The Matrix Reloaded

Catholic News Service, May 13, 2003 (Film Review)
By David DiCerto, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Ragtag freedom-fighters, led by a messianic computer hacker, battle the machine overlords who have enslaved the rest of mankind in an illusory mind-prison in order to tap humans as an energy source in the special-effects lollapalooza “The Matrix Reloaded” (Warner Bros).

Inspired by the cyberpunk literature of Philip K. Dick, and drawing from a smorgasbord of traditions — including Greek philosophy, Gnostic mysticism and Eastern spirituality — writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, who redefined the sci-fi genre in 1999 with “The Matrix,” pose age-old questions concerning the nature of reality and free will set against a neo-noir, futuristic backdrop.

Unfortunately, the film’s glamorized violence — earning it a well-deserved R rating — overshadows an otherwise intriguing premise, making the stylish cyber-thriller little more than a technically ambitious shoot-‘em-up. And while the high-octane sequel leaves the eye-popping visuals of its predecessor in the dust — no mean feat — it breaks no new ground story-wise. It’s mainly content to serve up a feast for the adrenal glands, without flexing much narrative muscle.

Like the original, this sequel, which takes up where “The Matrix” left off, has a lot of plot to spill — so here goes. In some distant Orwellian future, technology overtakes man as the dominant intelligence on Earth. A war ensues with homo sapiens coming out on the short end. Adding insult to injury, the victorious machines see in mankind a cheap and efficient energy source by harvesting their neural electricity. People are bred in pod-like cocoons oblivious to their bondage because their computer masters keep them plugged in to a vast virtual-reality network known as the Matrix — pumping their brains with mental projections which dupe them into thinking they are living normal lives.

Some people have escaped and wage a guerrilla war against the malevolent artificial intelligence, striking from the sole remaining human outpost, Zion — a subterranean city near the Earth’s core. Chief among the rebels is Thomas Anderson, alias “Neo” (Keanu Reeves), a nebbish computer whiz, revealed in the first film to be “the One,” the prophesied savior who will free the human race — recruited for the cause by the mysterious sage Morpheous (Laurence Fishburne) and his leather-clad, hellcat sidekick Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), now Neo’s lover.

Much of the sequel — as in the original — consists of escape and chase sequences, punctuated by extended, gravity-defying kung-fu brawls, with the overlapping realms of reality and virtual reality allowing for the suspension of the rules of physics — not to mention logic. This is nowhere more evident than in the film’s visually bravura centerpiece: a mind-blowing free-for-all between Neo and his archnemesis, the unctuous Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), an evil sentient program.

Neo, whose extraordinary ability to manipulate the Matrix has increased exponentially, must come to terms with his messianic destiny, as an army of drones bore down toward Zion bent on the extinction of mankind.

Complicating an already opaque narrative is a frustratingly dense story line which revolves around an enigmatic character called the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who may hold the secret to humanity’s ultimate victory.

The techno-heavy pretzel of a plot, coupled with a mountain of back story from the first film — which is never recapped — makes it nearly impossible for viewers who are new to the franchise to make heads or tails out of what is unfolding on the screen.

Further alienating audiences are the automaton heroes who seem more concerned with spouting pretentious pseudo-philosophical aphorisms and looking ultra-cool in their latex couture than injecting any genuine emotion into their leaden, flat-line performances, prompting the question: Who are more mechanical, the humans or the machines?

Author Orson Scott Card once observed that science fiction is one of the few realms of modern culture where serious theological and philosophical reflection can still be practiced. Yet, while the filmmakers have crammed their film with clever Christian motifs and mythological allusions, the metaphysical mulligan stew serves to obfuscate the overstuffed and at times incoherent plot rather than affect any real philosophical musing.

During one scene late in the film, Neo learns that a prototype version of the Matrix failed because the world it fabricated was too perfect, suggesting that suffering is an inherent component of the life equation — a theological insight consistent with the Christian understanding of man’s fallen nature. However, this like many of the film’s existential ruminations, remains a philosophical carrot dangled tantalizingly but never given a vigorous workout in the narrative. Both films explore thought-provoking topics foreign to most action flicks, but the franchise’s intellectual elevation is weighed down by its stylized mayhem.

Regrettably, the Wachowskis’ bold, dark vision quickly devolves from one of recent Hollywood’s more interesting premises into a disappointing head-scratcher, concerned only with showcasing its innovative effects and over-the-top, consequence-free carnage — made more repellent by the body counts equally tallied by both good and bad guys. Part three of the trilogy, “Matrix Revolutions,” is due out later this year.

Due to much fantasy-style violence, a shadowy sexual encounter and some profanities, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-IV — adults, with reservations. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted.

DiCerto is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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