Movie Review: The Matrix Reloaded

Overall Impressions (Possible Slight Spoilers)

The Matrix: Reloaded is one of the few movies I’d been looking forward to seeing for literally years. In this movie, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity continue their battle against the machines. The human resistance has learned, courtesy of the doomed crew of the Osiris, that the machines are mining through the Earth to attack and destroy Zion. Morpheus clashes with his rival Lock in Zion over the course their defense should take; Lock wants all their ships to protect Zion, but Morpheus feels Neo is their savior. Morpheus leaves Zion to return to broadcast depth so that Neo and Trinity and the others can re-enter the Matrix to do battle with agents and other hostile programs in an effort to gain access to the system’s main computer and destroy the Matrix from the inside out. Meanwhile, Agent Smith returns as a rogue program who has learned a few new tricks.

I liked The Matrix: Reloaded. I really did; it has some stunning visuals and excellent action sequences. Was it as good as the first movie? No. Was it all that I was hoping for? No. Is it worth watching? Sure, if you at all enjoyed the first one. All of the people in our group enjoyed seeing it, though nobody was saying “Wow, that was awesome! Let’s go see it again!” afterward. Even the lone curmudgeon amongst us who complained vocally about the movie also admitted he enjoyed watching it.

The problem, I think, is one of editing and storytelling — there’s a lot of flash but not a lot of dazzle in the first hour of the film. Many characters are introduced, we finally get to see the industrial wonders of Zion, plot points are established, people dance and have sex, but much of it feels tepid and some feels disjointed and rushed. Missing is the taut pacing of the first film and the delicious Dickian feel of paranoia, claustrophobia, and sheer mindfuck.

In short, I wanted a good science fiction film with excellent action, but what I got was a decent action movie with good-to-awesome SFnal special effects. Most moviegoers might not see the difference or care too much, but those of us who actually read the stuff do care; while the ideas and plotline of The Matrix are right out of mid-1980s cyberpunk novels by folks like William Gibson, at least we finally got to see a more modern, more thought-provoking brand of SF on the big screen as opposed to the same old pulpy 1950s SF dressed up in a sleeker skin with modern pop culture references. Reloaded, beneath the kung fu and cool clothes and dazzling bullet time, is diminished on the science fiction front.

On the action front, a fight scene that should have been wicked-cool — the battle between Neo and the Smiths — is reduced to nifty-keen, undermined by not-quite-realistic CGI rendering (Gollum spoiled me, sad to say). I didn’t notice the CGI’s seams when I watched the Quicktime trailer — thus this ironically might be a science fiction film that’s better to see on the small screen.

Things start heating up in the fight between Seraph and Neo, but it’s not until the scenes on the freeway that the film gets into new territory. Unlike Excalibre, I thought the freeway chase was some of the most exhilarating stuff in this movie; your milage may vary. The film finally finds its legs after that, but the cliffhanger ending left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

So, there’s a lot going for this film — it just ain’t The One. Hopefully the Brothers Wachowski will have gotten their focus back for the final movie in the trilogy.

Other Thoughts (Definite Major Spoilers)

After we left the theater, Braunbeck grumbled that he’d just paid $8 to see a two-hours-plus trailer for the third movie. He has a point. But it’s one hell of a trailer, to be sure. The Matrix Reloaded has some very cool ideas at its core, but mainly seems to function within the series to introduce new characters, set up some cool ass-kicking sequences, and to set the stage for what will happen in the last movie.

The main themes of this movie are the problems of choice and fate; these are at the core of Neo’s conversations with Councillor Hamann on Zion, with the Oracle, with Merovingian (who has imprisoned the Keymaker), and finally with the Architect.

Neo and Councillor Hamann, in a scene which I agree with Excalibre is one of the finer bits of the early part of the film, go down to Zion’s physical plant and talk about how the humans and the machines of the plant need each other. They discuss the nature of control: they agree that humans can control these machines because they can shut them down, smash them to pieces, but to do so would be suicide. Hamann seems to have a lot on his mind, more than he’s telling Neo.

Neo doesn’t know what he should do with his astonishing powers, so he anxiously awaits another meeting with the Oracle. After he gets past her bodyguard, Seraph, and sees her again with his empowered eyes, he realizes that she is a program generated by the system. He asks if he can trust her; she tells him he can’t ever really know. She talks about the nature of Fate, and implies his course is already decided — he’s only come to see her to gain insight into why he’s on his preordained course.

After the Oracle tells him he needs the Keymaker, Neo and company confront Merovingian, a powerful rogue program who works as an information dealer. Merovingian scornfully tells them that those with power create the illusion of choices for those who don’t have power — and he pointedly tells the humans that they don’t have power.

When Neo finally gains entrance to the mainframe, he enters a video room occupied by the Architect, the master program who created the Matrix in all its incarnations. The span of human life and Neo’s life — cleverly represented by brief clips from Keanu Reeves movies — flashes across the monitors in the walls.

The Architect tells Neo that Zion has risen and been destroyed many times over, and then gives Neo a “Lady or the Tiger” choice. Neo can go through one door, where he will choose a small group of people to be survivors to found the new Zion after the old one is destroyed (starting the resistance all over again), or he can go through the other door to save Trinity, but the human world will be utterly destroyed.

Neo realizes that he and his compatriots have had the same choices of gamblers trapped in the casino — no matter what game they play, the games are all rigged and the house controls all the bets. No matter what door Neo chooses, the machines still have control. The “freedom” of escaping to Zion to fight for humanity is another illusion.

