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June 11 , 2003 | film

A sequel to The Matrix (1999) faces a series of challenges. It must satisfy, then exceed its audience’s appetite for imaginative fight scenes. It needs to work with the science fiction concept of split-level reality, going further without undoing the premise. Fidelity to an ambitiously defined alternate world isn’t crucial, yet – unlike the situation of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies. However, a sequel is bound to plumb the first movie’s underworld of technological fear and cultural theory riffing. The Matrix: Reloaded attempts all of these, but diffuses, throwing itself into an open, unsettled finale.

Like a juggler spreading his arms wide while adding balls to the air above, Reloaded adds to and spreads apart its predecessor’s components. The sequel contains two big genre and tonal currents: a wire-fu, CGI-ripped action adventure, alongside a Phil Dick/Twilight Zone mindgame. The fight scenes, allowed time to flourish, add more moves and audacity, a quantitative advance, but also drag in choppy, sappy, concept-free dialogue from the Jerry Bruckheimersphere.  The film’s second current also carves out its chunks of the film, euthanising narrative tension while fitfully, grudgingly developing ideas which don’t really go anywhere until Neo finds the Architect (although the Merovingian’s snotty tirade works better on second viewing). A phildickian successive questioning of reality proceeds quietly, nearly drowned out by the action component. The 1999 movie’s manic, threatening ontological exploration collapses in 2003 into offscreen logistics and onscreen chest-thumping.

The long delay until Neo breaks into the mainframe calls into question this entire lack of development, and offers a subversive possibility: are these two currents, in their weaknesses, just a contradiction, present in the first movie but more developed and showing some friction? Is the cheesiness of the dialogue tactical, using simple strokes to get at the primary Hollywood marketing segment: teens, who have usually not looked at the big ideas? Or, instead, is the entire suspense film component a prop, a “plot pulled over our eyes,” a sim for a larger, situationist strategy resting on not two but three levels of reality?

Such a reality hack would be in the spirit of both movies. Reloaded is a hacking lyric, like The Matrix, an imaginative ode to the hacker spirit.  The sequel offers spoofing of various sorts, most gleefully through the Smiths’ identity thefts.  Reloaded adds back doors to the mix, with the sort of basic visual pun the Wachowski brothers adore (remember the first movie's bug, and "you've been down that road"?).   Reaching back in cyberhistory, the “burly man” manySmiths battle shows a von Neumann machine mechanism at work, perhaps, with Smiths making Smiths to make more Smiths (and still more in Revolutions, if Reloaded’s post-credit preview is a hint).  Moreover, Neo's bulletectomy and improv heart massage to Trinity are either the ultimate hack or an embarrassing overfocus on mere meat.  

However, computing suffers from a return to the first movie's retro flair. The old computing idea of One Mainframe to Rule Them All is back, decanted from IBM and Colossus.  When will we get the p2p Matrix, or at least the distributed version, Matrix@home? Perhaps if we stretch the movie a bit, we glimpse a bead drawn on our time’s most ambitious unified database, Total/Terrorist Information Awareness.

However retro, this Matrix is clearly at war. The focus scales up from individual hackers to armies, advancing from wardriving to the war machine. The trailers led with Morpheus brooding: "this is a war, and we are soldiers," but the film saves that for the climax, building up to it, reminding us of the war footing’s centrality.  The movie is, as a result, about discipline, coalitions, and strategy, while the first movie is more tactical (like Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The Zioncorps gets both discipline and rebellion mixed into a coherent system, in good Foucauldian fashion (which could suggest that “reality” must be a simulation, a game, or some sort of therapy).  Interestingly, the war is partly terrorist, with the good guys launching a preemptive attack on civilian infrastructure.  Again, the Wachowskis might be sniping at the wars on terror.

Perhaps appropriately, we don't see much of Zion's defenses.  We hear snarling and posturing about it, and one nice glimpse of the machines boring and thumping towards the core, but nothing like the exquisite screen attention paid to Neo’s fight with the Merovingians’ minions.  This quiet fails as counterpoint, and instead leeches some of the dramatic tension from what is supposedly a terminal threat to humanity’s survival. Worse yet, this understatement spawns the question: how come Zion exists at all?  How have a handful of humans, unhidden, resisted a planet of advanced, civilization-killing machines so long?  This flimsy reality could be poor writing, or be another sign of a reality that’s really a second-order simulation.  

