Many people do not seem to have liked the start of Matrix: Reloaded, which does take some time to get going. I’ve heard comments about the messianic-depiction of Neo at the start, and that the film is too much “Neo Christ Superstar”. Not fair, in my view. The film starts with his dream about Trinity dying, which lends a more fatalistic tone to everything which follows. He seems burdened by his responsibility when he arrives home to find people seeking his help. And it isn’t Neo who gives an uplifting speech to the people of Zion, it is Morpheus. And the people seem to revere (worship?) Morpheus just as much. As for the speech, it was pleasantly surprising. After the drum-banging of The Two Towers (which Peter Jackson admittedly tries to tone down), the simple realism of Morpheus’ was like a breath of fresh air. There was none of the glory-of-those-about-to-die about the speech, the main sentiment being that, although they had been at war with the machines for a century, they still hadn’t been defeated: they would survive as they always had. Give me that over the “we shall die in such a way as will be worthy of a song” rubbish of The Lord Of The Rings any day.
More important is the way in which the film resembles that of Peter Jackson. Both films seem to be in the process of re-inventing what it means to write a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back, in which the good guys lose and the hero loses his hand in a fight, had an attempt at this in the early 1980’s, but no-one seemed to take up the gauntlet until recently (Terminator 2 almost did). Both films treat the audience with some respect by implicitly saying, we know you’ve seen the first film and you understand what is going on; we’re not going to patronise you with background which you already know. Neither film has any introductory sequences for the main characters or story. If you haven’t seen the first film, you won’t have a clue what is going on in the second. It might sound arrogant, but this is good. The very nature of a sequel is to sell itself on the back of its predecessor’s success (a series is somewhat different, however). Why should films with complex story-lines like The Lord Of The Rings or The Matrix recapitulate what took 2 or 3 hours to develop in the first part for the benefit of those who go to watch a second part of a trilogy without watching the first part? Answer: they shouldn’t. Nobody who went to see Matrix: Reloaded wanted a simple re-hash of the first film: they wanted a development. They wanted to see how the story went on, what would happen next, not merely the same story retold with new special effects and different actors, as is all to often the case in sequels. There is a kind of anti-populism in these films which is a good sign, in my opinion: they are not made for the ignorant fools who went to see The Fellowship Of The Ring and were disappointed that it didn’t have a proper ending. It is an attitude which says “It’s a trilogy, stupid!” and which I find utterly refreshing. It is anti-formulaic: repeating the formula is not enough. It is brave: it risks alienating a section of the audience. And for Hollywood at least, it is subversive: it shows how well it is possible to do a sequel, which will heighten the contrast with the populist pap that is usually churned out.
Matrix: Reloaded does this without changing the basic story of its predecessor, a common device of sequels (see Highlander 2 for a particularly bad application of this rule: it turns out that they’re aliens!). The world of both films is the same: nothing had to be tweaked in order to introduce the new story. The excellent Agent Smith was not replaced by a new and supposedly more dangerous Agent Smith character (who would have made short work of the hero of the last film) but with a re-invented Smith, whose own development is intertwined with Neo’s. Old allies, such as The Oracle, are recast in a new but consistent light; new foes are introduced who would simply not have been interested in the events of the first film. And because of the generally familiar cybernetics context, new concepts are able to be introduced which require no justification to the audience: “programs hacking programs” as Neo says at one point regarding the exiled programmes we meet at various stages of the film, or the idea of programmer ‘backdoors’ which require the correct key to be opened. All this means that Matrix: Reloaded feels like a worthy extension of the original, and if its a little complicated at times, that just leaves you talking about it when you leave the cinema.
I have heard the suggestion that the film is really only commerce, trying to make you watch the third part when it comes out. If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, you’ll know that I don’t think that’s true. Certainly, we have a multi-media bombardment, but that’s been true of much-hyped films for years. And if the computer game (to take one example) is so well integrated into the story of the film as it is supposed to be then that is raising the stakes of tie-ins. I have no problem with multi-media capitalism anyway, just with dumb multi-media capitalism.
Another thing that I was pleased wasn’t missing was the humour. The first Matrix was near-spoof at some points, and the stylish tongue-in-cheek nature of the film was what made it so superior to many other ‘action’ movies. There is perhaps not as much in the second film, although some of the humour will become apparent after several viewings, I’m sure (like the Morpheus’ explanation that within the Matrix, your physical form is “the mental projection of your digital self” - er, really? Like, I have a digital self?). But a couple of points stood out. “He’s doing his Superman thing again” says the new operator Link as he watches Neo flying off into the blue. And as Neo leaves The Architect and the building explodes behind him we get a old fashioned fist-clenched outstretched-arm flying routine straight out of DC Comics. Übercool. When Smith leaps on a unsuspecting rebel who cries “Oh, God!”, Smith replies “Smith will suffice.” Or when Neo meets The Architect, who tells him that “the most obvious question is also the most irrelevant”; Neo, not having much in the way of grey matter, asks “Why am I here?” And to cap it all, when The Architect, who likes the sound of his own voice, pauses for breath, Neo, in a flash of insight observes that “You still haven’t answered my question”; The Architect replies “Quite right. Interesting: you noticed faster than your predecessors” and proceeds to talk about something else entirely. When Trinity lies dead in his arms, Neo resolves to try and bring her back to life on the basis that “I just love you too damn much”; her first words are “Now we’re even”. Side splitting it isn’t, but this kind of almost-corny self-awareness saves both films from disappearing up their own behinds, which given the amount of stylised violence and neo-mystical pseudo-science is absolutely crucial. “There is no spoon” from the original film is still one of my favourite cinematic lines ever. And even if other people think that the films are true, the saving grace of the films is that they don’t take themselves so seriously. After all: its a film, stupid!