The Matrix” (1999) is one of those sci-fi films that rewards people paying close attention; to understand the specifics of the world is to feel like we’ve become a smarter person. It’s a challenging task, but doable. “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003), on the other hand, calls out for one of those “Movie Explained” YouTube videos that are so ubiquitous nowadays.
That said, the general structure is graspable: Our heroes from the first movie (and a few others) go into the Matrix to gather knowledge, but keep getting into kick-ass action sequences. The rest of the human race is holed up in the underground city of Zion, and sentinels are on their way to wipe it out. Can Neo (Keanu Reeves), the Chosen One, do something special (such as wake up a suitable number of humans) in the Matrix before Zion is wiped out?
Although that ticking-clock scenario would seemingly lead to this movie’s conclusion, the answer is delayed until part three, “The Matrix Revolutions.” Since it came out only a few months later in real time, this franchise could get away with a cliffhanger more than most could.
At any rate, back to the action sequences. The winner for me is the freeway chase, a continual but always successful case of one-upsmanship that matches the chase from “Ronin” (1998) for sheer popcorn-munching fun. After acquiring the Keymaster (Randall Duk Kim), a guy who is necessary for them to acquire in order to have success, as per the self-fulfilling logic of the “Matrix” universe, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) are pursued by Agents. The car chase with the flow of traffic is topped by a chase against the flow of traffic with Trinity on a motorcycle, and that’s topped by Morpheus fighting an Agent atop a semi truck.
Earlier in “Reloaded,” we get the iconic sequence of Neo fighting off a bunch of Smiths (Hugo Weaving, underused despite there being hundreds of him). The CGI doesn’t hold up throughout. At a point where the screen is particularly filled with Smiths, the details on the combatants’ faces and clothes (even Neo’s) are lacking; it’s blatant computer animation. I watched in on DVD, but I’ve learned it’s the same on future generations of technology. This only cuts into the fun a little bit, though, as it’s a blast to watch Neo mow through the Smiths. Plus, if we want to be apologists, we can say the rough CGI is a glitch in the Matrix.
Speaking of Smith, it seems right to leave the “Agent” off his name. He’s now an ex-Agent, and I’ve heard him described as a virus within the Matrix. Along those lines, Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) is a program within the Matrix that can write additional programs. “Reloaded” is probably a more pleasurable film for someone with knowledge of how computer programs work, but it’s not completely impenetrable for the layperson.
As long as you’re watching the movie for the action, that is, and maybe a bit of pontificating. In a nice quiet moment, Councilor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) chats with Neo in the machine cavern of Zion – which is a rather beautiful place considering it’s bored into the Earth. Hamann points out that the awake humans of Zion aim to wake up the humans of the Matrix, who depend on machines for their life experience (but they don’t know it). But the Zionites likewise depend on machines for running the processes of Zion, such as water recycling (and they do know it). Sometimes the line between slavery and freedom can get blurry.
(Speaking of the future Earth, it’s neat when Neo and company end up outside of their ship in the ruins, the first time we’ve seen the real surface world outside of Morpheus’ teaching programs. Our heroes are quickly picked up by an allied ship, but I wouldn’t mind more action in the wastelands in the next movie.)
When Neo later visits the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) in the Matrix, it’s another “sit up and pay attention” moment because he’s an old dude and his name is the Architect. He gives Neo (and us) more details on what was sketched out in the first film: This is the sixth iteration of the Matrix, and the closest one to perfection (in the sense that it strikes the sleepers as being real). The Matrix has wiped out Zion five previous times, but it always gets rebuilt. One percent of humans are inevitably going to resist the Matrix and wake up.
If you’re watching “Reloaded” for the story, well, there is a certain enjoyment to be gleaned from hero’s-journey thresholds such as Neo going to the Oracle (Gloria Foster) for a starting point and then passing tests to get closer to learning something crucial. One of the tests involves kissing Merovingian’s beautiful and teed-off wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci). It’s a nice reprieve from fighting an army of ex-Agents, and also an example of how “Reloaded” is more uneven in tone than the original.
A viewer is left with an unfinished feeling. Toward the end, when we might hope things click into place, “Reloaded” piles on more questions. In the big picture, this isn’t a deal breaker, because we can simply pop in the “Revolutions” disc, and perhaps the “Animatrix” animated shorts have some good information too. But it makes it hard to judge “Reloaded” on much more than its (admittedly great) production design and action spectacles.