The Matrix Reloaded

Watch the film, buy the game, read Baudrillard
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The Independent Culture

Normally, the art of product placement is about displaying consumer goods in films so that punters will rush out of the cinema and buy them. The Matrix Reloaded uses a more devious method: to leave the product out. The plot is riddled with enigmatic holes: there are characters you think you're supposed to recognise but can't, while supposedly momentous events flash by in seconds. All is explained, apparently, if you fork out for the new Matrix video game and the Animatrix DVD of animated shorts, which fill in the gaps and sketch out the fine points of the Wachowski brothers' sprawling Matrix mythos.

Normally, the art of product placement is about displaying consumer goods in films so that punters will rush out of the cinema and buy them. The Matrix Reloaded uses a more devious method: to leave the product out. The plot is riddled with enigmatic holes: there are characters you think you're supposed to recognise but can't, while supposedly momentous events flash by in seconds. All is explained, apparently, if you fork out for the new Matrix video game and the Animatrix DVD of animated shorts, which fill in the gaps and sketch out the fine points of the Wachowski brothers' sprawling Matrix mythos.

As a marketing strategy, this not only seems like infernal cheek, but also looks calculated to alienate viewers. In fact, it's refreshing to see a Hollywood blockbuster that revels in discontinuity and open-endedness. The second Matrix episode may not have the shocking novelty and conceptual slickness of the first, but by and large, it's no less thought-provoking. This is an action movie where every 20 minutes or so, the razzle-dazzle stops and the characters pause at length to mull over abstruse philosophical paradoxes.

You do, however, have to put up with a surprising amount of stale sci-fi imagery. In the real world - as opposed to the vast virtual-reality illusion with which machines are keeping humanity enslaved - the last rebels live underground in a vast rusty-metal citadel called Zion. Newly arrived is Neo, played by Keanu Reeves - stiff as ever when talking, lightning-limbed when taciturnly executing quadruple backflips in his priestly soutane. You'll remember that Neo is anagrammatically "The One", the destined deliverer of humanity. At least, so believes commander Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who seems halfway to morphing into the 2001 monolith, so ominous and leadenly delivered are his pronouncements. The Zion sequence is draggily conventional. In its vast, multi-ethnic caverns, the favoured garment is that rough-knit back-to-earth jerkin invariably favoured by post-apocalyptic cultures in Star Trek films, while all the older folks are called "Councillor": is this The Matrix Reloaded or The Phantom Menace Unplugged? When the hosts of Zion - funky dreadlocked groovers from an MTV dance video - enjoy a long and sweaty rave session to a sort of Afro-Brazilian techno remix, it looks like a WOMAD weekend of the mid-Nineties.

Things get brisker when Neo, Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, a scary, razor-edged sliver of latex and cheekbone) search for the Key that will take them to the very heart of the Matrix. The key, charmingly, is literally a key, kept by an elderly Chinese man called The Key Maker. This Key Maker knows a lot: that's what he's there for, he says. In other words, he's there because the Wachowskis, programmers of the narrative software, have put him there. The film explicitly announces the fact that it is built on computer-game logic: it doesn't have characters so much as functions.

Many characters even turn out to be programmes, algorithms in human form, some of them so fancy that their sophistication seems excess to requirements. The snappiest is the Merovingian (a deliciously smarmy Lambert Wilson), a roué who presides over a fancy restaurant and relishes the French language: "Putaindebordeldemerde," he purrs, adding, "It's like wiping your ass with silk." His wife (Monica Bellucci) is a programme whose main function is to simmer in a sheath dress, enraged that her husband has been canoodling with the customers (though why a computer programme would be interested in oral sex, and what this would entail, is a mystery that Matrix fanboys will no doubt debate at length).

There is no single new trick as startling as the "bullet-time" effect of the first film, which is pushed a little further here. The best twist - a rewriting of the game's rules, if you like - is that the sinister Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) can now not only multiply himself but also turn passersby into his clones. In a nutty sequence of Busby Berkeley intricacy, a hundred or so Smiths take on a single Neo, who dances around them like a hamster round a wheel. The other show-stopper is a motorway chase fated to become one of the great how-did-they-do-that sequences: even though you know it's all done digitally, the daredevil grace of its aerial swoops will still make your jaw drop.

What makes the film truly daring, though, is its willingness to sit down and cogitate. The Oracle from the first film (Gloria Foster) returns to engage Neo in sweet-natured dialectic: she's a programme too, but in the guise of a wryly sympathetic African-American aunt. The setting for their discussion is startlingly simple: an inner city courtyard at night, so stripped-down that it resembles a dead basic stage set, a strikingly calm still space amid the fancy chaos. The companion piece, at once flashy and austere, is a Kubrickian moment in a white room, where Neo meets the Matrix's God-like Architect - a silver-haired Southern colonel type who engages him in a serene colloquium on free choice.

The Wachowskis might seem over-eager to indulge their intellectual chops, yet the film's ideas are not just skin-deep but artfully programmed into the narrative: after the free-choice discussion, the story's climax hinges on Trinity making a yes/ no choice on a computer screen. As with most aggressively-promoted blockbusters, you may feel as if you don't have much choice yourself: the whole "must-see" factor is getting increasingly coercive these days.

Still, you're free not to like Reloaded, and possibly you won't: part of the time it raises the ante on the original, mostly it settles into an entertaining holding pattern before the third part, out later this year, which one hopes will wrap things up in an apocalyptic tour de force. You now have until November to buy the DVD, play the computer game and generally brush up your Matrixology. Or the choice is yours: you could spend the time reading Baudrillard and Nietzsche instead.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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