Four years on from The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers' hugely influential sci-fi fantasia, I found myself trying, and failing, to remember exactly why "the Matrix" is a bad place to live. Yes, I recalled that it was a malignant construct designed by machines to keep humankind in thrall; that Keanu Reeves was anointed as The One who would somehow liberate the world from this slavery; and that the guerrilla warfare involved a great deal of balletic chopsocky performed at high speed. But I still couldn't put my finger on why the "reality" of a dingy space module where the good guys live could be preferable to the chimera of the Matrix, where you could at least get a decent steak if the fancy took you.
Surely The Matrix Reloaded would provide a quick refresher course for slackers on the evils of the system. This is, after all, the first of two longish sequels to be released this year - The Matrix Revolutions is to follow in November - so the brothers W had plenty of room to be expansive, to help clue us in. Not a chance. Anyone coming to this film without seeing the first one will be absolutely flummoxed by the plot convolutions, the portentous antiphonal dialogue, and the ubiquitous wearing of black sunglasses in even nightclub-level gloom. (I later mugged up on the first two, but still couldn't work out the shades thing.) It is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the film-makers that The Matrix Reloaded is a sensory experience rather than an intellectual one: you turn on, you plug in, you drop out.
This certainly seems to be a philosophy encouraged in Zion, the human city buried deep underground and the last bulwark against the oppression of the machines. Even though reports tell of Sentinel armies hurtling towards them, the inhabitants of Zion decide to throw themselves an enormous torchlit rave. "Let us shake this cave," booms Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in his curious basso profundo, while up in one of the private booths Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) do the horizontal tango. It's a bit different from the night before Agincourt. Neo's messianic destiny requires him to go and consult the Oracle (he did this in the first movie - why do it again?), which means being strapped into his virtual-reality recliner and relocated inside the Matrix. Once there he's straight into the dark glasses and a priestly soutane, ready to exchange short-arm jabs and blocks - the favoured Matrix fighting style - with his old adversary, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), attired in his familiar G-man suit and skinny black tie.
Actually, there are now a hundred or so replicas of Agent Smith, and in the first big set piece they swarm over Neo like ants on a scorpion. Not that Neo is in the least put out - he casually dispatches these myriad Smiths without even breaking a sweat. Later he fights on an ornamental staircase with thugs wielding pikes and axes, and once again emerges with barely a scratch. The problem is that when there is no possibility of being harmed, there is no tension. When ground control in Zion checks Neo's whereabouts he is reported to be "doing his Superman thing", and we cut to a shot of Keanu whizzing through the air as if on jet-propelled heels. So why doesn't he just do this straight away and not waste everybody's time with the scrapping? The same thought occurs during a long chase down a freeway as Morpheus and Trinity slalom through traffic, fiercely pursued by Smith's goons and a pair of albino dreadlocked twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment). Given that the latter can car-hop by morphing through the air, why do they use their own car from which to fire some frankly passé machine-guns? Even fantasy must obey its own logic, but the Wachowskis seem unwilling to acknowledge the parameters they set themselves. It's a classic pitfall: when anything can happen, nothing matters.
Fans will say that this is too literal-minded an approach. Never mind the logic, feel the effects. I loved the shot from the first film of bullets slowing down as they reached Neo's protective force-field, so that he plucked them from mid-air as if inspecting gems from a jeweller's drawer. There is a slight reprise of this in Reloaded when a hail of bullets aimed at Neo clatter to the floor at the raising of his hand. It's the same idea, only less surprising, which is the disease of sequelitis in a nutshell. Owen Paterson's production design is a victim of its own success; the style of The Matrix has been so thoroughly mimicked and absorbed into the mainstream that very little in the new film has any freshness or vibrancy. The wardrobe department hasn't exactly pushed the envelope, either: the folks on Zion (Zionists?) are still wearing their fashionably distressed knitwear, as if frayed sleeves and holes were a badge of integrity. I mean, would it kill them to hire a little old lady with a sewing machine?
Aside from the albino assassins, the only noteworthy newcomers here are an epicurean couple played by Monica Bellucci and Lambert Wilson, lounging at an ostentatious banquet like a space-age Burton and Taylor. Wilson has fun spouting waffle about "ze concept" of "choice" and swearing in French, while Monica, playing his consort Persephone, exacts a long French kiss from Neo while Trinity looks daggers at her. I envisage a catfight in the next sequel. This camp little interlude provides the most enjoyably silly moments of the film. For the rest, one feels the uncertainty of The Matrix Reloaded as a bridge, a holding operation before the big showdown. Compare it with the middle passage of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers, and there is between them a gulf in finesse and narrative attack. Peter Jackson's film had the confidence to play both as a linking episode and an entertainment in its own right. It had tremendous forward momentum. For all its bravura effects, The Matrix Reloaded seems to be going in circles.Reuse content