The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Even at the movies, you can have too much of a good thing.

The Matrix Reloaded takes every aspect of the first film and turns it up to ’11′. There are more awe-inspiring visuals, more stylish and thrilling supernatural kung fu that will fry the circuits of the “Cool” meter, and more brain-bending ideas about reality, illusion, freewill and determinism.

Unfortunately, these excesses end up making Reloaded more like Overloaded. The philosophical riddling becomes too convoluted. The awe-inspiring fight scenes run too long, delivering few surprises and zero suspense. And the kung-fu/wire-fu confrontations become tedious. This may seem hard to imagine for fans of the original film.  But even the biggest fan of chocolate mousse cake can only eat so many pieces before she gets sick.

A QUICK RECAP

A quick review may be necessary before you go back to Matrix-land. Neo, a mild-mannered computer hacker, has been pulled out of his dull existence by spooky and violent strangers informing him that he may be “The One”. He learns, the hard way, that his whole world is an illusion, “the Matrix”, and that he has been duped into a false existence while his body and the bodies of almost all human beings on earth are actually in prison, being drained as batteries for a world run by wicked machines. Neo goes “unplugged”, joining the enlightened resistance, the remnant of humanity hidden deep underground in a place called Zion. But before he gets there, he must go into the Matrix and battle the malevolent and manufactured “Agent Smith”, a trial that reveals his awesome abilities and confirms that he may indeed be the Prophesied One.

I was not a big fan of The Matrix. It had intriguing ideas that got me thinking about philosophy and religion. It also had some fantastic action that provoked a hundred action-directors to imitate it. We learned that science-fiction films can still integrate spiritual questions with techno-babble and captivate our imaginations with movie magic. The Wachowski Brothers stole the special effects Oscar right out from under George Lucas’s much-hyped return to the Star Wars universe in 1999.

But as you have probably learned from going on dates, looks aren’t everything. The characters were flat and lacked back-stories. The movie’s “true love saves the day” conclusion was unconvincing, even preposterous. (Who had time to fall in love?) Its buildup to the arrival of a Messiah took a nasty turn when that Messiah’s moment of revelation found him asking for “Guns. Lots of guns.” And its philosophical ideas, while interesting, were delivered in sanctimonious and annoying speeches. Style stifled storytelling and substance…

…and the same occurs here, but more of it. As The Matrix Reloaded gives us too much of what we liked in The Matrix, we get tired and become more and more aware of its weaknesses.

HOLD ON TO YOUR JAW

First, the strengths. Trust me, Reloaded is an unforgettable marathon of visuals that will knock your jaw right off its hinges and kick it under the seat in front of you. This movie is to special-effects films what Mercedes Benz is to automobiles -  slick, shiver-inducing, and smooth, running like a zillion well-oiled machines. Anyone who played a part in what we see in this film deserves our heartiest congratulations. It will make a great DVD-you can play your favorite parts over and over and skip the glue, the flimsy storytelling, and the flat dialogue.

The kung-fu (choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping ) seems to exhaust the possibilities of the art, although I’m sure the third film Revolutions will prove that they haven’t.

And the stunts are breathtaking… although not as breathtaking as they would have been if they hadn’t been heavily enhanced by digital animation. You just keep realizing that when you’re inside the Matrix, the stuff onscreen really is an illusion. Oh how I miss the days of real stuntmen. How I miss the special effects of glue, puppetry, and other handmade effects that made you ask “How did they do that?” (That’s why the new Star Wars movies, visually impressive as they are, lack the magic of the originals. Everybody knows how they did that.)

FLASHY, BUT THESE HEROES SHOOT BLANKS

Speaking of George Lucas, the Wachowskis are following his example in more than just special effects… and that’s a bad thing. (In case you’re wondering, yes, we have now shifted gears to talk about its weaknesses.)

Why did they have to imitate his lack of attention to actors? The stars here act as if they have no time for emotion. They proceed with grim determination, from one action sequence to the next. They do not capture our concern or care the way the persecuted and desperate rebels did in The Empire Strikes Back, the standard by which all sequels are measured. (That was back when Lucas still let real directors direct his stories.)

