Saturday, August 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Matrix Reloaded

A shot of people in black trenchcoats standing around looking bored. Yes, this is a surprisingly honest piece of cover art.

I see the follow-ups to 1999's The Matrix and 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean as having the same basic approach and the same basic problems. Both of the original movies had memorable characters and clever premises, and were basically good blockbuster action movies that were breaths of fresh air compared to all the generic sequels and remakes cluttering the big screens. They were good summer thrill rides, both in the action and the peripheral stories, in genres that most audiences hadn't recently seen.

9.2, 9.3, 8.9... Annnnnd, the Iranian judge gives her a 9.7.

When sequel time came for both films, the studios and filmmakers took the same approach: bring back the original director (or directors, the Wachowski brothers, in The Matrix's case) to make a pair of sequels filmed back-to-back so that we could have #2 and #3 released within a short time of each other, with the same actors guaranteed to return. And since these were both no longer daring gambles, but rather pop culture phenomena, let's make sure all the sequels are mega-budget, extremely long epics that take the small casts and nicely contained storylines of the originals and nuke them with complex subplots and tons of peripheral characters. And at the same time, let's lie to the press and pretend that these were intended to be trilogies all along, even though the first movies ended with satisfying and conclusive finishes.

The Secret Service under Barack Obama.

And both sets of sequels had the same results: #2 made the most money of the respective series, due to huge advertising budgets and the massive exposure of the original films, but left audiences confused and bored. They realized that the original films were the Skittles of moviedom: the first handful is pretty darn sweet, but you realize that they're a lot less appealing when you have to get through a whole bag of them. So #3 in each series ended up taking far less than its predecessor, in stark contrast to the excellent Lord of the Rings series that made more and more money with each subsequent installment, or even the Star Wars prequels, which at least ended on a comparatively high note.

The Secret Service under John McCain.

As for The Matrix, the sequels had some other things going against it. Less than a month after the original's release, the Columbine massacre shocked Americans, and quite a few commentators noted that the black trenchcoat-clad, dispassionate, gun enthusiast heroes might have been an influence. I don't think the filmmakers are to blame for real acts of murder, but if the film wants credit for its allusions to religion and philosophy, it needs to also accept its allusions that glorify terrorism. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter having started just two months before TMR's release), Neo and Morpheus and Trinity's religious zealousness to attack government buildings and bring down the system might have been a bit difficult to ignore anymore.


But enough prologue and pontification. I won't go into detail about the original Matrix's premise, since it's so damn complicated and everyone's seen it (and it's actually pretty good despite the fact that it's a bit anarchist and pretentious, so I won't review it on this site; it was briefly my favorite movie when I didn't know any better). Suffice to say that the evil machines of the future are still holding humans prisoner in a giant virtual reality world so they can power themselves with human body heat. The physics of this power source is highly unlikely -- if the Chinese government hasn't yet found a way to power their cars off of Tibetan orphans, I don't think it's going to happen. Oh, and even the most extreme environmentalist would agree that there's no problem with nuclear energy if there's no environment to worry about anymore. Regardless, rogue humans who have escaped their virtual prisons are still based in the secret underground city of Zion, still hack into the system, gain super reflexes and agility by disbelieving in the Matrix (which shouldn't be hard considering that the whole thing is frikkin' GREEN), download all sorts of learning progams directly to their brains (and get offers to download penis-enlarging programs all the damn time), and do something (I'm not entirely sure what) to mess with the machines and bring about a mass revolt. They still think that wearing gangster/dominatrix clothing and sunglasses helps them look inconspicuous.

"And I can assure you that I run a perfectly respectable castle and that it's someone else who's robbing your graves."

The new movie's prologue has Neo, AKA The One, dreaming about Trinity tearing up a security checkpoint in her usual destructive style. We then cut to her jumping out of the 200th floor of a skyscraper, trading bullets with an Agent as he falls after her. So what exactly happens if she kills him? Does knowing kung fu allow you to survive a 40,000 foot fall to Earth? Fortunately, it's just a dream/premonition, so we don't have to deal with the logic just yet.

