The Matrix: Reloaded Retrospective

For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I rewatched The Matrix: Reloaded, and for the first time since then, I’ve come away more or less unsatisfied by my viewing, and I thought I’d ponder why for a bit.

Reloaded is essentially the first film, in reverse, but not in the crass, “these kids would drink bleach if we marketed it right” way that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York was precisely the same film as the first Home Alone. Red Letter Media hung one of their jokes on a George Lucas on-set quote where he described the similarities between the original trilogy and its prequels as “poetry”. The movie starts off with Neo as The [Chosen] One, and gradually busts him back down to size through his continued chafing under his fated role, until, finally, love brings someone back from the dead, Neo delivers Morpheus’ own speech about “the truth” from the first film back at him, their ship gets blowed up, the humans seem screwed, and the hero goes back to sleep: Roll credits. Does this “poetic” duplication of plot and story elements work?

Well, sort of. It’s important to bear in mind that Reloaded released almost five years after the original film, and so the echoing might have been an attempt to invoke the original film in the audience’s minds, to make them recall–subconsciously, perhaps–the events of that film and bring them to the forefront of their thoughts. This was before film studios hit upon their magic formula of “one year between films in a trilogy with a heavy marketing campaign ramp up between each film” and adhered to it stridently. Reloaded DID get a large marketing campaign prior to its release, with a video game and the Animatrix tie-in (in whose marketing footsteps The Dark Knight followed with its Batman: Gotham Knight direct-to-DVD release), both of which were invoked within the film, as the events of the video game parallel those of the film with some major secondary characters and a character from The Animatrix reappears as a minor comic relief and gets a larger role in Revolutions to follow. The point being, there was some marketing, but the original story wasn’t fresh in the minds of the viewers, and so there might be legitimate grounds for the rehash. While the reliance on old narratives might be symptomatic, they aren’t the real problem.

One of the bigger issues was the characterization, or lack thereof. Reeves’ deadpan performance as Neo has been lampooned to death and back again, but I don’t see why when the entire principal cast–indeed, all the humans–are so…INhuman. There is a scene when Neo, Trinity and Morpheus are in consul with The Merovingian, and during the whole scene, the thing I kept thinking to myself was “the machines act more human than the humans do.” Lambert Wilson chews the scenery a bit in his role, but it’s a markedly more organic performance than virtually anything the humans do, except perhaps Harold Perrineau’s performance as Link. Most of the characters spend their screen time waxing philosophical, delivering Kevin Smith-level monologues, or standing around like incredibly miffed statues. They aren’t people and that makes it hard for the viewer to sympathize with their plight. Even the fight choreography is so leaden and angular that the “dance” of traditional Chinese wuxia films that they are trying to invoke simply doesn’t exist here.

Most of the characters express what emotions they have in the Say Anything boombox delivery of flashing a piece (“angry!”). There’s (I guess?) a romantic subplot with Morpheus and Niobe that doesn’t have any reason or depth behind it aside from a few tepid aphorisms and a scene where she’s framed as the good guy to Commander Lock’s bad guy (though Lock really is the voice of reason in the room and, strangely, has his military command usurped pretty regularly). Watching Carrie-Anne Moss weaving through high-speed traffic collisions in her skin-tight black PVC bodysuit was small consolation for her role as a woman in a refrigerator.

Time is a factor here too as the CGI…has not aged well. Many of the effects in the first Matrix were practical, produced using wirework and the innovative slow-motion green-screen spiraling camerawork that would become the autotune of post-1999 action cinema; what CGI there was was minimal, enhancing shots or adding a sense of the otherworldly to some of the visuals. In Reloaded, however, at 1080p, the reliance on CGI in some of the fight scenes–particularly the “Burly Brawl” with Neo fighting a hundred Agent Smiths–have gone from looking waxy and fake to something that looks like it belongs on a storyboard, rather than a final cut of the film. I’m not saying that the scene would have been 100% possible with practical effects (though Jet Li’s The One did a good job with a green-screen-hooded stunt double) but it feels cheap.

Also, I’m just going to say this now (and this has bugged me from the first time I watched it), but the The Wachowski Brothers (now the Wachowski Sister) have a serious issue with articles:

The Source

The One

The Merovingian

The Twins

The Keymaker

The Architect

The Oracle

They’re big players; we get it. Not every character in your film needs to get billing status like they’re a marble pillar holding up your Sistine chapel ceiling of post-production green-washed hues. I suppose part of this was to try and dehumanize the AI characters by objectifying them linguistically, but it just comes off as simplistic and amateurish.

So why did I like this movie when I was younger? Part of it was the power fantasy: Watching Neo beat the pixels out of a hundred Smiths  is a pretty good feeling after he nearly killed Neo in the first film and it really hammers home how far he’s come. (Seeing The Merovingian’s face when Neo takes a sword to the hand (seemingly) without a scratch is still priceless.) Part of it was the richness of the setting from the first film, still waiting to be explored–a distinct world that echoed strains of Ghost in the Shell remixed with more of a cyberpunk aesthetic–in which anything was possible. (If you want a refresher on why The Matrix was such a big hit back in 1999, just watch this trailer and try to imagine having no preconceptions about what it was about; it looked like something between Dark City and Videodrome and was utterly cutting-edge for its time: It had the benefit of spectacle as well, featuring one of the biggest and most technically impressive car chase sequences on record…and probably watching Carrie-Anne Moss in that bodysuit through 70% of the film didn’t hurt either.




©2013 by Blake Vaughn. The text of this story may be redistributed freely in its original form with attribution to the author, Blake Vaughn, and his website,, as under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One Comment

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