"Choice is an illusion, created between those with power and those without."
- The Merovingian, on free will
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that manages to embed itself within the consciousness of the general public. Considering how many movies are released each year, and how many of them are, in short order, swept under the rug by our collective obsession with the Next New Thing (TM), this is no mean feat. In 1999, The Matrix did just that, emerging out of nowhere to challenge our perceptions on reality, fate, causality, and stylish black trenchcoats. In the process it practically redefined a genre, making big-name competitors like Lucas's recent Star Wars films seem hopelessly backward by comparison.
If everyone knew what the ultimate secret behind The Matrix's enormous success was, there would be more successful movies. But the truth probably has something to do with the film's clever reworking of age-old heroic myth, the kind of stuff that speaks to the subconscious (and sometimes the conscious) in all of us. Who hasn't wondered, for instance, whether there was something more to the reality in which we live? Who hasn't felt the desire to embark on that epic adventure, to be the one special saviour in a world gone to hell? And who could pass up the opportunity to engage in gravity-defying martial arts under the guise of "saving the world?" (Well, I'm sure there's one in every crowd.)
Which is why The Matrix Reloaded, in spite of its more obvious flaws, works. The Wachowski Brothers (the brilliant co-creators of the Matrix franchise) have wisely attempted to recapture the elements that made the first film so famous -- namely, the philosophical mind games and the blazingly kinetic, 'bullet-time' action sequences -- and for the most part, they've succeeded. At the very least, it's an entertaining visual spectacle; at its best, it's a thought-provoking and occasionally even shocking excursion through a world that you thought couldn't offer any more surprises than the original, but does. Like Peter Jackson's mighty The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it doesn't quite have the same magic as the first, but still stands tall as the middle chapter of a groundbreaking trilogy.
The first film ended with Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) proclaiming Neo (Keanu Reeves) as the 'One', destined to free humanity from the machines' computer-simulated prison that is the Matrix. Problem is, Morpheus' somewhat mystical views are not shared by everyone, most notably Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), who heads the military defense of Zion, the last human city on Earth. Faced with an impending invasion, Lock wants every ship on the front line, but Morpheus has other plans. He believes that Neo is the only one who can save Zion, and wants to chuck all the resources at his disposal, including military vessels, to Neo's cause. This results in a sticky situation, made even stickier when Lock's lover (and, as it happens, Morpheus's ex-lover) Niobe volunteers to stick up for her former man.
Meanwhile, Neo is off on a little adventure of his own that begins with another cryptic consultation with the Oracle (Gloria Foster), whose character exudes a motherly warmth that's at odds with everything she has to say. After some matter-of-fact advice about the futility of resisting destiny, she sends him off on a quest to rescue the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who holds some vital key to Neo's future (no pun intended...honest!), from a rogue program known as the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), whose estranged wife Persephone (Monica Belluci) has a thing for Neo, much to the hilariously deadpan irritation of Neo's no-nonsense partner Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Trinity, by the way, keeps appearing in Neo's dreams, but not in any way he'd like: he repeatedly envisions her death in battle against one of the agents. Speaking of agents: Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is back. No, I'm not going to tell you how, just that he's no longer an agent, there's literally a lot more of him, and that he exists for the sole purpose of providing an absolutely jaw-dropping fight scene with Neo that borders on -- and eventually crosses into -- the hysterical.
The Wachowski Brothers have erred on the side of a sensory and intellectual overload here, which is mostly okay because they are clever filmmakers and know how to handle their own material more or less effectively. Still, there are messy moments. Whereas the first film had a storyline that was brilliantly simple, the sequel at times feels muddy and unfocused. It commits most of its crimes during the first third, which is comprised of many scenes that feel either arbitrary or unnecessary. There is an early scene where Morpheus delivers a speech in front of the citizens of Zion that induces rousing emotions, but this is followed by a 'communal' dance, shot in slow-motion and underscored first by tribal drums, then by a heavy techno beat, intercut with dreamlike scenes of completely different action. I found the scene embarrassingly long and oddly ill-fitting; it was like stepping suddenly into a different, and far seedier, kind of cinema.
The initial fight scenes also lack conviction, especially when they're divided by long stretches of quasi-philosophical ramblings. During one of the latter, where Neo is standing on the balcony of his alcove having a rather unenthusiastic argument with one of Zion's councillors (Anthony Zerbe), I kept getting the sense that the writers were throwing in 'interesting' arguments for the sake of having interesting arguments, nothing more.
Then there's the Oracle, who enjoys teasing Neo about his lack of free will, and the Merovingian, who enjoys telling Neo the same thing, except with the aid of a cute visual demonstration and some admittedly funny French sarcasm. The problem of choice and free will is interesting enough (anyone who has spent the time thinking about it knows that it's a dilemma with no quick and easy solution) but the way it's delivered can be slightly tedious, since most of the juicy ideas were already used in the first film. It doesn't help that Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are always wearing their shades, and that their expressions are frequently blank, so that it looks like they're bored stiff by whoever's turn it is to give the lecture. Every time one of these little arguments come up, I felt as though the filmmakers were stalling for the next big action scene.
Of course, these are not really major quibbles. It's quite possible that many of these scenes were written with tongues firmly in cheek. Besides, The Matrix Reloaded is already light-years beyond most action films: at least it has a brain, though perhaps one that isn't as sharp as the first movie. But when those action scenes arrive midway through the film, be prepared to be blown away, starting with Neo's brawl with an army of Hugo Weavings, who, by the way, seems to be having a lot more fun this time round. (He's also less menacing, which is all right because his character seems to serve no real function in the story anyway.) The scene is a choreographic wonder, an insanely beautiful dance that escalates to proportions so ridiculously over-the-top that you may find yourself laughing with the sheer absurdity of it all. It's also filmed like the best video game you've never played, full of camera swirls and spirals and slow-motion overkill. The bullet-time cinematography that defined the first movie's action scenes is employed here, frequently to nearly ludicrous results. I loved every minute of it. The film's biggest action scene manages to up the ante even further, adding actual tension into the mix by being, well, relevant to the plot and our heroes.
Don Davis' musical score is sensational throughout, alternating between hard techno (with help from Juno Reactor), operatic choral chanting (not unlike E.S. Posthumous's Orff-influenced trailer music) and the most audaciously dissonant orchestral pounding you're likely to hear accompanying a Hollywood action scene.
The film's final act introduces a chilling, almost shocking plot twist that throws a bold wrench into our perceptions of what the Matrix actually is, and almost redeems the philosophical blandness of the movie's first bit. Well, sort of...it also happens to be delivered with an unfortunate excess of jargon, meaning that you have to concentrate very hard in order to truly 'get' what happens. This is a shame, since it's one of the best parts of the plot, yet only a handful of people I know seem to have grasped the ending, and with considerable difficulty, at that. It's not entirely their fault. And herein lies the film's only significant weakness: it's inability to convey cool ideas as convincingly (or with as much clarity) as the first movie. All the characters are likeable, the acting's generally good (okay, maybe Keanu Reeves doesn't really explore the depth of his invincible-superhero character much, but his supporting players are strong, always showing hints of vulnerability under their tough shells), and the action sequences rock; it's only the intelligent, provocative ideas that suffer from flat or muddled execution.
Viewers might also be a bit peeved by the film's blatant cliffhanger conclusion, but I wasn't too bothered by it. It's a good sign that I can hardly wait till the film's final installment (entitled The Matrix Revolutions, due to open in theaters later this year) to find out what happens next. In a time where both Star Wars and Star Trek seem to be spiraling down the drain of mediocrity, it's refreshing to see sci-fi franchises like The Matrix take the helm and push the right buttons.
Rock on, Neo.