Matrix Reloaded

Criticism of Matrix Reloaded.

Cornel West Reloaded: Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation.

The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix?

It would have been nice if some of that complexity, or any complexity, had made its way into the sequel. But—to get to the bad news—“Matrix Reloaded” is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in places a campy conventional comic-book movie, and in places a ludicrously campy conventional comic-book movie.

The thing that made the Matrix so creepy—the idea of a sleeping human population with a secondary life in a simulated world—is barely referred to in the new movie; in fact, if you hadn’t seen the first film, not just the action but the basic premise would be pretty much unintelligible.

The first forty-five minutes—set mainly in Zion, that human city buried deep in the earth—are particularly excruciating. Zion seems to be modelled on the parking garage of a giant indoor mall, with nested levels clustered around an atrium. Like every good-guy citadel in every science-fiction movie ever made, Zion is peopled by stern-jawed uniformed men who say things like “And what if you’re wrong, God damn it, what then?” and “Are you doubting my command, Captain?” and by short-haired and surprisingly powerful women whose eyes moisten but don’t overflow as they watch the men prepare to go off to war. Everybody wears earth tones and burlap and silk, and there are craggy perches from which speeches can be made while the courageous citizens hold torches. (The stuccoed, soft-contour interiors of Zion look like the most interesting fusion restaurant in Santa Fe.)

The only thing setting Zion apart from the good-guy planets in “The Phantom Menace” or “Star Trek” is that it seems to have been redlined at some moment in the mythic past and is heavily populated by people of color. They are all, like Morpheus, grave, orotund, and articulate to the point of prosiness, so that official exchanges in Zion put one in mind of what it must have been like at a meeting at the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard before Larry Summers got to it. (And no sooner has this thought crossed one’s mind when—lo! there is Professor Cornel West himself, playing one of the Councillors.)

More damagingly, once Zion has been realized and mundanely inhabited, most of the magic disappears from the fable; it becomes a cartoon battle between more or less equally opposed forces, and the sense of a desperately uneven contest between man and machine is gone. The Matrix, far from being a rigorously imposed program, turns out to be as porous as good old-fashioned reality, letting in all kinds of James Bond villains. (They are explained as defunct programs that refused to die, but they seem more like character ideas that refused to be edited.)

Attention, Wachowski Brothers: put down the bong and step away from the script.

Yet the visionary prevailed, and Zion was built. I don’t know what the filmmakers thought our reaction would be, but to me it was sheer hell: a rusted hole full of hippies in robes. One look at the place and I’d lasso a squiddie, head to the surface, and bang on the door of Evil Machine HQ: Hello, one Coppertop wants in, sign here, THANK you.

The Matrix may be fake, but so is lo-fat soft-serve dessert. Zion is that crappy homemade ice-cream that has chunks of salt and carob instead of proper chocolate. Everyone’s commented on the infamous rave scene, in which the population of Zion crams into the Temple Of No Particular Faith and confronts their imminent death by dancing ecstatically. Big huge slo-mo close-up of feet squishing in the mud. All of a sudden I was channeling my inner Agent Smith. I can’t stand the smell, he said of the Matrix. Buddy, if you thought an average air-conditioned office was bad, try 3 AM in a huge nightclub packed with a quarter-million sweaty people who live on beans.

Did I mention that there’s a Spunky Kid in Zion? An eager Spunky Kid who idolizes Neo? Gosh, Neo, next year I’ll be old enough to join a crew, and I was thinking I could join yours! It’s as if someone sampled a ladleful of an early draft of the script, pursed their lips, and finally said “Needs more Wesley Crusher. And maybe a dash of Short Round.” At one point the Spunky Kid gives Neo a gift from all the other orphan kids down at the Zion Orphanage and Bean-Paste Processing Center. It’s a spoon. Get it? A SPOON! Because as we know from the first movie, there is no spoon. Except when there is.

That’s the level of metaphysical pretension at work here. The first hour of the movie is so incredibly talky you begin to wish Freddy or Jason would show up and start disemboweling people. Every scene goes like this:

“Let’s have supper. I want some beans.”

“Ah, you think you want beans. But what are beans? Do you want the beans you are thinking of, or the beans you will have?”

“I am not certain. Perhaps the Oracle will know.”

“Perhaps. The Oracle knows beans. Whether she knows whether the beans she knows are the beans that are right for you only she will know. You must choose whether you accept what she says.”

“But what if I do not?”

“Then perhaps you wanted a nice salad. Perhaps you wanted the salad all along.”

“But I have chosen beans.”

“Did you really? Or did you not choose the beans because you were predestined to do so by the fact that you bought corn chips last week? And is that really choice?”