Our heroes’ familiar faces remain, unfortunately, familiarly blank, coming to life only when violence breaks out. As Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne muses, preaches, and mopes-but dude, he owns that saber! As Trinity, Carrie-Anne Moss is the franchise’s weapon of mass destruction. I repeat what I wrote in my original Matrix review… I’d rather the whole series was about her. She’s all-business, determined to develop a memorable character in spite of a confining script, an even tighter latex suit, and a contract clause that forbids her to bless us with a big smile. It’s Hugo Weaving who gets to smile, clearly aware he won the battle of personality in the first film. Too bad his big scene is also the film’s most unnecessary.

And of course, there’s Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves), the dumbfounded Savior, “The One.” Reeves soldiers on with that same stunned look that we all had when we realized that the world’s fate rested on this guy’s shoulders. In the first movie, Neo’s signature line was “Whoa.” But in this movie, as he seems to forget his newfound supernatural powers at key moments, the unspoken refrain becomes … “Duh.”

So, devoid of compelling or complex characters, the story has very little… well… story. The film’s preoccupation with stylish effects-driven confrontations make Matrix more and more SEGA than saga.

PLODDING FROM FIGHT TO FIGHT, SERMON TO SERMON

Compared to the multi-thread plotting of X2, this storyline seems pulled out of X-Box. Here’s the gist of Reloaded:

The heroes are trying to short-circuit the war before the Sentinels, squid-like drilling machines that fulfill the role of Empire’s Imperial walkers, reach Zion and crush the rebellion. So Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity plug themselves into the Matrix and set out on a wild goose chase. Find the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster). What does the Oracle say? Find the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). Once you find the Merovingian, find out where he keeps the Keymaster (Randall Duk Kim.) Find the Keymaster. Once you find the Keymaster, use the Keymaster to find the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis, who looks like the father of Colonel Sanders, Sigmund Freud, and Robert Altman).

Of course, each one of these contacts will be preceded by a spectacular kung fu match with either the Seraph (Collin Chou), dozens of copies of Agent Smith 2.0, or the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment, who look like The Thompson Twins reinventing themselves as an albino version of Milli Vanilli.) Or you might face the temptation of a seductress called Persephone (Monica Bellucci).

Where is all this headed? What happens if you win? You get another big lecture from the most sanctimonious character of them all.

After only an hour of this game, I was bored with watching the Wachowskis work their joysticks. I just wanted something new, something that would make me care about the plight of Zion. Unfortunately, the mystery of Zion is spoiled right away. This place that was mentioned with hushed reverence in the first film is not quite what we’d hoped.

Zion is a maze of underground caverns where all of the survivors have gathered to model the expensive leather fashions they purchased. Where did they get them? When the surface was conquered by machines, did survivors go on a looting spree in the bombed-out malls before they fled into hiding? We get to know some of them, like Link (Harold Perrineau), the bland sidekick. And we quickly learn that being a supporting character for the Wachowski Brothers is no different than being a supporting character for Warner Brothers Television in one of those lousy courting-cancellation sci-fi series like Andromeda.

And what do the Zionists do when they find out the machines are just a few days away from obliterating their existence? They get drunk and party like a bad Zima commercial, turning up the joyless tribal cacophany, engaging in chaotic scantily-clad Dirty Dancing till the dawn. As a much wittier critic observed, “It removes an important element of dramatic tension from the plot: If the machines don’t get these people, syphilis surely will.”

Please, I’d rather live in the Matrix than with these folks! At least in the world of illusion, frequently glimpsed religious symbols suggest that the prisoners are still engaged in spiritual growth, whereas this subterranean colony responds to persecution by indulging in a hedonistic sensory overload!

I suspect that the moral of the saga is this: That the only true way to live freely as a human being is to disobey, to rebel, against any high power, against any control. (When one of Neo’s adoring followers says, “You saved me!”, Neo insists, “You saved yourself.”) If that is indeed the lesson, then this series cannot come to any satisfying conclusion.

Human beings are designed to follow a higher power; their problem is that they follow the wrong ones. As Bob Dylan insists, “You gotta serve somebody.” Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity are right to strive against the tyranny of a cruel Architect. But if they conclude that they are alone in their struggle, that there is no benevolent higher power offering a better way, then their only option is slavery to yet another corrupt power: their own flawed desires. Being human, having corrupt appetites, they will implode.

