The Matrix Reloaded
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in One Category!
Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Harold Perrineau, Harry J. Lennix, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gloria Foster, Anthony Zerbe, Monica Bellucci, Lambert Wilson, Randall Duk Kim, Helmut Bakaitis, Sing Ngai, Ian Bliss, Adrian Rayment, Neil Rayment, Nathaniel Lees, Steve Bastoni, Nona M. Gaye, Cornel West. Screenplay: Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
That sound you hear is of ranks, breaking. The Wachowski Brothers' much-ballyhooed sequel to their preposterously successful The Matrix has finally bowed, but an unexpected system failure has transpired. The fansa legion of keyboard warriors who, if they were equally concerted and passionate about anything else as they (you?) are about these films, could really be getting something done, like perhaps saving the planetare divided. Some early reactions have been euphoric: the Wachowskis have done it again, bigger and better, so on and so forth. But then there are the others, the dissenters, the awakening minority. Why is the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded so drawn-out? Why do we spend so much time in Zion, where nothing much happens? Why the utter polarization of action from dialogue, so that fights are always wordless, and speakers are always uncomfortably rigid? Who turned Neo into Superman? What’s with the crass digital money shot? And with all that money in the bank, all those super-powers, all those late-night Zionist ecstasies, all those French desserts, all those hyperstimulated cyber-vaginas, why does everyoneNeo, sure, but Trinity, Morpheus, and a host of newbies, too, even the orgasmic woman in the restaurant...why do they all look so glum?
I am delighted that The Matrix Reloaded has encountered these bugs. I am also amazed, for I presumed that this film was critic-proof, fool-proof, whatever-proof. The original Matrix patently did not require a well-shaped story, an internally coherent premise, a richness of real ideas, or a capaciousness of spirit along its way to becoming a commercial and conversational phenomenon. Only the most superficial image of these thingsart, craft, sincerity, complexitywas in the offing, yet the world has slurped it up. Excuse the long sentence, but: It is a constant amazement to me that contemporary audiences will run in the other direction from 95% of “pretentious art films” that invite or require them to do a little bit of mental work, and yet almost every teenager, pre-teen, college student, and full-grown adult I know is willing to expend endless hours and contort their synapses to help iron out the paradoxes of The Matrix’s plot, and to plumb the film’s philosophical and schematic intertexts (from Plato to Dark City), and to exempt the film from the kind of consensual, unsatisfied contempt with which these same viewers might greet other violent, repetitive, misanthropic summer movies. The Matrix, in fact, is even more misanthropic than most. As I tried to argue in my original review, drawing the predictable ire of fans and cultists, the only forceful ingredients that the Wachowskis contributed to their borrowed, pastiched plot were a disconcertingly frank and murderous paranoia, a slathering gun worship (if you don’t believe me go watch that shoot-’em-up in the building lobby again), and a penchant for shiny leather and sleek design that make their Nietzschean advert for Survival of the Hippest alarmingly easy to swallow.
The Matrix Reloaded preserves much of this basic recipe. Indeed, why wouldn’t it? Four Academy Awards and many hundreds of millions of dollars later, why would the Wachowskis tamper with their own matrix, a shimmering, sellable technophiliac mirage (barely veiled beneath a guise of deploring Machines) that is keeping hundreds of millions of fans exactly where it wants them (in seats, $8 poorer). The first image of the second film duplicates that of the first, except it is More: the cascade of green computerized code rains down the movie screen but then starts spitting out cryptic runes, and then starts taking on a complex, cog-like, three-dimensional shape. The hero of the piece is also the same, except More: Keanu Reeves’ Neo is not just a Dilbert drone with extravagant messianic endowments, he is a full-blown superhero who rockets through the sky and accepts the totemistic offerings of his many (and many-hued) suppliants and apostles.
The villain of the piece is also the same, except More: Hugo Weaving is back as Agent Smith (subway-death be damned!), except now he has a nifty serum with which he can prick unsuspecting strangers and turn them into copies of himself. During one of Reloaded’s major action setpieces, which are also its most tedious and overbaked episodes, Neo must defend himself against an antfarmish swarm of Agent Smiths. F/X types will go gaga over this mêlée, which probably does represent some terrific technological advance; it is notable how enthusiastic reviews of the Matrix movies tend to mimic the film’s own self-serious insistence that a New Day is dawning. The Wachowskis, like Agent Smith, are geniuses at creating fans in their own image.
