Magic Number

I think that I shall never see
A number lovelier than three.

One of the — ahem — features of longer air travel is that you get to see a lot of movies on the inflight screens that you otherwise might have successfully avoided. One of these movies, in the past couple of weeks, was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Terminator 3 seems to be one of those films that was years and years in the making — that is, years and years of negotiations over when, who, and how much they would all be paid. And as afterthoughts, maybe we'll need a script. T3 is a film completely devoid of significant surprise, just a long parade of fairly stock action sequences, set against expensively comptetent but uninspired effects. I watched it first with the sound off, then as it repeated on our long transatlantic leg, I saw it again with the sound enabled, hoping it would somehow make more sense and improve. Nope.

I won't go in depth into the many awkward gaffs and holes in the plot — most noticeably to me, how the protagonists casually walk into a supposedly-guarded military complex carrying heavy weapons, much less how they wander into a hardened, well-stocked military bomb shelter that's both unguarded and abandoned (though filled with equipment that looks recently-used, and with a computerized security system). The "plot" was just a thin premise for lurching between More Of The Same set pieces, essentially a film built from commercials for the previous film.

One could say that Matrix Revolutions suffered from the same disease, and to a degree it probably did (the scenes with the Merovingian are an obvious example). And I really don't think I can imagine a film that's more full of itself than this third Matrix, even including the second one, which I usually refer to as Burning Man versus Microsoft Corporation.

Both of these Part Three movies suffer from the weight of their predecessors as Brand Names. When Cameron made T2 twelve years ago, he was willing to vividly re-imagine the base material (as he did with Aliens), and sew it together in a way that paid off his quietly thoughtful art-school ending. T3 is just an exercise in posing, and to a degree so is Revolutions.

Having done some work on Animatrix, I had seen boards for most of the effect for both Matrix sequels quite a long time ago. They immediately bothered me for two reasons. I hoped that the Wachowskis, who had been so clever in the first Matrix, would find some way through these two hazards. By the time Matrix Reloaded appeared in theatres this summer, I knew that my hopes were in vain.

The first problem, one shared by many sequels (2010 comes readily to mind), is that filmmakers (and audiences) often forget that films aren't real. By that I mean, films are often constructed in a metaphoric way, that their environments and story elements are not reconstructions of some "real" circumstance, but they are instead deliberately shaped and stylized for the sake of making a point. When a sequel comes along, how are to deal with these distorted circumstances?

The first Matrix uses its environment to make metaphoric statements about society and an ordered existence — not the fantasy-world existence of the Matrix, but of our existence. When Neo sees past the illusory nature of his social context, he is free to be anything — the last "Superman" shot is there to emphasize and symbolize his newfound mental freedom.

For the sequels, they're stuck trying to explain Superman. The key metaphysical point of the entire Matrix enterprise has already been made, and they have nothing more to say beyond it — instead, they're left worrying about the mechanics, trying (with increasingly-expensive and silly effects) to make us believe in the "reality" of the Matrix, exactly opposite to the point of the first movie.

(Similarly, 2010 frets through similar metaphoric territory, trying to take the final "ultimate trip" sequence of 2001 at representational face value. What the heck was the director thinking?)

The second hazard for Revolutions, perhaps caused by desperation over the first issue, is that they Broke The Spell.

Neo has superman powers in the Matrix because it is the Matrix. The Matrix, as a rational bit of engineering, is preposterous. But we the audience accept it, in the best science-fiction tradition, because it is a compelling metaphor. And all of the subsequent action, however outrageous, can be accepted from that perspective. The audience can accept one magical notion, and from that basis the rest of the movie can make consistent sense.

But at the end of Reloaded, and throughout Revolutions, they Break the Spell. Neo, outside the Matrix, lifts up his arm and by waving a Vulcan gang sign at sentinel robots, collapses them into a heap. At this point, all possible hope for dramatic interest has left the room.

Once you have a story that's perceived as magical, you can just forget about causality in the mind of the audience (indeed, discarding causality is essentially what magic's all about). By the time we get to Revolutions, Neo's robot hand signals aren't just shutting down robots, he's exploding them by the hundreds.

And once causality goes away, then so too does any hope of finding any sort of satisfactory ending to the story. In most satisfying film endings, the end comes as a direct understandable consequence of the actions of the characters — though usually in some unexpected way. Not so, once character causality has disappeared. Instead, special effects simply start erupting out of things randomly, Agent Smith gets eaten by unexplained light beams, the dead body of Neo is ported off into a glowing electronic vagina, and the marginal characters, added only for the sake of the sequels and their lifeless plot mechanics, stride off into a cheerfully multicolored sunset reminiscent of a Lisa Frank catalog.

As a counterpoint to Terminator, United Air was also playing Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. No surprise that the director, "McG," spent his days churning out MTV spots before the Angels movies — Full Throttle is just a chain of music-vid-like set pieces. The plot is even less substantive than in Terminator or Revolutions, but one dosen't really expect the three Angels to be involved in any sort of drama or genuine predicament. The action is so over the top, TV commercial characterizations and candy cane sexuality, that there's no need to worry about story. Just a loopy chain of explosions, car crashes, and musical numbers. Entertainingly harmless when watched on a TV or a 5-inch airline-seat screen, though I can easily imagine the experience being claustrophobic in a darkened theatre.

Full Throttle also has Bernie Mac, an actor whose screen persona so often seems to be out of control, though I suspect that in person he's as measured and exacting in his work as a jeweler.

Bernie Mac deadpans his way beautifully through a supporting role in the winning movie of recent weeks, Bad Santa. There's more genuine astonishment and entertainment value in the first three minutes of Bad Santa than in the previous three films combined.

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