As the real movie starts, the captains of the free (i.e. real) underground city of Zion's many sewer-traversing ships meet in the Matrix to discuss new intelligence revealing that the machines have figured out where Zion is, and they're sending a massive army of killer bots to wipe all the rebels out in 72 hours. Our hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), is a bit concerned by this: while he's still so awesome in disbelieving in the Matrix that he can fly, wave away bullets, and use martial arts really well, his other skills have diminished so badly that he can't fight the evil AI Agents with one hand behind his back anymore, nor can he absorb and explode them from within like in the last movie. Gee, Wachowski brothers, do you think this might have been the problem with stretching the original film's very self-contained and complete story, which ended with Neo's realization of cyber-geek godhood, into two more movies? I was hoping to see the man do something else with his hacking powers, but he really just rehashes his abilities from the first movie, except for the really transcendent ones. It's like how in an RPG video game series, your character finishes the first game at level 60, tearing through giants like swiss cheese, then starts the sequel back at level 1, beating on dung beetles with wooden sticks.

"...And did I ever tell you about working with Robert Davi? Oh, surely you'd like to hear some more. Well, I had always been a great admirer of his work, and there's an interesting story there as well, because..."

War's coming! Only Neo, his guru Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne, getting fatter with each take and getting fewer fight scenes with each movie), his gal pal Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), his own personal Chloe O'Brien, Link (Harold Perrineau, having demonstrated on Oz the ability to sit down for just about the whole show), and the rest of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar can... Wait, this is too long a sentence. Let me start again. Only they can contact the mysterious, sympathetic artificial intelligence known as The Oracle (Gloria Foster, given the inglorious task of padding out a 138-minute movie) and find out what they have to do in order to bring the Matrix down before the machine army hits Zion. Awfully convenient that the Oracle decides only now to tell them what they have to do to finish the thing that their whole organization is dedicated to.

So they spring into action! By... heading back to Zion and... relaxing for a while. Yeah, I guess the 72-hour deadline isn't something to get too worried about. So we're introduced to the city that we'd only heard about in the first movie, and it's kind of a giant multi-story Arabian/Asimovian marketplace wrapped around a bunch of enormous boilers. Huh? This is vastly preferable to the Matrix? Whatever. The movie decides that since we've already had two brief action scenes at the start of the movie, we can take another half-hour break to get to know a bunch of other characters we won't care about now, but will somehow care about even less when they finally do something in the next movie. We have Zee (Nona Gaye), Link's wife, who may or may not have a full name of Zelda and get captured by the wizard Gannondorf in the fourth movie; Cas (Gina Torres), whom I can't remember a thing about; Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who fills the role of deadpan ultra-confident warrior woman, which apparently hasn't been filled sufficiently; Lock (Harry Lennix), the stick-in-the-mud, Neo-doubting commander of the Zion defense forces; Councilor West (Cornell West, a radical socialist activist who's apparently furthering his cause by appearing in a radical libertarian movie); the Kid (Clayton Watson), Neo's #1 fan, who combines all the best qualities of Robin, Short Round, and Jar-Jar Binks; Ghost (Anthony Wong), Niobe's sidekick who says about three words in the whole movie and exists purely to be a playable character in the tie-in video game; and Councillor Hamaan (Anthony Zerbe!), who is going to be the elder white guy who turns out to be a traitor. Wait, he isn't? Well then what was the point of his character, much less the 5-minute pseudo-philosophical chat he had with Neo? Because when I think blockbuster, four-years-in-the-making, mega-budget action movie sequel, I think metaphysical conversations between Anthony Zerbe and Keanu Reeves.

"Do not mock me. The store was all out of sunglasses in my size. I am not certain why."

After a lot of padding, we get... a rave. Good god. I guess that while you might live in a highly militarized, economically-controlled society, you have personal liberty if you've allowed to dance to trance music. Duck and cover, because Ayn Rand's about to spin out of her grave at the speed of light. While the seconds tick down toward Zion's annihilation, Morpheus decides it's much more important to get all wet and jiggy with it than to rest or look over intelligence reports or something. And fans of sci-fi action movies will enjoy seeing an overlong Italian cologne commercial intermixed with shots of Neo and Trinity having robo-human sex. But since this is an R-rated movie, they can show their... USB ports. Really.

We finally get done with shore leave, and it's back to action! Time to talk to the Oracle! Oh crap. After fighting with her bodyguard in a completely superfluous action scene--seriously, a one-on-one fight against an unknown character is supposed to interest us at this point?--Neo is led through the staff corridors of the Matrix to a park bench and the Oracle. She tells him he needs to go see some Matrix AI kingpin named the Merovingian. Why? Because he's holding the AI program called the Keymaster hostage. Why? Because the Keymaster can unlock any door in the Matrix. Why? Because he can open the door to the Source. Why? Because... I'm not really sure. It's apparently the control room for the whole Matrix, so you'd think Neo should be able to do something relevant in there, but I'm not sure he's bright enough to figure it out. Oh well. The Oracle leaves, having out-winded Anthony Zerbe.

