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The Matrix: Reloaded

damn existential for a summer blockbuster

(It's my policy to avoid spoilers whenever possible, and in this case it is impossible. Anything truly revealing will of course be covered, but I'll assume that if you read on you're familiar with the basics: the trailer, the new characters, the buzz.)

The Matrix Reloaded breaks down into approximately three smaller films. Interesting, since it is in fact part of a trilogy and also part of one larger sequel that's been split in two. The first film-within-a-film is simply a love-letter to the fans. "Yeah, the effects were amazing in The Matrix but now that we have the real money backing us up, look what we can do." The second is almost playing catch-up to those elements which received scant attention in the first film – love, sex, other "freed" humans, and the backstory of the larger battle with the machines. The third is what we came for: A mind-bending excursion through the deeper workings of the Matrix (complete with the pretzel twists of reason and logic we've come to expect) and plenty of eye-opening effects. The three films don't transition together smoothly in every case, but each is interesting in its own right.

Which is perfect for someone like me, who views the Matrix stories as fascinating puzzles to explore. Also good if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Matrix maniac. You'll love the eye candy, the detail, and the mythology – and the lack of convincing interlock between the elements won't faze you. For anyone in between, however, The Matrix Reloaded may seem a little empty. It's not that it isn't fun. It's certainly exciting and fascinating, and beautifully executed. It simply has the feel that the filmmakers – unrestrained by the popularity of the first film to do whatever they want with this one – got a little excited and put too much in. Like Neo, they must learn to use their power wisely. The plot moves in fits and starts and so many new characters are introduced that it's hard for any of them to develop more than one dimension.

At its start, The Matrix Reloaded feels very much like an adaptation of the stage play "The Matrix." It "opens up" the world of The Matrix in much the same way filmmakers seek to open up stage adaptations. We meet captains of other ships like Morpheus's Nebuchadnezzar, and we learn about the imminent threat they face from the machines. And, through sweeping vistas and many quick scenes, we're introduced to Zion, the last human city, which was hinted at in the first film but never revealed. Zion is important, because it's Zion that Neo is really fighting for. We're told he fights on behalf of the entombed residents of the Matrix, but as far as we know they're all perfectly happy in their ignorance. It's the citizens of Zion who most need his help, since they stand to benefit the most from the destruction of the machines and a return to the surface.

The threat to Zion is established and then the story starts to get moving. Neo's visit to the Oracle reveals her true role in the Matrix, as well as the existence of the Keymaker, who can help Neo fulfill his destiny. While in the Matrix, Neo once again encounters Agent Smith, who has changed as a results of Neo's penetrative contact with him at the end of the first film. He's no longer a part of the Matrix program, and is now simply Smith. He now has his own motivations to pursue, and has also developed the ability to make copies of himself. Neo's battle with the dozens of Smiths, along with the highly-anticipated 14-minute freeway chase, represents a cornerstone of the Matrix Reloaded experience. This is where the thrills come in, and they are thrilling. Visuals like nothing we've seen before and – surprisingly enough considering Neo's absolute power – there's something at stake. It's absolutely impossible not to feel your heart quicken in your chest as you hurtle through these sequences – a true testament to the Wachowski brothers' ability to deliver on the massive expectations for the rest of the trilogy.

Neo now has a purpose to pursue, but the story is still getting up to speed. We're invested in the battle for Zion, and Neo's love story, but the only hint we've had so far of the signature Matrix noodle-baking comes in the form of Neo's precognitive dreams and his discussion of fate with the Oracle. (Part of the lull is due to the fact that we spend some time in the middle of the film setting up characters and scenarios which will be fleshed out in the third film, due out in November.) Once the story is back on track, however, we get to the real meat of the film. Neo's mission leads him to meet the Architect. The one responsible for the design of the Matrix itself. And in this meeting, Neo's true identity and purpose are revealed. We learn (in a twist similar to a scenario pondered in my article, Finding Neo) that not only is this not the first Matrix, this is not the first Neo and not the first Zion. A great deal of the machines' motivation is left unexplained, but from these revelations we have a great deal to think about in terms of the underlying goals of the Matrix design. What's truly fascinating is that Neo is presented with a choice. One which ties into the dreams he's been having and the Oracle's discussions of fate. It is made very clear, especially through the character of Morpheus, that the Matrix films are largely about the role of fate. So, those elements which combine to form the crescendo of The Matrix Reloaded tie very deeply into the various interpretations of fate that have been presented in the films so far, and the audience is left spellbound by the potential repercussions.

The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions would probably be more successful if not split apart. As a result of the division, each is under pressure to deliver all of the elements in its own self-contained unit while also contributing to the whole. As Penn Jillette has said, it's tempting to present the Penn & Teller act like the peep show booth at the adult theatre, where a screen lowers after five minutes and you have to put in more quarters to keep watching, but it's impossible to make the act compelling in such short periods. The gradual unfolding that would take place over four and half hours is squeezed into two two-hour chunks and must then be punctuated by enough action to keep the fans engaged. The result is the somewhat disconnected feeling that I was left with after viewing the film. The potential and the story are exquisite – it's just a shame the format imposes such interruption. Much has been made of the cliffhanger between the two, but in my opinion it could have been far more drastic than it was. It's a rare opportunity to have the third film already made, and it would have been truly delightful to interrupt right in the middle of a story beat. Instead, a new obstacle is set up for the cliffhanger which feels somewhat less satisfying. [Seriously, stop here if you haven't seen the film.] The construction of Neo's final choice and his rescue of Trinity represent a fascinating paradox that I always enjoy recalling from Oedipus Rex. Neo knows that his precognitions are true, but still takes solace in the fact that he believes he's set obstacles in place to prevent them. How he deals with them when they come true anyway is what sets this apart from your typical summer film.

The Matrix Reloaded is the most thought-provoking film we'll see this summer and it exceeds expectation in its logic puzzles and twists of fate as well as its action sequences. It delighted the existentialist and solipsist in me and wowed the visual effects enthusiast. That it left the moviegoer a little underwhelmed is by no means a failure. Taken as its intended whole, I have no doubt that the Matrix trilogy will represent one of my favorite stories to endure numerous viewings and countless hours of fascinated deconstruction.

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