Well, I finally saw The Matrix Reloaded, weeks after everybody else.And unlike nearly everybody else, I actually liked Reloaded better than the first Matrix film–and certainly better than I expected to…
Sure, the plot of The Matrix Reloaded is more convoluted and contrived than that of the first installment, but to my mind this is an advantage. There’s more stuff to enjoy, and narrative clarity is not necessarily a virtue in a film like this. I’m not even sure that “narrative” is at all what it’s about. Basically, in The Matrix Reloaded, you have action sequences alternating with metaphysical disquisitions. It’s a rhythm you’ll find in comix by Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, and Grant Morrison, among others. And the Wachowski Brothers handle it quite convincingly here, more so than they did in the first film.This rhythmic alternation works graphically as well as narratively: the film flows back and forth between discussion sequences with mostly two-shots, and the far wilder cutting, weirder angles, and more dynamic moving camera of the action scenes.
For me, the metaphysical disquisitions–rather than the action sequences–were the most fun. There’s much more going on here, this time around, than there was in the rather linear salvation narrative of the first film. We’re kept off balance by doubts about the validity of that salvation narrative, in fact–since Morpheus’ faith in it is continually being questioned, and is undermined at least to some extent by the (cliff-hanger) conclusion. The focus shifts from questions of illusion and simulation, to those of purpose and meaning, causality and free will. The Wachowski Brothers have moved on from Descartes (what if an Evil Demon is deceiving me about the very nature of the world?) to Kant (how can freedom of the will and necessity by natural causality both be valid?). This means that the question of the comforts of simulation in the Matrix, versus the barrenness of “the desert of the real” is no longer the strongest opposition in the movie. Instead, this is displaced into the opposition of the Matrix versus Zion. In both of these realms, machines are at work, and human beings can only exist in conjunction with those machines (as the Counselor tells Neo); and in both of them, the question comes down to one of Control. In this sense, a Foucaultian analytics of power seems more relevant than the Baudrillardian metaphysics and epistemological conundrums of the first film. There’s also the sense, in Neo’s conversation with the Architect towards the end, that Neo’s Savior status, as the One, is more the result of an anomaly that the system of the Matrix cannot help but generate, than it is (as the first film suggested) something radically transcendent to it. All these changes are improvements, in my view.
As for the action sequences… well, as many people have already noted, the innovations of the first Matrix have been so widely imitated since, that Reloaded could not possibly seem as fresh now, as its precursor did in 1999. The Wachowski Brothers are successful in outdoing themselves, and in giving us high-tech sequences more extreme, and more fully accomplished, than they did before, or than any of their imitators can manage. The (already famous) highway sequence is particularly brilliant. But it’s a very dry and calculated brilliance, too self-consciously slick to be really convincing. The same goes for the martial arts battles. There’s not enough funk and grit in any of these sequences; they are simply too perfect. It’s a well known fact that digitally generated sequences have to be “dirtied” up a bit in order to be convincing–you have to add some “noise,” degrade the quality of the images a bit, or otherwise they will be too smooth, too seamlessly rendered, to seem alive. While I’m sure the Wachowski Brothers did this on a technical level, conceptually and in terms of sheer flow the sequences still strike me as too precisely calibrated, or something, to be really gripping. It’s in the special effects of the action sequences that we really get simulation and hyperreality–rather than in the plot and premises of the film.
You never get a sense that any of these characters ever break into a sweat; not even in the dance party sequence in Zion. For that matter, you never get the feeling of any sexual energy or magnetism whatsoever in the relationship between Neo and Trinity; they are simply too cool to let anything so coarse as sexual passion or excitement make even the minutest appearance during their so-called love scenes. (The only hint of sexiness, or even corporeality, in the entire movie comes from the all-too-brief appearance of Monica Belluci’s Persephone).
As others have said, the movie should be praised for its more copious representation of people of color than is generally the case in Hollywood films. Most of the time, the ideology that “race doesn’t matter” means that they have a few token blacks and Asians, in a film that is still overwhelmingly white. In The Matrix Reloaded, almost uniquely among Hollywood films, race really doesn’t matter all that much in the world of the story; which the Wachowski Brothers could only achieve in their movie by remaining aware that race does matter in America today, including when it comes to matters like casting a movie. (Though there are no interracial relationships/partnerings in the film, unless you count Keanu Reeves as Neo, and Carrie Anne Moss asTrinity; but Neo still reads to me as white, even though Keanu actually isn’t. Race may not matter in the world of the movie, but it does still matter in how we, in our world, look at the movie).