The Matrix Reloaded (2002)
Written & Directed by Lana and Lily Wachowski
After the unexpected success of The Matrix, it was clear to all parties involved they were going to make more. The Wachowskis had initially toyed with the idea of expanding the story but didn’t necessarily have every detail hammered out. To say The Matrix Reloaded builds on the first movie would be an understatement. It is chock full of everything from the first picture ratcheted up a thousand percent. That means more ambitious action set pieces and also more philosophical talking, both showcasing a level of indulgence that is incredibly satisfying but also a tad disappointing. As is the case with almost all media, there’s something to be said for budget constraints and creators being forced to be creative. When you get access to high-end special effects tools, that can lead to movies that get lost in themselves.
Six months after The Matrix, we find Neo (Keanu Reeves) and friends are caught up in dire circumstances. Intelligence has come to the attention of Zion that the Machines are headed there for an attack. The humans have 72 hours to do what they can to head it off. Neo consults with the Oracle about what he should do, and she directs him to the Keymaster, a program that will lead him to the source of The Matrix. This involves taking on The Merovingian, a program operating in the equivalent of a Matrix black market. Cool fights ensue, but it all leads to two things: First, Neo meets The Architect, the program that created The Matrix. He explains that the Matrix inevitably crashes by including human choice in the code. The One is part of the code that is meant to cause a hard reset before these crashes, and this happens when The One becomes one with the source again. However, Neo rejects that choice leading to the possible destruction of everything. Meanwhile, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has seemingly returned from the dead and is infecting people and programs in the Matrix as he hunts for Neo.
I was never very into The Matrix, so when the sequels came out, I went to see them out of the fact that pretty much everyone else on campus was going to see them. I wouldn’t say I hated them, but I certainly felt exhausted by the time the end credits rolled. One element I noticed upon rewatch was that the world of The Matrix feels much more stylized and false this time around. It provides some extraordinary moments but the feeling that the natural world that we know is false went right out the window with Reloaded. It’s undeniable The Matrix is a simulation, though maybe this is Wachowskis showing how people like Neo and Trinity view it once they can come and go? What doesn’t help are some extremely rough digital effects. I’m thinking of the Burly Brawl, where Neo is faced with a horde of Agent Smiths, and it is clear real people are not present for most of that scene.
On the flip side, I find the freeway battle one of the best set pieces of the entire Matrix series. It’s definitely Morpheus’ highlight as he gets to pull off some pretty incredible moments. Unlike the Burly Brawl, the digital seams are hidden a little better here, and that causes the action to feel like real stakes. Morpheus and Trinity attempt to protect the Keymaker from The Merovingian’s forces and the Agents. I think this works so well because it mixes just enough practical work with CG, blending the elements. But does it further the plot in any way? Nope. Neither does the Burly Brawl either. In fact, save one, this movie’s action scenes don’t actually add to the story. The only one is shown at the beginning as a dream and repeated near the end of the movie involving Trinity. It builds up a potential death only to erase it immediately.
Then there’s the deep dive into philosophy regarding the purpose of The Matrix and The One. The Architect has become infamous and often parodied in pop culture. I don’t think it’s incomprehensibly dense, as some critics like to say, but it is a more challenging idea than audiences are likely used to in a genre that is often mindless. If I had to choose, I’d pick something like this over the pandering, handfed nature of Marvel movies and their ilk these days. Reloaded provides some pretty heavy questions about free will and how so much of our lives are controlled by invisible systems. The problem comes with the whiplash between action scenes and prolonged moments of talking about the fundamental nature of existence. You can make both things work, but it takes a defter touch than what we have on screen.
One thing that becomes clear in this picture is the anime influence of The Matrix. Watching these scenes with two decades between me and my initial viewing, I could see the thread to films like Sin City and other hyper-stylized affairs. You also see the anime influence in how goddamn cheesy this movie can get; sometimes it’s in an endearing way (the over-dramatic presentation of Neo & Trinity’s relationship) or cringey (the framing of the cliffhanger ending). Some of the magic from the first film got lost and replaced with a mixed bag of more immense special effects and more philosophy talk. I can’t fault someone young for loving this movie; it is cool as hell. But it also contains the things about the Wachowskis’ work that often turns me off to it.