Matrix Is for Kids!

Revolutions runs a joyride through a nifty vision of hell.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) returns to, you know, save the - world.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) returns to, you know, save the world.
A not terribly long time ago, in an uninhabitable galaxy called Burbank, a generally astute movie studio founded by four Polish siblings alienated a young hotshot filmmaker. The studio was Warner Bros., and the project was a cold, disturbing, highly stylized vision of a mechanized future titled THX-1138 -- not wholly original, but pretty cool overall. Yet studio know-it-alls created a load of friction for the movie and its maker. Hardly surprisingly, the kid didn't court them with his next sci-fi romp, a little yarn called Star Wars. The following year, wizened executive asses likely met boot.

Jump ahead a couple of decades, and you'd witness more Polish brothers, Andy and Larry Wachowski, both also hotshots, traipsing onto the Warner lot with a similarly themed property camouflaged in black leather. They called their particular humanity-vs.-technology dealie The Matrix. What emerged was basically a Joel Silver bang-bang picture, wrapped in an unusually clever discourse on the nature of reality. Its dork-becomes-God story line blew a few minds and made a pretty penny. Suddenly Warners' was back on the sci-fi map, and it was trilogy time again.

Now, here we are at the purported "end" of the franchise, with The Matrix Revolutions. The first movie's tasty mystique is now fairly well blown, its once-fresh stylistic chops appropriated into every sort of motion picture except perhaps feminine-hygiene-product commercials (send ad royalties right here, when that happens). Then last spring, the religiously anticipated follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded, inspired glee and dismay in equal measure with its ripping action sequences and blathering "We sorta went to college" plot. Studio coffers swelled to bursting, while strange new characters spoke in riddles, and plenty of curious heads were scratched -- not because the thing was inscrutably brilliant, but because it was such a whimsically whacked mess, compared to the tight 1999 film.

What remains in Revolutions is to depict the final battle between Earth's hopelessly outnumbered conscious humans and the monstrous machines that have seized control. The result is visually slick, almost shockingly simple-minded, kinda redundant, and only adequately satisfying. Alas, for their dramatic wrap-up, the Wachowskis' storytelling now feels less intriguing than merely dutiful. At about two brisk, tidy hours, with a huge gob of loose ends either hastily knotted or just snipped -- Keymaker? Twins? Hello? -- their biggest success here is to whet our epic appetite for The Return of the King.

To be frank, I'm not entirely convinced that the screening I attended revealed the actual movie that Warners' plans to sell to the public. What I beheld was complete and certainly functional, with whopping herds of digitally animated robot squid to keep things hopping, but narratively so remarkably unremarkable that it often felt like a gagless gag-reel, waiting for SNL hopefuls to come bumbling through, pontificating from behind bling-bling shades and kicking each other in slow motion. The newly inserted rebel Kid (Clayton Watson) is so obviously positioned for further franchise exploration that he's nearly a joke in himself. But just so you're clear on this perspective, I also think that the "Zion rave" from Reloaded ranks among the most unpardonably stupid sequences in cinema history. If you dug that -- poor, misguided puppy -- you may also enjoy Revolutions' even dumberer "S&M club" sequence, which could inspire more laughter only if it included Leslie Nielsen in nipple-clamps. Obviously, this silly stuff's a matter of taste, or lack thereof.

As for the story, it's exactly what you probably expect, more or less. Han Solo and Princess Leia struggle to help Luke Skywalker confront his shadow side, in order to . . . um . . . whoops, wrong decade. Make that: Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, flat) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, flatter) struggle to help Neo (Keanu Reeves, goes without saying) confront his shadow side, in order to, you know, save the world. Since humanity isn't going to find out what happens to a supposed Messiah until Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ emerges in a few months, the wondrous notion that Neo is "The One" shrouds Revolutions in rich, captivating mystery. If you're 12.

Now, bringing balance to the force, it must be said that setting your mind on "12" is a perfectly reasonable way to enjoy Revolutions. It's fun and rudimentary and hellzapoppin' to observe. Linking immediately to Reloaded, we commence with Neo -- rhyming with and increasingly resembling Captain EO -- trapped in a subway-tunnel purgatory created by the haggard Trainman (Bruce Spence), who's a minion of the delightfully nasty Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), who is still savoring the sweet pomegranates of Persephone (Monica Bellucci). While loitering between the illusory Matrix and the scorched earth of the real world, the ever more supernaturally endowed Neo meets an East Indian family who all turn out to be computer programs, learns that "love" and "karma" are just words, and then gets busted back to life by Trinity and company. Also returning to consciousness is a rebel crewman named Bane (Ian Bliss), who sports a diabolical Vandyke beard. Enough said there.

The rest of the movie concerns the underground city of Zion being attacked by massive drilling machines and those squidlike Sentinels, which were clearly modeled after the probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back. In turn, the nervous denizens of Zion fight back, using the bulky, anthropomorphized "loaders" swiped from Aliens, complete with a bulging-biceps Marine chick purloined from same. During all this, the tribunal from Star Trek/Wars meets to pontificate, while Neo realizes that he must fly to the machine city, unarmed but accompanied by the excessively dedicated Trinity, to meet his destiny amid a bunch of leftover bug-droids from Runaway. Meanwhile, the no longer fascinating Morpheus approves the piloting skills of Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), as their hovercraft careens through challenging post-industrial tunnels, very possibly inspired by those enigmatic Wachowskis playing Vanguard at some Chicagoland bowling alley 20 years ago.

Is it worth seeing this third and supposedly final chapter? Like you wouldn't. Yeah, there's plenty that's cool about it. A lot fewer handguns, some more cool stunts via fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, plus that dank, rainy atmosphere that makes jacking into the Matrix a lot more appealing than, say, shopping in the real world. The finest scenes involve the new Oracle (Mary Alice) and the very Hollywood-agent-like Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), adding touching resignation and rage to a movie that's otherwise half cartoon, half rapacious sci-fi feeding frenzy. But for a cyberpunk Tron knockoff in Blade's duds, following Omega Man's path to a Hulk-like aura of self-discovery, it's a reasonably enjoyable ride, offering a thoughtful-enough sense of closure.

If you're 12.