix" saga has always been, and will always be, the Matrix. It's the world that gave birth to all those great costumes, all those wild locations, all those thrilling fights, all those noodle-bending ideas. It was dark, stormy and mysterious--and yet iconic and intoxicating. You wanted to meander around it for days and find out where every door led. Its possibilities were limitless. And plus it was just so cool.

So it should've been a sure sign that there was trouble at the heart of this franchise the moment Silver revealed that its future wasn't going to unfold in the Matrix but rather in the gray, dreary, smoke-scarred and, frankly, boring "real world." Somehow, Larry and Andy Wachowski, the trilogy's visionary directors, made a supreme miscalculation about what people found so exhilarating in their first movie. It took us somewhere new.

"The Matrix Reloaded" and "Revolutions" are burdened by some lousy dialogue, stiff acting and ponderous speeches. But so was the original "Matrix." The Wachowskis' mistake occurred where it usually does in Hollywood: with the story itself. As soon as they decided to build their sequels around an urgent threat to Zion, the subterranean city where the freed humans live, they blew it. That decision forced both movies to become a garden-variety "race against the clock" set in a place that no one enjoyed and no one cared about. And what made it worse was this unceasing itch for the Wachowskis to take us back to the Matrix.

At the end of the original "Matrix," Neo makes a phone call, presumably to the omnipotent machines listening in on every conversation. "I'm going to show these people something they've never seen before," he warns. "A world without rules, a world without you." Neo teases at a saga in which he awakens all of the humans around him--us, that is--to the artificiality of our lives by making it as plain as day to us. A saga, in other words, in which he tears down the Matrix from the inside out. This is the story we all wanted to see. Unfortunately, it's not the story we ended up seeing.