Amid all the intellectual blather, dime-store philosophy and ponderous exposition that encumbers this second installment in the “Matrix” saga, one oft-repeated dictum stands out. “You’re here because you’re supposed to be here,” it’s frequently said–a sentiment designed to emphasize the fatalistic, destiny-ridden underpinnings of the story. In this instance, however, the statement is more appropriate if one understands it as directed by the filmmakers to their audience; the first movie has become such a cult classic, they appear to be saying, that you’ll come to see the sequel no matter what. So while “The Matrix Reloaded” is certainly bigger and more extravagant than its predecessor, it has nowhere near the same sense of goofy mystery or dark exuberance; it’s entirely too solemn and serious, and despite periodic bursts of over-the-top action, it’s mostly talky and lumbering, with lapses of logic that are simply brutal and a failure, despite the endless verbiage, to elucidate the basic rules that govern the twists and transformations. The film is loaded with wow-inducing effects, but on the narrative level it shoots blanks.
This movie takes up shortly after the first one left off. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is now a gloomy, sunglass-wearing dude in a spiffy black topcoat, a master of the most advanced martial arts moves who can also fly, Superman-style–a power that’s never explained. (Which leads to a simple question: when he’s attacked by hordes of apparently indestructible enemies, why does Neo always battle them hand-to-hand for a good five minutes, gymnastic-style, before speeding away into the sky, as he invariably does anyway? If it’s just to please the fanboys in the front row of the auditorium, that’s insufficient motivation.) Neo is now a crew member aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, the ship of the pontificating guru Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), on which his squeeze Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) also serves, along with navigator Link (Harold Perrineau)–a rather small assemblage compared to the group that manned it the first time around (but, of course, most of them perished in the initial flick). Here we discover, however, that the ship, which previously seemed a solitary vessel, is actually part of a fleet connected with the defense of an underground, free-human city called Zion (an unfortunate name which–like Trinity–pointlessly calls up religious connotations–although it appears that when the Zionists want to enjoy themselves, they do so by writhing about to African-style drums in what amounts to a Cecil B. DeMille-style orgy). The enclave, which looks rather like a giant metallic dump, is under assault by a machine army which, as we’re told at one point, is “boring” beneath the earth’s surface to reach it (and a boring lot these machines prove to be, too). Though the chief security man Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) wants to keep all his vessels at Zion to form a defensive wall, Morpheus persuades the governing council, headed by wise Councillor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe), to allow his ship to return to the “real world” of the Matrix so that Neo, whom he believes to be The Chosen One, can reach The Source of the dream-world program, destroy it, and thereby liberate the rest of humanity . The effort takes them back to The Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) and introduces them to an ultra-sophisticated, debauched couple (we know they’re debauched, because they’re French) called The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and Persephone (Monica Bellucci). They have charge of an aged fellow called The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), whose expertise Neo requires to gain him entrance to The Architect (Helmut Bataitis), creator and guardian of the Matrix (and thereby to the controlling program); and freeing him from the couple’s control takes much punching and kicking–especially against albino-looking twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment) who somehow turn into wraiths whenever it’s convenient. As if all this weren’t enough, a second ship is involved, helmed by Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who’s apparently part of a romantic triangle with Morpheus and Lock; and Neo’s old nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) reappears–indeed, he’s multiplying faster than rabbits, thanks to some very phony-looking CGI doubles, triples, quadruples and so on.
Viewers who took the silly but amusing pseudo-philosophical prattle behind the original “Matrix” seriously will undoubtedly read a great deal of profundity into this muddled storyline that talks a great deal, but without much coherence, about free will and compulsion, and there’s nothing wrong with that–after all, there were those (perhaps still are) who once considered George Lucas’s simple-minded notion of The Force to have deep significance, too. The problem with “The Matrix Reloaded” is that the Wachowskis seem to have bought into the notion of its significance, too. As a result they’ve filled their script with lots of high-minded, pompous speeches, portentously delivered by garrulous gasbags like Morpheus and Hamann, and largely unintelligible expository gibberish like the hopelessly extended explanation of the Matrix’s origin and past history from The Architect. Even the simpler dialogue is more often than not spoken so slowly and emphatically that, given its vacuous content, it takes on an absurd edge. Of course, the filmmakers clearly spent most of their time not writing lines but preparing the big action scenes–a few elaborate “Crouching Tiger”-style battles with leaps and crashes through glass windows, as well as an extended freeway chase (with some fights thrown in there, too)–that periodically interrupt all the jabber. These are certainly impressive from a technical standpoint; one can well understand why a small army of CGI experts and stunt men were enlisted to effect them. But despite their polish and precision, the sequences–particularly the fight that Neo engages in with scads of Smiths–don’t look remotely real, and they never have the sense of abandon and exhilaration that causes an audience to cheer. Like the picture as a whole, they have a manufactured, bloodless quality to them–something that’s accentuated by the fact that since people (humans and machines both) seem to return to life arbitrarily at the scripters’ convenience (this “Matrix” ends, as the first did, with a virtual resurrection–like much else here completely unexplained), not much is really at stake in them.
As for the cast, they’re limited by the poverty of the material and the lethargy of the approach. Reeves, Fishburne and Moss all demonstrate impressive physicality in their numerous fight scenes, but elsewhere their performances are basically stolid and pedestrian. Weaving, on the other hand, mugs ferociously in a futile effort to engender a sense of fun. Perrineau brings some life to the proceedings, with his inevitable shours of “Yess!” from the control room when something goes right–he, at least, appears not to take this stuff too seriously–and Foster once more brings a sweetly human quality to The Oracle. Wilson, Bellucci, Kim and Zerbe don’t bring much to the party, though, and Smith has little more than a walk-on.
In line with its take on how things happen, “The Matrix Reloaded” is clearly destined to make a ton of money–the first film has become a virtual cult with an ever-growing body of followers, and they’ll troop devotedly to this installment to pay homage at the Wachowski shrine. (Adherents should take care to remain seated through the long final credits, by the way–a brief trailer for the third part of the trilogy is tacked on at the close, which indicates that it will include a wild-west style showdown between Neo and Smith.) But if one views this picture dispassionately, it proves a surprisingly turgid piece that lacks the magic and invention of its predecessor.