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It's Only a Movie
by Lucius Shepard
May 16, 2003

I recently read a number of reviews that credited X-Men United with teaching the nation a valuable lesson concerning bigotry. These reviews were in publications intended for adults, not—as might be supposed—for children. A valuable lesson. Taught by the X-Men sequel. When the significance of this pronouncement became clear, when I understood I was being asked to consider director Bryan Singer as a consequential moral voice, the shock stripped away the last of my illusions concerning the nature of reality—it was like going out the front door and discovering that the comfortable, reasonable world I knew had been demolished and in its stead lay a wasteland of twisted ruins and ominous skies.

Not long thereafter, in early May, I had a similar—though less powerful—disassociative experience. At my local multiplex I began seeing trailers for several movies that featured bullets traveling in slow motion and leaving thready trails, guns fired with balletic flair by pale beautiful humanoids in stylish trench coats, astounding physical feats performed with the graceful, stoic aplomb of video-game hitpersons, all filmed at eccentric angles. The strange thing was, none of these movies were The Matrix: Reloaded. A comic book concept, I realized, had become a cultural motif. I suppose this speaks both to the paucity of our imaginations and, somewhat more obliquely, to the anti-intellectualism that has held sway in our country for quite some time. More significantly, it presents testimony relating to a change that may have been worked in our national character.

Contemporary comic heroes are invariably outsiders, misfits who are somehow special, blessed with secret powers, these the articles of mutant virtue or vice, and it’s becoming apparent that’s how many of us want to see ourselves. We desire to be among the X-Men, Neo and the rebels, et al. We yearn to be cool like in high school, part of a select group, but a group nonetheless. Fifty years ago, our cultural heroes were chiefly loners who hauled themselves up by their bootstraps. Today we are being led (by something, the momentum of history, a conspiracy of accident and intent, whatever) to identify with those who slip along in a substratum, performing clandestine and often arcane maneuvers, usually in tandem with others like themselves, in league against the shadowy forces that oppress us. We’re being influenced by the persuasions of pop culture to accept that such characters have value as icons, and thus we are in effect pledged to a hidden, magical consensus we don’t believe in and in no way exemplify. We’re all sucking dream smoke from the same delusionary pipe, jonesing on the hot drug of the New World Order, buying into its illusions of prosperity and morality, and—most pertinently—its specious deification of individual freedom as the eidolon of the culture.

A generation or two ago, if Americans learned of something controversial in the newspaper or on television, many would have debated the issue. Today we parrot the TV, spitting out opinions that appear contrary but are merely superficially opposed. We’re easily swayed where once we required more rigorous coercion. We tend to give lip service to our uniqueness, our specialness, when increasingly we’re losing our individuality and our ability to influence events. Announce that war is a good thing and eighty percent of us, having no actual information apart from that statement, will fall into line without a whicker of dismay. Could this be, as I sometimes suspect, the work of a crypto-religious consumerist conspiracy with a media priesthood? The recent Operation Iraqi Freedom was, was it not, as much a triumph of marketing as of military combat? Or is some vaster, less palpable force to blame? A greater shadow than those shadows we acknowledge. A godlike entity employing us in the weaving of its dark design.

The subject matter of The Matrix and its sequels concerns an AI conspiracy that has created a cybernetic dreamworld in which humanity believes it lives free, while in actuality nearly the entire population of the planet serve as organic batteries whose slave energy fuels the machines that rule over all. A fantasy world for the powerless that resonates uncomfortably with our own. Currently there is a Matrix-style commercial in which a man with a cold, inhuman inflection directs us to use a certain fitness drink so we may become more efficient batteries. It’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s not all that funny in context of our reality. Larry and Andy Wachowski have crafted an entertainment that reflects the core constituency of our culture and, despite the neat sunglasses, it’s not a pretty picture. Not cool at all. Who knows what we truly are about? Who cares? It’s enough to be a part of something. Why bother to care about anything when an ever-increasing percentage of our populace would likely say that philosophy is a medical procedure and Free Will’s a movie about a whale? Don’t rock the boat, don’t burst the dream bubble. George Orwell saw this as a terrible fate, but now that it’s here, or almost here, we realize it’s not so bad. If you’re living in the belly of the beast, if you can’t see its yellow fangs and smell its foul breath, then you don’t need to worry about it.

As eye-catching evidence of our cultural course, Reloaded is almost too depressing to review, because in the real-world Matrix there are no rebel movements of note. As a movie, it lacks the original’s narrative leanness and raw energy, manifesting as more fashion show than adventure. And how could this not be so? The Matrix has become fashion . . .and a pretentious fashion at that. A number of books have been published that offer analysis of the deep meaning and cultural impact of the film, including essays by philosophers, social scientists, and, of course, graying cyberpunks, most of whom seem to view The Matrix as a validation, rather than recognizing that their “revolution” has been televized, homogenized, co-opted, and regurgitated as the very thing they urged us to rebel against. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis appear to have taken this quasi-intellectual anointing to heart, putting their narration on frequent and unnecessary pause to engage in dreary speculations concerning destiny and reality that remind of the profundities that would occur to me during my high school days after a few bong hits. Because they are gifted at neither metaphysics nor dialogue, Reloaded plays like a cross between a video game and a preachy episode of Star Trek. Intoning portentous commentaries on fate and the nature of choice with lugubrious slowness, Lawrence Fishburne, as Morpheus, the commander of a rebel ship, conveys the manner of a Klingon elder on Thorazine, lacking only the fake forehead, and the several scenes involving robed, Gray Pantherish counselors, whether offering folksy advice or debating in chambers, bring to mind not only Federation cliché, but also evoke memories of similarly cheesy scenes in The Phantom Menace.

