Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Matrix Reloaded

It's easy to sum up the quality of The Matrix Reloaded (2002): visually impressive, some cool ideas, dramatically inert.

The Matrix Reloaded has two story problems to deal with from the get-go, and it never really recovers from these handicaps. First, the new development is the Machines have begun drilling to the human city of Zion with a massive army to wipe out the resistance; this titanic battle won't occur until the third movie, which means by default, Reloaded will have a lot of time to kill.

Secondly, at the end of The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) assumed the mantle of the One. Inside the Matrix, he is essentially invulnerable, capable of stopping bullets with a wave of the hand and able to fly like Superman. Well, if Neo is indestructible, then the suspense and tension of the original is lost. Instead of a desperate human trapped inside a deadly computer program fighting for his life, Neo is an over-powered superhero, and even he looks bored as he casually blocks attacks from the new, supposedly upgraded Agents.

The Matrix had a plot driving it forward from point A to point B plus a sense of discovery. The Matrix Reloaded feels like it's drifting in the breeze, meandering before the grand finale and unsure of what needs to happen until then, and as a result, it is loaded with filler. There's still quite a bit to like and admire about the movie, but it is a huge step down.

The key players are back. Neo; his girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), whom he is afraid will die because he's seen it in his dreams; and Morpheous (Laurence Fishburne), who still believes humanity should put its faith in the Oracle (Gloria Foster), who prophesied that Neo would bring about the end of the war and free humanity. Even Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is still around, now with the ability to replicate himself and take over the minds of hundreds of people at a time if not more (what do you suppose will happen if he takes over someone who is then pulled out of the Matrix? hint, hint).

Now, what do I mean by loaded with filler? In a movie about a war between humans and machines, with the machines enslaving most of humanity with a computer simulation of reality, I don't like having time wasted on tedious shit. Tedious shit like Morpheous' new pilot Link (Harrold Perrineu), whose wife is nagging him about being away on the ship. How does this pay off in anyway? It doesn't. He still goes off with Morpheous, and the issue is never brought up again. It's just a stock character conflict in a movie filled with stock character conflict. There's also Morpheus' feud with Commander Locke (Harry Lennix), not only because they disagree philosophically but because Locke is now with Morpheus' ex, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But the problem with The Matrix Reloaded that almost kills it is the static, sterile, pseudo-profound dialogue that is so flat and delivered with such solemnity that it almost becomes hysterical. The movie is so far up it's own butt with its philosophical ramblings, it's all but impossible to take seriously or even follow what it's getting at. Sometimes I wondered who the humans were and who the programmed machines were.

And the romance between Trinity and Neo... No chemistry, no conviction. This relationship is meant to be the beating heart of the story, the element that becomes central to Neo's ultimate choice in the end, but I've seen more sparks between Al and Tipper.

However, at its very core, The Matrix Reloaded has a strong conceit, a mind-blowing third-act twist the Wachowskis have tried to build the entire movie to, and it's why I don't mind the chosen-hero-who-will-fulfill his-destiny-and-save-us-all story arc that's been done a million times. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

Neo confronts the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the cold, analytical AI that created the Matrix. The Architect reveals the prophecy, the One, the Oracle, they're all another system to control the humans. There have been five other Ones before Neo, and they all let Zion be destroyed and rebuilt to ensure the survival of the human race. The choice inherent in the Matrix for its denizens means there have always been some humans who reject it and pose a threat. The story about the One and the prophecy keeps them in line. They think they're exerting free will and rebelling, but really, it's another system of control.

That is a great revelation, and it turns the whole Hero's Journey tale on its head. All this time, Neo thought he was the hero, but really, he was doing exactly what he's been programmed to do. What makes Neo different from the other Ones is the choice he makes: he chooses to save Trinity and risks Zion and the rest of humanity to do so. Again, I wish the romance had been more convincing, but the idea - that love and hope, those very human emotions, will push Neo to risk everything and sacrifice all - is strong.

The special effects are top-notch, and the action scenes are fun, even if they lack tension. Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths in a cool if ultimately silly sequence (the bowling sound effects don't help), but the best action occurs without Neo, when Trinity and Morpheus are chased by Agents and other "rogue" programs on a crowded highway. This sequence works because they're vulnerable unlike Neo. And the Wachowskis know how to create some unforgettable imagery, such as the Architect's room, which is covered with monitors showing all of Neo's possible responses, and the subterranean city of Zion, which gives us a better understanding of how the "free" humans live.

The Matrix Reloaded ends on a cliffhanger setting up The Matrix Revolutions, the finale. More questions are raised and won't be answered, but that's another discussion.

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