Neo’s very existence was set up from the start: the system allows the chaotic anomaly necessary to foster human happiness to culminate in the creation of The One: a human mind so powerful it can control the Matrix. The One is the supposed “savior” of mankind, but the flip side of this is to wonder what motivation a person with so much power in the virtual world and so little power in the “real” world really has to want to see the virtual world end. Thus, in the end, the machines still control The One.

At the end, when Neo is able to stop a group of sentinels in the “real” world, something he shouldn’t be able to do, we realize that the world of Zion is simply a larger, different Matrix shell. They’re all still stuck inside the virtual reality dictated by the machines.

The central idea here is actually pretty cool — so I wish the Wachowski Brothers had been able to tell the story a little more cleanly.

This scenario explains many of the quibbles people voiced about the first movie, such as why the Agents are limited (for instance, they can run out of ammo). Zion and the human resistance are part of the Matrix and are integral to its evolution; after the first Matrix failed due to its mechanical flawlessness, the Architect realized it had to introduce an element of chaos into the system — chaos which would inevitably lead to some sleepers trying to awaken and free themselves.

So, the Architect uses the world of Zion as a safety valve — a place for these restless minds to run to, only to be kept so occupied by the war and the fight for survival that they don’t have the time to realize they’re trapped in another virtual reality. Zion’s cyclic rise and destruction is part of how the Architect keeps refining his creation. The Agents are limited and flawed because they need to weed out the weak and put up a good enough fight to be convincing enemies, but in order to fuel the system’s evolution, enough of the members of the resistance need to survive to populate the Zion of the next incarnation of the Matrix.

So, presumably there’s another world beyond the world of Zion. Will we see it in the third movie? Presumably. It may be that there is no “real” world and no sleepers– everybody could be a program.

For those who disagree that the “real” world of Zion is another virtual reality, consider Morpheus’ words in the first movie: “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?”

And how would any of the people raised in The Matrix be able to differentiate between another, different virtual reality and the actual real organic world?

The answer is, having had no experience with the organic world, they wouldn’t be able to make the distinction. Neo’s suddenly developing the power to supernaturally zap the Sentinels doesn’t jibe with the established “rules” of the universe: the existence of ESP/psionic powers outside the Matrix hasn’t been mentioned. The One’s power, while spiritual, has never been presented as being something that manifests itself outside virtual reality.

If it turns out that the world of Zion is the real, organic world, and Neo suddenly has the magical ability to zap the machines at a distance, it might be cool, but it’ll also be a bit of a cheat. Neo’s being able to affect the Sentinels and Smith’s being able to possess Bane are both absolutely possible if Zion is another machine-created reality based on a different and more complex coding structure. If they’re in the organic world, both events are a little dodgy from a science fiction rules standpoint.

Budget and Box Office

The Matrix was made for about $65 million and grossed a little over $171 in the U.S. and over $455 million worldwide and gobs more than that in video/DVD rentals and sales. The two Matrix sequels had a combined budget of $300 million, allowing for higher star salaries and the glorious excess of FX and stunts mentioned above. Despite the higher price tag, Reloaded looks to be a huge box office winner. It kicked through the opening day box office record set last year by Spider-Man and took in about $42.5 million from 3,603 theaters.

This is quite a feat considering this is a rated “R” movie — all the biggest blockbusters to date have been PG or PG-13, with the notable exception of Beverly Hills Cop, which grossed a huge $234.8 million back in 1984 when ticket prices weren’t nearly as high.

What will good sales for Reloaded mean in the long run, aside for more work for the Wachowski Brothers? Will it mean we’ll be seeing more science fiction action films? It’s hard to say — The Matrix has already been hugely imitated. Only time will tell.

Movie Information:

Rating: R

Release Date: May 15, 2003

Running Time: 138 minutes

Directors: Wachowski Brothers

Writers: Wachowski Brothers

Cinematographer: Bill Pope


Christine Anu: Kali
Helmut Bakaitis: The Architect
Steve Bastoni: Soren
Don Battee: Vector
Monica Bellucci: Persephone
Daniel Bernhardt: Agent Johnson
Valerie Berry: Priestess
Ian Bliss: Bane
Kelly Butler: Ice
Collin Chou (Sing Ngai): Seraph
Essie Davis: Maggie
Terrell Dixon: Wurm
Laurence Fishburne: Morpheus
Gloria Foster: The Oracle
David Franklin: Maitre D’
Nona M. Gaye: Zee
Roy Jones Jr.: Ballard
Malcolm Kennard: Abel
David Kilde: Agent Jackson
Randall Duk Kim: The Keymaker
Christopher Kirby: Mauser
Peter Lamb: Colt
Nathaniel Lees: Mifune
Harry J. Lennix: Commander Lock
Robert Mammone: AK
Matt McColm: Agent Thompson
Carrie-Anne Moss: Trinity
Robyn Nevin: Councillor Dillard
David No: Cain
Harold Perrineau Jr.: Link
Jada Pinkett-Smith: Niobe
Adrian Rayment: Twin #2
Neil Rayment: Twin #1
Keanu Reeves: Neo
David Roberts: Roland
Hugo Weaving: Agent Smith
Cornel West: Councillor West
Leigh Whannell: Axel
Bernard White: Rama-Kandra
Lambert Wilson: Merovingian
Anthony Zerbe: Councillor Hamann

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