I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Finale

Ever since the creation of CGI, Hollywood showdowns have become more elaborate than ever before. Once limited by what could be accomplished in camera, we can now enjoy the spectacle of people flying, jumping, kicking, and beating the tar out of each other in elaborate environments, using feats that could only be accomplished with the aid of computers. However, bigger, better effects don’t always lead to better fights.

The Matrix trilogy, as a whole, mostly avoids the problem of emotionally hollow duels. When taken in as one continuous story, the Matrix saga (including ‘The Animatrix’ and ‘Enter the Matrix’) has a strong start and a strong ending: The stakes are high, the risks are high, and Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are all in real danger when they fight. But it’s the second act, with ‘Reloaded,’ that things stumble. There’s plenty of fights and duels, but it often feels more like spectacle than a clash where anyone can die, or be seriously injured. The fight against Seraph, for example, feels like padding in a film that’s already taking an unusually long time to get going, and the Burly Brawl – while being a visual treat – adds little to the story beyond showing that Smith can clone himself, and foreshadowing Neo’s final line in the series.

In going through the Matrix series again for these articles, I realized that there was something else I didn’t pick up on until I had seen all the movies and games: Many of the duels and fights in ‘Reloaded’ could be trimmed or even cut out, and that’s because:

1. The duels mostly feel like action for the sake of action.

2. It doesn’t feel like the characters are in danger, or that or that terrible things will happen if they fail

The first and third film’s duels work because it’s clear that if Neo and his companions fail, the repercussions will be awful; when Neo fights Bane onboard the Logos, you can feel the desperation and urgency as he and Bane clobber each other. When Morpheus fights Smith in the first film, you know he’s in a losing battle. People get hurt, scuffed up, and bleed. In ‘Reloaded,’ however, that sense of danger is mostly gone, save for When Neo and Morpheus fight Smith in the hallway on the way to the Architect. Duels frequently end with people and programs walking away none the worse for wear. If both the protagonist and the antagonist are obviously going to walk away unscathed, then there’s no urgency or danger, and the audience won’t be as involved than if they knew that, say, Trinity could have her head cut off with a chainsaw if she fails to outrun Agent Smith.

So, what can we learn from the Matrix series when it comes to duels?

*Any duel works best when it has a strong reason to take place, and that there are repercussions if the protagonist fails.

*Make sure that your characters can get tired and suffer injuries, such as being cut, sliced, smashed, or having broken noses, busted lips, or even snapped limbs (it’s jarring how Neo can fight hundreds of Smiths without so much as a bruise, scrape, or broken glasses).

*Make sure the duel have a solid reason for existing. If it assists or impedes the antagonist and protagonist in reaching their goal and moves the story along, it will likely turn out well. If the duel is primarily to showcase an action scene, it might need to be revamped, or scrapped altogether.

Follow these three guidelines, and we can make duels that grip viewers and don’t let go, whether they’re simple fistfights in a room, or elaborate spectacles made by the best CGI Hollywood has to offer.

If you’d like to reread previous entries in this series (in chronological order), you can find them here:

The Matrix

The Animatrix

The Matrix Reloaded

Enter the Matrix

The Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix: Path of Neo

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 3

This week, I was going to take a look at the duels in the movie, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, but I realized there were two other chapters of the Matrix series that I had forgotten about: The 2003 direct-to-dvd anthology series, ‘The Animatrix,’ and the videogame, ‘Enter the Matrix,’ which looks at the events of ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ from the perspective of Niobe and Ghost, two minor characters who appeared briefly in the film and its follow-up. While neither are required viewing for fans of the films, both do a good job expanding the Matrix universe, and today, we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘Enter.’

Please note that while there are several duels in in ‘Enter the Matrix,’ many – like Niobe and Ghost’s fights against the leaders of the Merovingian’s vampire and werewolf henchmen – add little to the story beyond needing to defeat an enemy to progress or rescue someone, so we’ll be looking at the more substantial and interesting fights.

Niobe vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Niobe has to defeat an agent so she can escape with her life

Analysis: The first big duel of the game has Niobe saving one of her fellow Zion operatives from the cargo hold of a C-5 galaxy in flight. But after saving him, she then has to deal with an agent; unlike Neo, Niobe is an average Matrix operative who can’t stop bullets or fly. She’s facing a foe far stronger, faster, and more skilled than her, and who can’t be defeated with martial arts or bullets, while trapped on a plane and unable to escape.

