Science Friction

Keanu Reeves returns as Neo in The Matrix Reloaded.

It’s probably heretical to even ask, but do we really need all the futuristic deep-think Zen mumbo-jumbo in The Matrix Reloaded? Every generation deserves its defining myths, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re dealing with The Iliad here. This monstro-budgeted sequel to The Matrix has more than twice as many special effects as the original, and a few of the action set-pieces—notably a fourteen-minute crash-and-burn highway-chase extravaganza and a courtyard brawl between Keanu Reeves’s Neo and a hundred look-alike Agent Smiths—are stupendous. But there is also more than twice as much philosophic bull as before—and there was plenty of that the first time around.

Larry and Andy Wachowski, the co-writers and directors of the series, are absolutely serious about creating a modern cyberepic, with archetypal references to Hermann Hesse and Heidegger and Buddhism and the Bible, for starters. (George Lucas, after the success of the first Star Wars movie, got pretty woolly, too—Joseph Campbell and Jung were peering over the shoulder of every Wookie and droid.) You don’t have to buy into the geeky mythmaking in The Matrix Reloaded in order to enjoy its kinetic pleasures. But even those pleasures are frequently too much of a good thing. The film should be called The Matrix Overloaded.

Zion, the last bastion of Earth’s humanity, located near the planet’s core, is on the verge of being annihilated by the Machines, and Neo (“the One”), along with old standbys Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and—a new addition—Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), enters the Matrix to do battle. Fashionistas will be happy to know that Neo remains a sleek icon in basic black and Trinity’s patent-leather jumpsuits are as fetishistic as ever. If Weimar ever makes a comeback, these Matrix movies should be held up as Exhibit A. (The trilogy concludes with The Matrix Revolutions, opening in November.) Less impressive are the hemp-looking duds worn by the denizens of Zion, a place which resembles nothing so much as a mosh pit of cave dwellers lusting for the light. Stirred up by Morpheus, the Zion multitudes go into a dancing frenzy that’s about as ritualistic as an orgy. If these folks represent humankind, then maybe it’s time the Machines moved in after all.

Something is awry when a sci-fi movie about technological alienation features human protagonists who are less lively than their computerized counterparts. It’s not until we enter the Matrix and encounter such cyberhumanoids, or whatever they are, as the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster), the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), and a pair of malevolent albino twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment) that we get a much-needed infusion of high-style hokum. And then there is Monica Bellucci, playing the pouty, wronged wife Persephone in a dress that looks like it was made out of white latex. Virtual reality has never looked less virtual.

The first Matrix was high-grade hogwash, but it had a genuinely new look derived from anime and computer games, and all those superslow-supersonic “bullet time” brawls—supervised by the amazing fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, who also worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—were fun to watch. The fact that the film didn’t make much narrative sense was actually part of its allure—the Wachowskis made it cool to be confounded. The Matrix Reloaded, on which Yuen Wo Ping also labored, is more formulaic, and so its confusions are less forgivable. For long stretches in the beginning, we’re bogged down in exposition that might have come out of any old sci-fi opus. The attempts to give the love match between Neo and Trinity some heart are misguided—these two were better together, and a whole lot hotter, when they weren’t so goo-goo-eyed for each other.

It’s practically a truism that fantasy movies become less fantastical, at least in spirit, the more they are spun off into (often increasingly commercialized) sequels. Certainly this has been the case with the latter-day Star Wars movies, though it’s not true of the Lord of the Rings cycle, perhaps because Tolkien’s books, and the imagination of director Peter Jackson, are astonishingly fertile. The Wachowskis are immensely talented cyberspace technicians, but they’re not great storytellers, and, more important, they lack the ability to make all this stuff matter—at least to nonbelievers. The Matrix Reloaded has been designed to rewire our brains, but for all its brio and ambition, it’s about as visionary as a video game. And, wouldn’t you know it, there is a game just out: Enter the Matrix. It’s supposed to be at least as good as the movie.

Down With Love, starring Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, replicates the deluxe eye-candy look of the sixties Technicolor Doris Day–Rock Hudson comedies with such fanatic precision that the movie, which is supposed to be a romantic bauble, comes to seem downright surreal. It’s a comment on the mediocre state of modern movies that directors—Far From Heaven’s Todd Haynes led the charge—are harking back to earlier styles and eras of filmmaking. But Down With Love, directed by Peyton Reed and set in 1962, pays homage to movies like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back that weren’t exactly classics to begin with. Zellweger plays a working girl who writes a best-seller about how women don’t need the love of men, and McGregor is the sharpie journalist who tries to set her straight. It’s all strenuously camp.

Homages are bad enough, but remakes are often worse. The In-Laws, starring Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas as dueling patriarchs, is an unfunny gloss on the riotously comic 1979 film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. Douglas, playing a CIA operative, isn’t really cut out for broad comedy, and he looks like he knows it; Brooks, playing a fussbudget podiatrist who wears a fanny pack, provokes a few titters. Why do filmmakers persist in remaking films that were already great to begin with? Why not instead remake bad movies that had terrific premises?

The Matrix Reloaded
Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski; starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Science Friction