"We've come for your lunch money, Misssster Andersssson."

But Neo is ambushed! Not by the normal Agents, but by the one he thought he killed in the first movie, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, playing the role of Samwise and hauling this movie up Mount Doom on his back whenever he or his CGI stand-ins are on-screen). Turns out Smith wasn't blasted from existence after all, but had the self-awareness to come back into the Matrix as a rogue program that's now unhinged from the main system and discovering the joy of his newfound superpower: the ability to copy himself onto anyone in the Matrix, including other Agents (like a computer virus, get it?) to make an army of Smiths. Seeking sweet revenge, he first comes after Neo with about ten of himself, which is pretty interesting. When that doesn't work, since Smith's let his fighting skills rust even worse than Neo has between films, he ups the count to about fifty, which is a bit silly. When Neo's skill kicking his butt, Smith jacks it up to a hundred, which would be funny if we weren't about 45 minutes into a fight in which nobody ever really gets hurt or gains or loses tactical advantage. They try to spice things up by having Neo bounce of heads in the sea of Smiths like he's Super Mario, and toss Smiths into other Smiths, knocking them down like bowling pins, complete with cartoon sound effects. I think they deleted the scene where Neo plays every position on the baseball field against a line-up full of Smiths. And despite the fact that neither he nor any of the Smiths appear remotely hurt or even disheveled after three hours of fighting, Neo decides he's as bored as the rest of us and flies off. And we can get back to the movie, and away from the longest video game engine technology demo ever.

On to the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). So what purpose, exactly, did the perfectly logical robot creators of the Matrix have when they designed a program that functions as a French mobster who sits in his restaurant all day and spouts off about causality like a second-semester college student who thinks he's found his major? I'm not really sure, but then, if I were the evil robot high commander, I'd probably have just kept all the humans sedated in the first place and ditched the whole Matrix idea. But we have the Merovingian, and he acts very smarmy and very French as he refuses to give up the Keymaster. Fortunately, his moll, Persephone (busty import Monica Bellucci), is willing to betray him and lead Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus to the Keymaster in exchange for a real kiss from a real human being. Also fortunately, she settles for Keanu, and after a complete throwaway scene in which she shoots some vampires (they're glitches in the Matrix, which is actually kind of clever, though I won't fault the movie for not turning into yet another black trenchcoat vampire flick), she gives them the Keymaster (Randall Duk Kim, not Rick Moranis, unfortunately), a little old Chinese guy with lots of keys. How clever.

Great. Of all the Star Wars stuff they could rip off, it had to be the Jedi Council scenes.

The Merovingian figures out what's going on, and sics his baddies on the gang. And I hope you like the ensuing action scene, because it's the film's last, best hope to entertain you. Neo holds off the bad guys to give Trinity and Morpheus and the Keymaster time to escape to the parking garage, doing what he does best: engage in a long kung fu fight in which he doesn't get scratched or encounter the danger of being scratched. Meanwhile, Trinity and Morpheus are making their escape when they're ambushed by the Twins. No, Monica Bellucci isn't following them. Rather, the Twins are a pair of albino punks, working for the Merovingian, who not only know kung fu (doesn't anyone in the Matrix just punch people?) but can also phase into spectral forms. To use non-Dungeon and Dragons language, they can suddenly become ghosts when knives or bullets are about to hit them, then just as quickly turn back into physical beings to start punching and kicking again. Now tasked with killing the Keymaster, they chase the good guys out onto the highway in a massive car chase that pits the Twins against cops against Agents against Morpheus and Trinity--and not one of them cares a lick about the innocent Sunday drivers who get shot up or crashed into. It's a pretty spectacular fight, more of a roving parade of destruction than a chase, and despite being extremely long, it's not at all tedious because the situations keep changing. The Twins make interesting use of their powers, Morpheus gets to be cool, and we have the slight possibility in the back of our minds that Morpheus and/or Trinity could be killed, so there's actual tension. Well done, film. To the viewer, I suggest you watch Ronin for a while, play the Matrix Reloaded car chase at some random point, then switch back to Ronin when it's over. It won't make a lot of sense, but you'll have a good time.

With the Keymaster safe, along with all of our heroes, it's time to hurry up and get the movie over. There's another complicated plot to shut down the power to a city block so Neo can enter an explosive-rigged building... Ah, screw it. The premonition of Trinity starts to come true, Neo and Morpheus fight through some more Smiths, the Keymaster dies, and Neo gets to enter the room to the Matrix's source.

"You, behind me! Run, all of you! Save yourselves! I do not know how much longer I can hold it!"

