WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Neo has learnt how to bend the Matrix to his will, enabling him to fly and fight off would-be enemies with ease. But his role in the bigger fight between Machines and Humans is uncertain, some factions believing in him utterly, others thinking him irrelevant. Once again, he must call on the Oracle to discover his destiny: he may be able to hasten the end of the war, but he also may not be as unique as everyone believes him to be.
A brilliant central pillar upheld The Matrix at all times: since the world we know is merely a construct, a computer programme, everything within it is mutable to those who know how to bend the rules. While the Wachowski brothers can’t exactly claim the idea as their own – Dark City has a similar theme – they do make the best use of the idea to produce a gun-toting action film like nothing that had been seen before. Sure, it had the odd lapse into Amateur Hour philosophy, but the sequel would learn lessons, forget the preachiness and just be a balls-to-the-wall blast. Right?
The film begins promptly, with no concessions to newcomers. Chosen one Neo (Keanu Reeves) suffers from visions that his beloved Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) will be killed in the midst of a gunfight, and her best efforts to reassure him fall on deaf ears. There are larger issues at play however, as the machines who control the Matrix and still subjugate most of the human population are digging towards the free city of Zion, where the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar head to recuperate. The machines must be stopped; but while Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) insists that every ship stays in Zion to repel the several hundred thousand-strong army of sentinels heading towards them, Morpheus believes Neo is still the key, and is adamant that the Oracle should be consulted as to the next step. It doesn’t help that Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), Lock’s partner, is a former squeeze of Morpheus.
The humans make a show of defiance at a rave-cum-orgy, but Neo is weighed down with his visions and his Messianic burden, and goes for a walk with silver-haired Councillor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) who dispenses wise words before Neo travels back into the Matrix. There, he quickly learns some new things: first, the Oracle (Gloria Foster) is simply a computer programme, left over from an early incarnation of the Matrix; second, he must find a programme called the Keymaker, guarded by the Merovingian, to gain access to the source of the machines’ power; and third, his nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is now literally a free agent, not under the control of the machines but able to self-replicate at will. Neo must fight the agents, the Merovingian and his bodyguards, the Ghost Twins, and any number of Agents Smith to have a chance of reaching the Source, with Morpheus and Trinity taking control of a power station to help him: but will ‘The One’ be able to cope with the information he discovers about himself?
The same flawed logic appears to have hit the Wachowskis here as affected George Lucas when he made episodes 1 to 3 of Star Wars. Namely, having made a box office smash with mind-bending, heart-racing effects, stunts and all-out action, the directors have come to the conclusion that what really drew the numbers in was the back story; so the film spends an inordinately long time amongst the scruffy citizens of Zion, filling us in on politics and combat strategy, and introducing new characters such as the disgruntled wife of navigator Link and an annoying young disciple. These scenes make the viewer impatient for action, and it is disappointing that when Neo does return to the Matrix, several of the action scenes are truncated (a mini-fight between Neo and the Oracle’s bodyguard starts and stops for no good reason) in favour of letting the characters – first the Oracle, then the Merovingian, and finally a mysterious figure called the Architect – ramble on about ‘exiled’ computer programmes and the illusion of choice. ‘We can never see past the choices we don’t understand,’ says the Oracle. Eh?
Whilst I concede that the introduction of other computer programmes, rather than ‘conscious’ humans, is quite a clever idea, the execution of the idea isn’t particularly good, since the characters only exist to espouse windy, wordy theories. The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), for example, is presented as a stereotypically arrogant French bon viveur, with a fluent line in cod philosophy, a wandering eye and a resentful wife named Persephone (Monica Bellucci, embarrassingly trussed up like the meat of two sausages packed into a single skin). She may be human or programme: it’s hard to know, or care.
The one big action set-piece arrives when Persephone betrays her husband for a meaningful kiss from Neo and she gives him the Keymaker, disappointingly not Rick Moranis but an elderly Japanese fellow. An extended car chase ensues with Morpheus taking the bulk of the action, fighting off the Ghost Twins and agents while Neo engages in a bout of swordplay before rushing to the rescue by ‘doing his Superman thing.’ The sequence is very good, although the Twins shouldn’t have been given any dialogue and Morpheus should have worked harder to dodge bullets than moving his shoulder in a bit.
It’s certainly more satisfying than the fights between Neo and the plethora of Agents Smith, which disprove the theory that the more assailants there are, the more exciting the battle. For one thing, these mass brawls lose the exciting precision of a good one-to-one fight, and Neo’s omnipotence removes any sense of anxiety or drama; for another, the Wachowskis inevitably turn to CGI, and though the result looks like a pretty good video game, the character models are noticeably different to their real counterparts.
It wouldn’t be quite true to say that Matrix Reloaded loses the plot entirely, because between the naff dialogue and Zion scenes there is some exciting stuff, and while no real progress is made on the battle between machines and humans (Neo finds his powers appear to work outside the Matrix, which is nice), Neo and Trinity cement their relationship and the Architect’s revelations set up an interesting puzzle about Neo’s identity: is he The One, or merely The Sixth? At this precise moment I cannot remember whether all is concluded satisfactorily in the final instalment, Matrix Revolutions; what I can say with some certainty is that Reloaded fires some of the same bullets as its predecessor, but this time misses as often as it hits.