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"Matrix' meltdown

The war between minds and machines is over. The machines won.

That isn't a spoiler for the finale of The Matrix Revolutions, but an assessment of what went wrong with Larry and Andy Wachowski's superior conundrum posed in The Matrix four years ago. Maybe they never expected to make two sequels and were caught flat-footed and flat out of ideas. Perhaps they believed enough fireworks and zigzag Zen doublespeak would throw us off track long enough to make three killings.

Whatever their intent, this third and hopefully final episode of the Matrix series is a numbing disappointment, even for those of us who held faith through The Matrix Reloaded last spring. That film was troubling, though also praiseworthy, for taking the saga of Neo the savior of mankind into completely different territory. Now it seems the Wachowski brothers digitally painted themselves into a corner from which there is no satisfying escape.

Oh, how we long for a return to the thrilling days of the original Matrix, when Neo (Keanu Reeves) was an ordinary man in an increasingly impersonal world. Someone we could relate to, before he became a superhero messiah and someone we cannot. When Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) was a sleek, chic killing machine rather than just another lovestruck female reason for the hero to keep trying. When Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) wasn't such a pudgy, passive Neo disciple and that trio (plus the lamentably departed Joe Pantoliano) was so compelling that the Wachowskis didn't need to keep piling on increasingly unimportant characters.

This is how an arbitrarily planned trilogy ends, not with a bang but with confusion compounded by a needless compulsion to keep raising the bar on special effects. How ironic that the salvation of mankind from control by machines is aided by souped-up Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots rather than human cleverness. In a perfect Matrix finale, human nature would win with weapons machines can't possess _ compassion, faith, emotion. Those qualities are included in part three, but only through bystanders.

In the imperfect Matrix conclusion the Wachowskis haphazardly devise, humans can't beat them, so they join them in a second-hour torrent of superbazookas aimed at metallic flying calamari and a brawl between flying warriors. What began as a superb mind game has dwindled into pyrotechnical overload. Now only the dumbest viewers can enjoy it.

When the movie begins, Neo is caught in limbo between the real world of Zion and the Matrix-induced world that looks just like ours. An encounter with a small child and her parents informs Neo that he can't cross over on a supernatural subway train. Later he can, after Trinity and Morpheus force the hand of the Frenchman (Lambert Wilson), a fixer who will present Neo in exchange for the eyes of the Oracle. The Oracle is played by Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster, a switch clumsily woven into the nefarious Matrix fabric.

The Oracle's eyes never again are part of the plot, a shame because tension between Neo and the woman guiding his hand might be interesting. Instead, Neo takes command of a Zion warship to visit the Machine City, setting up a final showdown with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the Matrix enforcer growing more powerful than the system. Meanwhile, Trinity frets, Morpheus sweats and practically everything philosophical that fans of the series have debated since 1999 goes flying out the window like a drop-kicked villain.

In place of diversified philosophy and brain teasers we get a 14-minute siege of Zion that ends triumphantly before we learn that victory only made things worse. Neo is nowhere for these proceedings, as an almost entirely new cast does the heavy lifting. Why the Wachowskis convince us that Neo is "the one," then leave him on the sidelines for the second act, is puzzling.

When he returns, Neo's fight with Agent Smith _ looking remarkably like the earlier ones _ consumes most of the third act. Their head-butting in midair looks like Justice League of America stuff, all flight and no fancy. There is tragedy and death among the principals, plus too many reunion hugs for comfort, yet there is no emotional weight to these events. We've lost the ability to care for these characters, gradually pulled out of our hearts by the Wachowskis' soulless transformation of the series.

Granted, the special effects are impressively chaotic, yet the filmmakers are so reluctant to repeat themselves that their groundbreaking "bullet-time" opticals and wire stunts are all but ignored. Those tricks made the first movie special and the second one tolerable. I would prefer to see cliches the Wachowskis created, not the kind of boom-boom cinema any hack can devise these days.

The Matrix Revolutions should sound the alarm for filmmakers believing an eager-to-pay audience _ like Quentin Tarantino's, or the Star Wars crowd _ is an automatic excuse to stretch one great idea over more than one movie. Disappointments like this may teach those eager to pay to be less eager to please.

The Matrix Revolutions

Grade: C-

Directors: Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mary Alice, Monica Bellucci, Nona Gaye, Ian Bliss, Sing Ngai, Bruce Spence

Screenplay: Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Rating: R; violence, profanity, brief sexuality

Running time: 129 min.

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