The Matrix returns.


Thomas S. Hibbs

“What if the prophecy is true? What if tomorrow this war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?” Thus speaks Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the The Matrix Reloaded — the Wachowski Brothers’ much-anticipated sequel to The Matrix and the second entry in the trilogy to be completed with November ‘s release of The Matrix Revolutions. Morpheus delivers these lines on the eve of a battle with a massive machine army, programmed to destroy all the citizens of Zion, the city of rebel humans who have accepted the truth about mankind’s enslavement by the Matrix. To the objection that proceeding with battle now risks loss of life, Morpheus responds, “This is a war and we’re soldiers. Death can come to us at any time.”

If you find Morpheus’s counsels timely for a contemporary America at war with terror, wait till you see what the Wachowski brothers have done with the Merovingian, an effete Francophile powerbroker. As sequels go, The Matrix Reloaded is highly entertaining; it certainly whets the appetite for the finale. There are some terrific battle scenes, a captivating car-chase scene, and a number of humorous verbal exchanges, some of which involve Agent Smith, whose growing gift for deadpan irony makes him an almost attractive character. But, as is the case with most sequels, Reloaded lacks the punch and gripping narrative of the first.

The problem is not just that it has the feel of a transitional entry. Reloaded seems to have adopted some version of the rules of the sequel, so humorously spoofed for the horror genre in Scream 2; in this case, the mandate is longer and more intricate fight sequences accompanied by longer and more intricate discussions of the philosophical issues that have made The Matrix a staple in college Intro to Philosophy classes.

The battle scenes are often magnificent, a high-tech mix of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with occasional doses of Belushi-style samurai slapstick. But the complexity of these scenes, reminiscent of a Buzby Berkeley musical, too often diverts attention from the battle to the choreography. The entry has more of the feel of a high-powered video game, which is of course exactly what The Matrix is, only with real-world consequences.

The deeper problem is that neither the battles nor the philosophical discussions seem as integral to the movement of the plot, to Neo’s progress in his quest, as they did in the first film. Given Neo’s Superman ability to fly into space at nearly the speed of light, some of Neo’s battles are utterly unnecessary. For example, when a huge horde of Agent Smiths surround and attack him, he engages in a lengthy fight before escaping by zipping off into space, something he could have done when he first encountered the enemy. The same is true of the film’s many verbose philosophical musings, which seem designed solely to meet the expectation of fans religiously devoted to its mythic and philosophical themes.

But my guess is that most sane fans of the first film were drawn in, not so much by its philosophical insights, as by its captivating plot. In the first film, viewers shared Neo’s journey and his bafflement and uncertainty as he entered the rabbit hole to be taught Morpheus’s unthinkable truths about mankind’s enslavement to the Matrix. We watched and wondered as Neo learned that he was the One, the savior come to fulfill the prophecies of the Oracle. Then there were the training sessions, Neo’s mastery of bullet time and his growing confidence in his ability to fight as a rebel warrior against the Matrix — all of which led up to the climactic battle with Agent Smith.

In Reloaded, Neo may still be the One, but he’s no longer neo, a novice. He has begun to transcend his teacher, Morhpeus who continues to express blind faith in the Oracle. At the center of this film is a conflict between the piety of Morpheus and the hardheaded realism of Commander Lock (Henry Lennix), who is now married to Niobe, Morpheus’s former lover. Neo is increasingly independent of both of these leaders of Zion. In his encounter with the Oracle, Neo is much more suspicious about her trustworthiness. And the status of the Oracle, her allegiance, is in serious doubt by the end of the film. In fact, the most interesting philosophical suggestion, one that sets up a crucial puzzle for the plot of the next film, is that the very impulse to rebellion against the Matrix may itself be a product of, or at least susceptible to management by, the Matrix.

In spite of his doubts, Neo obeys the Oracle’s advice to find a character known as the Keymaker; in order to gain access to him, the gang has to go through an underground power broker, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), a Francophile who fits very nicely the stereotype of the cheese-eating-surrender monkey. Wallowing in sensual luxury and intoxicated by his own specious theories about the supremacy of causality over choice, the Merovingian is an effete buffoon. Nonetheless, he manages to get off one of the best deadpan lines in the film; after his minions fail to capture Neo, he counsels them to kill him. With a mere raising of his hand Neo fends off hundreds of bullets flying at him from automatic rifles. The Merovingian pauses, nods, and concedes, “OK, you’ve got some talent.”

One of the welcome features of the sequel is its regular and effective use of comic relief. But the bad guys seem to get all the best lines, which is a problem for a film that wants, above all else, to defend the complexity and distinctiveness of humanity. At the heart of the Wachowski’s human world is the love between Neo and Trinity. Although events toward the end of the film make a convincing case for their devotion to one another, the super-hero lovebirds continue to fail to generate sufficient passion, despite a scene in which they have sex in the midst of a sort of Bacchanalian feast in Zion.

As I said above, Reloaded is wonderfully entertaining, well worth the price of admission; moreover, its failing stand out precisely because of the standards set by the first film. Still, if the finale fails to generate more genuine passion between Neo and Trinity, Revolutions may find us rooting for the increasingly endearing Agent Smith.

Thomas Hibbs contributed an essay to the recently published, The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, edited by William Irwin.