It takes a trilogy of posts to defend a controversial series like The Matrix Trilogy. What follows is Part Two.
As I previously alluded, much of what created distaste for The Matrix Reloaded upon its original release was based upon the societal and political environment in which it was released. If you opened a newspaper in 2003, you couldn’t have thrown a dart without hooking a moralizing argument. Morality plays were the go-to play in the Rove strategy book for all of the unyielding campaign of Bush’s two terms. Certainly those opposing his policies and (more to the point) his doctrine, were doing their dead best to rise to the challenge and stage their own.
The Matrix Reloaded‘s first ponderous debate of philosophy takes place between Zion’s Councilman Hamann (a politician portrayed by Anthony Zerbe) and our hero Neo (again, populated by Keanu Reeves). The conclusion they arrive at is that when one lives in a house made of machinery, its best to not run around, throwing wrenches. Great, and that will make battling them so much easier, because moral high ground is sorta the one thing you need when you’re going to war. It would seem moral relativism has invaded Zion. One might guess this will play an important part in where this saga goes from here.
Now, while I’ve invested a great deal of effort to setting up the context for why the sequels were received poorly, it isn’t to say that the films do not have faults of their own. Those faults, however, are those that were present from the beginning. I suggest that while they do have their shortcomings, those specific shortcomings are not at all inconsistent with the eponymic debut, and if you were given to like the first chapter, you’ve shaky ground from which to launch your complaints at the second and third. The Matrix Trilogy, if anything, maintains cohesion whilst still allowing each of its respective chapters a chance to explore unique territory.
This is not to say that I think that the sequels ought to be universally loved by all who loved the first film. If you recall from my previous columns, I tend to track away from trading in such absolutes. Rather, I suggest that all the given attributes that made The Matrix successful return and are multiplied as exponents of themselves in Reloaded and, ultimately, Revolutions. What was comparably weaker in the original remained weak in the sequels and those faults were ultimately magnified as a result, once the whole saga was turned up to “11.” Not only was due attention paid to the special effects, art direction, fight choreography, and mythology, but the philosophical underpinnings were also expanded and given specific focus as well. With a banquet like this, the whole feels less like a seven-course meal and more like a buffet. And people get ridiculously picky when they have their choice of seven desserts.
Of particular, personal interest to me was the expansion of the mythology. As the mythology was broadly fleshed out, so it followed that the world of the original film was to be expanded as well. With a greatly expanded world — that is to say, with Zion no longer alluded to but now one of the main settings — it followed that there were to be a great number of new characters and many additional opportunities for the Wachowski brothers to underdirect performances. They have a handle on many parts of making a great action film, but directing actors emotionally is not seemingly one of their strong suits.
From the leads, the performances are admittedly a little shaky in places but again, no more so than they were in the first film. None of the lead actors are known for delivering referential performances in anything they’ve been in, so to fault them for not rising to a standard they’ve never set simply because you hoped for more is ultimately just pissy. By now, continuing to ding Keanu Reeves for wooden acting turns the onus back on the complainant. You’ve seen him before — what you get isn’t exactly a variable. Did no one tell you he was in this film?
The leads aside, there are some very good performances from peripheral characters. My personal favorite of these performances is that of the Merovingian, as portrayed by Lambert Wilson. In 2003, we had a particularly barbed relationship with the French (one of the few nations to balk at Bush’s justification for invading Iraq), and in Reloaded, this French character delivers all the loaded stereotypes we associate with the nationality. He knows it all, reveals nothing, and mocks those who’d ask. Our heroes might as well have been asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower from an irascible, baguette-packing, Parisian waiter blowing cigarette smoke in their faces.
This is to say nothing of the fact that, all the while he’s mocking them, he’s imposing on them a philosophical monologue regarding the relevance of causality to a band of heroes who are admittedly walking into that which they do not understand. To only reinforce the notion, we are introduced to anomalies like ghosts, werewolves and vampires and given a reason for them existing in the Matrix (programs who’ve gone rogue in the system – also an allusion to our potential anti-hero, Agent Smith).
I like the Merovingian, but his place in the films is a sticking point for a lot of people. I do understand why. There are a number of philosophical discussions scattered throughout the films and his is a frustrating one for a lot of reasons. But it is to be remembered when discussing philosophy that these are questions worth asking because they have no answers. We ask because where we go when we ask these questions is sometimes more revelatory than any answer we might find chiseled in stone. The players on the Wachowskis’ stage ask these questions not only because they are relevant to the story, but also because these are characters contemplating the nature of life within its own self-aware world, which is the essence of dramatis personæ, or indeed any creative art that aspires to be more than mere well-crafted décor.
Therein lies a minor miscalculation on the part of the writers, directors, and brothers, Larry and Andy Wachowski: taken in low dosages it was easy for lunkheads who weren’t given to ponder philosophical questions like those alluded to in The Matrix to simply overlook them. In this instance, where tension is dialed up and we’re getting nowhere fast in the tragic fall of the epic’s second act, it is harder for some who are struggling to understand why we’re all walking in the dark to suddenly set down the plot for a second while we enjoy an aside. It is a common occurrence in classical, theatrical plays, but less common in modern cinema. Casting high art aspirations in a decidedly mid-cult (at best) medium is always a nice idea, but usually less appreciated than perhaps the author hoped.
Questioning causality’s influence on compulsion, desire, and survival and just why that causality exists in the first place, by my personal interpretation, is one of the most subversive aspects of all three films and that’s really saying something. While it’s poor timing for those who aren’t at all interested in multi-tasking amidst the action, keeping my brain engaged instead of just being force-fed rote exposition is one of the things I really love about the Matrix films.
And its not like those action sequences relent at all, either. Not even the silly wire work that was all the rage post-Crouching Tiger obfuscates the beauty one might find in the fight choreography of Neo’s sparring against Seraph (Collin Chou) in the tea house. There’s some very impressive precision fighting done at the Merovingian’s chateau, as well and even that only subsides to begin one of the best car chases ever filmed. Admittedly, for my part, Neo’s initial fight against former-Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in the park goes on a bit too long. But even now, searching for an edit point, I find it difficult to cut it down. Within the fight itself, I find conceptual motivation for the way in which Neo addresses each wave of the growing replications of Smith. Nonetheless, it took some six or seven viewings of the scene before I began to appreciate it. Initially, it was a bunch of computer generated bodies in black suits performing spastic, gymnastic routines before Neo remembers that he can just fly away.
Before I close discussion on The Matrix Reloaded, let’s make a stop at a couple of its most controversial scenes. I’m sure that if you’ve read this far and you have an axe to grind, you might accuse me of glossing over the most contentious parts of Reloaded‘s criticism and I don’t mean to duck them. Let’s address them directly.
Regarding the “rave” in Zion. A lot of complaints regard it as tacked on and exploitative. I do wonder if any of these people have seen the Wachowskis’ first film, Bound. The sum value of that film is the brilliant caper flick tacked onto the end of a brief, soft-core lesbian sex scene that is its first 20-odd minutes of the film. It’s like what Cinemax might have produced had they bought the script to The Usual Suspects.
Further, to call the “rave” scene tacked on is to say that it is not relevant to the story, but that too is incorrect. In context, the remainder of all of humanity has gathered in a great hall to hear that the future’s in question because an army of machines is on its way to destroy them. Apart from panic (which is addressed), the only appropriate, alternate response is to be definitively human. For a small quantity of people living below the surface, that response is dancing and, more to the point, group sex. If we’re speaking as adults here, for a relatively small collective charged with repopulating the earth, I’d wager they’re not exactly searching for an excuse to get decidedly un-Puritanical, if you know what I mean. Actually, that’s probably pencilled in for every afternoon at 4:30.
I also think it’s unsurprising that most people complaining about this scene are pasty, white, sci-fi fans – a demographic decidedly missing from the would-be orgy itself, which is comprised almost entirely of buff men of color and assorted bi-curious girls grinding on each other. I can see why typical Matrix fans might find this threatening. Their invitations seem to have been lost in the mail.
Next, let’s discuss the penultimate scene, wherein Neo arrives at the fulfillment of the prophecy, only to be told by the Architect of the Matrix (Helmut Bakaitis) that the entire premise, upon which everybody – the audience included – has pinned their hopes is 100%, unmitigated bullshit. Through an exacting succession of adverbs and conjunctions that are more commonly used by programmers to define command exceptions, it is revealed that the entirety of the prophecy was only ever meant to be a pressure-release redundancy. It was a soft option designed to let humanity indulge its illusion of freedom of choice. Those who came for skintight catsuits, kung fu fights and machine gun bad-assery might have been left feeling a slight bit betrayed.
I’m not at all sympathetic. Achieving literacy isn’t something you finish. If you don’t understand all of the language, you still have work to do. Of course, as someone who is accused from time-to-time of speaking and writing a touch too floridly, you might imagine this would be my point of view. That aside, I LOVE Neo’s exchange with the Architect. It may be my favorite scene in all the films.
But where does this all leave us? Now the viewer has wasted time through two whole movies, realizing too late that what was thought to be the culmination was in fact a massive set-up and that we’ve been following a rube of a false-idol (although he did just totally resurrect Trinity). Upon learning the news, Morpheus’s faith and ship are blown into so many greasy, metal shards. Neo believes himself a failure and the conduit of Zion’s destruction. And just before the end credits roll, Neo pulls a Jedi on two sentinels and goes out like a light. What the hell? It’s hardly a cliffhanger if the stagecoach is at the bottom of the cliff. One can hardly blame Neo for wanting to pass out before those end credits roll and those in the audience who are now too much affected by Reloaded‘s decidedly and intentionally disappointing end demand he get up and fight more robots. We’ll have to wait for the next film to see him roll away the stone and strike his Jesus Christ pose.
It takes a three-part series to defend the last two movies in this trilogy:
The entire series of ‘The Matrix’ Trilogy Defended from The Contrarian: