It’s hard to remember now but The Matrix hit theater screens in the spring of 1999 without a lot of fanfare. It was only when audiences got a load of the mind-blowing visuals and creepy virtual reality plot that the movie became a blockbuster. Then, when it arrived on video and DVD, even more people saw it and The Matrix became a phenomenon. The sequel - The Matrix Reloaded - arrives in the opposite fashion. It’s been accompanied by tons of buzz and lots of high expectations. Unfortunately, the film fails to live up to its own massive hype.
Keanu Reeves returns as Neo, prophesied to be “the One” who can stop the machines from enslaving humans. (The machines, you may remember, want to take over, so they plug people’s minds into the Matrix while sucking energy from their bodies.) The last humans are living in an underground city called Zion, which the machines are fast approaching. Neo and Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) figure the only way to shut the Matrix down for good is to locate the main system and destroy it. Neo meets up with a guy known as “the Keymaker” who can guide him through a series of “back door” programs leading the main system. However, the mysterious figure known as the Oracle tells Neo that his actions may have deadly repercussions for girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Meanwhile, the “agent” known as Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving) has figured out how to copy himself. These copies work together to try keeping Neo from achieving his goal.
That is a very simplified version of the plot. I’d love to go into more detail, but the overriding problem with The Matrix Reloaded is that the story is deeply flawed. I find it pathetic that the filmmakers spent a reported $140 million on this movie but couldn’t come up with a coherent screenplay. Writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski seem a little too in love with their own creation. Instead of developing a story that you can get involved in, they simply obsess over the minutia of their creation in clear techno-geek fashion. The movie assumes not only that you remember the original film (which I did to a degree) but also that you have a PhD. in Matrix-ology. In other words, it endlessly revels in its own weird philosophy and surmises that you understand it fully. There are very long (and boring) stretches in which the characters ramble on and on about the mechanics of the Matrix. A little of this goes a long way; by pouring it on so thick, many audience members are bound to get confused, as I did. If you watched and memorized every tiny detail of the first film, then perhaps this will make sense to you. Otherwise, you’re pretty much sunk.
For example, late in the picture Neo meets someone (whose identity I will keep secret) who can answer many of his questions about the Matrix. This character begins to explain it. Then he keeps explaining, and explaining, and explaining. The scene goes on for nearly ten minutes, and the explanation of how the Matrix works gets increasingly complicated. After a while, it starts to seem like a bad joke. Every time you think the character can’t possibly have any more to say, he launches into another diatribe. By the time the scene was over, I was not only confused but also deeply annoyed. I wanted to see an action movie, not get a science and philosophy lesson.
This kind of self-infatuation takes up most of the running time of The Matrix Reloaded, but there are two or three major action scenes that are really spectacular. The most impressive is a 17-minute car chase in which the characters (and vehicles) seem to break every law of gravity. We’ve seen car chases for decades; here is one that will be remembered indefinitely. Another good scene finds Neo fighting an army of Mr. Smiths. I like not only the action here but also the humor, as Neo pounds a hundred guys who all look exactly the same. The special effects used in these sequences – and throughout the film, for that matter - are superb, again delivering a mesmerizing head trip of computer visuals. The best scenes are in keeping with the freaky-deaky nature of the original, and they reminded me of what this series could be.
Regrettably, those moments are too few and way too far in between, which allows one to mourn the missed opportunities. Several new characters are introduced, including a spaceship captain named Naobi (Jada Pinkett-Smith), then relegated to the sidelines. They get nothing interesting to do. Again, it goes back to the fact that the film is more interested in exploring itself than in telling a story. The motto seems to be: Why let the audience get to know a character when you can perplex them with an overabundance of geek-speak? Some of that Matrix philosophy worked in the original because it added flavor; this time it overwhelms everything else.
The worst part of The Matrix Reloaded is the ending. Fans no doubt have heard that the movie ends in a cliffhanger, which will be resolved when part three - The Matrix Revolutions - opens this November. It’s bad enough to abruptly stop a movie with a cliffhanger (remember Back to the Future Part II anyone?) but it’s even worse when you don’t actually understand what the cliffhanger is. The last shot of the film is supposed to elicit some kind of fear, but I couldn’t follow what was happening. Without being too specific, the final image is of a man who (according to the person sitting next to me) was seen only briefly in the beginning of the film. Now he is shown upside down, which does nothing to make him any more easily identifiable. His presence is supposed to hint at something important, yet that meaning completely eluded not only me but several people sitting around me as well. Movies – whether they are the middle part of a trilogy or not – need to have their own closure. They need to send you out of the theater feeling like you know what happened, and prepared for what is still to come. This one fails miserably on that level. The Wachowskis need to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for a lesson in how it’s done.
I love the look and the action in The Matrix Reloaded but I missed the eerie, menacing tone of the original. I miss having a story that seems to be about something other than itself. I miss characters who had mystery and purpose. We’ve waited four years for this sequel, and we’ve endured a lot of hype about how big this movie is going to be. How nice it would have been if some of the energy spent on hyping The Matrix Reloaded had been used to actually make the movie good.
( out of four)
The Matrix Reloaded is rated R for sci-fi violence and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.
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