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Further Down the Rabbit Hole

 

The Matrix Reloaded

Andy and Larry Wachowski, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: May 17, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The world we know is an illusion, an elaborate fantasy imposed by others. In this world, we labor under the delusion of free will, while actually in the thrall of a mechanical culture that seeks to keep us submerged, unaware, in a collective dream state. This world is the world of The Matrix -- or more precisely, the universe of hype and anticipation that surrounds the movie franchise of the same name.

It's been impossible to avoid that hype lately, as anticipation for The Matrix's two sequels has risen to the level of tense expectancy reserved for religious zealots days away from the Rapture, when they hope to smugly realize the fruits of a lifetime of bullying piety. And with the release -- finally, in the words of its patient disciples -- of the first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, it's become evident that not even the film itself is immune to the ever-building hype generated by its predecessor. The Matrix Reloaded doesn't live up to its hype so much as it struggles to perpetuate that hype.

Which is not to say that Reloaded doesn't sufficiently continue the story of The Matrix -- it does -- or that its ideas are lacking. Like the original Matrix, an ambitious fin de siècle parable about free will cloaked (or rather jacketed, in sleek black leather) in a decidedly 21st-century take on the same theme of man-vs.-machine that has powered the artificial heart of science fiction from H.G. Wells to The Terminator, Reloaded is a cautionary tale (both intentionally and otherwise) about being too quick to believe what we're told. Neo (Reeves, whose steely stoicism has never found a better onscreen outlet), the hacker-turned-superhero protagonist of the first film, has evolved, as Reloaded opens, from a cautious, doubt-filled everyman into a warrior of seemingly limitless, even godlike power. In the film's many bravura action sequences, Neo moves with the calm confidence of a graceful dancer (that this self-assuredness robs those sequences of any sense of mortal stakes doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone involved in making the film). But if he's an unstoppable superhuman inside the world of the Matrix (in one scene, rebel human Link, played by Oz's Harold Perrineau, rightfully observes that Neo is off "doing his Superman thing"), outside of it, in the real world, he's an unsure of himself, and his place in the order of things, as ever. "I just wish I knew what to do," he says early on.

That's a hard place to be, especially given the unwavering (and frankly monotonous) faith placed in Neo by his mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus still believes Neo to be "the One," a champion whose coming is prophesied by the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) and who, Morpheus believes, will deliver the fugitive race of Mankind from the tyranny of the machines that rule the world, keeping most humans locked in the fantasy grid of the Matrix. Morpheus isn't the only one: Upon returning to the subterranean human city of Zion from a mission aboard Morpheus' ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, Neo is confronted by a mob of hopeful humans who bow in supplication, asking him to look over their loved ones and leaving offerings of food and goods. Neo's uneasiness with all of this responsibility is evident in his love for Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss): His palpable need for her (as seen in a shivery, sweat-drenched sex scene juxtaposed with scenes of Zion's masses dancing in a tribal-drum-driven orgy of defiance) gives him, as Brett Michaels once sang, something to believe in. Unluckily for Neo, he's plagued by the memory of a lifelike dream in which Trinity does a slo-mo dive off of this mortal coil.

If Neo harbors doubts about himself, he's not the only one. In a surprising and welcome twist, not everyone in Zion subscribes to Morpheus' rather rigid beliefs; in fact, he's looked upon by some as slightly crazy, including his rival Lock (Harry J. Lennix), whose military leadership of Zion's defenses is threatened by Morpheus' borderline zealotry. The thematic contrast between the two characters -- right down to their all-too-descriptive names -- is nicely made flesh in the form of fellow ship captain Niobi (Jada Pinkett-Smith, with not enough to do), whose subtle but apparent warmth for her ex-lover Morpheus troubles current paramour Lock.

Morpheus, who served in the first film as a beacon of light and reality in the darkness of the Matrix, here appears all too human in his blind adherence to the word of the Oracle, and thus it's Neo's self-doubt, and by extension his willingness to question the Oracle, that seems the breath of fresh air. Having figured out that the Oracle is herself a program from the machine world, Neo asks how he can trust her. Given no concrete answer, he operates on faith, albeit of the wary variety, as opposed to the unwavering kind favored by Morpheus. (Is this, perhaps, the source of his incredible power inside the Matrix? Morpheus and Trinity can kick ass inside the Matrix, we're given to assume, because of their will; their knowledge of the unreality of their surroundings gives them a corresponding strength. Do Neo's doubts -- further proof of his free will -- correspondingly increase his powers, just as doubt is supposed to be a key component of faith?)

