REVIEW: The Matrix Reloaded [2003]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 138 minutes
    Release Date: May 15th, 2003 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski
    Writer(s): Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski

We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.

Hype and nostalgia are drugs. Not only was I super psyched for The Matrix Reloaded when it came out, I remember being equally psyched upon leaving the theater. I was twenty-one, had just seen The Matrix a year or two previously (was late on that bandwagon), and had watched The Animatrix a couple times to prepare. A bunch of us got together to hit opening weekend (two of whom spoke French and confirmed that the cursing done by Lambert Wilson‘s Merovingian was very dirty) and mainlined the action we knew Lana and Lilly Wachowski were going to bring. The ways in which they upped the ante on the fight choreography and special effects far outweighed any story progression back then. It doesn’t now. Not even a little bit.

That’s not to say it isn’t still enjoyable when it comes to the fisticuffs. The wirework is much more inventive and fluidly dance-like with an extended chase scene on the freeway (“You told me driving on the freeway was suicide.”) standing the test of time as far as adrenaline rush impact goes. Those moments when the characters are obviously replaced by computer-generated counterparts (see infinite numbers of Hugo Weaving‘s Agent Smith), however, are borderline laughable. Not because they look bad, but because they’re leaned on so extensively. We’re talking whole minute shots pretending like we won’t know the difference—and maybe we didn’t back then. If that’s the best it ever was, our minds didn’t know it could be better. Our minds trick us into believing it can’t.

Which is a funny thing to think about considering the subject matter and the implicit choice humanity has made to remain connected to an artificial world created by machines as a means of transforming our bodies into their main energy source. It only works, though, if the mind believes it’s safer to remain asleep than awake. Helmut Bakaitis‘ The Architect will explain it all in a convoluted yet fast-paced five-minute Q&A monologue with Neo (Keanu Reeves) at the source code building, but the gist is that none of it works without acceptance. Maybe that means risking anomalies who decide to take the “red pill” and wake up from the dream, but it’s negligible in the grand scheme of things as long as the escapees don’t grow too powerful.

I won’t lie. That last paragraph is the entire conceit of The Matrix Reloaded. The Wachowskis have expanded one simple clarification about their mythology into a two-plus hour epic that admittedly takes way too long to get going before ending prematurely due to a sequel (The Matrix Revolutions) already being shot and in post-production for release a few months later. You can’t watch it now without thinking about the cash-grab because so little actually happens. I’ve yet to rewatch the latter to be certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one film shorter than either of them could have sufficed in delivering the material both contain. Warner Bros. surely wanted the additional box office. The Wachowskis surely wanted carte blanche. But was it all necessary? Probably not.

Was the unending desire to remind us that Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are hot, consenting adults ready to have sex at the drop of a hat necessary? How about the boring effect wherein something cool happens but the camera zooms out and turns everything into green scrolls of code so we can’t see that cool thing happen? Then there’s Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) coming in for a half-baked love triangle subplot with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) that goes absolutely nowhere. And I don’t know what anyone was thinking when they decided the best way to prove a point about control was asking Tory Mussett to fake an orgasm so they could animate it while pushing the camera between her legs.

The only thing of substance beyond The Architect’s speech forcing Neo to choose between reloading the Matrix (the title!) and letting humanity go extinct is the fact that there are programmers roaming about the code, changing things for fun. Whether Merovingian doing it for ego or The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) doing it for safety (rudimentarily bringing the concept of backdoors to reality), the idea that stuff can be altered on another level beyond Neo being Matrix God is cool. It affects The Oracle (Gloria Foster). It allows for some neat new foes (Adrian and Neil Rayment can relinquish corporeal form in order to travel through objects and/or allow objects to travel through them). And it reminds us that none of this can be happening without legitimate intent.

Where does it go beyond aesthetics? We don’t know yet. The hope is that it goes somewhere, but I can’t remember. And since what I do remember about Revolutions is that the majority of the runtime takes place in Zion (the underground human city in the real world that Neo and company are trying to protect from an invasion of large robotic Sentinels), I wouldn’t be surprised to discover the answer is nothing. Maybe Reloaded truly is just style over substance. It’s objectively that on its own, but I must believe it won’t be when judged along with its sibling. I must because I can’t fathom how something as uniquely mind-blowing as The Matrix could be ruined by undercooked ideas and clichéd genre conventions just four years later.

All that and I haven’t even mentioned Agent Smith beyond the fact that he has multiple copies of himself this go-round. Why? We don’t know. The dude was killed in the first movie and yet here he is in this cesspool of sweat by choice. That in and of itself is interesting, though. The idea that he saw Neo do the impossible and thus decided he would too proves the single best revelation of this whole film and yet we receive zero payoff or context. He’s just here to wreak havoc as a not-so-great obstacle. Is he the Antichrist to Neo’s Jesus? Maybe. Or was he such a fan favorite that The Wachowskis did whatever they could to bring him back to life at the studio’s behest?

Either way, this is a nothing of a movie. Even when paired with the next chapter it seems less like an expansion of The Matrix then a rushed, bow-tied ending to a world that demands so much more time to fully grasp the ideas its creators have imbued. Or maybe it was all a con job. Maybe The Wachowskis read all that philosophy, concocted an entertaining vehicle to feed it to the masses, and that was it. One and done. Then they found themselves in a position to do more and did the best they could with no real overall plan from the start. You’ll have to ask them and hope they’ll tell the truth. Because, from where I’m sitting, it looks like a hollow attempt.

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