It's taken the Matrix four years to upgrade, a programming lag that would have had Bill Gates lopping off the heads of his Microsoft minions. But here, at long last, is The Matrix Reloaded, part two of a trilogy that began with 1999's The Matrix ' a sleeper hit that turned, almost overnight, into a cultural phenomenon ' and will conclude this November, with Matrix Revolutions. Sequels are supposed to suck; it's like a natural law. And the fact that The Matrix Reloaded doesn't suck, that it manages to both enrich the ideas put in play by The Matrix and, on occasion, blow our minds all over again, suggests that we are in the middle of one of the great landmarks in movie history. Star Wars? That's so yesterday. Of all the sci-fi epics, The Matrix movies do the best job of capturing what it's like to be alive today.
If you want to call it living, that is. Roaring down the Information Highway while the kids finger their Game Boys in the backseat, we're surrounded by objects that seem smarter than we are. And we're losing the ability to distinguish between reality and virtual reality, living and living vicariously. "Reality is for those who can't handle drugs," they used to say back in the '60s. Today, virtual reality is the drug ' environments so real, and yet so fantastical, that we both suspend our disbelief and wallow in it. Have we fallen down the rabbit hole? The Matrix seemed to think so, warning us about the power of graven images while bowling us over with the power of its own. Such contradictions might destroy a lesser movie, but The Matrix soared right past them. Like all great works of open-ended art, it contains multitudes.
Those who are so inclined have found Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre and Baudrillard in The Matrix's source code, and these are just the philosophers. There's also Christianity, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Greek mythology and a heroic quest that would have had Joseph Campbell, were he still alive, setting up a whole new round of talks with Bill Moyers. Now stir in the literary influences ' Lewis Carroll, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick and all the other intrepid explorers of alternative realities. And don't forget martial-arts movies, which set The Matrix aloft, curving space and time. Intellectual magpies, the Wachowski brothers ' Andy and Larry ' have plundered the histories of Western and Eastern civilization to put together their vision of a world where humans are enslaved by artificially intelligent machines.
But let's not kid ourselves. The Matrix wouldn't be worth talking about if it weren't astonishing to look at. The Wachowskis' collaborators ' cinematographer Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg, production designer Owen Paterson, visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta and concept artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce ' have achieved what so many filmmakers have reached for but failed to grasp, a movie with the atmospheric splendor of a kick-ass videogame. Indeed, the special effects are so special, so effective, that it's as if we, too, were floating through cyberspace. This is a dream that goes back to at least 1982's Tron, but short of boring a hole in the back of your skull and plugging yourself into a game console, this is as close as you are likely to come to actually living inside Sim City.
For now, anyway.
You may recall that, at the end of The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) rose from the dead and accepted his role as The One, shooting off into the clouds like Superman on steroids. But knowing you're The One and knowing what to do because you're The One are two different things. How do you save humankind when humans are imprisoned in pods, their electrical energy used to fuel the machines' various activities while their minds are transported (via data ports embedded in their bodies) to that home away from home, the Matrix? You can't just go around unplugging everybody. In The Matrix Reloaded, the machines have launched a counterattack, booting up a new version that includes better enforcers. Meanwhile, an army of "squiddies" is burrowing through the earth's mantle en route to Zion, where thousands of humans have taken refuge.
What's a messiah to do? This one decides to smooch with his girlfriend. The love between Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), which was held in check during most of The Matrix, erupts with volcanic fury in The Matrix Reloaded, their coitus interrupted by Neo's vision of Trinity being killed in the line of duty. Love is something not readily understood by the machines, who treat it like a bug in the programming. And that's how the Wachowskis see it, too ' as the glitch that separates us from our mechanical brethren. That's a rather hoary notion, not exactly cutting-edge sci-fi. But something needs to be at stake as Neo pursues his rendezvous with destiny. Last time, it was Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who recruited Neo into the resistance and was prepared to die so that Neo might live. This time, it's Trinity, who...well, let's not give that one away.
Leaving Trinity behind, Neo goes to see the Oracle again, a plot development that might seem a little been-there-done-that if Gloria Foster weren't such a fascinating actress. Having died of complications from diabetes after finishing her work on Reloaded, Foster won't be around for Revolutions, and that's a shame, because the Oracle's pleasure at always staying a step ahead of Neo ' encouraging him one moment, chiding him the next ' is palpable. Here, after a head-scratching talk about free will, she sends him off to rescue the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim, of American Players Theatre fame) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), an aristocratic dandy who likes to cuss in French because "it's like wiping your ass with silk." The Keymaker, as his name suggests, will provide entrÃe into the Matrix's sanctum sanctorum, its mainframe.
Meanwhile, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Neo's bÃte noire, is lurking in the shadows. With line readings just this side of Adam West's Batman, Weaving was half the fun of watching The Matrix, a foil for Reeves' experiment in Zen and the Art of Acting. But, although he participates in one of the most deliriously exciting sequences in movie history, Agent Smith does little more than pop in and out of the plot this time, as if the Wachowskis were saving him for the Grand Finale. He's supposedly a new "man" as a result of his clashes with Neo, capable of replicating himself ad infinitum. And when 100 identical-looking Agent Smiths go after The One in a kung-fu fight to end all kung-fu fights (until the next one), it's going to leave audiences gasping for air. Imagine Fred Astaire in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now imagine it 99 more times.