At the Oracle's suggestion, Neo sets off to find another rogue program named the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), an insufferable French-speaking snob who holds captive the conveniently named Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who has the power to help Neo and crew open various doors within the Matrix and thus access "the Source," which will presumably allow the humans to turn off the Matrix and free humankind. The Merovingian, however, isn't interested in giving up his prize, instead preferring to offer brief bits of French-accented Matrixianity: "Choice is an illusion," he sneers. It's the Merovingian's impossibly beautiful wife Persephone (the achingly beautiful Monica Bellucci) who helps the humans out in return for a kiss from Neo, to remind her of the affections she once enjoyed from her philandering husband.

Soon the humans, Keymaker in tow, are off, pursued by the Twins, a pair of pallid henchmen with the ability to go all non-corporeal and pass through solid objects. (Turns out the Twins are ghosts, and that such supernatural phenomena -- angels, vampires, aliens, etc., -- are explanations the Matrix contrives for rogue programs and other things not easily explainable to the human minds it must keep in its thrall.) Eventually, the Keymaker does his duty, and Neo comes face to face with the Architect, who imparts some surprising revelations about the Matrix, and Neo's place in it. To say any more is to spoil the one of the film's meatiest surprises, but suffice it to say that the Oracle's prophecy isn't all it's cracked up to be, and neither is Neo's supposed freedom from the Matrix's insidious system of control.

It's when Reloaded expands the perimeters established in the first film that it works best, whether that entails tweaking what we think we know about the world of the Matrix or showing us more of the world outside of it. The scenes set in Zion, its look, the appearance and dress of its peoples, the political machinations -- all of this broadens the comparatively claustrophobic world of The Matrix, just as the revelation of the existence of another world outside the Matrix did in the original.

But there are times when Reloaded fleshes out its tableau, and times when it sabotages that work by means of a numbing over-reliance on plot -- and worse, on the explanation of said plot through clunky expositional dialogue. Such scenes work just fine in B-movies, but the portentous A-to-B-to-C speeches given by the Oracle, the Keymaker and the Architect can't help but detract from a film so notable partly for its freedom from such limitations.

This plot-heavy nature does have its merits, however, as it allows for what are arguably some of the most awe-inspiring action sequences ever committed to film. The "burly brawl" in which Neo squares off against an ever-replicating horde of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) is a fist-pumping spectacle, even as it raises thorny questions about Smith's purpose: he's now something of a "rogue" program himself, one with as-yet-unexplained ties to Neo, and this his intentions are somewhat murky -- since he's now disconnected from the Matrix, whose agenda does he pursue? This somewhat reduces the level of the menace he poses: It's as if Darth Vader, in The Empire Strikes Back, no longer served the Empire and instead pursued Luke Skywalker in hopes of answering existential questions about himself. (That one can all too often spot moments where Reeves is replaced by a CGI doesn't help this scene much.)

Likewise, a protracted freeway chase, staged on a 12-mile highway set constructed solely for the film, proves Reloaded's roller-coaster centerpiece, with a motorcycle-riding Trinity weaving in and out of onrushing cars, Morpheus kicking butt atop a barreling semi, and more car chases and explosions than a Blues Brothers/Lethal Weapon/Die Hard retrospective. At the same time, however, the constant spectacle becomes a bit numbing. Whereas the much-heralded effects of the first film -- notably the revolutionary "bullet time" effect of capturing fight scenes in a revolving slow-motion merry-go-round -- served a purpose (the humans' ability to kick butt in the Matrix illustrating the empowering effect of their freedom from it), here they're little more than blockbuster-action-film spectacle for its own sake. Their eye-popping wonder exists in a world of its own, a separate world that dictates that Matrix films up the CGI ante because, well, because they're the Matrix films.

If these moments hobble Reloaded, they don't cripple it outright. Its action and its metaphysics don't blend quite as seamlessly as in its predecessor, but its visceral thrills, even in their overload, far surpass those of The Matrix. Still, its obvious eagerness to please is distracting, and moviegoers' enjoyment of the film will hinge upon whether they can overlook -- or will care -- whether its scales are weighted a bit too much in favor of spectacle over the non-action elements that made The Matrix more than just a nifty action film -- that made the franchise, in pop-cultural terms, a Star Wars saga for the 21st century. As it is, it's exactly like a roller-coaster ride: immensely thrilling, but a difficult experience to recapture once you've left the theater.

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