In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final installment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.
Okay, so here’s where things get weird.
The Matrix of 1999, the original is a world unto itself. It briefly references the larger conflicts surrounding them, the war of the Machines and against Zion, but they are alluded to like an oral history, events experienced by others which set the background to the conflicts your following. Every world has to have causes, and the causes in the Matrix are stripped down, unknown, and simply defined. Machines are bad, they enslave the humans in dreams. What we can see is what we follow and are interested in, Neo’s journey to master himself and the world around him, and to best Agent Smith. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey. The Matrix is a story which if it had not had sequels greenlit by Warner Brothers, could exist on its own. Even if the Wachowski’s had ideas for it to be part of a trilogy, The Matrix itself stands by itself.
Fate would not have it that way however, because The Matrix became massive, gigantic even. A phenomenon that captured the imagination. And with that, The Wachowski’s expanded the world of The Matrix into something that had never been done before, with so much intention and imagination. They began production on four projects, the second and third instalments of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, a video game which contained a side story intertwined with the films in Enter The Matrix, and a side-quel animation project The Animatrix which contained universe expanding short films. This multiple media storytelling venture was approached with the same level of vision and attention to detail that the original film was made with, but only now on a much grander crisscrossed platform. If the chapters of a single story are not all in the same book, then a problem arises. The trade-off for scale is focus. And The Wachowski’s always had a grand sense of scale.
To bring it back down to Earth then, The Matrix Reloaded is made with a different idea in mind to its original counterpart. It must be two things, its own self-contained story while also being the first half (two fifths maybe with the game) of a story which still has another film to come. Not only that, but The Matrix Reloaded has success to deal with. The first film’s budget was much smaller than that of the second, and with greater freedom comes greater ambition. And The Matrix Reloaded is nothing if not ambitious, standing on the shoulders of the giant of the first film. Everything has become bigger, and less concessions are made to the audience. The Matrix is an introduction to a world, but this second instalment has no interest in rehashing or repackaging that introduction again, it moves forward like a freight train and you have better done your homework from the last film otherwise you’re going to fall off.
Expansion is the aim of the game, and everything is more. The human world expands beyond the confines of a ship, it goes from an individual journey of enlightenment to a communal environment of conflicting desires. Neo has his path, while the humans return to their city and have dense ideological sparring matches while multiple clocks tick down. “The Matrix” program itself is no longer just set dressing, but a riddle to be solved as to why it exists. The plot of this film is so overstuffed with events, conflicts and characters that it is difficult to keep track of who is doing what where and why (sometimes when aswell). I can pinpoint the exact moment I suddenly lost track of what was happening, right after an absolutely exhaustive freeway chase scene and the film doesn’t even come up for air or give us some to digest what just happened, so concerned it is with moving onto the next even bigger complicated infiltration. I think a lot of the frustration that came with the plot is not necessarily indulgence, but that it is simply an overwhelming amount of information in too short a space of time.
Even this reflection I’m writing feels dense. Furthermore, knowing that some key story and structural information is actually hidden and explained in the video game accompaniment makes it even more bizarre to reflect on The Matrix Reloaded, simply because it feels incomplete. How can too much be going on and not enough at the same time? A conundrum this film’s existence can’t ever solve, a glitch in its own matrix. It almost begins to feel like a lost ancient text at points, fragments simply missing from its whole which we can’t retrieve. Which is saddening to me, because some of the fragments still present really are tremendous to witness.
Truth be told, I actually enjoyed this one more than the original. The Wachowski’s didn’t hold anything back for this one, and it’s a spectacle and a half. Dizzying, absolutely dizzying fight sequences which make the original’s seem tame in comparison. That freeway chase I mentioned earlier is just incredible for the amount of focus it manages to keep, and one testament to the entire series achievements (maybe the key to its’ success?) is how almost every fight scene manages to keep its focus and you can keep track pretty easily of the action. And as for the environments themselves, everything seems to come alive more. The aesthetic of the first film which I may have derided, suddenly clicked with me. I no longer saw the all black sunglasses BDSM lite costumes as tacky and naff, but actually saw them for how the Wachowski’s saw it. Cool. Full credit goes to Kym Barrett for that.
I honestly can say I thought there were some masterstrokes in this movie, but it all gets lost in the flood. And the flood contains good and bad. It’s ironic that for a film series who’s main message is how love can conquer anything, every time it moves to this subject it feels more lifeless than ever. Neo and Trinity’s romance is just…it just seems too detached to be convincing. Maybe it was an intentional directional choice, but if it is what a strange one and if it isn’t it’s just a grand shame that the core of the movie feels like one its weakest parts. Furthermore this film falls even further down the philosophical rabbit hole set up by its first part, its’ ambitious and heady cocktail giving too much of a kick to be appreciated properly. It reminds me of Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman), except the difference being so much of Zardoz’s heady and confusing philosophy is presented through its images, not its dialogue.
The first reflection I ever put up on this site was about ambition and cinema, and how I appreciated the ambitious film which might fail to the safe film which succeeds. But does The Matrix Reloaded stretch my ideals to breaking point? Because it’s so ambitious, it needed a separate video game and another film to even begin to properly comprehend its full story. I think so. While I may actually love this fragmented film more than the first one, its’ very nature just means it can’t communicate as well as the original. It’s a book missing a chapter. It’s a train missing a carriage. It’s a metaphor missing a clear connection. It’s-
I guess I’ll leave that one unfinished. Seems kind of appropriate.