KEANU’S NEO-CLASSICAL COOL LIGHTENS OVERLOADED MATRIX
by Andrew Sarris
Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix Reloaded has opened with so much cult-driven advance fervor online that a reviewer who presumes to evaluate the film would seem to require degrees in philosophy, theology, cosmology, computer science and metaphysical cybernetics—or is it cybernetical metaphysics? I’m tempted to dismiss what some of my esteemed colleagues regard as drivel with a remark that Alfred Hitchcock delivered to a sobbing Ingrid Bergman on the set: "It’s only a movie, Ingrid."
Still, I must give the Wachowski Brothers more than a little credit for expanding an innovative sci-fi conceit into a three-film franchise bonanza that somehow resonates more strongly in 2003 than it did in 1999. Back then, their commercially untested film crept into our consciousness, as well as into the hallowed halls of academe, though no one at the time anticipated how provocative and how profitable a venture it would turn out to be.
As it happens, I haven’t the time, space or inclination to follow all the speculations unleashed by the two Matrix movies, from Plato’s Cave to the Book of Daniel and beyond. To begin on a less cosmic plane, one of the more miraculous achievements of The Matrix Reloaded is the critical resurrection of Keanu Reeves, playing the Christ-like figure of the computer programmer Neo. Since his admirably stoic performance in Speed (1994), Mr. Reeves has constantly been ridiculed for his perceived underacting and gawking lack of expression. I belong to the tiny minority of critical opinion who sees in Mr. Reeves some of the potent minimalism once deplored in Robert Mitchum (by James Agee, no less) as unacceptable somnolence—and reinforced, of course, by Mitchum’s 1948 arrest for marijuana possession. Clint Eastwood was similarly dismissed by Pauline Kael for not being juicily and Methodically ethnic enough. How times have changed: One of Mitchum’s most admired roles is once more on view in the revived Jacques Tourneur classic, Out of the Past (1947), and Mr. Eastwood has likewise been revisited in Sergio Leone’s recently restored and re-released The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). This is not to say that a Keanu Reeves retrospective is looming anywhere on the horizon.
The point is that there are so many potentially embarrassing traps for a less restrained actor in The Matrix Reloaded that I was happy Mr. Reeves was on the premises. For example, there’s a grotesquely pseudo-biblical tableau of primitively costumed extras delivering assorted goodies to Neo’s doorstep—Neo being the "chosen one" that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) has designated as the savior of humanity from the life-sapping embrace of the Matrix and its nonhuman creators. Mr. Reeves turns away from this unwanted worship with a slight but not excessive expression of embarrassment. It is just right for this level of shameless allegory.
And it’s all that Mr. Reeves can do to keep a straight face when the marvelously malignant Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) materializes again and again to perform duels of balletic levitation. The Wachowskis are not the subtlest satirists around, and if it wasn’t for their rowdy but sound instinct for pacing, one could say that they were hopelessly out of their depth in illustrating their ideas. What good pacing does in this movie is to keep the audience from thinking too much about all the gaps—what we don’t see of the two worlds at war with each other.
Curiously, what seems to be the biggest influence upon the Matrix movies has seldom been remarked upon: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), with its dreamy urban skylines, though the Matrix movies lack Lang’s class-conscious dialectics pitting capital against labor. Marxist critics at the time blamed Lang’s second wife and co-scenarist, Thea von Harbou, for the "silly" resolution of the conflict through the power of Love. The Wachowski Brothers never quite explain what the heroically unprogrammed inhabitants of Zion are doing with their "freedom" besides indulging in the occasional rock-concert-like mass orgy—a scene more appropriate to Cecil B. DeMille’s cautionary depiction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Neo’s passion for Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) is a union of martial equals, though one not lacking in erotic consummation. Yet it isn’t Love that can save Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and the rest of Zion, but essentially terroristic acts against the Matrix, the reigning superpower on the face of the earth. The Matrix Reloaded even includes a fleeting picture of George Bush to hammer the point home.
Ultimately, there can be no reconciliation between Zion and the Matrix: Humankind must choose between living in freedom or in a program of artificial reality provided by its masters. At the moment, as much as it may feel like we’re being programmed by our ever-more-intrusive media, we are still confronted with the more problematic chasm between life and death—a chasm the Wachowski Brothers sidestep by making their lead characters seemingly indestructible and thereby immortal. This is what makes the Matrix continuum a minor entertainment, despite its arresting images and conceits. I liked this movie and can recommend it with a clear critical conscience, but it never moved me even half as much as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), a film in roughly the same genre.