That SimZion reality shows itself visually through an odd mix of styles. A monastic look appears via Neo's monkish cassock, the simplicity of Oracle and Seraph, and the dully, Spartan, underground appearance of much of Zion.  Balancing this is an urban look, returning from the first movie, complete with stylish coats and shades, some film noir sets, and the climactic terror attack on the unnamed city.  A 70s scifi look dots the landscape as well, such as the glaringly white Zion Control shot (including one nod to Minority Report) and the insurgent populism of Zion.

The first film’s religious thread continues and becomes more complex, if not dubious as good science fiction. For one thing, the movie gives religion an ontological, not cultural status.  It's not like Dune (the novel), where religion is important as a sociological tool, a political prop, and a cultural reference.  It's more like Contact (the movie), or nextgen Star Trek, or the recent Star Wars series, where religion accurately describes reality in some way, and supplements, if not occasionally trumps, the rational intellect.  Reloaded contains a steady stream of trust and intuition language ("I know it," "I believe it," "I just know it"), Religious materials appear in positive association: messianic Neo arriving in the Matrix in front of a display window bearing icons and prayer objects, Link wearing a working lucky charm.  And the names, of course, from Seraph to Niobe to The Exile.  Even the very cheesy Bane makes one think he should have been Cain.

Retro religion has links to the first film’s Gothic horror theme, which Reloaded returns to and enhances. We see a great scene from Brides of Dracula. We also receive a single explanation from Persephone for the entirety of Gothic literature, as an emanation of friction between software versions – which is not a bad model, actually, given the Gothic's obsession with the past brooding or erupting in the present.  The Merovingian inhabits a decently Gothic castle, complete with hidden passageways, dank tunnels, and a fine turreted horizon.  The Gothic’s twisted family habits are hinted at by the Architect, who presents himself as father and the Oracle as mother.

Along these lines, note the Merovingian’s focus on food.  In Matrix and Reloaded, the villains are associated with fine eating. Cipher (a/k/a “Mr. Reagan”) betrays humanity over a luscious steak. The Merovingian torments his visitors by talking about a food hack he’s running.  In contrast, the good guys get gruel. At best, the Oracle feeds Neo candy.  This is an old fairy tale tension, about trusting people. Good people feed you, while bad people starve, poison, or eat you. Good people in the Matrix stories don’t feed well, however.  We might infer another hacker stereotype in that, or a deferred gratification for the third film.

Good people do get to fall in love. Neo and Trinity play an old literary romantic role. Saving each other’s lives to fight for the end of the Matrix, they echo the dystopian romantic couple. Orwell pairs Winston and Julia to realize the fullness of Nineteen Eighty-Four. More recently, Dark City and The Truman Show pin couples to the discovery and fallout from fake realities. Further back, Percy Shelley mated a brother and sister to save the world from a terrible empire in The Revolt of Islam. As a prophetic pair of hackers, revolutionaries, and lovers, Neo and Trinity are charged with learning the depths of the Matrix, and probably losing each other by the end. Neo, at least, has the option of cryptic escape, if his iteration as Matrix radical number six really points to The Prisoner.

Where do these tangled strands of reference and style leave us, when “TO BE CONTINUED” starts the final credits? We might be left with another reality collapse. Based on some hints, there are now three levels of reality: Mr. Anderson's world (The Matrix), the machine world battling Zion (robots and coppertops), and an ur-level.

Neo’s stopping Matrix sentinels with his bare hands, not using any visible or implicit coding or force, is a hint. The failure of Morpheus’ prophecy suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about reality. More powerfully, the Architect's assertion about rerunning the Zion arc for the sixth time implies a virtual, rather than analog, reboot.  If he doesn't mean simply multiple settlements with the same idea, he can only intend a program, which must be running in something.  Its housing can only be external, since it includes the robot and Matrix worlds. “Reloaded” refers to Zion, the human experiment, and possibly the entire level the first two films naively dubbed “reality”. “Neo” is a program, capable of being copied and run in the Architect’s multi-screened lab1.  This leaves us with the tantalizing possibility that Reloaded’s action movie problems are deliberate artifacts of a fiction inside the movie, based on a simulation inside a simulation, with the bad dialogue the sort video games used to offer.

Yet such a multi-level reality might be off base. The movie’s strong religious language of trust and simplicity could lead to a third movie merely continuing the war of digging machines versus dancing humans. Too many realities could reek of “it was all a dream” endings. And the action movie component’s problems might easily be indulgence. Based on the trends shown in Reloaded, and the established daring of the directors of both Matrix and Bound (1996), we should hope Revolutions lives up to its name.

Bryan Alexander is an associate director of the Center for Educational Technology, and assistant professor of English at Centenary College. His specialties along these lines include digital writing, copyright, information literacy, and, especially, interdisciplinary collaboration.








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