This fight is a good example of how duels can be more interesting when one character is hopelessly outmatched, and victory is a matter of surviving, not killing an opponent. In this instance, Niobe – the underdog who doesn’t stand a chance of defeating Agent Johnson in a one-on-one fight – triumphs by opening the cargo hatch and knocking Johnson off the plane.

Ghost vs Trinity

Emotional Context: Ghost and Trinity spar to let off some steam and relax

Analysis: Much like Neo sparring with Morpheus in the first film, this duel is not about killing anyone or fighting to complete an objective in the war between humans and machines. It’s two characters relaxing during some downtime by sparring with each other. It’s easy to label this fight as pure fanservice, as it gives players the chance to duel Trinity, and could be cut from the game without affecting the storyline. But it does help to build upon ‘Enter the Matrix’s most surprising storyline: Trinity’s relationship with Ghost. Unlike so many other love triangles featuring people squabbling and sparring over who loves who, ‘Enter’ has both Ghost and Trinity acknowledge that while they love each other as friends, their relationship will never go beyond that, and they’re okay with it.

Ghost vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Ghost has to defeat an agent so he can blow up a nuclear power plant, or the mission will fail, Neo will not be able to see the Architect, and every human on Earth will die. So, no pressure or anything

Analysis: This duel plays out almost exactly like Niobe’s fight against Johnson on the C-5 earlier in the game, with an underdog having to defeat a superior opponent using their wits. What’s different, though, are the stakes. Earlier, Niobe was saving a fellow Zion operative. Here, Ghost has to keep Agent Johnson from killing him so that the reactor can be destroyed, allowing Neo to save humanity. If Ghost dies, the plan will be thrown into chaos, and Neo will fail, raising the stakes and giving the outcome of the fight much greater weight.

Ghost/Niobe vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Ghost/Niobe have to prove themselves to Seraph so that they can see the Oracle

Analysis: Much like Ghost’s fight against Trinity, this duel is about giving players another opportunity to fight against one of the characters from the films. However, unlike Neo’s spar with Seraph in ‘Reloaded,’ the duel doesn’t slow down the pacing of the game’s story, since it comes later instead of earlier. It also explains that Seraph doesn’t fight people to see who they are, but to test their heart’s resolve, a much more focused and specific answer than, ‘you do not know someone until you fight them.’

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘The Animatrix.’

Great Quotes About Writing – Bathroom Breaks

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘Any scene in a movie must either expand the plot or develop character and the Burly Brawl did neither. Basically the “point” of a scene is that if you happened to go to the bathroom at that scene, you would miss some critical piece of information. If you missed the Burly Brawl you just missed a fight and nothing more…it’s not like at some other point in the movie you’re gonna be like “wait I don’t get that” “Oh dude, that’s cause you missed the burly brawl”. It was totally pointless other then an interesting action piece. ‘

-Puckducker2001, in this comment thread (emphasis mine)

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the duels in the first Matrix film. Being the biggest surprise of 1999 (quite a feat considering the cultural juggernaut that was ‘The Phantom Menace’), it’s not surprising the film got two sequels, and bigger budgets to allow for more lavish and spectacular action scenes. But is bigger always better? Let stake a look at ‘Reloaded’s duels and find out.

Neo vs Upgraded Agents

Emotional Context: Neo holds off three agents from getting to his fellow rebels.

Analysis: The first duel in ‘Reloaded’ is short, but shows how Neo has grown since the first film. No longer is he the wide-eyed rebel who was pushed to the brink of death trying to defeat Smith in a fight: now he’s a stylishly-dressed warrior monk who can easily take out three agents without breaking a sweat, all with a minimum of flashy moves. It’s a brief, but effective fight that tells us a lot about Neo’s skills, setting the stage for his later fights.

Neo vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Neo duels Seraph to prove that he’s worthy of seeing the Oracle

Analysis: This duel feels like a logical attempt to inject some action into a scene that would otherwise play out like this:

Neo: Hello?

Seraph: You seek the Oracle.

Neo: Yes.

Seraph: What is your name?

Neo: Neo

Seraph: Can I see your ID?

*Neo hands Seraph his driver’s license*

Seraph: Good. Come. She is waiting.

