May 16, 2003

The Matrix reloads and kicks your pod-incubated ass

We're in the Matrix, a massive sensorial lie about everything we take the world to be. Our true bodies float oblivious in a horrible enervating womb that sucks our life energy to power the computer system that feeds us our illusory consciousness. There are only a few gifted and nonconformist hackers whose unique attunement to artificial reality allows them to operate in the Matrix. They spend most of their time fleeing the Agents, the matrix's kung fu gestapo, and finding new subjects to awaken. As we placidly watch the buds burst from the trees, read Thoreau, and imagine ourselves free, the hackers live in reality, in their capital city Zion, nestled in shit-pits near the earth's core. Where we left off, Neo (a taciturn Keanu Reeves) has to learn what one does when he's The One, the cyber-savior prophesied to liberate humanity from the Matrix, the advent of which is so worrisome to the hegemons that they decide to drill down to Zion with an army of robo-squids to slaughter every human in it.

We learn and relearn all of this in a slow first act: 40 minutes filled with new characters, piddling love triangles, and an incredible amount of philosophical discussion. The Wachowski Brothers evidently read The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 18th-century French determinists, and a lot of Kant before writing this sequel. It bursts with speculation upon determinism, free choice, and man-machine relations. The Wachowskis may realistically claim to be imparting at least an introductory flicker of enlightenment to the large population of proles and soul-atrophied mediaheads in the audience. On the one hand, they are to be commended for so fearlessly starting their movie at a thoughtful crawl. On the other, it's not very entertaining.

It's not all wisdom, though; there is an excruciating early scene where Morpheus shouts an inspirational lecture to the gathered Zionites, at the expense of his calm, collected, and deep-throated mystic persona. His rhetoric is every bit as patriotic and "unafraid" as that of Fox News Channel, and like the same channel, avoids much of the moral ambiguity of armed conflict. The film goes on to evade the ethical complexity of the "awakened" human operators, who terminate people with extreme prejudice, and justify such behavior by claiming that even "innocent" human beings are complicit with the Matrix and its Agents.

The violence of the hackers gave the first movie its dangerous, renegade appeal, but this time around the discomfort has been neutralized. Unlike the original, I don't think we ever see a non-agentized human killed in Reloaded. As a result the Agents lose their menace and become mafioso foot-soldiers, and the Matrix world feels less like a prison and more like the set of an action movie. I think if the Wachowskis were truly courageous, truly philosophical, and truly subversive, they would embrace the moral implications of the act of killing a Matrix-slave, living his so-called life in blissful ignorance. But, all the philosophy aside, this is still an action movie and it doesn't tackle moral considerations; instead it presents a philosophical thematic of causality versus choice, on the subject of which most of the supporting characters give their two cents before or after getting their asses kicked.

For a movie about supposed liberators, the ordinary peon is a rare sight here; a large portion of the film takes place in the universal city, which, to judge from the film, has a limited population. I hope you appreciate the irony that this is the case only because computers still have such a hard time animating crowds of people well; we're not close enough to a real Matrix world for the movie to achieve much authenticity in artificiality. The only place we see a crowd, the true Krakauerian topos of the film medium, is a gathering in Zion. They promptly begin a rave, intercut with Neo and Trinity having sex, with the pod-sockets of their former enslavement prominent all over their bodies.

As much as The Matrix and its sequel are about modern alienation, these movies don't qualify as representations of physical reality; they're cartoons. The original had at least some relation to camera reality; now the filmmakers in several action scenes have descended to the level of Clutch Cargo, just pasting actor's faces on what are otherwise 100 percent cartoon figures so as to easily contort and fling them about. This is the case in the infamous battle of Neo versus Agent Smith-times-100, where we chuckle to see dozens of Hugo Weavings pile on Keanu Reeves, but aren't very impressed. The extended scenes of one-on-one martial artistry that gave grace and gravity to the original are sorely missed.

It is already critical vogue to compare Reloaded with George Lucas' misdirected new Star Wars episodes, to decry the excess, emptiness, and loss of the mystery and humanity of the original, as if the original had any humanity, and as if it were not about the unmasking of illusion and the reduction of the human in a technocratic world. The sequel's finest virtue is its radical twisting and deepening of the backstory. However unnecessary and undeveloped many of the new characters are, the Wachowskis have put the old ones through some remarkable modulations.

We see the Oracle again, whose role is made far more ominous and ambivalent (instead of a cookie, this time she offers Neo an individually-wrapped Mike & Ike). We're introduced to a subculture of rogue and exiled programs within the Matrix, who, like Agents, have no human analogue but have become self-aware and all-too-human as programs. The most prominent is the Merovingian, a ludicrous Frenchman who holds captive a key ueber-hacker. The way in which Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity must acquire this program-person is delightful and totally unexpected. And then there's Agent Smith. Having hundreds of him looked like a sure disaster for the character, but Hugo Weaving and the Wachowskis have given him a hilarious tweaking (wait till you hear his explanation for why there are so many of him).

The climactic action set-piece (the real reason we're watching this), made to match the helicopter sequence in the original, is a freeway chase with Morpheus and Trinity trying to get the Key Maker to safety, and being chased both by Agents and the Merovingian's albino henchmen. There is a pleasing amount of real car smashings plus a lot of well-concealed help from CGI. Then Morpheus fights an Agent on top of a semi, which I wished the Wachowskis had put the time, money, and stunt effort into filming as verite as possible (with actual helicopter shots instead of Grand Theft Auto III). As it stands, nothing here matches James Cameron's True Lies.

The movie's knockout punch is a grandiloquent monologue delivered by The Architect, whom Neo meets at the end. This avalanche of explanation about the rationale behind the Matrix is what will bring first-year philosophy concentrators back to the theaters for another go.

The movie hits a lot of high notes after missing just as many. Whether it's a good movie or not, we will all, like the good cultural critics we are, proceed to the multiplex to direct our University of Chicago educations towards understanding the cultural signifier that is The Matrix Reloaded.