Relevant Magazine (US), August 27, 2003
Where Reloaded Fails
In his book, Signposts in a Strange Land, Walker Percy writes, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition, so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part of oneself, in a bad book.” But are books the only medium to which this premise can be applied? In the article “Good Books, Bad Books: Windows into the Human Heart,” Steve Garber builds on this premise and applies it not only to books, but to films, songs and poems as well. He writes, “Stories—good stories—have a way of finding their way into the deepest places.”
Therein lies the success of The Matrix as a film that was able to connect with its audience. The story of Neo’s struggle against the lies around him rings true somewhere in our “deepest places.” But this same connection is where Reloaded actually fails, not as an entire film or part of the soon-to-be-completed trilogy, but in one of its most important sequences: the portrayal of the city of Zion and consequently the expression of love between Trinity and Neo.
In the first film, the Matrix is said to be one thing: control. Everyone is a slave in a prison of the mind, a control program, a computer-generated dream world that simply satisfies our minds so that the machines can use us. We are told, “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.” Then we hear of Zion, proposed as something completely set apart from the prison of the Matrix. After Neo is enlightened, we are introduced to Tank, who has no machine markings on him and proceeds to explain:
Tank: “Born free, right here, in the real world. Genuine child of Zion.”
Tank: “If the war were over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be.”
Neo: “It’s a city?”
Tank: “The last human city. The only place we have left … Live long enough, you might even see it.”
Later, we struggle to watch as Morpheus is captured and drugged in order to disclose the location of Zion to the machines. The possibility of this revelation results in Tank’s decision to “unplug”—in effect, kill—Morpheus. Trinity protests, but Tank answers, “Trinity, Zion is more important than me or you, or even Morpheus.”
The film presents the idea of a city of mythical proportions that is totally free from machine control. A city where humans can truly be human. A city of hope and of celebration in the event of victory. Zion is the antithesis of the Matrix, representing the fight for freedom versus the bond of slavery.
But how does this description compare with the city that we are presented with in The Matrix: Reloaded? The Washington Post reviewer, Stephen Hunter, described it as a city “designed by someone who spent too much time in a L.A. grunge club. In fact, everything about Zion kind of bites … most ludicrous of all, that ‘temple gathering,’ which is a kitschy scene of mass-boogaloo hearty partying through the night.”
Hunter goes on to compare it with a scene in The Ten Commandments, where the Israelites were led “astray and back to the golden calf orgy.” We see thousands upon thousands of bodies writhing in dirt, moisture and fantasy. The spectacle seems to take its cue from a rap video: Men and women “grind” on each other, and faces are removed from the camera shot as it pans through groups of bodies wearing wet, see-through shirts. The pulsating music behind the dancing gives seamlessness to the visual sequence as the directors take us from the “orgy” to sex between Neo and Trinity. If the music had not been composed to climax in unison with Neo and Trinity, this scene might be rather tame for an R-rated film, but the emotional and physical power of musical composition is graphically shown in this scene.
The problem with this picture of Zion lies in the expectation that has been built from the previous film. What view of these free people do the Wachowski brothers, the writers and directors of this trilogy, offer us? A picture of complete hedonism: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The creators have cheapened the people and hope of Zion and have consequently depreciated the “evil” of the Matrix. They have shown that with freedom, humans will resort to animalistic tendencies—not of survival, but of gratification. For a people looking to topple the reign of slavery and find the freedom to choose and live out real purpose to their lives, this depiction is a prostitution of their humanity.
Through the editing of the film, the vision of Zion bounces us into the “love” depicted between Neo and Trinity. The first film presents a love that is not only foretold by the Oracle but that plays some part in bringing Neo back from the dead. With depth and innocence, this love is slowly developed between the two characters. Neo and Trinity find a love that is true, for it is found outside the illusion of the Matrix.
From the beginning of Reloaded, we know that Trinity and Neo’s relationship has continued, but it does not seem to have developed any further. We see them return to Zion looking for some rest and relaxation, but Neo needs to tend to his messianic responsibilities, such as glad-handing the masses. As they part ways to meet again later, Trinity remarks, “They need you,” to which Neo replies, “I need you.” This scene represents the extent of the romantic development apart from the soft porn that follows shortly after.
Walker Percy points out the danger of sexuality as a distraction from a story: “… what [the author] is worried about is distracting the reader from the original purpose of the novel. If I have a certain truth or artistic form to convey in a novel, and if I write a scene which is so explicitly sexual…that the reader is distracted, either by stimulation, that is by sexual titillation, or by loathing and disgust, then I have lost him or her and have failed as a novelist.”
We see an obvious disconnection between the two Matrix films in their development of both Zion and love. The Wachowski brothers fail their audiences by cheapening the freedom and value of humanity and by choosing the status quo presentation of relationship between two lovers. Characters who love each other often join in sexual encounters on screen, but when that is the entirety of the development that occurs in part two of a trilogy, it is rather sad and unimaginative. Through the graphic manner in which this erotic element is presented, we are distracted from the overall theme that was so prevalent and strong in the first film. It interrupts the resonance we once held with what we thought were deeper characters.
To present the slavery of the Matrix as evil required the opposite—the freedom and humanity of Zion—to stand in stark contrast. The Wachowskis fail their characters and their story, and as a result, their audience. Their premise has been weakened, but still, through the weight of the first movie, we stay engaged. We can only hope that the brothers choose to recover in the third movie what was lost in the second: a connection with their audience that “found its way into the deepest places.”