Two demographics enjoy pondering the philosophical intricacies of The Matrix: stoners, and everyone else, excepting a few killjoy anti-intellectuals. Someone around here is writing a whole book on the first film, and it won’t be the second or third such offering. So, at the risk of inviting letters from the dude-it’s-just-a-movie club, what makes The Matrix the picture worth a billion words?
Let’s start by reminding ourselves that it is just a movie. It’s not a textbook, and it’s not a Beckett play. The Matrix took what makes cinema cinematic—the array of image manipulation we mean when we say “movie magic”—and pushed it forward a generation. It’s a wire-fighting orgy riding a new wave of special effects. It’s that rare sci-fi film that actually looked like it was from the future. “It’s about,” in the deft analysis of one of the directors, “robots vs. kung fu.”
But it’s also about blue vs. red pills, reality vs. the hypervirtual, Big Ideas both pre- and postmodern. Gnosticism! Meanwhile, every grad student with a pause button has determined that Neo owns a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation; those who’ve actually read it know said heretic of unreality is being quoted when Morpheus intones, “Welcome to the desert of the real.”
The finesse, the fuck-it-all, to fuse HK martial arts and French theory into a synthetic nightmare everyone wanted to have, secured the reputations of director-writers Larry and Andy Wachowski. Most everyone who’s passed through their sphere calls them “the Brothers” in reverential tones, inevitably garnished by the word “genius.” Only producer Joel Silver has the paternalistic balls to call the boys “the boys.” Perhaps he noticed that their only pre-Matrix outing was the lesbian noir Bound; is anything more boyish than a creative scope extending from trippy sci-fi to hot girl-on-girl action?
But that’s not to devalue the conceptual world of The Matrix, a net of allusions and structures defying any simple account. Consider the messianic thread of “The One.” As much as we all like a good Christian allegory, The Matrix doesn’t decode like The Old Man and the C Drive. When I asked Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, if he followed the first flick’s philosophy, he announced he’d mused plenty in his life about “all that, you know, spiritual fucking voodoo fucking mumbo jumbo kind of shit.” He said this in his Othello-goes-drinking voice, tinged with the gentle irony of someone who has actually gazed long and hard at his navel and come out the other side. For him, the religious reading wasn’t the film’s hard core. As he put it, “The idea that machines are using us for batteries is pretty fucking severe.”
Marx thought so, though in his matrix the master class of machines was just called the master class, the enslaved humans just the workers, and battery power was called labor. Same shit, different name (though not very different: Matrix is just Marxist avant la lettre s). That’s another story, but not an implausible allusion. When I asked Keanu Reeves what homework the Brothers assigned him for the new installment, he said, “They told me I could look at Schopenhauer and Hume and their old pal Nietzsche.” Reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, he felt compelled to return to Hegel, and then to Kant, until, he conceded “I’m, like, dunno, I have to do some stretching and some kicking.” Meanwhile Joel Silver blustered that if Keanu and Jet Li rumbled in the alley, “I just think Keanu could take him.”
Now most of your movies aren’t built on such a solid foundation of Continental philosophy and chop-socky. Coincidentally, most movies don’t promise to outboffo the box office of any R-rated release to date, while debuting at a French film festival. But it’s 2003, and Reloaded is here to open a Cannes of whup-ass.
There’s something desperate about Reloaded. If being ahead of the curve is your calling card, a sequel dares the curve to call back with a vengeance. Beneath the tingling anticipation of fans and financiers lies the fear that yesterday’s futurism is already an obsolete technology. After all, for all its visionary gloss, The Matrix was very much of its moment. Its future is so 1999.
It was the time of the boom, as everyone has bothered to point out—symbolized by the computer jockey with his sudden status, abashedly balancing Nintendo console and stock options. Sitting at his monitor like Keanu’s dayjobbing Thomas Anderson, of course he fantasized about being a hacker; on his behalf, The Matrix fantasized hackers were the kung-fu-fighting superheroes of the new world. So went the dreamlife of the boom. But straight wish fulfillment it wasn’t. The first movie wasn’t merely the symbol of an era (like flappers or asymmetrical coiffures) but its ultimate product: a massively capitalized, wickedly digitized convergence of industry and desire. When the go-go tech workers of 1999 drank up The Matrix (Life’s an ideology. Drink it up!) in their few Mountain Dewy moments of downtime, they were consuming their own ecstatic achievements.
It’s alluring to look back at the moment as a bright city. There was a darkness at the edge of town, even before the stains of recent history blotted out the landscape. Despite the promises of technology, we were laboring more than ever, and all over the place. The new economy had shrugged off the eight-hour day like an old husk. If the iconic image of the time was the programmer coding 26 hours and nodding under the workstation, its flip side was the itinerant data temp, hustling a week here and a project there, wherever some start-up needed an IPO crash crew. The shock troops worked at a dozen cubicles in a month, at home, at the café next to the microbrewery; they had cells and laptops but no medical or weekends. They were free to go anywhere, as long as the work could follow. These were halcyon days for the empire of work, in its colonization of everyday life.
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 Monster.com. 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.