The Wachowskis have assumed the mantle of f/x gods from George Lucas and James Cameron, who used to take pride in their ability to blow audiences away with the latest magic tricks. "Bullet time," which somehow conveys immense speed by slowing things down, is now so popular that it's become a cinematic clichÃ, Ã la morphing. But by the time The Matrix came out, its creators had already moved on to "universal capture," a process that records an actor's performance using five high-definition cameras, then feeds all the data into a computer in which any action from any angle can be combined with any other action from any other angle any number of times ' 100, say. Virtual cinematography, as this approach to shot-making is called, doesn't eliminate the need for actors. On the contrary, it requires their energy, their electrical spark.
Neo and Agent Smith's pas de centaine is the movie's high point, but don't tell the Wachowskis, who close with a 14-minute car chase that's clearly meant to leave every other car chase, from the Model T on down, in the dust. That the sequence is often merely exciting, and sometimes not even that, suggests that the Wachowskis, in trying to top themselves, have bitten off more scenery than they can chew. Speaking of which, the scenes set in Zion (which looks like a Gothic cathedral carved from the inside of a mountain) come dangerously close to self-parody ' the kind of cheesy effect that occurs in sci-fi when false notes start piling up. After Morpheus delivers a rousing oration on the need to resist the machines' invasion, everybody starts singing and dancing, as if he'd just announced an all-night Ecstasy rave.
They just don't seem to feel very threatened ' an oversight on the directors' part, obviously. (If they don't feel threatened, neither do we.) And that's not the movie's only snafu. What was so impressive about The Matrix was that nothing got away from the Wachowskis; they maintained complete control, moment by moment, while never losing sight of the big picture. Such mastery is rare in big-budget, effects-laden filmmaking. There are simply too many millions of ducks to get in a row. And that the Wachowskis did get their ducks in a row was part of their mystique, along with their monk-like silence vis-Ã-vis the press. "Who are those guys?" people asked, since they only had one film, the neo-noir thriller Bound, under their belts. Where had they learned to work with computer-generated imagery?
CGI imagery has either saved or destroyed movies, depending on your perspective. Either way, the digital revolution is taking its place alongside the advent of sound and color as one of the great paradigm shifts in cinema history. In the past, filmmakers were limited by the filmmaking process; there was only so much you could do to a photographic image. Today, given enough computing power, you can do anything your imagination cooks up. And although the resulting images may not seem real, exactly, they seem hyperreal ' perfectly lit, crisply detailed, realer than real ' and many people prefer that. During their first century or so, movies maintained a close relationship with photography, out of which they had emerged. Now, they're closer to comic books, cartoons, videogames ' as elastic as life inside the Matrix.
One way to read The Matrix movies, in fact, is as an allegory about movies like The Matrix movies ' an auto-critique. "The Matrix is using computer technology to beat up on computer technology," Karen Haber points out in Exploring the Matrix, a collection of essays by science-fiction writers. She's right, of course, but isn't that what science fiction, at its best, has always done, beaten up on science using whatever tools are at hand? That The Matrix seduces us with the very world it warns us about is what causes us to wonder whether the world we do live in isn't some sort of seduction as well. Could what we call reality be the grandest illusion of them all ' a consensual hallucination, as William Gibson famously referred to it? Luckily, it doesn't take a glove-and-goggles virtual-reality getup to pose such questions.
It may someday, though. For all its pushing-the-envelope prowess, The Matrix is a rather old-fashioned piece of entertainment, compared to what may be right around the corner. It's shot on film, for one thing, and we all know where film is headed ' to that great climate-controlled archive in the sky. There's also an overall lack of an interactive element, given that the movies feel so much like videogames. Finally, the stories, for all their through-the-looking-glass content, are surprisingly straightforward in form. There may come a day when we find ourselves hooked up to a computer that allows us to wander through a matrix of our own, clicking on plotlines that strike our fancy. Maybe we won't call them movies. Maybe we'll call them livies. But, whether masters or slaves, we'll finally be the stars of our own shows.
Until then, The Matrix deserves its props as the ultimate virtual-reality movie. We've taken the multiplex to cyberspace before, of course ' in Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, Strange Days, eXistenZ, Dark City and S1m0ne, to name a few. And some of these movies (eXistenZ, in particular) were very good. But none of them caught on with the public like The Matrix has. And none of them had The Matrix's Wagnerian scale. In his 1849 essay "The Artwork of the Future," Wagner heralded the so-called gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, which would synthesize all the arts of his time ' music, literature, dance, theater ' into something that just happened to resemble his own operas. With or without its sequels, The Matrix has fused the arts of our time ' f/x, videogames, martial arts, sci-fi ' into a gesamtkunstwerk for the 20th century.
One small problem: We're living in the 21st century. Or are we? Maybe a part of us is stuck, like The Matrix's pod people, in 1999, before Osama bin Laden roused us from our slumbers. Either way, the Wachowski brothers seem to have done a much better job of summing up our past than of predicting our future. Only the Oracle knows what tomorrow will bring, and she isn't talking.