It’s an irony sure to be lost on many; a movie franchise about humans attempting to escape enslavement from a race of all-powerful machines has in turn enslaved humanity into mechanically spending trillions of dollars feeding its machine. Few, if any, will be able to escape the tractor beam of Matrix Reloaded, a sequel to the magnificently economical and sure-footed original that has finally arrived with the same chilling thud that accompanied the dashed hopes and ruined promises of the last two Star Wars movies. But if resistance is futile, one hopes that some people have not lost their ability to discern a movie of imagination from a movie of stagnation. It might be unfair to compare the original Matrix to its new sequel, as the movies have vastly different agendas—the first was designated as a stand-alone movie, where as this one merely paves the way for Matrix Revolutions, due later this year.
But while the first Matrix achieved so much by embracing an atmosphere of secrecy, rendering its thrilling, action-drenched tableaux completely in the service of its more-thrilling plot, Matrix Reloaded is content to reveal its story’s hand in the first reel and proceed to merely wow devotees with a series of mind-bending combat sequences and a few vague nuggets of dime-store philosophy that are intentionally confusing as to distract you from the fact that they, and the movie itself, are saying absolutely nothing. There is little hidden in Matrix Reloaded beyond the trailer for the third film, which unspools following the end credits and is possibly the high point of the entire affair. It comes as a shock that it wasn’t inserted somewhere amid the lethargic first hour to pump things up a bit.
Matrix Reloaded begins more or less where the first film left us: Neo (Keanu Reeves), now known to many as The One, is searching for the correct path he must take to liberate humanity from the machines which enslave it as an energy source. Neo learns that in order to achieve his destiny, he must find a man called the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who will lead him to, well, wherever it is he’s supposed to wind up. The Keymaker is being held hostage somewhere inside the Matrix, and it’s up to Neo and his compatriots Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to find him and lead him to safety. This inevitably leads to much kicking, punching, shooting, and exploding, the highlight being a 14-minute freeway steeplechase in which Morpheus and Trinity must protect the Keymaker not only from a pursuant group of Agents but also from a pair of pasty, dreadlocked twins (played by Neil and Adrian Rayment) who are ghosts of some sort—they dissipate at will to parry fists and bullets, giving our heroes, to whom Agents are now decidedly outdated, an appropriately tough test of their mettle.
In a film overstuffed with vague, unfocused villains (the brilliant Hugo Weaving reprises his role as Agent Smith, and he’s unable to dominate this go-round as he did the first, if only because the character is forced to fight far more than he is allowed to talk), the aforementioned twins easily stand out as the franchise’s niftiest and most welcomed newer creations. Alas, it is only fitting that they ultimately suffer from Darth Maul Syndrome: being driven to a (presumably) fiery death long before they’ve had a chance to make a proper impact. And I could go on about the film’s glut of action scenes, as it’s likely they’re all anyone cares about, but the dominant impression one walks away from the film with is not one of adrenaline overload, but that of a dire need for even a hint of vitality—if the first movie had its foot planted squarely on the gas pedal, this movie does so while forgetting to release the parking brake. For the record, the so-called Burly Brawl, in which Neo fights 100 replicas of Agent Smith, is an embarrassment; the computer-generated “actors” are so devastatingly obvious that for a second I thought the animated short film that played before Dreamcatcher had been mistakenly spliced in.
Perhaps the film’s failure lies in the fact that there’s no rawness to the action, no sense of real danger, and so the movie wearily crumbles like a doomed monolith. More likely it is because the film is bogged down with the responsibility of fleshing out a world that never needed to visibly exist in the first place. One of the chief reasons The Matrix was able to achieve its aura of mystery was because it convincingly implied an entire universe while brilliantly leaving key portions of it to our imagination; by setting most of the story inside the Matrix, which is meant to simulate reality, it gave the illusory facets of the concept a healthy origin in a familiar, believable world.
Instead of sticking to that veil of ambiguity, and instead of tantalizing us with images of suggestion, The Matrix Reloaded scraps most of the first film’s groundwork and starts from scratch; in fact, so little is retained of the original concept that the issue of the actual “Matrix” and its various rules and details is secondary to an array of surplus plot expansions and character inaugurations. We meet so many new faces that it’s no surprise when their bearings on the proceedings are minimal at best. Link (Harold Perrineau) is the new techie aboard Morpheus’s ship, providing bland comic-relief quips and the occasional cheer of “YESSSS!!!” whenever Neo does something cool; his overprotective girlfriend (Nona Gaye) shows up for a long scene to complain about the danger her loverman is in before he takes off.
