In Defense of Dance Parties

Speaking of Zion, despite the unforgettable freeway sequence, one of the first things that comes to mind for a lot of people with The Matrix Reloaded may, unfortunately, be the cave rave. So let’s address that next before we get into the meat of what makes the movie work. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island) is right: the cave rave is a scene that “deserves a universally agreed upon moniker a la ‘nuke the fridge’ to address its cringe.” I like that “cave rave” rhymes, so I’m going to go with that moniker here.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s a scene that lives in infamy among film buffs. The inhabitants of Zion, the last bastion of human civilization on Earth, have gathered in a huge cavern full of impressive stalactites, where Morpheus (always the trilogy’s best character) is delivering a stentorian speech. It comes off at first like one of those meant-to-be rousing war speeches, the kind where you can feel the screenwriters chasing Braveheart. With his bellowing voice, Morpheus talks about the 100-year war between humanity and the machines and how those machines are bearing down on Zion even as he speaks. He then declares:

“Tonight, let us shake this cave! Tonight, let us tremble these halls of earth, steel, and stone! Let us be heard from red core to black sky! Tonight, let us make them remember: this is Zion, and we are not afraid!”

It’s a tremendous build-up that dissolves into…a dance party. Morpheus himself doesn’t dance (though his old flame Niobe does slyly say, “I remember you used to dance. I remember you were … pretty good.”) Instead, we see a lot of extras who look like underwear models dancing. There are bared torsos, ankle bracelets, wet dreadlocks, and seen-through-nylon nipples. People gyrate in slow-motion. Others jump for joy as if to say, “Yes! I am alive outside the Matrix!” All of this is intercut with a bout of lovemaking between Trinity and Neo. They, too, are alive, though Neo sees ominous flashes of Trinity falling to her death in a dream he’s had.

That, we can surmise, is really the whole point of the scene. While it may be weirdly executed, it’s meant to be a final celebration of life unplugged. All things considered, the cave rave isn’t as bad as you might remember it. In 2018, it’s a scene that reminds me very much of an episode of AMC’s superb The Terror, in which a bunch of sailors marooned on the ice decide to throw a slightly ridiculous Venetian Carnival in the middle of the Arctic. I think it’s actually somewhat realistic that on the eve of their own destruction, in the face of certain death, you would see people trying to justify their existence any way they knew how.

If you meet the cave rave on those own terms, then the dancing of Zion’s freedom fighters could even be considered tame. Less enlightened end-of-the-world revelers would probably surrender themselves to oblivion by indulging in much worse hedonism than a little dancing. People refer to the scene sometimes as an “orgy,” but dancing is a far cry from Caligula.

It does show, however, that humankind’s survivors are still capable of enjoying sensual pleasure outside the Matrix. If the first Matrix movie functions on one level as a metaphor for the spirit and the flesh, then the cave rave in all its awkwardness is perhaps the first major signpost that the Matrix sequels will be messing with conventional dichotomies like that. In the end, even if you find the scene indefensible, it’s certainly no worse than the “Jedi Rocks” musical number in Return of the Jedi. Plenty of fans can overlook that scene and still enjoy the rest of Return of the Jedi because it has so much else working in its favor. So it goes with The Matrix Reloaded.

You Were Supposed to be the Chosen One!

Aside from occasionally spotty CGI and hit-or-miss new supporting characters — which are, in and of themselves, forgivable flaws, not deal-breakers — The Matrix Reloaded may partly be misunderstood because it deliberately subverts the audience’s foundation of understanding from the first movie. When it comes to The Matrix, the Star Wars comparison is apt not just because of the movie’s mythic splendor and cultural significance, but because of how it drafts the initial arc for its main character using the same basic template that George Lucas would employ: first with Luke Skywalker, then (in a more overt, less successful fashion) with his father Anakin in the prequel Star Wars trilogy.

In 2015, an Entertainment Weekly article critical of their work talked about how the Wachowskis, the writing and directing duo behind The Matrix, essentially became Lucas in their later career, with the “pointless peacocking decadence” of Jupiter Ascending echoing the hollow green screen spectacle of The Phantom Menace. The Matrix, by contrast, struck a much more populist nerve. The movie’s legacy is solid; it is what it is and there’s no taking away from that. But beyond obvious factors like its trendsetting action — the slowed-down “bullet time,” the balletic wire work it brought to the mainstream from earlier kung fu movies — maybe part of its success can be attributed to how neatly and effectively it repackaged the monomyth or hero’s journey that we’ve seen a million times over in film and literature.

When we first meet Thomas Anderson, AKA Neo, he’s “living two lives,” one as a software programmer, the other as a hacker. The programming job sees him dwelling in a cubicle on a drab office floor, where he’s under the power of a boss who likes to lecture him about being late. From these humble beginnings, he will eventually go on to realize his destiny as “The One,” a figure prophesied to save humanity from a mechanized controlling force.

It’s not so different from the arc of Luke, the farm boy of secret parentage who goes on to become a universe-saving pilot and all-powerful Jedi in the fight against the machine-driven Empire. Lucas would frame Anakin in outright messianic terms as “The Chosen One;” and in The Matrix, one character spells it out for us in a similar fashion at the beginning when he tells Neo, “You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.”

If you go back and watch The Matrix , it’s obvious now that it has such a blatant Hollywood ending. Right at the point when it looks like all hope is lost, Trinity confesses her love to Neo. Neo’s heart starts beating again and he rises triumphantly from the dead, capable of stopping bullets, fending off blows one-handed, and seeing the green lines of code in the Matrix. The movie has already given us those hammy little finger-waves and fighting poses, not to mention some cheesy lines of dialogue (“Listen to me, coppertop, we don’t have time for 20 questions.” Or my personal favorite: “Neo, this is loco!”) But the feel-good ending really seals it that this movie is meant to be a winking crowd-pleaser.

Behold the One! Look at how self-assured Neo is as he twists and displays his outstretched kicking foot after using it on the nefarious Agent Smith. It’s a fist-pumping moment in a movie where the central metaphor is clear, laid out for us in dualistic, almost Manichean terms by the red-pill-versus-blue-pill choice. Reality is not real, and there exists something truer beyond this veil of illusion called life. Humans being used as living batteries by the Matrix can either awaken to that truth or remain blissfully ignorant cogs in the machine.

Neo is the One. He’s Jesus. We never see him walk on water, but he does fly off like Superman at the end. Is it any surprise, then, that The Matrix holds quasi-religious significance for some people? Only recently has the meaning of the pills morphed into a kind of uber-political, red-state-versus-blue-state symbolism, with the aforementioned Kanye West’s pro-Trump and alt-right-leaning tweets being referred to as a “red pilling” on sites like Vanity Fair and Wired. As the latter notes, “The ideas and the imagery of The Matrix run through internet culture like an aquifer.” (All of this is especially ironic as the Wachowskies are transgender, meaning that these conservative groups have borrowed the language of two trans artists whose work could very easily be read as being about their transition.)

It just goes to show the film’s enduring appeal. The Matrix is a movie that, among other things, provides a vivid conceptualization of a powerful life metaphor, and when its sequel broke down that metaphor and muddied the mythology with more complex ideas, it would leave many viewers scratching their heads and feeling dissatisfied.

Continue Reading The Matrix Reloaded Defense >>

Cool Posts From Around the Web: