The Matrix Reloaded takes us deeper into the mythology underlying The Matrix, in the process confirming something I realized years ago: The underlying mythology was never what was interesting about The Matrix in the first place.
Like so much else about The Matrix, the idea of an apocalyptic power-struggle with a force of the sort behind the Matrix has been done before (e.g., the Terminator films); but unlike many other things about The Matrix that the Wachowskis borrowed or stole from other sources, this idea wasn’t appropriated with any special style or panache.
Morpheus’s expository speech to Neo in the first film about the history of the power behind the Matrix — particularly the bit about the solar issue and the moment when he holds up the battery — is both the least persuasive and the least interesting thing about the film. It’s a perfunctory plot-level explanation that one accepts for the sake of the action and the hero’s journey, not something one particularly cares about for its own sake.
Of course, just because the underlying mythology was only perfunctory in the first film doesn’t mean it couldn’t become something complex and interesting in the sequel. Unfortunately, while the Wachowskis have made their world more complicated, they haven’t made it more interesting.
Inside the Matrix, we’re introduced to an esoteric inner circle of figures with names like "Merovingian" and "Persephone" and "the Keymaker," none of whom has any very obvious rationale for being a character in this story, as well as another figure named "the Architect," who has.
Outside the Matrix, we get to see Zion, a fantasy cityscape of Lucas-like proportions, inhabited by residents who seem to belong to an entirely different civilization from the Nebuchadnezzar crew we met in the first film.
Morpheus’s crew members were essentially displaced moderns — people culturally similar to ourselves in an extraordinary situation. The inhabitants of Zion, by contrast, have a sort of generic sci‑fi culture resembling a "Star Trek" civilization. Although we know from the first film that people go to church in the Matrix (and in this film we see images of Jesus and Mary inside the Matrix), it’s hard to imagine Christians, Jews, and Muslims being an integral part of the cultural mix at Zion, where we see thousands of Zionites engaging in a quasi-cultic, orgiastic, rave-like carousal (intercut with an extended sex scene between Neo and Trinity).
Missing amid all of this is much of what made The
Matrix enjoyable. Yes, there are still fight scenes
choreographed by Yuen
In The Matrix, characters fought because they had a mission, and were trying to get in, or out, or away, in the course of completing it. Here, there’s a show-stopping set piece in which Neo finds himself eventually fighting a hundred super-opponents at once, though he’s got nothing to gain and can always fly away any time he wants to. It’s like a grudge match, and it’s got all the drama of the pod race in The Phantom Menace.
Later on the story introduces two fearful new antagonists with powers beyond even the Agents, and the urgency quotient picks up considerably. But it’s not enough. Part of the challenge facing the Wachowskis after making Neo so powerful in the first film was coming up with radically new kinds of challenges for him. Instead, they copped out and made him less powerful.
As sheer eye candy, unsurprisingly, The Matrix Reloaded does deliver in spades. That brawl between Neo and the hundred opponents may be dramatically inert, but it’s certainly something to look at. And the even more sprawling quarter-hour freeway sequence is some kind of action-movie landmark, with a climax that ranks as the film’s best moment. Neo’s speed flying, too, is wicked cool.
But the movie obviously wants to be so much more than mere eye candy. As the first film raised the Cartesian question whether the world is real or illusory, Reloaded invokes the even knottier debate whether free choice is real or illusory. Yet it undermines its own clumsy attempts to suggest that "everything starts with choice" with plot-level revelations that, based on what we know from the first film, make even the most fundamentally human choices — even love itself — inescapably deterministic.
In The Matrix, we learned that the Oracle prophesied that Trinity would fall in love with the One. Based on what we learn about the Oracle in this film, Trinity and Neo’s love must be as causality-bound as the weather. A world in which even love isn’t free is a world with no room for human freedom.
In terms of story, the sequel does have some genuinely startling revelations regarding things we thought we knew about the world inside and outside the Matrix; and the setup for the third and final chapter, The Matrix Revolutions (due in November), is neatly done. Considered in itself, though, the story-arc of this film is a bit of a mess. The Matrix followed the tried-and-true story-arc of the hero’s journey from innocent to adept (cf. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, etc.). In the second film, the story doesn’t appear to be following an established template, and the Wachowskis seem to have lost their way.
Oddly, Reloaded includes a significant element of camp and self-parody. The moment when we first meet the Keymaker has an almost Pythonesque absurdity to it. Agent Smith and Morpheus both often come off as caricatures of their former selves. There’s a big kiss scene in the middle of the movie that’s just plain embarrassing in its pointlessness. And some of the action is so outsize as to become ludicrous, though there are some truly staggering moments as well. At any rate, there’s certainly nothing here either to launch a new special-effects revolution or to make Reloaded a standout spectacle for the ages.
Some critics have disparagingly compared the relationship between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix to that of the new Star Wars films and the original trilogy. Now, I happen to be a fan of the new Star Wars movies as well as the original trilogy. Of course, I enjoy the basic Star Wars mythology in a way that I get nothing out of the Matrix mythology. On a fundamental level, I just like the whole idea of the Jedi, and the worlds that Lucas creates, whereas the world of Zion and the Matrix holds no special appeal for me in itself apart from the appeal of the story being told about it.
Even so, I recognize that the original Star Wars trilogy had a broad appeal even for casual viewers that the new trilogy lacks. One reason for this is that the new trilogy is much more a drama of insiders, of initiates. There’s no skeptical Han Solo, no naive, struggling Luke, to serve as a point of entree for the casual viewer to identify with. As a result, the new films have tended to appeal much more to fans who care about the underlying mythology in itself.
The Matrix Reloaded has this same insider dynamic. Not only is there no one in Zion culturally like ourselves, the film also has no interaction with regular people living within the world with the Matrix. It’s lost all contact with anything like ordinary life, and has become an entirely self-contained world in which everyone is an initiate.
Having said all that, I must of course add that The Matrix Revolutions just might shed new light on all of this, and so until then I can’t arrive at a final judgment of this film. Perhaps in November it will suddenly be clear how integral and well-conceived the characters of Merovingian, Persephone and the Keymaker really are, and why that seemingly pointless kiss was actually very significant.
Who knows? Certainly a lot of people originally walked out of The Empire Strikes Back feeling a bit nonplused. On the other hand, what felt incomplete about Empire was the ending, and what feels incomplete about The Matrix Reloaded, at least for me, is just about everything else.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.