In the days leading up to the release of the new Netflix show Sense8, I’m going to be revisiting the Wachowski oeuvre, one day at a time. I’ll be looking at the movies themselves, as well as the critical reception of each film, and thinking about how this all relates to questions of film criticism at large. You can read my introduction to this little writing experiment here, where I rambled a bit about when I started to have a personal stake in how Wachowski films were being received. Warning: Some spoilers follow.
‘THE MATRIX RELOADED’ (2003)
Directed by: The Wachowski Siblings, credited as the Wachowski Brothers
Keanu Reeves as “Neo”
Laurence Fisburne as “Morpheus”
Carrie Ann Moss as “Trinity”
Hugo Weaving as “Agent Smith”
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
An unspecified amount of time after the events of The Matrix, Neo has comfortably settled into his role as The One. He’s learned a few new tricks — including how to swordfight with a variety of objects — and he’s not afraid to show off to his opponents, practically yawning through the first few fights as he spars with ease.
However, danger is looming over humanity’s last outpost at Zion — hundreds of thousands of Sentinels are drilling down to the underground city, attempting to wipe out the final humans not plugged into the Matrix. Much of Zion despairs, as city leaders fret over whether to tell the populace what’s going on.
Morpheus, however, believes that Neo can save them all, finally fulfilling the Oracle’s prophecy, so long as he can first find the Oracle to get some extra instruction. She does indeed instruct, sending him on a “now, you must ask this person…” journey from one mysterious power player to the next… until finally, he finds himself face to face with the creator of the Matrix itself, The Architect.
What’d the Critics Think?
Critics are pretty divided on The Matrix Reloaded. A scan down the RottenTomatoes excerpts reveals the arbitrary, subjective nature of determining a critical consensus, because what one person may call a detriment to the film, someone else may praise, and what one person sees in spades, another considers to be entirely absent from the film.
Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald says, “Where’s the head candy? Where’s the complexity? Where are the goods?” But, Daniel Kimmel of the Worchester Telegram & Gazette, on the other hand, says the film contains some “mind-bending philosophizing.” Variety is mildly disappointed to find the film “straightforward” in comparison with its predecessor, whereas Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer finds the film far too convoluted. Mark Robinson of the Reno Gazette-Journal thinks the action is mechanical and clunky, lacking urgency or passion, whereas Peter Smith of the Bangor Daily News calls the action “breathtaking” and “exuberantly entertaining.”
On the question of action, for the record, most reviews do praise the film’s technical achievements, which are a step up from the bullet-time innovations of the original Matrix. This Wired profile of effects supervisor John Gaeta is glowing, detailing just how he and the Wachowskis came to develop the technology to film what they called the Burly Brawl, a fight between Neo and 100 copies of Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. While the effects are noticeable to audiences in 2015 — especially so on BluRay — at the time, they were revolutionary. The profile is well worth a read.
It’s interesting to look through these reviews and see the seeds of dissent that would explode into the mainstream opinion of the Wachowskis upon the release of The Matrix Revolutions, following them for the rest of their career. Like what happened with The Matrix, various reviews dismiss this film’s philosophical concerns with vague statements like “the Wachowskis are not profound, although they want to be.” The Miami Herald review quoted above is another example; he somehow didn’t pick up on any deeper meaning, so he says it doesn’t exist. …More on this below.
Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to approach film criticism. Fine, he admits at the beginning, The Matrix Reloaded doesn’t live up to its predecessor. But does that mean it’s bad? Does that mean it’s worth mocking? “How strange that some pundits affect to dismiss it, while rolling over for the cynical franchises of X-Men, Spider-Man and George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels,” he says. The Wachowskis, as will be come very apparent, are anything but cynical. Even in what may very well be a studio-demanded franchise-focused follow-up, they commit 150% to everything they do, pouring their hearts into their work. It may be too sappy, too optimistic, for most people… but…
What Did I Think?
