Reloaded Questions

Hacking the 'Matrix' Master Code

This is the dystopia on offer in The Matrix. The war between intelligent machines and humans is a sci-fi cliché, no less than hey-this-could-all-be-a-simulation. What the Brothers got is that the masters of reality don't want to destroy us. They want us jacked directly into the economy, stupid, and they want it 24-7. The concept of "the matrix" might stand for abstractions like "ideology" or "the spectacle," but it resembles more concretely the endgame of millennial merger mania—what happens when all the corporations of the world become one seamless super-entity within which you labor, eat, make love, pay rent (The Truman Show offered a different version of the same surmise). The evolution from Warner Bros. to AOL Time Warner required only a few years of corporate copulation. From AOL Time Warner to the matrix—it's just a kiss away.

Reloaded must measure up, not to its Hollywood past or imagined future, but to 2003's metropolis of dreams and dissatisfactions. To borrow Dark Angel's drollest understatement, "Different city, different set of problems." Goodbye to the caffeinated coder's iconic halo. Now Red Bull gives you wings to fly dejectedly through the blogosphere, flinching at the world news while awaiting a love letter from Keeping up with the Dow Joneses, the sets of Reloaded, especially those in the rebel stronghold of Zion and the tenement yard where the coolest battle is staged, are ripe with the grime and dilapidation of the new depression.

This is not to suggest the movie is tempered for temperate times. The Palace of Sequel is reached by the Path of Excess: You figure out what the original was good at, and do that more. And the Brothers haven't misrecognized themselves. "They know," Jada Pinkett Smith offered brass-tactfully, "how to balance eye candy with the deep thoughts."

The strategic balance, this time, involves offering too much of each and hoping it holds—something akin to the proposition that all infinities are equal in the dark.

No single technique blows minds like Matrix's "bullet time," but the rude audacity and raw processing power of the so-called Burly Brawl, not to mention the speed-on-acid car chase, beggar resistance. Been there, one thinks initially, done that. A minute later you wonder that it's still going on. Sometime after that, in an ecstasy of impossible camera moves and data overload, the visual stim passes through saturation, until quantity becomes a kind of quality: bedazzled once more. At one juncture of the freeway scene, there are so many collisions launching vehicles airborne in the chaotic wake of the main action, it resembles a school of late-industrial dolphins hurling themselves out of the foam. As they splash down explosively, the sequence is still revving up.

Deep thoughts avail themselves less of overkill. The net of mythopoetic reference and whoa-dude epistemology is cast even wider: Messianism and Buddhism keep their supporting roles, while gnosticism returns with a smaller part; Greek myth, Gödel's theorem, and obscure Grail legends make cameos; and the new lead is free will vs. determinism. Sometimes these leak into scenes seductively, like the chalices surrounding "the Merovingian"; sometimes they require fuller set pieces. And sometimes Morpheus must declaim, "It is our fate to be here. It is our destiny," in that voice—requiring the action to halt and take notice, before it decides it has better things to do and moves along. When I asked Monica Bellucci, entering the story as Persephone, for a theory-take, she laid all her pomegranate seeds on the table. "The Wachowski Brothers are so mysterious to me, so European," said the ex-model and art-film star, just off a Paris jet. "I would like to know what kind of books they read, what kind of herbs they drink." This is perhaps how one says "genius" in France.

The Matrix suffered from the angst of being a grand critique of synthetic spectacles that obscure our daily lives, while being that very thing. Reloaded offers a similar conundrum: Even the plot's stories of freedom are revealed as their inverse. "The One was never meant to end anything," we learn late in the game. "It was all another system of control." This is the movie's miserablism, familiar to any student of 19th-century Continental thought. What makes it contemporary is not that we live in miserable times—who doesn't?—but that the pathos is not reserved for poor humans. Half the characters debating whether or not we're autonomous agents are, like Agent Smith, just so much executable code. The greatest melancholy is reserved for Persephone. "She's just an old program from an old Matrix," muses Bellucci. "She's not human, but she wants to feel human emotions. There's something desperate about her." Pity the glamorous piece of obsolete tech trying to survive in the latest, shiniest simulation—but not too much. It does OK for itself. It's working.

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