'Matrix' Is Locked and Reloaded
by Gene Seymour
The heavily hyped sequel promises to be the hottest, and the coolest, movie this summer
The media turn goggle-eyed and jelly-limbed at the sight of large quantities of currency. So when "The Matrix" made off with millions of dollars four years ago and became the most talked-about movie in a summer despite such stiff competition as "The Phantom Menace," "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense," movie pundits only looked at the money and generally shrugged off anything else. People, the media assumed, will buy anything, especially cool shades, black latex, state-of-the-art kung fu and chromium firepower.
Then, the pundits really got confused. Over the next four years "The Matrix" became more than just a lucky strike or a fashion statement. It was instant folklore, a pop-cultural phenomenon, a new platinum standard for technological romance. Other movies raided "The Matrix" for ideas, inspiration and, of course, parody. (Remember the princess' stop-action karate kick in "Shrek"?) All of which caught the movie industry and its observers by surprise - and made even those who can't tolerate science fiction exceptionally curious about what writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski would do in not one, but two sequels slated for this year.
It's because of such anticipation that, unless you were stranded on K2 the past six to eight months, there's no way you couldn't know that "The Matrix Reloaded" opens nationwide May 15. Even people who work at studios other than Warner Bros. (corporate home for the "Matrix" saga) are already conceding this will be the movie that eats the multiplexes this summer - and possibly beyond, at least until "The Matrix Revolutions" opens in November.
The pundits remain bewildered. They view "The Matrix" and its impact on culture solely in terms of commodities. It isn't just the money made by the movies themselves, but the $300 million spent on making the movies, to say nothing of the video games, software, books and other ancillary products of the "Matrix" trilogy. Put another way, they think it's all about the cool stuff and nothing else.
Any reasonable reply to this viewpoint begins by acknowledging that ... well, yeah, of course, the kinetic coolness of the concept, along with all the groovy threads and accessories, is a big part of the overall appeal. But all that cool stuff is wrapped around needs that are, at once, more visceral and spiritual than the mainstream could ever imagine. And it all goes back to the basic appeal of science fiction and fantasy, especially the kind of alternate-reality concept that plays itself out in "The Matrix."
The psychic territory explored by the Wachowski brothers was opened up long ago by the late novelist Philip K. Dick, whose fiction spawned such science-fiction films as "Blade Runner" (1982) and last year's "Minority Report." Dick also explored alternate realities in such books as "Time Out of Joint" and "The Man in the High Castle," neither of which has been filmed. Those novels' reconfiguration of history and the known universe fascinate to this day, yet the books are downers. Finding out that there's Something Bigger controlling their fate does nothing whatsoever to help Dick's hapless protagonists. In fact, they're crushed by this knowledge in the end.
With "The Matrix," however, there is liberation, potential, even ecstasy unleashed when Neo (Keanu Reeves), the movie's hero, finds out what the real deal is with the artificial plane of reality from which the movie takes its name. Dreams of empowerment and transcendence find their outlet in visions like those achieved by "The Matrix."
It's a vision that goes one better on such disparate films as "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Truman Show." In those movies you only peek behind the curtain and see who or what's pulling the strings. With "The Matrix," you use this knowledge to take flight and usurp some control over your destiny. Is it any wonder that young people who move unsteadily in a world they don't fully understand (and view with trepidation) have watched "The Matrix" over and over again? Do you doubt that these dreamers will be leading the lines coursing into the multiplexes a week from Thursday?
Part of why they're so anxious to show up is that there's not much that's being revealed about "Reloaded" or "Revolutions." (Efforts to get one or both Wachowskis to come to the phone for even a few minutes to talk to us have proved fruitless.) All that can be said for sure is that Neo (Keanu Reeves) is still the "One" who can stop bullets, fly through the air and beat the crap out of several guys at once.
In reality or "reality," Neo and such fellow renegades as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) still operate deep beneath the Earth's surface to engage in a psychological battle against machines that have taken over the world and impaled human minds in a dream of Normal Life. Their captors assume human shape, chiefly in the shades and dark suits worn by the likes of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the snarling thought policeman who won't go down easily.
All the above-mentioned characters are returnees from the original "Matrix." Prominent among the new characters are Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), ace pilot and guerrilla warrior for the good guys, and Persephone (Monica Belllucci), the Matrix's sultry secret weapon against the human uprising.
Now you're as up to speed as anyone who has absolutely no clue as to why this thing should dominate the summer movie season before the season even starts.