And yet, after its jolty first impression, this playground tussle x 1000 quickly becomes a chore to regard. Logic is strained: some Agents are felled with weapons and full-body blows, others because Neo just sort of grazes them with his foot while doing his high jumps. And of course the whole thing is made instantly pointless when Neo blasts off into the cumulus clouds the minute he feels overwhelmed. Sure, he’s getting a kick (lots of them, actually) by protracting this fight so much longer than he could, but there’s simply no human charge, not even base-level audience gratification, in watching him win. The Agents are (kind of) computer programs. Neo himself is also (kind of) computer-enhanced, so watching these scenes is like watching an IBM play itself at chess, or staring for ten minutes at the default screens on arcade games where the machine duels hermetically against itself, waiting for (but indifferent to) your 50¢ deposit.
Most of Reloaded, especially around the middle hour, transpires exactly this way. The massive L.A. Freeway chase is another case in point: clearly a major logistical and budgetary undertaking, but at the same time, no great shakes. The story doesn’t need it, the conclusion is eminently foregone, and there’s a weird air of regression in the basic conception of the sequence: why did The Matrix strain so hard for millennial novelties and implied raptures if Reloaded was happy with the Same Old Same Old of car chases and chop-socky? As though to convince us that Reloaded really is galvanizing, the Wachowskis recurrently allow their characters to speak in ad copy. “It’s amazing down there at night,” one character says in one such moment, as he saunters onto a set (the Engineering Level of the underground city of Zion) that is as garishly colored and flatly unconvincing as the spaceship interiors in both films. The Rebel Control Room, or whatever you call it, where Neo and his Peeps get ported into and out of the Matrix still looks like a bunch of slag-heap barber’s chairs marooned in the Radio Shack repair room. Oddly, some characters actually expose the film’s ramshackle look and technique. The Wachowskis are either gluttonous self-satirists or the crudest screenwriters in the world to allow a needless character called The Keymaker to espouse his one important plot revelation and then explain, “I know because I must knowit is my purpose.” Why not just let Carrie-Anne Moss pick a fight with Neo where she says, “What am I, just the token beautiful love interest?” (The proof is in the pudding, anywaythe Keymaker dies only seconds after achieving his “purpose.”)
In general, little in the Matrix franchise has improved. Laurence Fishburne, looking weirdly puffed-up and sedimented, is still happy in his Morpheus role, mouthing end-of-days gobbledygook and obliging the Wachowskis in all their half-assed echoes of U.S. racial historyhaving stood in for Rodney King in the first film’s lurid police-beating scenes, Fishburne raises his head into a wink-wink close-up in Reloaded when Hope has temporarily been lost, and declaims, “I had a dreamand now that dream is lost to me.” Paranoia and anti-communitarianism rule the social scene more than ever. One character, quickly inserted for another needless confirmation of Neo’s martial arts prowess, stone-facedly intones, “You do not truly know a man until you fight him.” When Morpheus’ commanding officer rebukes him for his cavalier, Neo-inspired violations of orders“Not everyone believes as you do, Morpheus!”the fearless leader’s reflex response is, “My beliefs do not require them to.” Not only are those crowds of imperiled Zionists far from Morpheus’ concern, they are hardly on the film’s mind, either. The end of The Matrix set us up for a concerted rebel uprising of which Neo & Co. would be the instructive, inspirational leaders; Reloaded demonstrates, however, that it’s the same four or five people who are heroically resisting everything. The extras are pretty much there to cheer at the monologues and get in a little hot bump ‘n’ grind on independence night.
Here, though, we come to one of the few ways in which Reloaded does deny expectationsthe opening half-hour in Zion, where honest-to-God people, who don’t know how to stop bullets or shoot two Gats at once, are feeling all bootylicious in the underground town square. This passage has been a major target of bile from those Matrix fans let down by the sequel; I suppose inevitably, it was one of the few times when my interest was a little bit piqued. Not because I liked the sequencewith Morpheus up there mongering for holy war, and his cavern of eager-but-alienated acolytes cheering him on, the (presumably unwitting) Al Qaeda analogies are hard to ignore, and truer to the film’s general unpleasantness than it would ever admit. What is striking about the scene is its seeming incongruity within the entire franchise: The Matrix seemed like the last movie in the universe (or even the altered, machine-controlled universe) that would make time for a firelit carnaval or a Neo/Trinity sex scene. That so many fans are blanketly bored by a scene that is supposed to lay a widespread social context and a personal-erotic motivation for Neo’s future action is suggestive proof that, love interests and the Fate of Humanity aside, the Matrix crowd really just wants guns, PVC, and impersonal nastiness. Bodies, cities, girlfriends, and public events seem to upset these people. But then, why include the sequence at all?
