The joy of living through The Matrix was watching something unafraid to be a Kung fu movie even against a heady sci-fi subtext. The Matrix Reloaded manages to preserve that joy, while making so many unwanted strides in universe-building that you get the impression the Wachowskis believed they were making something engrossing and deep all along, rather than just joyous. Many people find The Matrix to be worthy of the depth its creators see in it. They take it at the word of its philosophy. Perhaps it’s because I love Kung fu movies, or perhaps it’s because I think Dark City did a lot of the same themes more justice (and on a lot of the same sets) but I tend to think of the philosophy in The Matrix as more of a backdrop. This sequel was made for the people who read more into it. But why then do those same people take such issue with The Matrix Reloaded? Perhaps the Wachowskis should have stuck to quoting Baudrillard, instead of trying to write some themselves.
There are no good changes to The Matrix in its sequel, only things that stayed comfort food and things that lost their flavor. The worst of the latter is the once towering dream-lord, that mob boss of mystery called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) whom Neo (Keanu Reeves) was searching out through cyber-space as one skims a book for a missing character or lifts the sheets to check for monsters. He was completely mystifying. Now in the sequel, Morpheus is a captain among many in the resistance against the machines, even subservient to his incompetent commanders. He’s been stripped of his mystery, like a wire reduced to the cold metal conduit. He has none of the deep-set Platonism that made him more than a mentor figure. As he is here, he’s another dirty human in the sewer of the real, barely a buddy cop. His passive aggressive romantic past with Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) further trivializes him as a normal dude.
Along the same business of reduction, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) has been totally converted into a “movie girl.” You know the ones. They might show a bit of competence early on, but once the hero gets going, they revert to love interest, damsel, and cheerleader. Not everyone has to be a powerful hero, and Trinity has some intense scenes in this film. But since the opening of The Matrix with Trinity’s slow motion show-stopper, she’s been gradually devolving into a generic role. The same thing happened to Maid Marian in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, not the sort of thing you want your movie compared to.
Neo fares better, since his character is based essentially around not faring at all. But again, changes are for the worse: since he now begins this movie already the prophesied hero of time, he has nowhere to go. He wears sunglasses when he fights, which gives off the illusion that he isn’t human, or at least, that he’s hard to relate to. It does provide a nice bit of urgency when he gets his glasses knocked off and all at once, in the eyes, he’s our vulnerable everyman again. But it’s not really worth it to have him look like Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) for the preceding two hours.
Weaving, again, makes you want to lock the car doors and call to make sure your daughter's okay. He plays Smith like he’s the only one who thinks of The Matrix as a B-movie, and never ceases to inoculate super-serious drama with a tad more awareness than a normal movie character should have about their movie (in one scene he lets out a bona-fide evil scientist laugh, and it’s glorious). But since the Matrix is existence, since he’s a line of code in a fantasy flickering on the wall of the metaphysical cave, awareness is appropriate even in-universe: the slinky awe in his acting means something in the canon. But then the explanations start pouring in. This is where things go bad.
The Oracle (Gloria Foster), who happened to be a numinous grandma baking cookies in an inner city apartment, was a genuine source of mystery in The Matrix. The questions she asked provoked genuine crises of identity, such as when she forgives Neo for the vase. “What vase?” he asks, and breaks it. “What’s really gonna bake your noodle later on,” she muses, “is: would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” Causality, identity, and temporality were things that got hashed out in our minds over cookies because the Oracle spoke in simple mysteries, which thousands of years of philosophy had not solved or answered. In the sequel, she says to Neo when he asks why he came to her, “You already made your choice; you’re here to understand it.” If The Matrix is a choice, the entire sequel film is that understanding, and that’s what makes it and its series little more than the illusion it promised to break.
