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Floppy sequel only partially successful

The whole gang has returned for The Matrix Revolutions, the third and final chapter in the sci-fi series that began with 1999's The Matrix and continued with this summer's The Matrix Reloaded. Neo. Morpheus. Trinity. Agent Smith. Chewbacca. Jabba the Hutt. And so on.

It may seem like I'm cross-pollinating characters from two popular fantasy epics, but as I watched Revolutions -- easily the least satisfying entry in the trilogy -- I was struck by how much the movie reminded me of Return of the Jedi, the third picture in George Lucas' original Star Wars series.

Take the beginnings. Before Jedi's story proper could commence (you know, all that stuff about the eternal battle between the good and dark sides of the Force), Han Solo had to be rescued by his friends -- including lady love Leia -- from the clutches of the malevolent Jabba the Hutt in what basically amounted to a stand-alone interlude. Here, Neo (Keanu Reeves) similarly has to be rescued by his friends -- including lady love Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) -- from the clutches of the malevolent Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) in what is also an episode largely separated from the rest of the picture.

Then take the endings. While Luke is off engaging in his duel to the death with Darth Vader, his comrades are busy (both on the ground and at the controls of a trusty spaceship) trying to save an entire planet from being overrun by rapidly multiplying Stormtroopers. Here, while Neo is off engaging in his duel to the death with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), his comrades are likewise occupied (both on the ground and, yup, at the controls of a trusty spaceship) trying to save their entire world from being overrun by rapidly multiplying Sentinels.

The comparison even extends to the presence of woman warrior Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who's been forcibly shoehorned into the second and third films of this series about as clumsily as Lando Calrissian was in the earlier space opera.

I only harp on these similarities because "lack of originality" is about the last term that comes to mind when discussing The Matrix. If nothing else, the first two pictures were unique achievements unto themselves, with very few screen antecedents either in terms of storyline or technical innovation. By fusing together popular sci-fi concepts with religious allegories, writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski managed to create with the original Matrix perhaps the headiest fantasy excursion since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And while the recent Reloaded led to grousing in some circles, it was clear that the brothers had more to say, deepening Neo's quest for the truth in his computer-generated universe, introducing a handful of exciting new characters, and staging two magnificent action set pieces.

In Revolutions, only the visceral impact remains. In some ways, that's enough: The visuals in this third installment are fantastic, and the machines' full-scale assault on the human city of Zion ranks among the most impressive onscreen battles in recent memory. As a joyride of a movie, this one delivers the goods.

But on a human level, it's clear that the Wachowskis allowed the series to get away from them. Having introduced so much compelling material in the first two films, the pair apparently discovered too late that there simply wasn't enough time to adequately explore it all in this entry, not with so many battle royales to conduct. Thus, two fascinating characters presented in Reloaded, Merovingian and the double-dealing Persephone (Monica Belluci), are completely forgotten after one short sequence, while the series mainstays, Neo, Trinity and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), have largely been drained of personality, existing only to stand around mouthing the Wachowskis' increasingly vague philosophies.

Too bad. The Matrix Revolutions is certainly no disgrace -- it trumps most series' third entries (Alien 3, anyone?) and will probably stand up to repeat viewings quite nicely. But for a series that began with audiences gleefully agreeing with Neo's declaration of "Whoa!," this one is sure to leave as many moviegoers shrugging, "So?"

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