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Sunday 18 May 2003

The Matrix: Reloaded

  • The Matrix: Reloaded

    written & directed by The Wachowski Brothers
    starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving

  • Reviewed by John Shirley

Youíve seen them in import shops, gorgeous, intricately detailed Asian artifacts carved of a single piece of jade, or from fine wood. One may stand several feet tall and it may writhe with intricate figures, and you wonder how they managed to carve this thing all of a piece from one block of material... You donít necessarily want to have this artifact in your living room, but you admire its workmanship, you respect the long, high-focus labor implied...

Reloaded, at its best, had some of the same effect on this reviewer. I admired the intricate carving, all one design of many components, surfaces finely etched, buffed smooth. Itís a grand visual experiment, pushing out the limits — those of us a bit weary of action films may wince, thinking of all the imitation and excess its innovations in action will unleash. The trailer for the outlaw street-racing movie, 2Fast2Furious, was shown before Reloaded — not accidentally, since the distributors think it has more or less the same audience — and the two films apparently have at least one image in common, a slow motion splashy car-crash into those water-filled freeway dividers. There are long segments of the seemingly-interminable car-chase scene in Reloaded that could be transposed near-seamlessly into 2Fast2Furious.

But distinct from the likes of 2Fast2Furious — a film that may cause real-life deaths with its emphasis on sneering at traffic laws and the police, its encouragement of "extreme" street driving — Reloaded is about something other than adolescent posturing and rebelling against Daddyís various reps in society (the police, the courts being "Daddy").

For despite its comic-booky reliance on nerd-fantasy action scenes, its flying-superhero moves, Reloaded, like the original The Matrix, asks the Big Questions. Unlike a street-racing film, itíll make you think.

You remember the backstory: artificial intelligences have locked the human race into a digitally perfect "virtual" world, while their bodies are being used as biological batteries for the System, kept in a state of perpetual illusion. Only a small percentage of the human race has awakened, hidden away in "Zion", somewhere deep underground. A kind of savior is prophesied by the Oracle, a conscious, free-floating program — and this is our hero, Keanu Reeves as Neo, "The One", a hacker brought into the real world by Zion-operative Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and his confederates including Neoís warrior-woman love Trinity played with equal parts intensity and sensitivity by Carrie-Anne Moss. Neoís powers of super conscious control over the virtual world give him an edge on the agents of the System... In Reloaded, if I understand rightly, Smith (played with great sinister timing by Hugo Weaving), a one-time agent of the System, has become a dangerous independent operator, a loose cannon making hundreds of copies of himself. This leads to a fascinating but over-long scene in which Neo fights first several Smiths, and then hundreds of them, just him against them all, a kind of "top this!" extrapolation of the classic Kung Fu film hero-against-hordes fight scene. Neo finally flies to escape them — and one wonders, since he can fly, why he didnít do this ten minutes earlier. Meanwhile, some very cool digging-robots are burrowing in the Earthís crust, thousands of them digging down to destroy Zion. Neo has to find the Keymaker — one of several deus-ex-machina runaway program characters — to open the way to The Source, where awaits the final secret of the Matrix, and presumably a way to stop those digging machines. "How do you know all this?" Neo asks the Keymaker, who appears to be a wizened Oriental man in glasses, when the little guyís explaining what Neo must do. "Itís my purpose to know these things," says the inscrutable Keymaker. At least one audience member barked a laugh, hearing that, along with me: yeah, thatís the Keymakerís purpose for the convenience of the script. Heís more than a computer device — heís a living plot device.

Reliance on plot devices of this kind, like the Keymaker and The Oracle and The Architect, weakens the film. And it doesnít help that theyíre long-winded devices. The Architect, especially, in the outward form of an effete Britishesque guy — Britain seems to have a corner on exporting oily, effete super-villains — goes on and on and on... and on, polysyllabically explaining all to Neo at excruciating length. Boys, there had to be a shorter way to get that stuff across. Why the Architect is motivated to tell Neo all this is not clear, at least to me. Iím also unclear on what exactly happened to Zion at the end of the film — I wonít speculate, since it would give away too much, but Iíll note that off-stage action concerning Zion apparently ties up this second part, and we learn about it from dialogue alone. The end of the film, with respect to Neo, is much like the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

To be fair, like the second Star Wars film and The Two Towers, the latest installation of The Matrix is a bridge film, the second of three parts, and one canít expect it to be quite self-sustaining. But The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers worked better — the pacing was better, and all the adrenaline pumping action in the world canít carry you through exposition that drones on like a sociology professor lecturing in an auditorium while thinking about how he just wants to go home and open a bottle of wine and forget those rows of empty faces. Reloadedís dialogue varies in quality, too — it is sometimes wooden, relying on standard, tired, dramatic place-holders. The Wachowski brothers may have fallen victim to the George Lucas syndrome — too many yes men, no one to tell them when theyíve gone astray.

And donít ponder Reloadedís internal story-logic too much — it falters if you think it through. Instead, let it engage you with its wild rides and, above all, its ideas. Yes, Reloadedís philosophical dialectic is often pretentious, and the film doesnít convince us that its authors fully understand their own ideas — but at least itís asking the questions. What makes the film worth watching, to me — what makes me glad itís doing boffo box office — is its willingness to ask real questions. What is meant, when the Oracle says that the point is not to make deliberate choices, but to understand the ones youíve made? What is choice? Do we ever have free will? Are we, indeed, asleep when we think weíre awake? And who and what profits from the "systems of control" that hold us in thrall? Outside of the under-appreciated Waking Life, few film makers have dared to so brazenly talk philosophy.

The film has its purely cinematic joys: The albino ghost-Rasta twins dematerializing as a fighting tactic. Delightful orchestration of action and science-fiction imagery. Some good acting — Reeves is perhaps improving — and some serious investigation of human nature, subjective and objective. For example, the scene with the Keeper — in this case the oily effete villain is a "Frenchman" — in which we see an aphrodisiac working inside a computer generated woman, as an example of the inability of people to make a conscious choice so long as theyíre programmed by their carnal natures... And an interesting aside as a woman demands a kiss, a real kiss, a kiss with feeling, from Neo in exchange for critical information. That sounds silly but itís played out very well, with humor and substance, and, well, youíll understand, kid, when you get older...

John Shirleyís essay on the first installation of The Matrix is found in the book Exploring the Matrix (St Martinís Press) edited by Karen Haber, along with articles by Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others.

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