The Matrix: The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Even of those of us who were around for it and closely following movies at the time, it may be hard to remember the feelings in May 2003 in anticipation of The Matrix Reloaded. The franchise re-making of Hollywood was in full swing: the final film in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released at Christmas later that year, would win Best Picture at the 2004 Oscars, while just the previous May, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first film to have a $100 million opening weekend and kick the superhero genre into full swing.

But the films that are most instructive when comparing and measuring the Matrix sequels’ emotional and cultural impact are the Star Wars prequel films, though perhaps in ways that few anticipated they would. 1999 saw the debut of both Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. At the time, each seemed to simultaneously look forward, to the limitless possibilities of digital special effects at the verge of the new millenium, and backward, to a kind of mythic, elemental storytelling, whether the original Star Wars trilogy itself or classical heroes journeys and archetypes. But the dominant public narrative, setting aside actual box office returns, was that it was The Matrix that represented the true future of cinema, not the nostalgia-fueled oddity that was The Phantom Menace. By 2003, after the release of Attack of the Clones and an increasing backlash against the prequels in some quarters (fueled by a burgeoning online fan culture), anticipation for The Matrix Reloaded held with it a kind of new hope for science fiction film fans seeking fulfilment at the movies and a new mythology for the new millenium.

The Matrix Reloaded was intended to be part of, as I noted in my Animatrix review, an ongoing, immersive multimedia engagement with the mythology established in The Matrix and its fullest realization. The sequel boasted a massive budget in comparison with the original, and the pre-release hype was focused intensely on how it was pushing digital visual effects even further forward (particularly the “Burly Brawl”), fulfilling the promise of the original film to show the unlimited possibilities of the Matrix. The Matrix Reloaded would go on to set opening weekend records for an R-rated film at the time (a record that would stand for nearly 13 years, until it was broken in 2016 by Deadpool). It was a massive box office hit by nearly all standards, but nevertheless, by the end of the first weekend already, the word was getting out that it was in some ways a serious disappointment. Fans complained about the esoteric and convoluted plot, the philosophical monologues, and the embarrassing corniness of the scenes in Zion. The popular response had shades of the responses to the Star Wars prequels all over again: a massive original film series tarnished by out of control creators, out of touch with fan desires and unrestrained by taste or good judgement.

In the time since, The Matrix Reloaded, and perhaps even more so, its second part The Matrix Revolutions, released that fall and filmed concurrently, have become as much objects of fan disdain as the Star Wars prequels, fodder for punchlines and bearers of the dashed hopes of science fiction fans hoping to rekindle the excitement of the original films in each series. Sure, people generally speak well of the action scenes in Reloaded, but they’re rarely seen as enough to justify revisiting them or let alone defending the film as a whole.

However, upon my own revisiting of the The Matrix Reloaded this spring, I discovered a film that has aged better than even I expected it too. In my estimation, time has been kind to the film, both in its formal and narrative qualities. The 16 years since its release has seen a massive transformation of the cinema industry in both financial and production contexts, now focused primarily on producing franchises based on pre-existing properties, and a global-political order that has seen the impact of radical politics, unending war (depressing to think that the Afghan-Iraq conflicts that began in that era are still in one shape or another ongoing), and ubiquitous Internet.

The emotional bits that felt cheesy? Now they feel earnest and refreshing. And the action scenes that people admitted were good the first time around? They look positively astounding, better than almost anything that passes for action scenes in today’s blockbusters for a variety of reasons, both creative and industrial. The Matrix Reloaded is a playful but ambitious film, less dour than the original, which may seem odd considering it hinges on the extinction of a free humanity. But for this and other reasons, it also has real stakes, real emotions, and plays it big at almost every turn. And importantly, The Matrix Reloaded still feels like a work of art rather than a product, a unique vision of what the promises of digital filmmaking could do in amalgamating anime, science fiction, and Asian cinema tropes into a satisfying cinematic dream.

