The Dark Secrets of the Matrix

The Matrix movies are important cultural artifacts of our times. They have achieved a rare status: They are huge financial hits as well as subjects of a passionate intellectual cult.

The original Star Wars trilogy struck a similar zeitgeist chord for an earlier generation. Much like George Lucas, Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski have concocted a compelling mixture of epic sci-fi narrative, fashionable spiritual notions and hi-tech, special effects-driven action. But the Matrix series is much darker, racier, edgier and more violent than Star Wars. It's definitely not for children.

The Matrix Reloaded, the second of the trilogy — which has now racked up close to $250 million in box-office receipts — picks up where its predecessor left off. Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has a day job as a computer programmer. In his spare time he's also a skilled computer hacker with the moniker of Neo. A rebel band of freedom fighters recruits him into its ranks, and its charismatic leader, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), opens Neo's eyes to the true secrets of the universe. (Gnosis, anyone?)

In the 21st century, mankind produced a strain of artificial intelligence that rose up and conquered its human masters. But this race of machines depends on people for the bioelectric power to survive.

Humans are kept alive in a tank-like embryo. Their minds are plugged into a computer called the Matrix which keeps them blissfully ignorant that they've been enslaved by machines. They live in a simulated, collective reality that looks just like our contemporary world.

Morpheus believes Neo is a messiah-like figure destined to liberate humanity from its oppressors. The first Matrix film dramatizes Neo's awakening to this destiny and his awareness of his special powers. Reloaded explores Neo's quest to understand the specific nature of his special task, and it takes us deeper into Zion, the city where the humans liberated from the Matrix live.

The first Matrix film is exhilarating to watch despite its violence and loopy philosophical conceits. We are constantly being surprised.

Reloaded is a let-down on this basic level of popular entertainment. The filmmakers' passion and inventive skills are once again on full display, but both the visuals and the plot twists seem familiar. For those turned on by the Wachowskis' vision, this probably doesn't matter. But others may wonder why Reloaded looks and feels like just another Hollywood comic-book movie.

The first Matrix film married the conventions of Asian martial-arts movies with the most advanced computer animation techniques. These eye-popping, “bullet-time” sequences were interspersed with clever philosophic musings that referred to Buddhism, a Gnostic version of Christianity and post-modern French nihilism. An imaginative, well-constructed story line welded them all together into a seamless whole.

Reloaded's narrative falters badly in its depiction of Zion, the blessed city, and the story's different elements fly apart.

Zion is meant to be the ideal embodiment of freedom, but, in the Wachowskis' hands, it turns out to be nothing more than a politically correct, hippy-dippy commune. Its notion of spiritual celebration comes off like a cross between a rave party and an orgy.

Zion's supposedly wise counselors (led by real-life Princeton philosopher Cornel West) begin to look foolish as they exchange pretentious platitudes like: “Comprehension is not requisite for co-operation.”

The personal conflicts generated within Zion as they prepare for battle look like they're lifted from the outtakes of an old Star Trek episode. In these moments, the movie's magic vanishes, never to return, and we begin to ask hard questions that dog us throughout the rest of the narrative. Even the main characters — Neo, Morpheus and the rebel female warrior Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — begin to seem like clever archetypes without individuality rather than living personalities.

The plot unfolds like a $100-million video game. Each twist depends on Neo besting his evil attackers so he can proceed to the next level of understanding. We watch him move from the Oracle (Gloria Foster) through the nasty Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) to the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) who can unlock more of the secrets of the Matrix.

Because we never doubt that Neo will prevail, the well-staged action scenes are drained of all suspense. Dependent on special effects to hold the viewer's interest, they play like the bloated action sequences of the later Bond films.

At the end, the humans in Zion are even facing the same threat that terrified them at the conclusion of the first Matrix film. The machines are still trying to exterminate them and only Neo can save them. There's no narrative progression.

Yet the movie's images continue to haunt. The rapid technological advances caused by the computer are overwhelming and Reloaded, even with its flaws, dramatizes our sense of powerlessness in this environment better than any other current pop-culture product.

In its final sequences, Reloaded begins to deconstruct some of the Gnostic premises of the first film, partially undermining our confidence in the wisdom of the Oracle and Morpheus and in the reality of the messiah-like role to which Neo aspires.

But the movie's view of religion remains pluralistic and syncretic. There is no absolute truth or transcendent moral code, only shifting human perceptions. In this, it reflects the way religion is now being taught at many of our prestigious seminaries. It should be no surprise that the Matrix series is proving to be as popular in the faculty lounges of Princeton and Harvard as it is in our suburban multiplexes.

John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.

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