In the film’s defense, having Seraph test his visitors by fighting them to see how determined they are to see the Oracle is an intriguing way of vetting someone’s character. But at this point in the story, Neo needs to get to the Oracle and discuss vital information regarding saving Zion. Pausing the film to have him fight Seraph just slows things down when the story needs to keep going.

The Burly Brawl

Emotional Context: None.

Analysis: If you were to ask a fan of the Matrix series what scene they would choose to sum up ‘Reloaded’, the Burly Brawl would be a good choice. As one of the more hyped scenes of the film before its release, it’s an impressive feat of CGI and visual spectacle, managing to pit Neo against a hundred Agent Smiths at once. However, while this scene is fun to watch, it has one substantial flaw: It does nothing to advance the story. Zion has less than twenty four hours before the machines come in and blast it into dust, and Neo, having just learned about the Keymaker’s existence, should logically want to find him as quickly as possible. Instead, he takes several minutes out of his busy schedule to fight multiple Smiths before realizing that punching, kicking, and hitting them doesn’t seem to be working (with the exception of the Smith who literally breaks into pieces upon hitting a glass wall at 1:43 in the second clip) and flies away.

The Burly Brawl is impressive from a technical and cinematic viewpoint, but it doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way outside of showing that Smith can now make copies of himself, and that Neo is now really good at fighting. A more logical fight could have Neo trying to get away to find the Keymaker, only to be swarmed by Smith doing everything in his power to keep him grounded and assimilated. Or, we could go with the fight as it was presented in ‘The Path of Neo’ and have Neo resort to taking out the buildings to stop Smith before flying away:

The Twins Fight

Emotional Context: Morpheus and Neo fight to get the Keymaker to safety while holding off two foes they can’t defeat.

Analysis: While it’s the shortest duel in the film, this brief fight comes closest to the feel of the original film. Morpheus and Trinity – while highly-skilled – aren’t Neo. We know they can be hurt or killed, making them the underdogs as they struggle to hold off the French prick’s Merovingian’s albino henchmen, who can materialize and de-materialize at will, making it exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to put them down for good. Morpheus and Trinity are outclassed here, adding considerably more suspense and a sense of danger than if Neo were fighting, but they manage to accomplish their goal of getting the Keymaker to safety, showing that in stories, running away from a fight can be a better choice than trying to defeat an antagonist.

Morpheus vs the Agent

Emotional Context: Morpheus has to protect the Keymaker from being killed by an agent.

Analysis: What I like about this fight (which is my favorite in ‘Reloaded’) is that it’s essentially a rematch between Morpheus and Smith… once again, Morpheus doesn’t win. Morpheus may be Neo’s mentor, but he’s still the underdog here, struggling to survive against a vastly-superior opponent while protecting the Keymaker; unlike Neo, he’s hit quite a bit and thrown around, coming dangerously close to death several times, and not even wielding a sword against an unarmed opponent is enough to secure victory, giving the fight a sense of danger and urgency.

In the end, Morpheus only wins by taking advantage of the agent being distracted: Like the duel with the Twins, Morpheus’ victory isn’t in defeating his opponent, but in getting out of the fight alive while completing his objective. Personal glory or victory means nothing when there’s something greater is on the line.

Hallway fight

Emotional Context: Neo and Morpheus have to get to the door leading to the Architect while also protecting the Keymaker

Analysis: The last duel of ‘Reloaded’ could be seen as a mini-version of the Burly Brawl, but is, in my opinion, much better. It has a solid goal for both the protagonists and antagonists (Get the Keymaker to the right door, and stop/assimilate the heroes, respectively), but the tight confines makes Neo, Morpheus, and the Keymaker’s escape a difficult proposition, not to mention being outnumbered. Even better, this is one time where Neo’s superhuman abilities are negated: he can handle Smith by himself, but he has to protect Morpheus and the Keymaker, who aren’t as strong as him, which adds more suspense to the scene. And as a final twist, we, the viewer, know that if Neo and the others get to the door before Trinity disarms the bombs, they’ll be blown to pieces. Thus, we have a paradox: Neo and the others have to get to the Architect’s door, but if they get to it too soon, they’ll die, and they don’t know that.

Though it may be quite small for a final fight of a film, the Hallway Fight is a great example of a fight that moves the plot forward, has multiple layers beyond ‘punch everyone to death,’ and adds in some twists that the audience knows about, but the characters don’t.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels of the third and final Matrix film, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.’