The Matrix Reloaded begins with the now iconic “green rain,” the lines of code spilling down the screen inviting the viewer back into the Matrix itself. The action begins in medias res with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) as she dives her motorcycle into a building security station and fights off guards. It’s a direct callback to the opening of the first film. We then jump cut to an upper floor of a building, as Trinity smashes through the window, returning fire at Agents in pursuit. The scene’s use of slow motion and bullet-time offers a comic book splash page image of intense power, building on viewer anticipation of returning to the exciting action of the Matrix. But then, that elation is dashed as Trinity is shot. How can this be? Dispatching one of our heroes in the first few minutes? The scene transitions with a shock cut to Neo (Keanu Reeves), awakening upon the Nebuchadnezzar, the entire opening apparently a dream. Or is it a premonition? Neither Neo or the viewer knows, but the intense imagery shapes the possibility of what the film will be and in the first few minutes The Matrix Reloaded establishes that narratively it will tread new ground and find new ways to surprise and upend what the viewer thinks they know about the world of the Matrix.

Some time has passed since the end of the first film, and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo and Trinity have continued the work of rebellion within the Matrix, freeing humans still enslaved to the machine system and working to liberate humanity. However, the film quickly expands the perspective on the Machine War as the Nebuchadnezzar and other hovercraft are all called back to Zion, the last human city deep underground. Morpheus, however, calls a meeting within the Matrix of other hovercraft crews and captains, including an ex-flame, Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), asking for one of the ships to disobey Zion’s call and remain connected to the Matrix in case they receive a message from the Oracle (Gloria Foster). While in the Matrix, Neo also receives a message from a newly returned Smith (Hugo Weaving), no longer an Agent of the machines, thanking him for “freeing” him. Smith is now able to duplicate himself into others, taking over their code and remaking them into his likeness and consciousness. He has essentially become a virus, a piece of rogue code, the significance of which will only become apparent later.

The opening scenes of The Matrix Reloaded do a significant amount of expanding the world of the Matrix, as much as it retroactively changes our understanding of what was going on in the first film. Even before we return to the Matrix, the viewer’s perspective on the prophecy of the One and entire understanding of how the Matrix functions is upended. Firstly, in The Matrix it seemed like Morpheus was the leader of the resistance, but The Matrix Reloaded makes it clear that Morpheus is simply one captain amongst many, subject to Zion’s rulers, and a radical whose belief in Neo and the prophecy of the One is not broadly shared. We realize there are many other hovercraft ships operating in the Matrix as part of the Machine War.

When the Nebuchadnezzar returns to Zion, it introduces some of the key new characters who will play a major role in the series. First, there’s the ship’s new operator, Link (Harold Perrineau), the brother-in-law of Tank and Dozer from the first film, and partnered with their sister, Zee (Nona Gaye, daughter of singer Marvin Gaye). Then we have the leaders of Zion: Commander Locke (Harry Lennix) is Morpheus’s foil, and further disrupts the viewer’s notion of Morpheus’s power. This section of the film also finally introduces the  viewer to the core human city only mentioned in the first film. Zion’s council of elders includes Star Trek alum Anthony Zerbe as Councillor Hamann (there is an intense 90s Star Trek vibe to much of Zion and its inhabitants that seems intentional), and Councillor West, amusingly played by African-American cultural-historian Cornel West. There is also the Kid (Clayton Watson), the young man first introduced in one of the Animatrix short films, who believes Neo freed him and has pledged his loyalty to him.

What this all establishes is that Neo’s role as the One is not taken for granted by everyone, particularly, the military, but many other citizens of Zion regard Neo with the awe and religious fervor of a Bodhisattva — it’s notable that within the Matrix itself, Neo has traded his leather clad duster for a robe reminiscent of the wushu master Ip Man, a sign of his progress toward enlightenment. It’s strongly implied that those who place their faith in Neo are those who have the least power in the world of Zion. In one scene Neo uncomfortably faces his admirers practically worshipping him as he unpacks his bags. What is established is that Neo himself is unsure of his own role: “I wish I knew what I was supposed to do,” he says.

The Matrix Reloaded is thematically built around the idea of choice and control. What it suggests is that the narratives that we cling to can be modes of controlling us. There’s a metanarrative aspect to the film, which exploits the viewer’s own beliefs about the narratives established in the first film. The film suggests that our belief in our control of our own destiny can be manipulated by powers outside of our consciousness. Plotwise, the film is set up as a race against time: after their time in Zion, and upon returning to the Matrix and meeting with the Oracle, Neo, Trinity and Morpheus must find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) and access the Source code of the entire Matrix to defeat the machines. The limit is the time until the machines drill into Zion and kill all the humans.

