Of the top five highest-grossing rated R films of all time, few have made a bigger cultural impact than The Matrix franchise.
From its entry into the world’s political and cultural discourse via the concept of “red pill” awakenings to its role as an allegorical touchstone for what to expect in the coming virtual realities of the metaverse, The Matrix has extended far beyond its cinematic origins.
But ask a film fan what they think of the Matrix films and, generally, they are quick to tell you, somewhat aloofly, that they only like the first film, not the sequels. However, the numbers don’t support those claims. The Matrix Reloaded, the second film in the series, is the most successful of them all, grossing $741 million at theaters around the world.
After that release, things went downhill quickly, with The Matrix Revolutions, the third film, grossing just a little more than half as much as the first sequel at $427 million. The trend continued in 2021 with The Matrix Resurrections, which pulled in just $37 million in the US, and only $156 million worldwide.
There was never supposed to be a fourth Matrix film
The seductive pull of potentially massive sequel revenue has often driven Hollywood to squeeze every last drop of ticket sales from an otherwise exhausted storyline. In the case of The Matrix, the public’s response to the first film’s mind-bending plot and innovative “bullet time” special effects were so successful that Warner Bros. Pictures moved to confirm two sequels just months after the release of the first film in 1999.
And when it comes to science fiction, the lure is especially strong. The top 10 most successful live-action sequels of all time all fall into that genre, with Star Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens leading the way at $2 billion. If a science fiction release succeeds with moviegoers, a sequel is almost always on the table.
Although the directors, the Wachowski sisters, the studio, and the first film’s lead producer, Joel Silver, were all eagerly engaged in launching the first two sequels, it turns out that it was never supposed to go any further than the trilogy. “That will never happen,” said Silver when asked about the possibility of additional sequels following the release of Revolutions in 2003.
In fact, prior to the release of Reloaded, the studio released a teaser for The Animatrix, a series of animated short films designed to build out the backstory of The Matrix universe and answer any lingering questions not answered by the trilogy. That animated collection was released direct-to-DVD in 2003 for home video. Since then, the only other non-live action Matrix material came in the form of the recent The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, made to promote the Resurrections sequel.
Nearly twenty years later, the wisdom of Silver’s original pledge has been borne out through the fourth film in the series, which largely repeats what happened in the first Matrix.
The cultural impact of The Matrix
Kaori Sakamoto, Japan’s 2022 Olympic bronze medalist in figure skating, was just three years old when the orchestral track “Chateau” by Rob Dougan, the music behind her most famous routine, debuted in Reloaded. But despite her temporal disconnect, the transcendent Matrix fight scene continues to inspire her and many others exposed to the Wachowskis’ universe.
And when tech luminaries like Elon Musk inject the now viral notion that we may be living in a simulation into the social media space, the shadow of The Matrix looms larger over the conversation than the widely cited philosophical essay on the topic by Nick Bostrom. Prior to Bostrom, figures like roboticist Hans Moravec and philosopher René Descartes explored the notion, but the Wachowskis’ film has become the most widely consumed version of the concept.
At this point, it’s difficult to deny that The Matrix has influenced film, fashion, and the way we think about reality itself over several generations. Nevertheless, the reductive ideas that echo in Resurrections, and the public’s tepid reaction to it, demonstrate that sometimes sequels can diminish an original film’s brilliance in a way that taints it forever.
The cost of sequels to the legacy of the original work
Films like Citizen Kane, A Clockwork Orange, and Inception continue to fascinate cinephiles today. Part of the ongoing enchantment with those stories is the fact that they, well, ended. A complete thought was rendered, leaving the viewer to ponder the meaning of it all, for decades into the future.
Still, sequels can deliver cinema gold. The Merovingian’s programmable-sex-dessert scene, accented by a flourish of French profanity in Reloaded was fun. The “Burly Brawl,” during which Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths was a mind-bending screen innovation. And the highway car chase in which Morpheus uses a samurai sword to destroy a moving car was a high point in the history of Hollywood action sequences.
Many diehard Matrix fans made peace with the decidedly less engaging Revolutions because Reloaded had genuine moments of cinematic brilliance. But the arrival of Resurrections many years later has recast the Matrix sequels, as a whole, as a cynical folly, more focused on profit than the legacy of the narrative.
The business case for the sequels has, mostly, paid off. Still, what continues to resonate with the public is mostly found in the first film. Unfortunately, the vibrant pulse of the original seems to be fading into the background noise generated by each successive sequel in the series.
Less is more is the antithesis of sequels, and the linchpin of a classic
“Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed,” wrote Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s analysis is a potent breadcrumb pointing toward why The Matrix would likely be far more revered as a seminal work it is if had it ended with the first film.
At the end of The Matrix, Neo warns the AI system of his new powers, telling it, “Where we go from there, is a choice I leave to you…” just before demonstrating a new trick—flying across the dense virtual reality cityscape on his own power.
That instance of unlimited possibility and wonder, may be the last truly great moment in the franchise’s history. Like many important film moments that happen just off camera, the viewer’s imagination is the most powerful tool a filmmaker has at their disposal.
With that ending, the Wachowskis kicked off a multi-decade obsession with the world of The Matrix as the audience attempted to fill in the gaps of what might happen next in such a world presented by the film.
There is a fine line between an idea that is so good it must be elaborated upon, and an idea that is so perfectly executed, saying anything else weakens its overall gravitational pull. The makers of The Matrix sequels crossed that line. And now it’s clear that they should have taken the blue pill, and let the first film stand on its own, forever.