When last we saw Neo (Keanu Reeves), the former hacker had won the love of woman warrior, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and proven himself to be the One, the superhero cyber-Christ foretold by prophecy, capable of liberating mankind from AI bondage. As Reloaded opens, clad in what looks to be a priest’s cassock by Versace, Neo embarks on a quest inside the Matrix so as to understand what he must do. The Oracle (Gloria Foster), who in the original baked him cookies and doled out half-baked advice, here gives him hard candy and cryptic instruction. Along the way he rescues the Keymaker, a program with knowledge of the Matrix’s fatal weakness, played by a diminutive Korean actor whose toddling flight from pursuers makes him come off as an Asiatic version of Rick Moranis’ Keymaster in Ghostbusters. Neo also encounters the Merovingian, a powerful program who has adopted the personality of an effete Eurotrash villain, and his muscle, the Twins, dread-locked albinos who shift into grotesquely spectral form whenever the need arises. Lastly he hunts down the Architect, the creator/god of the machine who offers him a lady-or-the-tiger choice upon which the fate of the world hinges—a choice that, if scrutinized, will set off loud beeps on your Absurd-o-meter. In the meantime, an army comprised of a quarter-million many-tentacled machine Sentinels bores down through the earth toward Zion, the last human stronghold, a subterranean environment that has the overall ambience of an industrial multiplex/night club designed by Richard Geary on an off day. Here we become familiar with a handful of new characters who will doubtless play a part in the final (hopefully) film of the trilogy: Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), Morpheus’ lost love; wise old Counselor Hamman (Anthony Zerbe); Linc (Harold Perrineau) Morpheus’ second-in-command. Judging by the outfits worn by Zion’s population, once freedom rings, the city’s principle exports are liable to be sunglasses and neo-primitive haute couture.

Not long after he begins his quest, Neo runs into Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who was deleted from the Matrix in the first movie and has somehow become a rogue program capable of replicating himself ad infinitum. A spectacular fight sequence ensues in which Neo does battle with a hundred or so Smiths. Spectacular, but like all the FX set pieces in the film, curiously uninvolving. This is partially due to the fact that invincible (or nearly so) heroes are not terribly interesting, and further gives evidence of the repetitiveness of the choreography and an overuse of CGI and motion capture that turns the actors into obvious cartoons. Even the most compelling of these sequences, a fifteen-minute-long freeway chase during which Morpheus slices an eighteen-wheeler in half with a samurai sword, is diminished by this excess. The Wachowski’s bag of tricks can’t be new twice, and trying to solve that problem with Bigger Louder Longer simply doesn’t cut it. Neither does the flatness of the acting, a style that served the original, but here grows tiresome and imbues Neo and his band of revolutionaries with the sanctimonious stodginess of B-movie saints. In an attempt to humanize their characters, to develop some sort of narrative arc, the Wachowskis focus on the love story, but no sparks fly between Carrie and Keanu, and their coupling just noses out the previous record holders for cinematic lack-of-chemistry, Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. The longish scene during which their static lovemaking is intercut with footage of a rave thrown by the citizens of Zion, shot in slow motion, scored by deep-trance veterans Juno Reactor, and inspired by a thoroughly uninspired speech given by Morpheus that might have been cribbed from any number of low-budget Roman-era epics done with cardboard temples and Italian extras . . . It’s embarrassingly bad and demonstrates that the Wachowskis, though clever young men with their cameras, have a ways to go in their maturation as filmmakers.

The ultimate irony of Reloaded is that it testifies to the victory of the engine of commerce over the creative, of tyrannical process over free will, of dull consensus over the uniqueness of the individual. It’s as if the Wachowskis, seduced by anti-life marketing forces, have been absorbed into the Hollywood Matrix, itself a dupe (in both senses of the word) of a greater, even more inimical program. Thus they have taken a sharply imagined, innovative, more-thoughtful-than-usual action picture, one whose expert pacing allowed audiences to overlook its logical imperfections, and brought forth a bloated, overwrought slab of sequel product larded with scenes that have no relevance either to story or character development. It’s not the real thing, but an unconvincing illusion of the real that we have been coerced to gulp down in all its various franchised forms so as to provide energy for the needs of our machine masters. When asked how we liked Reloaded, most of us will respond, “It rules!,” not comprehending the base truth that underlies this pronouncement. We can’t wait to see it again. We’re telling all our friends about it. We just got to get us a pair of those sunglasses.