I suspectand little flourishes all over The Matrix Reloaded enforce the impressionthat somewhere in the Wachowskis’ luxuriously hedonistic fog, it started to occur to them that their movies are simply insincere. It is laughable but also unavoidable that the antagonist forces in these movies are Machines and the denial of humanity they have everywhere exerted. Certainly these films would never be allowed the levels of unblinking carnage they perform if other humans, rather than humans-who-are-actually-machines, were the targets. Moreover, the Wachowskis and The Matrix would be up shit creek without computers and machines; meanwhile, there is still, after two movies, not a convincingly human character to be found. And so, during that nocturnal Engineering Level interlude I mentioned before, they’ve encouraged an old, avuncular character called Councillor Harmann to give a swift mini-lecture on how machines are, like, sort of good, even when they’re also sorta bad, I mean, when you think about it. This impromptu challenge to binaristic thinking would go further in a movie that weren’t so plainly obsessed with binaries. After all the blue pills and red pills, Machines and Rebels, Neos and Thomases, and Blacks and Whitesnot to mention the overarching question whether Neo is The One or just another Zeroit’s a bit late in the game for The Matrix to be getting all nuanced.
But then again, maybe it isn’t. This is, after all, the second film in a trilogy, and even an ungenerous and unconverted viewer like me must concede that the Wachowskis could still do almost anything with their third film. The last scenes are certainly better, darker, and more promising than the first ones. Reloaded’s off-putting opening sequence depicts Carrie-Anne Moss flying through space in slow motion, firing two machine guns in even slower motion, and taking a bullet midair from Agent Smith; the whole encounter is given the familiar, glistening voyeuristic sheen, as though the Wachowskis want us to lick the screen and kiss the bullet casings. By the time the scene replays in the film’s last act, in chronological context, it seems to mark a new low-point in the film’s indifference to its characters: we know that the 250,000 residents of Zion are about to be pulverized, and rather than cutting away to show us their fear or their resolve (does the random Zionist have any resolve?), the film stays with the question of what’s going to happen to Neo’s swanky girlfriend. In a major “plot twist,” Neo meets the inventor of the Matrix, who forces him into a cruel choice to save either Trinity’s life or that of every other human being in existence. Even more cruelly, Neo chooses The Girl, which is such an ingenuously romantic, civically unaccountable choice even by Matrix standards that we may be on the verge of an actual historical breakthrough: the Wachowskis just might be on the brink of questioning the wisdom and integrity of their homily-spouting, spring-loaded, robe-wearing, truth-seeking, bystander-annihilating hero. If that happens, there might be hope for this seriesthat is, when The Matrix Revolutions premieres to even more hype this coming November.
Somehow, though, and call me crazy, I doubt the Wachowskis will go all the way here with what amounts to their only escape route from an increasingly noxious enterprise: a rabble-rousing aestheticization of violence and potential violence, fused with a hagiography of Beautiful People with Dastardly Skills, and peppered with cynical, unpersuasive promises that these are blameless, socially-minded pictures that respond to palpable angers and disquiets in contemporary society with an innocent collective fantasy. Even I don’t think the Wachowskis are Nazis, but I do think they might be Leni Riefenstahls. They’ve opened a small door of opportunity by which their third Matrix film could excuse the excesses and glorifications of their first two, but if the central dialogues and conflicts of Reloaded are any indication, this window of opportunity will seal. We might think the Wachowskis have a choice, but they have, in all likelihood, already made that choice: Neo will devise a way to save The Girl and The World, but his reward will be The Girl, and The World will go raising their fists in delirious, anonymous, unquestioning salute.
That choice being made, the “real” question is, why are the Wachowskis making that choice? And the even more “real” questionif there is any reality left in the Matrix franchiseis, why is the world of moviegoers supporting them? I can only pray that more and more people will unplug from The Matrix. I know there are relatively few of us, and nobody believes us, and they try to silence us. Some of these Agents, bless them, even send me e-mails calling me a "douche-bag," or asking why I don't know how to have fun. There’s an entire ticket-buying world out there working against our endsbut we know who the real dupes are, don’t we? D