There’s a character in The Matrix Reloaded, whose identity I would be negligent in my critical duties to spoil, that explains everything. The prophecy of the One, his purpose and power, the nature and origin of the Matrix, the future, the past … everything. What’s worse: he does it not with the Oracle’s shadowy isms and noodle-cooking causality loops, but with straight exposition, veiled not by complex thought but by big GRE practice words. Charles Bukowski said once that it takes an artist to say a hard thing in a simple way and an intellectual to do the reverse. The Matrix Reloaded isn’t a terrible film, but it’s trying way too hard to be intellectual.
The action is still exciting, but only half the time. The other half nudges towards that early 2000s fakery that at the time seemed like a failed experiment and now seems like plain ol’ hubris. One particular fight against an army of Agent Smiths makes you wonder if the Wachowskis thought that stuntmen would soon be a dying breed, and so they might as well get ahead of the curve of the cartoon revolution. Neo throws one of the floaty, inflatable people into a crowd of them and it makes (and I went back and checked to make sure because I couldn’t even believe it at first) an actual bowling pin sound. The fight reminds me of Princess Fiona’s takedown of Monsieur Hood in the first Shrek.
Consider every possible emotion we should be feeling during a fight like that and ask how such a sound effect and the use of such silly animation changes not just our grasp of the situation, but of the tone of the whole matrix. It may seem insignificant, but if something as small as one man can rewrite the program, think of the film as its source, and such a divergent scene as a break in the code. It’s disastrous.
Another fight on the stairs of Merovingian’s (Lambert Wilson) circular parlor fares much better, with the always exertive Reeves clearly on-set and in-harness, pulling the history of feudal weaponry off the walls and bounding off wall and over railing to take apart that naughty ponce’s wire-fu whelps-for-hire. I don’t know how debatable this is, but I think this fight is the best in the series: its rising tension is perfect. I never wanted it to end. The techno rock score soars here, and where there are few cartoons and positively zero bowling pin sounds, it seems jaw-droppingly epic, even though it’s one of the smaller set-pieces in this movie. The music is also an industry standard in all the fight scenes in The Matrix Reloaded: the Don Davis movie score overwritten with Juno Reactor/Rob Dougan's electronic-punk fusion is quite probably the best of its kind. A highway chase has some incredible vehicle stunts as well: none so grand as Michelle Yeoh's and Jackie Chan's in Police Story 3: Super Cop, but you can tell the Wachowskis were thinking of them. But what do they think of that kind of movie, if they think it needs bowling pin sounds?
I stand by my assessment of the first film, that after that third act, sequels are about as unneeded as a peek into Bruce Lee’s home-life after he beats Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. I just don’t think becoming a superhero works in the context of making more movies in this universe, and the Wachowskis agree with me: they spend all their time trying to philosophize their way out of their own first movie, like shriveled professors trying to cut their spoiled student down to size. Everything that happens contradicts or nullifies Neo’s original journey and none of the pain and adversity he faced earlier comes back: these characters, at this point, have become the invincible pseudo-superheroes that they're going to inspire. And that’s because I don’t believe the Wachowskis quite knew what they had with The Matrix. I think they had borrowed so much from Ninja Scroll and Dark City and The Invisibles (Grant Morrison even started a lawsuit over that one) that they didn’t know where it should go next. And so they work so hard to explain The Matrix in its sequel that they blanch the joy out of their cheesy hero narrative by exploiting the subtext too much. They out-Sartre themselves with that universal exposition scene. It’s all just a little sad.
They explain away their own appeal, as though they’ve solved millennia of philosophical quandary with Kung fu. And now that we’re in the future and their latest effort at original world-building is Jupiter Ascending, we may need to reexamine where all of this stuff came from. This shouldn’t mean that you should like The Matrix Reloaded less – at times, it’s a blast. But it places a heavy burden on me as a critic, when a good sequel to a good action movie works overtime to ruin the deeper part that everyone was so worked up about. It means I can only fully recommend this movie with a wince of paradox: the only people equipped to fully enjoy it, are those who don’t care enough about the details of the first film to want to.
Image is a screenshot from the film.