Anthony Zerbe and Harry Lennix are two elder councilmen, the latter of whom clashes with Morpheus over the best course of action in their battle with the machines. Perhaps it is because he stole Morpheus’s old flame Niobe (Jade Pinkett Smith), who is one of those characters that has no purpose other than to show up out of the blue at the exact moment it looks as though one of our heroes has finally met his match. Why does this movie need all these (and more) characters? Why does it rely on soap opera plot mechanics that serve no purpose? They only take up time that could have been spent, say, telling a real story instead of hashing together a narrative that resembles that of a video game: we are told via exposition what our heroes must do, then they do it, then fighting ensues. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. How about Reset? How about turning this whole thing off?
As promised, we also break from the Matrix to take a guided tour of Zion, the last human city, a maze of rusted iron walkways and vast power generators that’s so cozy and familiar you half expect B-level sci-fi heroes like Rutger Hauer or Dolph Lundgren to come strolling along at any moment. Predictably, Zion is the kind of city that is embroiled in Clones-esque strife: some leaders are in favor of certain plans, some leaders want other plans. So they sit around making grandiloquent, turgid speeches at one other while we watch stone-faced, bored as the many people who sit silently in the background of those scenes, forced to soak in the same cold, hard twaddle. The only real surprise comes with learning that if the leaders of Zion are a bunch of sour fogies, its younger inhabitants are no strangers to letting it all hang out.
Although he hopes to unshackle all the bodies still connected to the Matrix, it is the free people of Zion Neo is most concerned with at the moment—the machines have located the city and are mere days from arriving and decimating everything in sight. Neo looks grave when hearing such news, but the citizens of Zion appear to be ecstatic after listening to Morpheus’s announcement that imminent destruction is mere hours away: the massive crowd breaks into a full-blown bacchanalian rave, the doomed a mass of sweaty, writhing bodies apparently liberated not only from their mechanical masters but from any worry whatsoever. So much for urgency—party like it’s 1999 instead.
Except that this is 2003, and the talents of writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have not evolved in the past four years; their love for philosophy, kung fu, and mythical poses has been eclipsed by their laziness. This Matrix is less Reloaded than Restuffed. It’s a taxidermist’s approximation of the original—its eyes shine unnaturally brighter, its fangs are bared with a sharper ferocity, its pose is feral and deadly. All that’s missing is a soul. All that’s missing is life. It would be unfair to claim that The Matrix was as revolutionary as some of the movies it cribbed from—it wasn’t able to achieve the depth of character other great sci-fi/action hybrids like Terminator 2 or even Blade Runner did. But there was an undeniable exuberance at its core, perhaps emanating from the film’s utmost confidence that its fusion of East and West, high and low, would be embraced as joyously as it was. It was a movie made by filmmakers who were desperate to impress, and willing to work hard to do so. Perhaps the single most disappointing element of The Matrix Reloaded is that there is nothing on the line this time. The Wachowskis have nothing to prove, except maybe how many box office records they can break.
It seems odd that much of The Matrix Reloaded’s story is predicated on the issue of choice. It is taken as a given throughout much of the story that Neo is going to save the world; the only question is how he might go about it. But several instances crop up in which the original’s red pill/blue pill scenario is replayed and he is faced with choosing one severe option or another: save his beloved, save himself, save Zion, etc. This becomes the movie’s most frustrating bit of insincerity, because whereas the first movie chose to pick the locks of its genre roots and attempt to become an original work, a feat akin to the storyline of humans freed from their enslavement to the machines, Reloaded seems to have considered no alternative other than to stick squarely to the remote, bigger-must-always-mean-better script that kills off far more sequels than it saves. Of course, this hardly matters; the movie was a certain success before it started filming. I have no doubt that nearly everyone reading this will see The Matrix Reloaded, but I hope that some will have the sense to realize that the movie is, most certainly, not The One. It’s your right to demand better. That choice is still yours.