Welcome to the desert of the reel
by Giovanni Fazio
The Matrix Reloaded
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Running time: 138 minutes
Opens June 7
A barely noticed news report earlier this year heralded a rather frightening new invention: a small, intelligent robot that could detect and devour slugs in your backyard. On top of that, the machine could "digest" the slugs and convert the biomass into energy. Result: a self-sustaining robot programmed to feed on life forms -- "The Matrix's" nightmarish scenario, coming soon to a flower-bed near you.
Life imitating art? Perhaps, but the genius of the original "Matrix" movie was that it was a fantasy that drifted in and out of reality, leaving itself open to many such intersections with the here and now. Beyond the mind-blowing special effects, what really drove "Matrix"-mania -- as evidenced by the many fan Web sites as well as several scholarly tomes -- was its ability to serve as an allegory for, well, just about everything.
Computer programmer? You could easily appreciate the cosmic joke of being enslaved in a world created by code. Video-game player? You can savor the notion that your virtual martial prowess might somehow prove to be a useful, even world-saving skill. New Ager? Dig the orange-robed bald kid telling Neo "Do not try to bend the spoon. Rather, realize the spoon does not exist." Paranoid conspiracy nutter? You can see "The Matrix" everywhere, from government agencies monitoring our every move to the robot drone planes that mercilessly strike remote locations. And let's not even mention alienated high-school teens clad in black trench coats and grudges . . .
The film's directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, actively encouraged the "Matrix" theorists, filling the film with any number of little rabbit-holes leading to Baudrillard and the Bible, Buddhism and bondage. The result was like reading hypertext tanka, pondering the question of "What is real?" -- while plummeting 69 stories to the pavement. "The Matrix" wired these metaphysical mind-games into the format of sci-fi action, and then dared to suggest -- in its surreal finale, in which Neo realizes the bullets are unreal and can't hurt him -- that in a world that's an illusion, action is superfluous to the enlightened mind.
Somehow it never seemed very likely that satori would drive the sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded." Can you imagine Keanu Reeves in "Little Buddha" mode, sitting blissfully under a bodhi tree turning the evil agents' bullets into blossoming lotuses? Didn't think so. Morpheus may have told him to free his mind, but let's not forget Neo's "Let's roll" line in the first film: "Guns. Lots of guns."
That seems to be the modus operandi for "Matrix Reloaded," the bigger-budgeted but far less imaginative attempt to extend the story (and franchise) of "The Matrix." Lots of guns, lots of wire-action kung fu, lots of designer sunglasses and lots of Agent Smiths. What we don't get is lots of innovation, either visually or conceptually. The first "Matrix" gave us bullets frozen in time and punches displacing air, gnostic and zen interpretations of reality, squidlike organic technology and a red pill that dissolved the entire world as we knew it. "Matrix Reloaded" gives us, as its crowning achievement . . . a car chase.
And a car chase -- even one on a specially constructed highway, featuring "ghosts" that teleport between cars -- just isn't up to the levels of innovation expected from a visionary sci-fi flick. Especially when the chase is dragged out for a mind-numbing 14 minutes. Hell, we can go see "2 Fast 2 Furious," or "Taxi 14" if we want cars smashing endlessly. Bring on the robot squids, dammit!
To be fair, we do get a few of them -- 250,000 of them, to be precise, as the world-dominating robots unleash a horde of squiddy search-and-destroy sentients that home in on Zion, the secret underground city of humans who have awakened from the Matrix's spell. (As in the first film, 99 percent of mankind remains asleep in amniotic tanks, plugged into the virtual dreamworld of the Matrix while the robots exploit their bodies as an energy source.)
Standing in the path of certain annihilation within mere hours is Neo (Keanu Reeves), who has been proclaimed "The One" by the Oracle's prophesies. In the virtual Matrix world, he has transcended the rules of the illusory, digital reality, and can fly like Superman and stop bullets in mid-flight; in the flesh-and-blood world, though, he still has no idea how he will save the human race from machine domination.
Neo decides to sleep on it, accompanied by his savior/lover, cyberpunk wet-dream-become-flesh Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Concurrently, the man who liberated Neo from the Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, looking very much like Mussolini) gives a bombastic "victory or death" speech to the residents of Zion. The crowd erupts as some tribal drumming kicks in (not the brightest idea when robot sonar is trying to pinpoint your location) and the merry people of Zion dance like loons in a neo-pagan cave rave.
Early on in the film, this is the first sign something's wrong. The Wachowskis intercut Neo and Trinity getting it on, with the Zion tribe -- looking like extras from "Ben Hur" with body modifications -- getting down. For a film so addicted to cool, it gets painfully hokey here, with hippie chicks flashing their nipples, orgasmic gasps on the soundtrack and some truly embarrassing dance moves, a scene that would feel more at home in a "Planet of the Apes" flick.
Later, Morpheus convinces the Elders of Zion to allow his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, to return to the surface to allow Neo to contact the Oracle (Gloria Foster) for further advice. On the eve of his departure, Neo and one of Zion's councilors share a philosophical moment deep in the bowels of Zion's engineering level. "These machines are keeping us alive while others are trying to kill us," points out the elder amid the whirs and hums. "Nobody cares how it works as long as it works."
He could have been speaking about the film's plot; it dashes us along at such a furious pace, we almost don't notice how incoherent it is. Who's this kid tagging after Neo, thanking him for saving his life, and why is he here? How did Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) resurrect himself, and has he become a virus, who can replicate endlessly? Why does Neo have to leave Zion to jack into the Matrix, if the city's security has already been compromised?
Entire characters exist for no logical narrative reason except the needs of the accompanying "Matrix" video game, "Enter the Matrix," and the animation DVD, "Animatrix." Seraph (Collin Chou) has an extended chop-socky sequence with Neo before he can meet the Oracle. Reason? "You never truly know someone until you fight them," Seraph says before exiting. Wheel on Monica Bellucci as Persephone, sidekick of the nihilistic Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), a piece of software with a French accent. Her only purpose in the film is to French kiss Keanu, a "move" which allows Neo access to the next Matrix "level," as the movie's story starts to resemble a game's structure. "We are not free," sneers Agent Smith in one scene. "We cannot escape reason and purpose." The script, however, suggests otherwise.
Leaky plots only irk when the film doesn't sweep you away. And the slow-motion and wire-action sequences of "Matrix Reloaded," however nimble, have a lot less impact after four years of every other film copying the style. If a double-serving of more of the same is what you crave, though, then climb aboard.
The film's most clever notions play, ironically enough, as self-criticism. The film's triumphant moment of man over machine, for example, comes when Neo kicks the butts of literally dozens of rampant Agent Smiths. This scene, it turns out, was rendered entirely by computers and doesn't actually feature Reeves or Weaving or any nondigital elements.
Similar is the scene in which Neo is told that he's a systemic anomaly, a bit of rebellion programmed into the Matrix to give people the illusion of choice. It's a sly commentary on how culture and capitalism -- Hollywood movies featuring cyberpunk rebels included -- has managed to render all rebellion useless. Anything underground, from the fetish fashion sported by Trinity to the Burning Man festival clumsily aped in the "rave" scene, can be co-opted and sold as another "lifestyle choice," with meaning reduced to mere style.
"The problem is choice," frets Neo. But the message of "Matrix Reloaded," rammed home through $100 million worth of saturation advertising, is simple: Buy mirror shades, be cyberpunk.