Friday, 27 May 2011

Rabbit-Hole Theory: Jittery as a June Apocalypse

[This is part of an unfinished series looking at the Matrix trilogy of films from the perspective of immersive storytelling—where they worked, where they didn't, and how this might have affected their success as films. See also: trenchcoats and turquoise skies.]

One of the best scenes in The Matrix, probably the best scene for dialogue, is Neo's conversation with the Oracle. Neo finds himself ushered into a cramped little apartment kitchen where an oldish, chainsmoking African American woman with a triangular bob haircut is preoccupied baking cookies. 1930s jazz music plays quietly from an old radio in the background. Despite all the mystery surrounding her, she's unaffected and down-to-earth, a knowing smile ready because she's about to do Neo's brain over with the whole vase thing. She says to him, removing her oven mitts, 'Not quite what you were expecting, right?'

The Oracle in her kitchen baking cookies

She subsequently trips Neo through a conversation that leaves him with his head on backwards, ready to inadvertently do the right thing and prove to everyone that he's the One.

We don't find out that the Oracle's a program until the sequels, and had they never been made, we might never have known for sure. But I don't remember the ambiguity over her foresight being a problem. I guess it's because the whole prophecy thing never seems to be based on more than a kind of religious belief amongst the rebels anyway, and at that point we're just like Neo, not sure how much of all this crazy Matrix stuff is actually soaking through our blank expressions to our brains.

The Oracle smoking a cigarette

In any case, it certainly helped in terms of believability to have the Oracle so grounded in this unpretentiously charming, apartment-dwelling context. She even ostensibly checks for Oneness by having Neo stick his tongue out and makes an ironic show of reading his palms. It's brilliant, because we leave the encounter not sure quite what just happened but prepared to take her warnings seriously. She doesn't seem completely off her head, and even suggests ever so lightly that the fanatical Morpheus might be. We feel we can rest assured that she knows more than anyone else, whether that's because she can really see into the future or not.

Everything she says is sleight of hand and designed to be selectively interpreted, which may seem more ridiculous the more you watch the scene, but she never sounds outright prophetic. Even her ominous statements regarding Morpheus sound merely like fears about the inevitability of his character rather than foresight of the actual plot, however much the latter might turn out to be true.

The Oracle and Neo sitting on a park bench

Then you have the sequels. In Reloaded, Neo meets her for the first time since they introduced themselves, after a quick kung-fu session with her bodyguard. He finds her sitting on a bench in a tenement park, feeding the pigeons. From this point on, the Wachowskis awkwardly try to replicate the charm of that first scene. It starts with an exchange about Neo trying to refuse the invitation to sit down, which is cute but feels stiff and hamfisted in making a point of Neo's resistance to fate and in its reminder that the Oracle knows best. It continues in this vein without subtlety, and the Oracle offers candy just so they can use it for some really clunky philosophical discussion about choice.

It's natural that Neo is more demanding of her in the sequels, having become wary of her manipulation after the last time, so all the clever sleight of hand isn't going to fly so well this time and she has to be more direct. But when she starts talking about the Matrix in its naked technical terms, about deletion or assimilation or stuff like that, already she's losing some of that former normality—she's becoming just another talking head in a whole world full of people throwing high concepts about, rather than serving as an anchor in the currents of disbelief.

The Oracle offers Neo candy

Additionally, when she's done with the blatant philosophy seminar, they do an awkward job of trying to wrap her mannerisms around several of Reloaded's more unseemly plot aspects. The two discuss Neo's dream visions, which in the first place robs the whole foresight thing of any subtlety and quite possibly any logic it might have had (on which more later), and she sounds almost like a hypnotherapist when she asks stuff such as, 'Do you see a door of light?' and 'What happens when you go through the door?' Then she informs him, 'You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at a world without time.' Oh, OK then.

And then she talks offhandedly about all the vampires and angels and aliens people might have seen and how these are actually exile programs (on which more later), before giving him instructions to go see a French guy with a ridiculous name (on which more later).

Not quite what you were expecting, right?

In Revolutions, in addition to the actress switch, she enters full prophetess-of-doom mode. 'Everything that has a beginning has an end,' she intones. 'I see the end coming. I see the darkness spreading. I see death.' All she lacks is a crystal ball.

The Oracle in Revolutions, played by a different actress

She basically drops fortune bricks on Neo's head, and yet is frustratingly unspecific about things when there seems to be no reason for it, quite possibly because the Wachowskis' logic just doesn't go any deeper with that whole balanced equations, yin-to-Smith's-yang thing anyway.

In down-the-rabbit-hole terms, the Oracle has simply lost her touch. Rather than giving the fantastical a grounded texture and dealing with it subtly and unmelodramatically, she winds up doing the exact opposite, becoming abstract and overliteral and undermining all the little ironies that made her first scene so effective. The very thing that originally made her a compelling, convincing character—not playing the whole Oracle fortune-teller thing straight—is mostly swept aside in favour of someone who sits there doing much of the convoluted plot's heavylifting.

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