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Take the red pill: Every 'Matrix' movie, ranked

It's time to celebrate two decades of The Matrix in pop culture storytelling as we rank all of the films in the mythology.

The Matrix

Way back in 1999, the Wachowskis redefined the science fiction/action genre with their seminal cyberpunk classic, The Matrix, an original dystopian story that posed that humanity existed entirely within the constructs of a simulated reality. Humans going about their mundane existences is a facade when in reality they are harvested and maintained by intelligent machines as organic energy sources. It’s only when hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) discovers the truth that he embraces his role as Neo, “The One” who will liberate humanity from the machines' Matrix.

22+ years later, The Matrix has ascended to the rarified air of franchise status with four films — The Matrix Resurrections opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Dec. 22 — an anime anthology, and several official comics, books, and video games. It’s also been the darling of academics, technologists, philosophers, and many others who have dissected the films for their myriad of influences in both the visual and narrative spectrums. 

With the latest chapter in the tale imminent, SYFY WIRE figured it was high time to swallow the red pill and dive into the rabbit hole of trying to rank the films for how they stack up in the overall narrative of the world.

5. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

With the two Matrix sequels commissioned and shot together, it’s really splitting hairs to try and separate the pair considering they are creative twins. Both have big flaws when it comes to their overall stories, but The Matrix Reloaded has some glaring elements that weigh it down. In particular, it opens with that extremely unsexy orgy and then comes to a climax (no pun intended) with the interminably bad exposition dump between the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) and Neo. Smooshed in the middle are some strong plusses, like memorably weird character turns from Monica Belluci as Persephone and Lambert Wilson as the Merovingian, the introduction of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Captain Niobe, and that crazy ambitious action sequence on a highway they built just for the movie.

4. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

We give a slight nudge up to The Matrix Revolutions for embracing an all-out war vibe as Zion goes on the defense from the Sentinels. Played in parallel is Neo’s journey with Trinity to Machine City, as he is determined to fulfill his destiny in what becomes an epic battle against Smith (Hugo Weaving). While the last act fight goes on too long, it helps set the stage for the sacrifice of Neo, which still has a lot of resonance amongst all of the very loud and busy action sequences. Having Neo and Trinity say goodbye to one another is a gut punch, leaving audiences and the trilogy with a bittersweet tinge. 

3. The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

Only Lana Wachowski returns this time to co-write and direct this new installment of the franchise, which takes place 20-years after the events of The Matrix Revolutions. Using the ages of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss to add gravitas to their characters, Wachowski also weaves two decades worth of real-world technological fails, pop culture criticism and meta reflection into this continuation of Neo and Trinity’s stories and the mythology of the franchise. While it may not be as groundbreaking visually or action-wise, there’s a lot more biting social commentary to chew on that reframes what came before and holds a mirror up to humanity’s strident failures in the last two decades. It’s a more streamlined story, free from the pretension of the sequels, and it brings the story back to Neo and Trinity, as it should.

2. The Animatrix (2003)

The perfect sidebar project to explore the Matrix mythology, the Animatrix anthology collects nine original stories into one feature-length film created by some of the best anime storytellers in the medium. Think the precursor to Love, Death and Robots as the Wachowskis wrote four stories within the Animatrix and then added handed the reins to luminaries like Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), Koji Morimoto (Akira), Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), Academy-Award winning visualist Mahiro Maeda and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D). From noir to early CG, the stories cover the visual gamut of animation styles and feature the voice talents of many of the films' cast members. It would be a blistering watch even if the stories had nothing to do with the mythology, but they do, so you'll get lots of interesting mythology lessons too.

1. The Matrix (1999)

As is often the case, it’s hard to beat the original and that is certainly true with The Matrix. For many, walking out of the movie theater post-watch was an experience akin to seeing Star Wars in 1977. Both were seminal moments in science fiction cinematic storytelling and both changed the game in terms of eye-popping visuals. The Matrix was also the movie that propelled Keanu Reeves into superstar status and introduced an original female hero, Trinity, who was equal to Neo in all ways. Every frame felt like an enigma wrapped inside a riddle, but the Wachowskis made sure to pay off the mythology in extremely satisfying ways. It's a classic for many reasons and one that still endures as we navigate technology's all-consuming space in our lives. 

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