Morpheus can’t have it both ways. He can’t insist on rebellion against higher powers and yet place his hope in having been born for a “purpose”, having been guided by “Providence.” If we indeed have a “purpose” in this life, one worth discovering, one that means something, it must have been purposed by someone. If Providence does exist, then we had better learn some humility and, yes, obedience. All I see in Zion is willfullness, defiance, and pride.

Shots of this mass-Lambada are intercut with a completely unnecessary, not to mention boring, sex scene between Neo and Trinity. These two don’t have any romantic chemistry whatsoever. The kiss shared by Han Solo and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, and the similar kiss between Wolverine and Jean Grey in X2 held more steamy romance and more personality than this dull, awkward interlude. Suddenly PG seems more real-and racier-than R.

Those who mock the Star Wars prequels for flat acting and cheesy dialogue will be dismayed to see that this virus has reached Zion. I would argue that things are worse here. Lucas’s lifeless character interaction at least enriched the storytelling with history, details, some humor, and some mystery. The Wachowskis’ character interaction comes in two flavors: preaching and pummeling. I feel like I’m switching between the Psychic Network and the WWF. You can feel the writers getting desperate for snappy, quotable one-liners at the end of each action sequence. The Twins glance at each other during the endless freeway chase scene and say, “We are getting aggravated.” Amen.

A HINT AT WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

The first film had moments of real horror (the bellybutton bug and the mouth-zipping), thrillingly chilling moments of revelation (the definition of deja-vu), and small character moments that made a few of the characters break out of their flatly scripted role. This film has only one scene in which the effects step aside and the particularity of line readings and character detail get us at the gut level.

When Neo and the gang finally catch up to a creepy Frenchman called the Merovingian, he turns out to be the film’s most interesting character. He treats them to the one truly unique scene, an exchange infused with personality, humor, and new ideas. It is also short and sweet. Like the memorable Matrix scene when Mr. Smith first interrogated Neo, the thrill of the unpredictable takes over, proving that personality clashes are far more suspenseful that fisticuffs. The film’s most troubling, twisted, and interesting moment–the only moment when the villains seem truly malevolent instead of just violent–comes from something as surprising as the restaurant dessert tray.

I’d like seconds of this kind of thing, please.

All of the great middle movies have tried to outdo their predecessors: The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, Terminator 2, The Two Towers, and this year’s spectacular X2: X-Men United. But what I find myself remembering fondly are the character moments, the ways relationships change, the humorous and human developments. The visceral, searing confrontation between Vader and Luke Skywalker; the tragic farewell between Spock and Kirk; the bonding moments between heroic Terminator and fatherless boy; Gollum’s quiet conversation with himself; Magneto revealing the horrifying truth to Xavier in the plastic cell.

These sequels had characters with histories, personalities, complex relationships, and interesting things to say. They didn’t stand around and alternately pummel and preach at each other. Neo can fly like an arrow, but I’m never convinced there’s much of a mind behind those sunglasses (which he inexplicably wears even in the dark.) That’s not Keanu’s fault. It’s the fault of storytellers who haven’t found a head or a heart in their hero. If the storytellers don’t care enough about their characters to develop them, why should we care about them?

It is still possible to save the series. The Wachowskis have a lot of loose ends to tie up in Revolutions, but they have also given themselves great opportunities to deepen their characters. Morpheus’s ego and his faith have been dealt a serious blow; how will he respond? Neo is more confused than ever; what will he do? The nature of Agent Smith has changed: What will happen to the way he hates humankind now that he can see them from a different angle?

If the Wachowski’s can slow the pace of the adventure without shifting into pretention and dense verbosity, they could concoct some compelling character moments. If they learn that audiences can be excited by more than bullet-time and “burly brawls”, and that action is more exciting when we care about those who are acting, they might prove that this foundation can support a grander structure than we have yet glimpsed. They might show that all of this sound and fury signifies something… that elusive “purpose” Morpheus keeps talking about. If they do, it will be a revolution indeed.

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