There, he finds a very white room full of television monitors, along with the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), and judging by his costume, he's either going to give up the secrets to the Matrix or to Kentucky Fried Chicken. He tells Neo something that takes a long time to say. I don't know. I'm not the brightest bulb in the box, but I comprehended maybe half of what he said, and not the most important half either. It didn't help that he spoke in monotone at a hundred miles an hour, or that I would rather have been watching the damned ESPY Awards at this point. All I could gather was that there had been lots of Ones and lots of Zions before, and that Neo's not really fighting the system, but he's actually a part of it. The Matrix lets its malcontents escape to Zion as a way of flushing the system, then the robots wipe out Zion and the One takes a small band of survivors to repopulate Zion and start the rebellion all over again. I know that this series has always required some massive suspension of disbelief, but this doesn't make sense to me on any level. Particularly when, by refusing to take on his Noah role, but to instead return to the Matrix and save Trinity, Neo apparently dooms the entire human race. Hell, I don't know. That's what the computers get for making Ted a minor deity. But remember, Neo's doing what he's doing because he chooses to do so, which is both a very important concept in religion and humanistic philosophy, and something I don't give half a $#!% about here.

We see the ending of Trinity's fall to Earth, and Neo saves her by intercepting her mid-air at Mach 5, tearing up the city and presumably slaying thousands in the process. How many people are left to save from the Matrix at this point, then? Anyway, Neo revives Trinity just as she did to him at the end of the first movie.

But there's trouble in the real world, because the robots are about to take out the Nebuchadnezzar. Though the good guys don't know it at this point, they were betrayed by a crewman who had been absorbed by Smith in the Matrix, and returned to reality with Smith still controlling his mind. So Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and Link have to escape to Niobe's ship on foot. And just when some robots are about to hit them, Neo raises his hand and causes them to short out before they can strike. But he falls into a coma, and is sent to sick bay along with... Smith-Man. Duh-duh-dummmm! To be continued! Please watch our next movie in spite of this one!

Legitimate use of the carpool lane is very strictly enforced in Los Angeles.

Actually, up until the time I saw the third movie, I thought the significance of Neo shorting out the robots was that they had never escaped the Matrix at all, and that the Zionists (I've been avoiding calling them that this whole time, but what the hell) had been tricked by the machines this whole time into believing that they were free. I thought that the third movie was going to be about Neo breaking out the true Matrix. Which would have been pretty cool, but that's not actually right. Turns out that Neo can just blow up robots with his mind, despite not having any method of interfacing with them, which completely undermines even the loose bounds of science fiction that the series has had so far.

So basically, The Matrix Reloaded is what happens when you prematurely anoint a couple of stoner directors as geniuses and let them do whatever they like with a massive budget. And what they like is Eastern philosophy and expensive computers. The whole movie seems to be inspired by video games, not just in its loud and over-the-top fights or its cyber-world theme, but in its very structure. Most action movies have big fight sequences, but also a bunch of suspenseful scenes, planning scenes, comic relief scenes, and relationship-building scenes. This one has talk scenes and fight scenes. Talk scene. Fight scene. Talk scene. Fight scene. Alternating over and over and over until the Wachowskis have drained enough of our lives away. We don't need a movie adaptation of Ninja Gaiden, because we already have it, except without any buttons to push. And while there are a lot of movies that have a very simple mission for the heroes to accomplish--'Save the president,' 'Get the briefcase,' 'Save the president's daughter,' 'Get the computer chip'--I don't think there's ever been so much convoluted contemplation of idle college philosophy for the sake of 'Get that bastard Neo through the frikkin' magic door.'

"You are no longer in the Matrix, Neo. You are on TBS. We will show you three times every weekend for the rest of your life. Resistance is futile."

Whereas the first movie had lots of non-action scenes that were presented creatively and taught us about the major characters and their motivations, this film introduces all of its major concepts with a lecture. Whereas the first one had a small number of major characters and a handful more minor characters that were amusing for one or two scenes, this film feels the need to have a heart-to-heart with tons of underwritten characters who are only being introduced for small roles... in another movie! Yes, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars had cliffhangers, but allowed each movie to really stand on its own as well: The Two Towers ended with the fall of Saruman, and The Empire Strikes Back ended with the reunion of the rebels. The Matrix Reloaded ends with some kind of marginal plot twist that amounts to a dead end for the good guys. This movie is a 2 1/2 hour trailer for The Matrix Revolutions, and as I might mention in an upcoming review sometime in the near future, that one isn't a whole lot better.

No comments: