The Matrix Reloaded5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
The Matrix is arguably one of the greatest science fiction achievements of the 1990s. The film convincingly combines classic Golden Age science fiction narratives (Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov) via a Twilight Zone twist with the best of the postmodern cyberpunk era (William Gibson, Neal Stephenson). It’s a relatively original brainchild and style that satirizes authority and reality itself – made all the more compelling by the use of real actors in the “wire-fu” special effects. After the film ran successfully, beating Star Wars at the Oscars and developing a cult following, and producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon 1-4, Die Hard 1-2) noting that everyone else was getting a Gulfstream V, it was clear that a sequel was needed. However, the Herculean task for co-writers/directors/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski (Bound, writers of Assassins) was to somehow make a sequel that would be as good as the original, or at least in the same ballpark.
Making a good science fiction sequel is not easy. Very few films have succeeded, and then only when the first film had enough loose ends for the next story to emerge naturally from the first. Examples include Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Alien and Aliens, and The Terminator and Terminator 2. Fortunately, there were a few tantalizing plot threads left over from The Matrix’s story that could be woven together. One of those threads was that the first film explored two parallel worlds, but mostly showed only one, while a mysterious city in the other world was mentioned only in dialogue. Also, the main conflict was not resolved, leaving the viewer curious about the eventual outcome, similar to Star Wars and The Terminator.
Similar to the “Back to the Future” episodes, two “Matrix” episodes were shot and released within six months of each other. The Matrix Reloaded is the first of these sequels. The film continues the story of the characters introduced in the first film, but at the same time introduces a new threat that forces a resolution of the main conflict. As before, Keanu Reeves (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed) doesn’t have to do much acting as Neo, and thankfully his occasional “Whoa!” doesn’t turn into a contract Schwarzenegger catchphrase. Carrie-Anne Moss (Memento, Chocolat) kicks butt with style as Trinity, and Laurence Fishburne (Apocalypse Now, Othello) delivers another satisfying stentorian performance as Morpheus. Hugo Weaving (Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings) also returns, several times over, and clearly enjoys his role as the tightly modulated Agent Smith.
But this is not a family reunion. What matters is the script. And in that regard, there are two general observations that should be made about this film. First, the fight sequences and special effects interludes are extremely well choreographed and executed, helping to heighten the tension and support the plot. The bullet-time special effects that were developed for the first film not only look good, but also draw the viewer into the moment. Although The Matrix has become the pulp fiction of action movies due to the many copies of this effect, The Matrix Reloaded delivers a substantial and amazing improvement in terms of the range of fights, weapons and vehicles. At the same time, there is perhaps a bit too much emphasis on CG effects. The first film looked amazing, especially because Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving were still in the picture. Although the CG effects in the new film are surprisingly often convincing, they betray themselves when an actor’s face just doesn’t look right, or it just doesn’t look like it was shot on camera. But to be fair, given the premise of these films, there is a certain internal consistency when things look a little too computery.
The other observation is that the pacing of the film is quite different from that of the first. This one devotes massive blocks of time to life segments and intellectual exposition. The character conflicts of Link (Harold Perrineau – Romeo + Juliet, Woman on Top), Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith – Set it Off, Ali) and Commander Lock (Harry Lennix – Titus, Collateral Damage) and the feline presence of the seductive Persephone (Monica Bellucci – Brotherhood of the Wolf, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) help breathe life into a plot-driven story. But ten minutes of a post-apocalyptic rave really isn’t necessary. It also seemed as if the Wachowskis, in an attempt to build on the super-cool twist of the first film, overloaded the film with several sequences of elaborate and circular discussions of choice, fate, reloaded systems, and good languages for swearing. Whether such a high level of mock intellectualism really fits in the middle of a hard-hitting action film is debatable, but it’s certainly refreshing.
Unfortunately, this means the film can’t claim to be completely original. Although every sequel draws on its predecessor, The Matrix Reloaded also seems to borrow from the rest of the science fiction canon. Morpheus’ unnaturally perfect sentences, the messianic structure of the film, and the whole dark-skinned masses thing seem very much like elements from Frank Herbert’s Dune. This whole “Chosen One” theme seems to be running through much of science fiction and fantasy lately, showing up in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and even the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, Herbert reached back to religion, whose texts seem to overlap in similar ways. The Wachowskis also draw on these primary texts, naming a key city “Zion” and a key character “Trinity,” both of which reference Judeo-Christian ideology. But that’s not the end of the story. The whole premise of the film series seems to be inspired by Alex Proyas’ Dark City, which came out a year before The Matrix. And the whole question of self-determination versus fate has been addressed by a variety of films, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Whale Rider. Little things like prominent shots of mechanical, bipedal vehicles reminiscent of the power loader from Aliens don’t help.
So while The Matrix seems relatively original (defined as successfully popularizing a premise that previously failed to captivate audiences), The Matrix Reloaded often treads familiar ground. Still, the action scenes are quite captivating, and the surprises in the third act make up for the film’s flaws.