The reason that the ships have been called back to Zion is, as revealed in the animated short “Final Flight of the Osiris,” a Machine army is drilling its way down to Zion, with enough sentinels to finish them off. Morpheus clashes with the military leadership of Zion, but the high council agrees to let them return to the Matrix in violation of Locke’s orders.

The interlude in Zion is notable particularly for one notorious scene, as Morpheus addresses the citizens of Zion in a cave-like “temple” and leads them in a kind of rave-like party scene. Morpheus explains the threat of the machines, and emplores them to “shake” the cave in celebration of the human, ending with the proclamation:  “This is Zion, and we are not afraid!” Following this drums and electronic music pulsate as the human population dances and writhes partially clothed. This scene was singled out by many fans as corny, awkward, and silly. The filmmakers seem to take a lot of enjoyment in showcasing the sweaty human bodies undulating to the music, intercut with a Neo and Trinity love scene. It’s still a bit silly, but there’s an earnestness to the way the scene is staged and filmed. One can hardly imagine such a scene in a Disney-Marvel film, and it lends an idiosyncratic humanness to the film. It thematically works in emphasizing the opposition of human flesh with machine coldness.

Furthermore, one of the keys of the film is that Neo and Trinity actually have genuine chemistry. This is established in the first film, but really developed here rather than being a late development to satisfy fulfilling the prophecy. Reloaded builds on the established romance and deepens it. This is key, as in the first and final scenes of the film, and the realization of Neo’s premonition of Trinity’s death and the decision he must make when he encounters the Architect in the final scenes, all hinge on the viewer believing that Neo loves Trinity more than anything. However, the film allows for this to be a genuinely sexual connection. Despite the sexualization of much of our entertainment, there are few popular films that allow for an honest sexual chemistry between their leads. Women are often portrayed as prizes or objects of visual lust. In contrast, Trinity and Neo are portrayed as actual partners and equals, lovers with a real bond. The scene also has some nice visual storytelling, as Neo starts to remember his dream/premonition while making love to Trinity. Upon her orgasm, we cut to the image of her being shot as first witnessed in the opening. The visual repetition of her facial expression marks a comparison between sex and death that has a deep history in literature and myth: Neo and Trinity combine Eros and Thanatos in that moment.

The first hour or so of the film is filled with these kinds of asides that mostly serve to set up the plot and themes of the film. However, once Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus return to the Matrix, the film unfolds with a series of action sequences that is almost unparalleled in their intensity and creativity. After the Oracle tells Neo about the Keymaker and the Source, Neo encounters Smith, who has replicated himself into dozens and dozens of virtual bodies. This sets up what was known as the “Burly Brawl.” The scene is actually a lot of fun, the action taking full advantage of digital speed ramping and the ability to multiply Smith. The action is inventive, with Neo utilizing his surroundings in the playground and park. Eventually, Neo is overwhelmed and simply flies away, doing his “Superman” thing, as Link calls it, after which the various replicated Smiths just wander off, as if freed from hive control.

There’s a kind of video game conceit to the film’s plot in a sense that adds to its playfulness, as the heroes must find a literal Keymaker to unlock various levels, and must track down various new characters, literal programs, such as the deliciously arch Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his partner, Persephone (Monica Bellucci). Once the heroes manage to get a hold of the Keymaker, this kicks off two of the series’ best action scenes.

The first is where Neo fights off the Merovingian’s henchmen in the staircase of his mountain Chateau. The staircase recalls classic two-level staging from wuxia films, used to great advantage to allow Neo and his combatants to dive off, across, and up onto railings and a balcony. It’s perhaps the most indebted scene in the trilogy to the work of fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s previous films, like Iron Monkey. It also allows for the incorporation of a series of weapons hanging on the wall. The whole sequence builds in intensity as Neo adjusts and changes his tactics to fight the rogue programs who work for the Merovingian. In one throw away line earlier, the Oracle notes that these rogue programs are also the source for supernatural legends and creatures, as they are programs who have rejected the ruling order of the Matrix and must be incorporated into the reality of the Matrix in some way. It’s a clever little aside, and its embodied particularly in the ghost-like twin albinos who act as the Merovingian’s main henchmen.

