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Program downgrade

Culture | Matrix Reloaded lacks the beautiful sparseness of its precursor

Issue: "Middle East: No easy answers," May 31, 2003

DESPITE THE DECLINE IN R-rated films, The Matrix Reloaded gave the adult rating a new lease on life this month with the biggest opening ever-for any film with any rating. Reloaded, the sequel to 1999's The Matrix, pulled in $135.8 million over its first four days, obliterating the previous record for an R-rated opening and continuing the cultural phenomenon that is the Matrix.

By now, the first film in what audiences have discovered is the Matrix trilogy has been analyzed to death: in print by critics, in online chat rooms by rabid fans, in church basements by zealous youth pastors. The Matrix adeptly combined groundbreaking special effects (most notably, "bullet time"), an involving story, and deeper-than-expected layers of meaning.

Audiences became perhaps overly enamored with writers/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski's unique creation. There was an almost fevered scramble to decipher the apocalyptic vision of the brothers Wachowski, which was replete with biblical symbolism among other varied influences. But the film did offer intriguing elements that other films, particularly those of the action and sci-fi genres, did not.

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The Matrix story centers on Neo, a semi-reclusive computer hacker (Keanu Reeves). In the first film a mysterious duo-a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) -drop into his life and hint at what the hacker already suspects: that something is not right with the world.

Neo goes on to learn that reality as he knows it is not real at all. It is the Matrix, an unimaginably elaborate computer program put in place by machines that rule the earth to dominate and control their human subjects. The machines need humans, grown on farms and stored in pods, to produce electricity. The Matrix is a form of mind control, keeping these human batteries at peace while deep in sleep.

But some humans have escaped their pods, leading a rebel fight against the machines on what's left of the dark and desolate earth and inside the Matrix. Morpheus believes that Neo is "The One," the prophesied savior (and obvious Christ figure) who will lead the human race to victory.

The quest in Reloaded (rated R for sci-fi violence and sexuality) is twofold. To fulfill The Oracle's prophecies, Neo, Morpheus, et al., must locate The Keymaker, a rogue program within the Matrix that will lead Neo to the Source, and the Architect of the Matrix. At the same time, machine-dispatched Sentinels intent on destruction are burrowing toward Zion, the human city near the core of the earth in what we understand to be the "real" world.

If that sounds like heavy going-it is. But ultimately Reloaded doesn't amount to much.

The first film, despite lavish special effects and dense plotting, had about it a beautiful sparseness. Neo's first kung fu fight with Morpheus in a Matrix training program was an exhilarating taste of what was possible within the Matrix. The highly choreographed ballet of flying fists and twirling kicks common in martial-arts films actually seemed to make more sense in a world where the laws of physics lost their meaning.

Now, with a budget many times the size of the original, the Wachowskis are free to indulge the far reaches of their imaginations. Sometimes this works, but just as often the over-realized images fall flat. The entirely digital city of Zion is reminiscent of the artfully constructed but lifeless cityscapes that dominated and devalued the last two entries in George Lucas's Star Wars saga.

What will likely be even more disappointing to fans of the first film, though, are the much denser, far more incomprehensible spiritual themes in Reloaded. The brothers' knowledge of world religions, German philosophers, and higher math is broad but begins to seem suspiciously shallow; this shows that the ability to pull from a multitude of influences does not alone make for a coherent or compelling worldview. This time around, the Wachowskis' influences are more diverse, and more questionable (radical Princeton religion professor Cornel West even makes a brief cameo).

Reloaded is also much more firmly in R-rated territory than the first film. A lengthy sex scene between Trinity and Neo, intercut with a strange, ritualistic dance in Zion that looks like the precursor to a city-wide orgy, almost seems designed to undercut the heavy Christian symbolism in this part of the story.

The continuing popularity of the Matrix films is evidence of a hunger for entertainment with meaning. The Wachowskis' second Matrix installment is ambitious, frustrating, and often still very entertaining. Before passing final judgment, however, we'll have to wait for the final installment, Matrix Revolutions, due in November. Perhaps it will illuminate those of us left in the dark by Reloaded.

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