The Matrix II: Reloaded

Gen X movie review the MatrixThe Matrix II: Reloaded is an upgrade to the first film, but like Windows XP it’s difficult to detect what’s really been improved. And although everything looks fine you just know it’s going to come crashing down at any minute.

In the first Matrix Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves) discovered that he’d lived his life in a virtual real, a world created by machines, a kind of electric sleep. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) taught him to use this knowledge to become powerful in the matrix, and he discovered that he was an incarnation of the One, a quasi-religious figure who would free the human species from their dream prison.

The second chapter of the Matrix trilogy flashes between the real, war-torn world and the ultra chic matrix with abrupt cuts that are sometimes confusing. Since both the virtual real and the real real have the same actors playing the same characters, you often do not know which reality you’re in until Reeves begins picking up cars or the camera pans into a wide-view.

The real has the gritty, dirty quality of a prison colony. Maybe the filmmakers thought they needed to contrast the cool stylishness of the matrix with a gross display of human filth, but it’s hard to restrain a laugh when one of our heroes looks out on Zion and says, “Damn, it’s good to be home.” The city has all the charm of a deserted industrial park or a dilapidated steel mill.

Ironically, it’s sex that holds Zion together. The real is evidently an incredibly horny place and all the characters want to do is hump like bunnies in the mechanical graveyard around them. (It’s curious that none of the women have hairy armpits or mustaches considering how pitifully tribal the human race has become.) The city’s population gyrates like a living orgasm at a gathering held to tell them that their civilization will soon be overtaken by robot hordes.

Morpheus swaggers on stage to tell them to buck up. “Tonight let us tremble these halls of Earth, stone and steel,” he thunders to their orgiastic screams. Shirtlessly displaying six sets of cybernetic steel nipples, he waves his arms to quiet the crowd only to stir them into ever-higher regions of euphoria.

“My people… Let us party like it’s 1999.”

Well, okay, that’s not true, but it’s really, really close.

Meanwhile, back in the matrix, where there’s indoor plumbing and some plot development, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), a sinister villain destroyed in the first film, has somehow become a virus within the system, multiplying at an alarming rate. Smith is the only source of humor in the film as well as its most interesting character, and Weaving is delicious in the role.

The matrix battle scenes are spectacular. Special effects have vastly improved since the first movie, and yesterday’s gee-wiz visual seems oddly cornball while today’s are mind-boggling. A chase scene on a busy highway has enemy agents leaping from speeding vehicle to speeding vehicle as spectral ghost program / entities phase in-and-out of reality. Unimaginable even five years ago, these kinds of scenes redraw possibility on the big screen.

Eventually the film’s narrative returns to the philosophical question of free will and determination in a closed system. In the past philosophers and theologians have contemplated truth in Korans, puzzles and paradoxes, modern man finds it within the cyber networks of a computer game. Oedipus stalks the matrix these days, and although the shape and texture of reality has changed, the essential questions concerning freedom and ontology remain basically the same.

Although the first movie portrayed Morpheus as a John the Baptist of the digital world, Reloaded reveals his darker side. His faith in predestination has a kind of fatalism to it, a disavowal of free will. He has followed the script – predicted by the Oracle and created by the writers – but it doesn’t allow for human agency. It’s like the latest version of the popular computer game Final Fantasy: It pretends to offer you choice, but only if you give up your desire for freedom in order to play the game.

His faith turns out to be simply another level of control. It feeds back into the fabric of the system, becomes the omega that is the precursor to the next alpha -- a reset button. The game has an ending but that ending is always just an opportunity to restart at the beginning again, a chance to run through the story one more time.

Reloaded lacks the first film’s deep luster, even if it’s got more pizzazz. Although the action is hotter and the visual effects more striking, the film’s intellectual thrust is convoluted and enigmatic, and it’s less compelling somehow. It has moved from a work of speculative fiction to a work of science fiction, and the change has not been entirely satisfying since it seems somehow less pertinent, less possible, less true.

Reloaded is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an explosion, speaking its truths with too little conviction from behind a maze of mirrors and false prophets.


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