Trinity, Morpheus, and the Keymaker ultimately attempt to escape via vehicle, as they get out of the Chateau through one of the backchannel corridors the Keymaker can access before the Merovingian cuts of the passage between the city and the chateau (the idea is they are using hacker “back doors” to jump around the Matrix). This leads to what is one of the greatest car chase scenes in any film. Trinity and the Keymaker go onto a freeway, a bad idea according to their usual rules, only to be chased by the twins and several Agents also in pursuit. It’s a thrilling scene, augmented by the fact that the Wachowskis orchestrated the actual building of 2.5 miles of freeway on a military base in California just to film on! It has a weight and reality to it that many CG car-chases don’t have, even if there are significant VFX in the scene. They move from car, to motorcycle, and even do battle on top of moving semi-trailers with katanas. At 20 minutes long, it also sustains tension for a long time, culminating in last minute heroics as Neo flies from the Merovingian’s chateau and saves Morpheus and the Keymaker off the top of the colliding semi-trucks and trailers. It’s one of the most super heroic moments in the series, fulfilling the promise of Neo’s powers.

Once they complete these tasks, the Keymaker gives Neo and allies the information they will need to access the Source. Neo and Morpheus and the teams from the other hovercraft access it, but Trinity enters the Matrix again after getting out, against Neo’s wishes, fulfilling the premonition he had earlier. At this point, Trinity repeats the scene from the opening of the film, in order to knock out power to the building and give Neo access.

The climax of the film is Neo’s encounter with the Architect, who explains that everything that has happened has happened according to plan, and that this is actually the sixth time that the One and Zion have risen and the Matrix has been reset, the source code “reloaded.” The Architect explains that the initial humans in the Matrix rejected the perfection of the world, and that the One arose as an “integral anomaly” that the machines use, via the prophecy, to control the humans. He explains that choice and free will was necessary, at least the illusion of it at an unconscious level. He explains that Neo has a choice between saving Trinity, who has been shot as in the opening, and saving Zion, but Neo rejects the false choice and chooses Trinity. He extracts the bullets from her, viewing the code of the Matrix as in the first film, and they return to the Real, just in time to escape from the Nebuchadnezzar that is destroyed. Neo then is able to stop the approaching sentinels in the real world, after which he passes out. The film ends with the heroes saved by Niobe and the Isis, and Neo and one of the Isis’s crew, Bane, who has been taken over by Smith in a bid to leave the Matrix both lying on a table, head to head. The film ends: To Be Continued

It’s a daring ending, upending everything people had come to assume about The Matrix and its use of the hero's journey tropes, even if, much as fans debated the truth of what the Architect sadi, as fans did in 1980 with Darth Vader’s revelation in The Empire Strikes Back. What it does is incorporate doubts, assumptions, and narrative structures into the very stuff of the story, as the machines use humans’ faith in these stories to control them.

Audiences were turned off by the explicit philosophical asides from the Architect and Oracle. They weren’t accustomed to stories that didn’t really end (though today it seems no series really ends), though they would only have to wait until that autumn to get the second part to the film.

But in retrospect, as I explained, the film is thrilling. Its filmmaking is careful. It uses its editing and visual effects to forward the story. But it’s not the same cool, aggressive film as the first that people expected. It hinges on a deflationary account of the archetypes and narratives that it sets up. Success is rooted in the hero’s love for his partner, not his unbelievable abilities. This is why I make the comparison to the Star Wars prequels, which themselves defied expectations and told the story of a fall, rather than a redemption, and embraced an emotionalism rather than aggressive rationality as their main effect.

I enjoy The Matrix Reloaded for its daring filmmaking and its craft, but also for its playful and substantive engagement with its narrative elements. Even apart from the varying levels of satisfaction one might find in the solutions the final film would provide, Reloaded alone is a conscious attempt to both expand and blow-up the very idea of the Matrix. That is something that likely won’t happen again in the world of carefully managed intellectual properties based on previous material. The Matrix Reloaded marked one of the high points of an era when filmmakers’ tools started to catch up with their imaginations, but before they would be reintegrated into the system. It’s kind of fitting then that the plot of the film is about how the very things we think we’re fighting to create and defend can be used simply to reaffirm such a system. Hope may be misplaced, as prophecies can be misread, but the journey itself is a rush and gives a kind of purpose in its own right. And The Matrix Reloaded is a journey I’m glad I went back on and will continue to enjoy revisiting from now on.

8 out of 10

The Matrix Reloaded (2003, USA)

Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers); starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gloria Foster.