The Matrix Reloaded Defense

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: we go to bat for The Matrix Reloaded on its 15th anniversary.)

If the burden of a sequel is to equal or better its predecessor, then few movie sequels have inherited as great a burden as The Matrix Reloaded did when it first hit theaters 15 years ago today on May 15, 2003.

The first Matrix movie gripped the public imagination, tapping into something deep in the collective unconscious. Steeped in grandeur, a sense of pre-millennial purpose, it was a motion picture that wielded the same kind of myth-making mojo as the original Star Wars trilogy. If anything, back in 1999, The Matrix was more Star Wars than Star Wars, as evinced by how widely it overshadowed The Phantom Menace that year as a cultural phenomenon.

The Matrix Reloaded’s legacy as a sequel is such that it and The Matrix Revolutions often get lumped together as inferior specimens. In terms of simple storytelling effectiveness — the lucidity of their dream-weaving as movie machines — both films are inferior to the smooth-running high-concept engine that was the first Matrix. But while the law of diminishing returns is at play in The Matrix trilogy and Reloaded does show signs of the impending system failure that Revolutions would bring about, it actually manages, despite its infamous cave rave scene, to expand the series mythology in new and interesting ways. A decade and a half later, the film’s dismantling of the oosen One narrative set up in The Matrix gives it a different but no less intriguing pull, one that takes to the freeway and attempts to broaden the viewer’s perspective on reality in a manner that now seems ahead of its time.

Action and World-Building

Like its predecessor, The Matrix Reloaded is a movie that stimulates the senses with action while engaging the viewer’s intellect with a set of profound questions. The action is sort of the shallow end of the pool in terms of what the movie has to offer, but it’s part of what makes the movie entertaining and enables it to play with other weighty ideas, so let’s talk about it first.

This is a visually inventive sequel that mostly succeeds on the world-building front as it introduces new elements like rogue programs, ghosting albino twins, and a hallway full of backdoors in the system (all of which lead to cool fight scenes). Having Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith become a computer virus who can replicate himself onto others, converting them into clones of himself, gives us one especially memorable confrontation between him and our returning hero, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves.

The CGI in the “burly brawl” — in which a small army of Smiths takes on Neo — does stick out and make the scene look like a video game in some of its wide shots. But for what it’s worth, I happened to rewatch The Matrix Reloaded the same day Black Panther hit iTunes, and comparing the two films (both of which I love), I honestly felt like the only thing that made the CGI in the burly brawl any worse was the fact that it was being used to recreate the human face in broad daylight, whereas Black Panther has a mask and he’s somersaulting over cars at night. Yet The Matrix Reloaded is a movie that’s 15 years older, so if anything, it deserves to be extended more grace for the quality of its visual effects.

Even if the effects in some of Reloaded’s shots aren’t of unimpeachable quality, the burly brawl is just the film’s first big action set piece. There are other moments in Reloaded that hit action-movie arias and remain utterly thrilling to watch even to this day. One is the chateau fight, where Neo takes on a gang of henchmen in a chateau whose walls are lined with seemingly every medieval weapon imaginable. This scene is bolstered by skillful choreography, urgent music, and pure cinema style, yet it’s a mere prelude to the freeway sequence, which hits the road in a silver Cadillac CTS and shows us something bigger and better, more ambitious than anything we saw in the first Matrix movie. The way they build up the freeway like it’s going to be a suicide run only escalates the tension that much more when Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus faces off with a nearly invincible Agent on top of a semi-truck.

He’s protecting an exiled locksmith program called the Keymaker. It follows naturally from the idea of sentient A.I., but having some programs that face deletion choose to hide in the system rather than return to the machine mainframe is a neat flourish that we never got to see in the first film. Details like these open up a new frontier inside the dream world of the Matrix, teasing the imagination with its limitless potential.

A Franchise at a Crossroads

No wonder they’re looking to revive the Matrix universe on-screen with future possible movies. The short-film anthology The Animatrix, released on DVD a few weeks after The Matrix Reloaded, showed that there were other corners to this world that could be fleshed out enough to sustain their own mini-narratives. Why not another feature film?

That was the thinking, anyway. For most of 2003, it seemed like The Matrix franchise held endless prospects, but as it turned out, the franchise was at a turning point where there wasn’t enough being held back for the next sequel and it was about to lose its way. It’s easy to forget this now, but the more precipitous drop-off in quality in the trilogy actually occurs between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

The fact that these two movies were filmed back-to-back and released within six months of each other has led to a kind of guilt by association. The last time I sat down and tried to rewatch Revolutions, I felt myself checking out mentally as it degenerated into a storm of ugly, mechanical visuals. Squid-like Sentinels besiege a blue-filtered underground city defended by lurching exoskeletons, which look like the power-loaders from Aliens armed with machine guns. And it’s as if the once-great Matrix franchise has come full circle to where it is now, as mind-numbing as the Star Wars prequels.

Where the franchise falters in its world-building is in its introduction of new characters. This starts with Reloaded, where a number of fresh faces pop up as the series attempts to build out its supporting cast. To its credit, it does this in a refreshingly diverse manner for an early 2000s film, but alas, not all of those faces really register or leave much of an impression. Those that do are the ones that belong to actors with natural charisma like Jada Pinkett Smith, who was already known. Likewise, Harold Perrineau, on the cusp of playing Michael on Lost, does bring an affable charm and some welcome comic relief to his character.

Aside from them, however, even Neo is annoyed by new characters like the worshipful Kid (that’s his name, apparently), who recalls that other skinny goof, Mouse, jabbering about “Tastee Wheat” in the first movie. The first Matrix killed off most of its supporting characters; its sequels compensate for this by amplifying the Lando Calrissian effect, as it were. If you aren’t aware of his backstory from The Animatrix, then the sudden appearance of Kid and focus on his face in-camera might just seem random and inexplicable, rather like the diversions with Jimmy in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

For the most part, however, newbies like Kid are relegated to the sidelines until Revolutions, when they take center stage at times and the characters we know and love, those we really care about from the first movie like Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, start to fade into the background a bit. If the trilogy had stuck the landing with Revolutions, we might all be inclined to regard Reloaded more favorably. Part of what makes the first sequel work better than the second is because — in straightforward cinematic terms, divorced of any philosophical, blue-versus-red-pill symbolism — the world of the Matrix, with its infinite possibilities, is inherently more interesting than Zion, where the residents all look like they’re wearing clothes from a Mad Max garage sale.

The funny thing is, those tattered fatigues (“sweaters of the apocalypse”) may have helped inspire a clothing line from Kanye West. West has compared The Matrix to the Bible and whether or not it was intentional, some of his Yeezy apparel does look like a Matrix homage.

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