Like Peter Bradshaw, I’ll get this out of the way at the beginning: The Matrix Reloaded isn’t nearly as good as the first film in the trilogy. While I found that film to suffer toward the end because of how much of an opening chapter it was, this film suffers even more because its “to be continued” ending means all the ominous-sounding exposition dumped by the Architect in the third act doesn’t get sufficiently explained or wrapped up. What does it mean for reality if Neo is in fact the sixth incarnation of The One? If The One is a necessary consequence of the programming, doesn’t that mean Neo is himself a program? If Zion has been destroyed and rebuilt six times in a row… does Zion really exist?
I realized at some point during The Matrix Reloaded — during the bafflingly long dance/rave sequence in Zion, to be exact — that I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the whole movie before. I’ve definitely seen bits and pieces of it on TV, like the freeway chase and the Neo vs. 100 Smiths fight and everything after they rescue the Keymaker, but large parts of this movie were wholly new to me. Which is cool! But, I definitely do not think I understood everything that was going on.
But I’m not going to call the movie incomprehensible. There were just parts of it that I was confused by. That’s not to say it’s the movie’s fault. It’s possible I was paying attention to the wrong things, that I was hastily scribbling notes about the nature of “choice” when in fact the Oracle was possibly dropping far-more-important lines about, y’know, the point of going to find the Keymaker.
That is, I think, what confuses me about a lot of Wachowski criticism (and popular film criticism in general, to be honest). So many critics are content to say that something doesn’t exist, that it was poorly handled or “not what the Wachowskis thought it meant.” Instead of going on at length about all of the things I disliked — Neo “doing his Superman thing” is kinda hokey, for example— I’d much rather write about the aspects of the film that interest me, the things that did hold my attention and make me sit up and take notice of the movie trying to provoke a reaction in me, trying to get me to think.
Because I’d much rather be asked to ponder the nature of choice, as fruitless a pursuit as that may be, whether or not the film ultimately offers me any answers. I’m much more interested in seeing how a movie believes “choice” affects what it means to be human, and what simulated choice means for reality, instead of watching the umpteenth blockbuster that asks me only to wonder how SuperheroMan will finally retrieve Important Object from BadMan. (And I do like those movies, too!)
First of all… let’s talk about that dance party in the caverns of Zion toward the beginning of the movie, which intercuts a sweaty, propulsive rave with shots of Neo and Trinity having some slow, intimate sex away from everyone else. Many reviews point to this scene as a moment of overindulgence on the part of the Wachowskis, a multicultural, orgiastic instance of an idea far outpacing its execution.
But, while I do agree that the sequence is a tad overlong and somewhat jarring in context, on a broader scale I think the scene actually serves an interesting purpose, somewhat analogous to the focus on body horror in the first act of The Matrix. Whereas that employment of body horror was meant to give us a measure against which we then compare the bigger violations of essential human-ness at play— namely, that Neo’s consciousness has been divorced from his “real” flesh without his consent — this dance party in Reloaded is, by my count, one of the first times that we see the awakened characters enjoying their physical humanity. Up until now, we’d pretty much only seen the characters in the “real” world walking around the ship, taking care of bodies that were still plugged into the Matrix (albeit by choice).
In the first film, they didn’t have a chance to enjoy any of the benefits that come with having a physical body. Here, they go overboard, completely losing themselves in a joyous dance full of sweat and saliva, giving themselves to the sensuous rhythm of a sultry mosh pit. Neo and Trinity’s sex scene, too, is all about embracing their position in life, in real life, here, together, in each other’s arms. It’s a sex scene as much interested in Trinity’s pleasure as Neo’s, which is a rarity for film.
It’s pretty easy to sit back, roll your eyes, and say “This scene is absurd; what is a dance party doing in a Matrix movie?” and to laugh at the Wachowskis for being too idealistically progressive, including a too-diverse cast. But, watch that scene again and let yourself be lost in the pure kineticism of it all. It’s almost abstract art at some points, just bodies in motion, forming rising and falling and jumping and dancing patterns on the screen. It’s like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic… instead of an orgy of sin, this celebratory dance represents humans coming together in its last days to rejoice in their humanity.
Something else that’s a rarity for film are the ambitious, technically innovative action sequences. I’ll discuss two of them quickly.
First, there’s the 100-Smiths vs. Neo brawl in the rooftop courtyard. The scope of the thing is massive from a technical perspective; one Keanu Reeves fights a hundred Hugo Weavings, all teaming up to launch brute-force attacks, then getting scattered like bowling pins, regrouping, punching, kicking, scrambling, scowling… all while Neo is in the middle of it, fighting back sometimes three, four Agents at a time. This fight does not fall into the familiar action-movie trope of all the henchmen hanging back waiting for their turn to attack. No, in The Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s assailants literally crawl over top of each other to get a crack at him. And around it all, the camera swoops and swings in a number of very long takes, weaving in and out of the Weavings, zooming in close and then rocketing up into the air and then falling back down to earth, watching the action from every conceivable angle.
The Wired profile of the film’s effects supervisor mentions that, except for a few key close-ups, the whole thing is almost entirely digital, Reeves’ and Weaving’s faces superimposed over CGI bodies. They state confidently that filmgoers seeing the movie would be fooled and would never know that what they were watching wasn’t actually filmed in the “real” world. Wired compares the massive technological undertaking, with is rows upon rows of server farms and dozens of IT people closely watching every moment of the operation, to the filmmakers almost literally having to invent the Matrix in order to pull it off, to fool audiences into thinking the virtual world and the real world were the same thing. It’s a great comparison… one that actually works even better when you realize just how fake the whole thing looks to modern eyes, especially on BluRay.
To modern eyes, on good TVs, it’s quite clear that the whole fight is faked. It looks like a video game, the strange physics of the first film seeming all the more pronounced when the participants all have a certain digital sheen to their faces. So I think it’s interesting that newer technology has made quite obvious just how poor a substitute for real flesh-and-blood actors CGI is. Just how, in the world of The Matrix, advanced human consciousness no longer buys the fake digital world meant to imprison them.
Something that doesn’t seem fake is the car chase on the freeway, which is still stunning. The Wachowskis actually constructed a quarter-mile of freeway on an abandoned naval base and filmed a thrilling crisply-edited sequence in which Trinity, Morpheus, and the Keymaker are chased by a number of opponents, including two albino twins who can turn into Matrix-ghosts and phase between vehicles. It’s very easy to see at all times how the cars move from one shot to the next and to understand spatially where everyone is in relation to each other.
Says the Variety review of the film:
The only comparable scene in memory is the climactic chase in the second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, although the sheer scale of this new speedfest dwarfs the previous competition.
Of course, The Matrix Reloaded’s iconic car chase has recently been surpassed by Mad Max Fury Road in terms of sheer scale. But still, The Matrix Reloaded is a worthy second-place that deserves to be mentioned with the greats of all time.
One final note about the philosophy of The Matrix Reloaded. When I started noticing the Wachowski’s emphasis on choice in my review of Bound, I had completely forgotten that just about every single conversation of any importance in The Matrix Reloaded consists of characters sitting around meditating on the nature of humanity as connected to the power of free will. Do we really choose our path in life? Or is our life essentially predictable given a set of particular starting circumstances?
When Neo finally meets the Architect after opening a number of doors and going through a variety of underlings, he’s informed that he is not, in fact, “the One,” and is actually the sixth incarnation of a particular type of person, a necessary outlet for the Matrix to blow off some extra programming, allow the humans to think they have a chance of surviving, and help reload the entire system to avoid a crash.
Intriguingly, the Architect tells Neo that 99% of humans would accept the false reality if the Matrix was providing them with a choice. Choice, then — even if it’s a false one — is one of the fundamental markers by which we measure our own humanity. As Neo told Morpheus in the first film, we humans really don’t like the idea that we’re not in control of our own fate.
Throughout the scene, the camera repeatedly goes through the television screens, leaving us confused as to what “level” of reality we’re in. Are we watching Neo in the “real world?” Is this just a programming construct of the Matrix? Those TVs behind him aren’t playing out in real time, and are suggested to be recordings of previous versions of The One when they reached this similar spot… so when we go through a TV screen to watch Neo make the choice to save Trinity instead of helping reboot the Matrix, potentially dooming the entire human race… what are we seeing here?
Guess it’s time to move on to the sequel to find out!