Whatever else it may be, Warner Bros. has made sure The Matrix is unavoidable. It’s a movie, a videogame, and a series of short animated films. It took over screens at the Angelika Film Center, New York City’s best-known art-house venue. It opened the Cannes Film Festival. And, judging from the blitzkrieg of mainstream media coverage that accompanied its record-setting opening, it might have been the only thing playing at a theater near you.
All of which is appropriate, in a backhand way, for a film that suggests that the world around you is not real at all but rather an elaborate computer program inhabited by other computer programs, and that free will is not really free will at all, but rather a way of coming to grips with the choices that you are already predestined to make.
I didn’t really appreciate The Matrix, except on a purely formal level, but I’ve come to understand what its legion of fans admire in it — its message, filtered through a bunch of sci-fi tropes that had lost enough of their currency that it allowed them to be cool again, is more or less that the unexamined life is not worth living. Fair enough. There was a mildly anti-establishment bent to it, as well. The Matrix could credibly be a metaphor for any megalithic corporation, Keanu Reeves’ befuddled Neo could be code for any reluctant messiah leading an exploited class out of physical and psychological oppression and toward enlightenment — seizing the reins of power, which is to say technology in general and the semi-mystical kung-fu stylings of Trinity and Neo in particular. (Carrie-Ann Moss seems to be every geek wool-gatherer’s dream come true.) And in Hugo Weaving’s brilliant performance as Agent Smith lives the ghost of every smug middle manager who ever placed a valuation of less than nothing on the life of a corporate wage slave.
As social commentary goes, I prefer the explicit politics of something like John Carpenter’s They Live, which posited that the GOP-led conservative movement of the 1980s (talk about regaining currency!) was actually a cover for an invasion by space aliens who subliminally created and controlled the new consumer environment. Anyone who knows that film, which features “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the lead role, understands that it’s a campy SF lark that nonetheless addresses the issue of disenfranchisement in society, a subject that mainstream film has been reluctant to engage. In other words, it’s simultaneously a goof and deadly serious. The Matrix Reloaded takes itself seriously and then some, and barely trusts itself to crack a smile, let alone a joke. I chuckled aloud a couple of times, but the overall attitude is dour. The look on everyone’s face is so sour, tense and anticipatory that I kept hoping Ashton Kutcher might pop into frame and exclaim, “Y’all done been punk’d!”
The characters have that look of burnished cool about them, not only because it takes a certain steeliness of demeanor to address your peers with goofy monikers like Neo, Trinity and Morpheus, but also simply because they can. That’s the appeal: unreality. Appropriately, Reloaded is clearly the effects movie to beat this year – at least until The Matrix Revolutions arrives in November. The property boasts equal cred with the mainstream audience, which has seen the over-the-top fighting styles and “bullet-time” effects work incorporated into copycats, spoofs, and even videogame knock-offs, and with the techno-geek crowds, which reportedly went nuts in the Bay Area when they saw Trinity using well-known hacker freeware to disrupt a 27-block power grid. Is it any wonder these guys look smug?
The Wachowskis’ strategy this time around is to use the film’s convoluted narrative to fuck with the audience’s expectations, while simultaneously deploying the most elaborate and expensive technology at AOL Time Warner’s disposal to deliver the visuals that satisfy those same demands. For those who are paying close attention — especially, I gather, for those who have assiduously followed the developments in short film series The Animatrix, distributed online and on DVD — the new film questions assumptions about the relationship between reality, prophecy and cyberspace that were made in the first installment. The talking-heads sequence where Neo comes face to face with the Architect, who claims to have originally created the Matrix, has spawned the high level of geek talk you’d expect at enclaves like Slashdot.org and Usenet, for whom new doubts about the nature of the Matrix itself have manifested. Interestingly, a scene that crosscuts between a rave-like orgy in Zion, the outpost of unplugged humanity, and Neo and Trinity having sex, has come in for derision from the online contingent. (Since when did computer nerds complain about sex?) I suspect that the sequence, which suggests that Zion is a lusty place where humans reproduce like rabbits (and sets the stage for possible pregnancy in the next film), was placed quite deliberately by the Wachowskis, even if these two seem like the coldest fish imaginable.
Above and beyond the philosophy, the signature move in the Matrix universe is undoubtedly to hover a few feet in front of someone before kicking the shit out of them. Accordingly, Reloaded is full of highly choreographed and expensive action set pieces, including a freeway car-and-motorcycle chase, a commando-style raid on a downtown office building and an early fight scene in which Neo takes on dozens of replicated versions of Agent Smith without seeming to break a sweat. There’s a satisfying subversive sensibility at work as our heros set to manipulating events in the real world, leaving wanton destruction in their wake (cars flip sideways through the air, a power plant is destroyed, lots of things are blown up). But the liberating unreality of it all, the sense that, even in the world occupied by the characters, anything goes, eventually saps the adrenaline rush. In order to create the film’s physics-defying martial arts moves, it’s necessary to motion-capture actual human actors before replicating them with a computer, manipulating them, and compositing them into a scene. (If you pay close attention, you can actually see the fine texture of Neo’s coat disappear as the real Keanu is replaced with a digital representation of him.) So if the big action scenes lack any sense of human jeopardy, it’s because humans don’t appear in them at all – they’ve been replaced by the machines.
Rather than trying to conceal it, the Wachowskis’ camera acknowledges and indulges this effect. Nowhere is there a more ready acknowledgement of the film’s computer-generated environment than the shots in the highway chase where the camera apparently slides neatly between the wheels and underneath the chassis of an 18-wheeler screaming down the road the shots were realized inside a real-world Matrix of special-effects software and workstation render farms. The message — hold on to your wigs and keys, folks, because this time anything goes — deadens the drama. If Neo can fly like Superman (and he can), then only suckers are worried about what happens to him when 100 Xeroxes of Hugo Weaving come at him like every bad guy in every Jackie Chan movie ever made. And if Superman himself can turn back time to bring Lois Lane back from the dead, does it matter much whether or not the premonition Neo has at the very beginning of this movie, in which Trinity takes a bullet for the cause, eventually comes true?
Well, despite much disconcerting chatter about predetermination and the allegedly illusory nature of free will, I fully expect that freedom of choice will make a late-trilogy comeback, with Neo breaking the cycle of eternal recurrence that the film postulates. Does that mean that the Wachowskis were feeding us a load of horseshit for much of the duration of Reloaded? We’ll see. Certainly it’s difficult to properly criticize this film, which feels like an unfinished work, on its own terms. Unable to fully comprehend the narrative thrust, I’ll describe the film’s high-gloss CG sheen as intermittently dazzling but fundamentally disheartening. Have the machines already won? Stay tuned.