When the Wachowski brothers’ surprise 1999 hit, “The Matrix,” won all the technical-category Oscars that were expected to go to “Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace,” the Academy Awards voters were clearly endorsing freshness over formula.
But when the first of the sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded,” opened in theaters last summer, the freshness was missing. Burdened with over-the-top pretensions, mumbo-jumbo dialogue and the most exhausting car chase $150 million could buy, it packed theaters for a couple of weeks. Then attendance dropped significantly.
Ever since the disappointment of “Reloaded,” there’s been some question as to whether it was a good idea to spring another “Matrix” installment on moviegoers within the same calendar year. Remember what happened to “Back to the Future 3,” released just a few months after “Back to the Future 2”? It faded so quickly that most fans of the original didn’t even realize the series had switched genres, from time-travel fantasy to full-scale Western.
Nevertheless, the third installment in the “Matrix” trilogy is already here, and there is no genre-switching. Alas. Once more, Neo the potential messiah (Keanu Reeves) is joined by his main squeeze Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the fatherly Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to do battle with a software-created world and the shape-shifting malevolence of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
Once more there are multiple Smiths (and Weavings), and they’ve taken over the body of Neo’s schizzy shipmate, Bane (Ian Bliss). The reluctant Frenchman Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) is persuaded to help out, while The Oracle, chain-smoking dispenser of cookies and fortune-cookie wisdom, turns up in the shape of Mary Alice. (The late Gloria Foster played her in the first two films, and the change is cutely acknowledged.)
Unlike “Reloaded,” this new “Matrix” doesn’t leave the audience hanging in mid-narrative. Producer Joel Silver claims this really is the end, even if the finale does hint at more installments to come. But “Revolutions” still makes most of the same mistakes as “Reloaded.”
The Wachowskis, Andy and Larry, replace clever plotting with furious action, then substitute massive sets and special effects for character development. And there’s still too much dialogue that comes from the “wherever you go, there you are” school of circuitous profundity.
Under the circumstances, the actors can do little but stay out of the way of the heavy machinery — which includes a ferocious drill that breaks through Neo’s pals’ defenses and threatens to wipe out the human race. There’s a “Star Trek” cheesiness about too many of the performances; the romantic chemistry between Reeves and Moss has never been harder to buy.
A few touches surprise: an impromptu trip through a packed disco, the brutal exit of one major character, and a subway stop that operates on principles similar to Harry Potter’s train station. Neo finds himself stranded in this purgatory, punished by a grotesque creature who thinks he’s God and won’t let him leave.
“OK, you got yourself in here,” says Neo to himself. “You can get yourself out.” The way Reeves says it, he might be thinking about his career.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com