11 , 2003
A sequel to The Matrix (1999) faces a series of challenges. It
must satisfy, then exceed its audiences 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 isnt crucial,
yet unlike the situation of the Star Wars and Lord of the
Rings movies. However, a sequel is bound to plumb the first movies
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 predecessors
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 films second current also carves out its chunks of the
film, euthanising narrative tension while fitfully, grudgingly developing
ideas which dont really go anywhere until Neo finds the Architect
(although the Merovingians snotty tirade works better on second
viewing). A phildickian
successive questioning of reality proceeds quietly, nearly drowned
out by the action component. The 1999 movies 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 Reloadeds 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
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 times
most ambitious unified database, Total/Terrorist
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 footings
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 Neos 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 humanitys 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 thats really a second-order
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 films 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 films 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 Gothics twisted family habits
are hinted at by the Architect, who presents himself as father and
the Oracle as mother.
Along these lines, note the Merovingians 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 hes 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 dont 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 others 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
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
Neos 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 Architects
multi-screened lab1. This leaves us with the tantalizing possibility
that Reloadeds 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
Yet such a multi-level
reality might be off base. The movies 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 components 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.
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.