It’s the Question That Drives Us

If the first Matrix offers up a palatable, self-contained “Chosen One” narrative, one that paints in mythic broad strokes, then what The Matrix Reloaded does is deconstruct the myth. Traditionally quite press-shy, the Wachowskis have nonetheless gone on record to say that this middle stage or second act of deconstructionism was part of their philosophical intentions with The Matrix trilogy.

As it calls into question things from the first movie, revealing that the trusted, motherly Oracle is an A.I. and that the hope-inspiring Prophecy of the One is another “system of control” (like the Matrix itself), the sequel places us on unsteady footing. It presents a more challenging, less safe and secure narrative for the new millennium, yet in many ways, that narrative now seems achingly prescient and ahead of the curve for a 2003 film.

Within the science fiction genre, a good recent point of comparison would be the arc of Ryan Gosling’s character in Blade Runner 2049 — how he comes to realize that he is not as special as he thought he was. Stuck in a hope loop, cycling through history: that’s the kind of post-Y2K hangover that a lot of people who came of age around the turn of the millennium have probably shared in the early 21st century. If you want to go Star Wars again, you could even compare it to how The Last Jedi reveals that Rey’s parents were nobodies and that the future of the universe may lie not with Skywalkers, but with other nobodies like Broom Boy.

It’s difficult to accept, but in a sense, we as viewers of The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded are forced to undergo the same poignant arc as Morpheus, the true believer who invests unfailing faith in Neo, tossing out sentiments like, “I do not see coincidence. I see providence. I see purpose.” And later: “I do not believe it to be a matter of hope. It is simply a matter of time.”

At the end of Reloaded, this same character is left quoting the Book of Daniel, saying, “I dreamed a dream … but now that dream is gone from me.” It turns out that Morpheus, as wise and all-knowing as he seemed, had himself been caught up in a blue pill effect with the Prophecy of the One. The end of the movie leaves him completely unmoored from what he knew. We all felt that, maybe, in theaters back in 2003, as our brains were left reeling from the scene with the Architect, where it was revealed that the One was a systemic anomaly that arose out of free will and was allowed to play itself out cyclically to avert “the escalating probability of disaster” within the Matrix.

Parodied memorably by Will Ferrell in an MTV Movie Awards sketch (“Ergo! Vis a vis! Concordantly!”), the Architect’s exposition of the One’s true purpose is at first confounding, then compelling once the full implications of it sink in and you realize that Neo may actually be living something akin to the nightmare loop of Roland Deschain at the end of The Dark Tower novels. It’s not altogether clear at first: the Architect’s verbose manner of speaking gives us a scene that’s densely layered with words and ideas. There’s so much to process and the first time I watched it I felt like the scene just washed over me in the theater, like a half-understood college lecture given by a pedantic professor with a penchant for adverbs (“assiduously,” “inexorably.”)

Was Neo a clone? Had he been genetically engineered? Or were they still inside the Matrix? Was Zion just another level of the system, a dream within a dream? Was that why Neo was able to manifest his powers outside the Matrix at the very end of the movie?

These were the kinds of questions my friends and I were left to discuss as we exited the theater and talked amongst ourselves in those pre-Reddit days. In a way, this brought us back to Trinity’s quote from the first movie: “It’s the question that drives us. What is the Matrix?”

Levels upon levels, loops within loops. The faces on the monitors in the Architect’s room seemed to imply that the previous Ones all had the same face as Neo, and the first movie did tease us with the sight of “fields, endless fields, where human beings are no longer born, they are grown.” Neo had supposedly never even used his eyes before he was woken up from the Matrix. If he was grown like a vegetable, it’s feasible he was one of many who looked exactly alike. Or, if Zion was, in fact, inside the Matrix, it’s also possible that Neo’s “residual self-image,” the mental projection of his digital self, was merely programmed.

You could even read the scene as a critique of the white savior narrative. It seems more likely, however, that the images we see on those monitors are just the system predicting Neo’s responses, mapping out every possible reaction, like the one where he says, “Bullshit,” and the monitors synch up because “denial is the most predictable of all human responses.”

We had no way of knowing back in May of 2003. The movie raised a host of mind-bending questions, and even though its sequel would endeavor to show how Neo answered those questions himself, manufacturing his own new meaning out of the ashes of the old narrative, there was almost no need for that because the effect was already achieved. If Neo is an audience surrogate, then The Matrix Reloaded rewrote the story and left fans dangling in a way that allowed them to construct their own elaborate theories for where the narrative could or should go or what it all meant. In a sense, this freed us from the Matrix of the movie itself. We became our own actors in a cerebral, existentialist, real-world game of mind theater. We’d been told the meaning of the story; we’d seen that meaning fall away; now we would have to use our own brains to determine what new meaning, if any, there was.

That’s almost a parable for the mystery of life itself. The Matrix Reloaded is a film that’s deliciously enigmatic and arguably more in touch with the true cognitive experience of living than its predecessor, because it offers no easy answers but instead takes us back to a place where an unresolved hunger — the eternal question of meaning — is once again driving the story. Though the movie ends with a cliffhanger, I’ve always been inclined to regard it as part of an unfinished masterwork and just pretend The Matrix Revolutions never existed. That’s a unique take, no doubt, but in my own head, the movie is complete in its incompleteness.

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