Kevin O’Reilly has reviewed the theatrical release of The Matrix Reloaded, the highly anticipated sequel to the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 blockbuster, once again starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Read alternative reviews by Matt Day (Region 1 DVD) and Chris Kaye (Region 2 DVD)
This summer’s most highly anticipated blockbuster, The Matrix Reloaded should satisfy all but the most demanding fans of the original and should whet appetites for the third installment, The Matrix Revolutions, which is due in November. While it is undeniably just more of the same but on a larger scale, the story crams in enough clever twists and turns to keep you awake through the sometimes ponderous dialogue and, more importantly, writer / directors Larry and Andy Wachowski and producer Joel Silver have put together some truly outstanding action sequences. Even if you could care less about Neo and his quest to save humanity, it’s worth going to see this just as a lesson in state of the art blockbuster film-making.
To bring everyone up to speed, The Matrix told the story of computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves), who discovered that the world around us is a computer-generated fantasy used by a race of machines to keep our minds occupied while our bodies lie in vast rows of cocoons, our energy sucked from us like electricity from a battery. Around us, our planet is a desolated, post-apocalyptic hell patrolled by squid-like robot sentinels and the only hope for humanity rests with the resistance, cyberpunks like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who navigate the bowels of the machines’ world in jerry-built rocketships and jump in and out of the Matrix with stolen technology. Morpheus has rescued Neo from the Matrix, believing him to be The One – the subject of a prophecy that a human will be born who can control the Matrix and will use his powers to destroy the machines and save the world. As the film ended, it appeared that Neo did indeed have the ability to manipulate reality at will.
The Matrix Reloaded expands the story’s scope dramatically, taking us to Zion, the resistance’s secret underground city where the war against the machines is being waged. I’d been under the impression that Morpheus led the resistance but no, it turns out that he’s a mere captain in the force led by Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), a practical soldier who disapproves of Morpheus’s spirituality and has more personal reasons for disliking him, namely that Lock’s girlfriend Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) is Morpheus’s ex. Zion is in danger of imminent attack by an army of burrowing sentinels and Lock wants all ships ready to defend the city but Morpheus believes their only hope of survival is for Neo to re-enter The Matrix and fulfil his destiny.
There’s a lot more plot and a lot more characters. Some of these are human, others are agents of the Matrix and still others are rogue programs with agendas of their own. The film-makers don’t always make it very clear who’s real and who’s not. There’s the Oracle (Gloria Foster), the wise old prophet who saw Neo’s potential; Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Neo’s old enemy who is now independent of the Matrix and able to reproduce himself; the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who can unlock secure areas of the Matrix; the power-broker Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), his decadent wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci) and their twin bodyguards (Neil and Adrian Rayment) who can do all sorts of cool stuff; then finally there’s the mysterious Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) who wrote The Matrix and has some major surprises to spring.
If the Matrix’s blend of solemn, portentous dialogue, pop spirituality and big budget action set-pieces seems oddly familiar, it’s the same recipe old time Hollywood producers like Cecil B DeMille used half a century ago for their biblical epics – deathly serious Old Testament stories spiced up with battles, special effects and pagan orgies to pull in the punters. Amusingly, The Matrix Reloaded does feature an orgy sequence or at least a semi-naked rave set to drums. It’s the most awkward scene in the film, looking like a cross between a voodoo ceremony and a Christina Aguilera video.
The Wachowski brothers wrote such a funny script for their first movie Bound that it’s a pity the Matrix films have to be so grim and their dialogue so heavy and humourless. The only characters who bring any wit to the proceedings are computer programs. Agent Smith gets all the best one-liners while the humans are a chore to listen to – it’s not hard to see why Morpheus’s girlfriend dumped him when he appears to speak only in dire predictions. It’s not like the films have anything that serious to say. Their philosophising about the nature of reality and free will is the kind of waffle that sounds deep only if you’re stoned and their politics seem to be based on the general mood of anti-establishmentism which I think owes as much to Hollywood movies like this as to current affairs. Still, the dialogue doesn’t matter that much. Like the pseudo-scientific gibberish in Star Trek about the state of the dilithium crystals, fans will hang on every word while the rest of us just chuckle affectionately.
Everything in the Matrix films is there to serve the visuals – the gorgeous cinematography by Bill Pope, the imaginative set design, the seamless special effects and of course the super duper action sequences. It’s with these that The Matrix Reloaded delivers in spades. Once again blending Hong Kong martial arts, eye-popping computer-generated effects and explosive Joel Silver spectacle, the Wachowski brothers wisely crank up the mayhem to balance the more elaborate plot. There’s a lot of action, right from the first minute, much of it fighting, much of it shot in the Wachowskis’ patented “bullet time”, where the camera appears to whirl around static or slowed-down tableaux. The gimmick may have been copied by everything from Charlie’s Angels to Dracula 2000 but no one does it like the Wachowskis.
Two set pieces in particular trump anything in the original or just about any other action film you could mention. One is an ingeniously choreographed fight between Neo and an ever-increasing army of Agent Smith clones. The other is a car chase down a freeway with Morpheus and Trinity pursued by the Matrix’s agents and sundry other morphing villains. At one point, we’re following Trinity as she weaves a motorbike in and out of oncoming traffic and the camera’s swooping between the wheels of the vehicles racing at us; at another, two trucks collide head-on, crumple and explode in bullet time. This scene rivals the siege of Helms Deep in The Two Towers as the most incredible display of special effects and physical action yet seen in the cinema. In six months time, when The Matrix Reloaded is released on DVD, you can expect to see it played and replayed on the demonstration sets in every home cinema shop in the country. For now, make sure you see The Matrix Reloaded on the biggest cinema screen you can find, book a seat near the front, sit back with a tub of popcorn and enjoy.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum