In the film from which there is no escape and no going back, The Matrix, the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski presented a grim choice between truth and illusion. The truth: We are born and die as captives on a despoiled Earth, where intelligent machines keep us drugged and confined so they may tap our bioenergy. The illusion: We wake to an alarm clock, then drive to a tall building and work from 9 till 5, after which we return home and watch TV till bedtime–all of which is a mere computer simulation, wired into our nervous systems by the machines so we won’t wither too soon.
On the one hand, a nightmarish reality; on the other, a deadly boring dream. Had The Matrix shown these to be life’s only choices, I doubt that moviedom would now be supine beneath the boots of its sequel. But the Wachowski brothers offered audiences a third, winning possibility: being cool. They imagined that a small band of adventurers–the cool are always few–had learned to pass back and forth between the dismal, industrial horror of the real world and the pristine Vancouverishness of the simulation. I will give The Matrix this much credit: It defined coolness precisely as a matter of this crossing over, shucking both the agonies of creatural life and the time-killing daydreams of social routine.
Of course, coolness is also a matter of style and attitude. In The Matrix, the performers’ fallback pose was studiously unexpressive–or unstudiously so, in the case of Keanu Reeves–in the manner of people who feign indifference even to their own disaffection. Dark sunglasses added to the masklike effect. (To cite a deep student of the subject, Norman Mailer: The person who wears shades is signaling, “I can look at you, but you have no right to look at me.” Or, in Matrix terms: “I’m just passing through your lousy idea of reality.”) The clothes were African-American in inspiration–lots of black leather and tight black vinyl–and the fisticuffs Chinese, showing that cool people take an interest in a variety of cultures. (I mean, they enjoy turning ethnic associations into mix-‘n’-match fashion statements.) The firepower? Cool to the extreme.
Lastly, I mention the special effects, about which I’ll need to give some history. In spring 1998, The Gap startled television viewers with its “Khaki’s Swing” commercial, featuring a 180-degree pan around jitterbug dancers who stopped motionless in midair. A full year later, The Matrix was released, making prominent use of this same so-called stereoscopic freeze. Considering the lengthiness of movie production schedules, I would guess this was coincidence, not copycatting. The Wachowskis must have been composing their effect when “Khaki Swings” first aired and were perhaps upset to have been scooped–but that’s what can happen when a new technology becomes available and different companies find purposes for it. The innovators in this case, who deserve credit for the public breakthrough, were The Gap’s then-creative director, Lisa Prisco, and commercial director Matthew Rolston; but it was the latecomers who developed the more influential use of the technique. Before you could blink, the Wachowskis’ stereoscopic freeze was being imitated, even in Shrek.
I make this point merely to exorcise the technological determinism that haunts so much writing about film, whether in magazine articles or in the publicity handouts on which they’re based. To grasp the appeal of The Matrix–as you should, since Nation people are among the most uncool on the planet–you ought to understand that this particular effect in the film dazzled people not just for its novelty but also for its meaning. Here was a computer simulation of utterly free movement, achieved within the fiction of a neurodigital prison. Like the characters’ leather-clad, sunglass-guarded detachment, the stereoscopic freeze boldly dramatized the state of being neither inside nor outside a situation–more specifically, of being able to employ a technology while owing nothing to its principal controllers. An untenable fantasy, when you examine it; and the Wachowskis chose not to do so, until now.
With their new film, The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowskis take on the theme of choice, or the lack of it. I draw this conclusion tentatively, since the movie is uncommonly talky yet incomprehensible. Very long, mostly wordless fight and chase sequences alternate with scenes in which characters explain what’s been happening; and these expatiations sound like, “Abba gadda choice. Hava zacha power taya. Understand kala mana, anomaly sa’ah.” Listen with your ears out of focus, and you almost catch the drift: The cybermessiah known as Neo (Reeves) may fight against the machines’ domination, but all the while he’s dependent on machines for his food, his water–even for the air he breathes. What’s more, he wonders whether his rebellion has been anticipated and countered in advance, by an opponent who comes to the chessboard with far more computational power than he’ll ever muster. Could the enemy in fact be playing with both sets of pieces? Is Neo’s revolt a part of the system?
Not wishing to slight the world’s late-night dorm-room philosophers with unseemly comparisons, I will merely note that this theme imparts a certain claustrophobia to the Wachowskis’ images. In one of the film’s major set pieces, Neo is encircled and smothered during a fight in a tenement courtyard. (His opponents come in an endless supply and are perfectly identical, which makes the effect grotesquely funny but all the more suffocating.) Much later in the film, Neo is again hemmed in by a dismayingly small set of possibilities: He is brought into a low, windowless room, whose curving walls are made of video monitors all displaying his face. Other characters who suffer confinement include the Key Maker (Randall Duk Kim), a meek but knowledgeable figure who has been kept in a closet, elaborately surrounded by his wares; and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo’s love interest, who takes off on a high-speed car chase only to be shut into close quarters with half of a deadly pair of twins.
As these few examples suggest, the sense of claustrophobia in The Matrix Reloaded has to do with more than physical enclosure. Repetition, too, makes the world seem to close in on the characters, sometimes deliberately (as when the Wachowskis multiply a villain) and sometimes inadvertently (as when they run out of fresh kung-fu stunts but keep the fight going anyway). A third limiting factor, familiar from the first Matrix, is imitativeness. Maybe the Wachowskis didn’t mimic “Khaki Swings,” but they’ve borrowed heavily from many other sources. Metropolis figures prominently among them in the present film: In the image of an underground industrial city (put together, apparently, from pieces of old merchant marine freighters) and of a cavernous temple, where throngs of worshipers gather amid the stalactites and stalagmites. The Wachowskis have also rummaged carelessly through sacred texts and compendiums of myth, since religion–any kind of religion–seems useful to them when they want a proper noun. The people, places and things in The Matrix Reloaded include Zion, Niobe, Nebuchadnezzar, Logos, Persephone, Seraph, Osiris and just plain Oracle, making you feel like you’re scanning the name tags at some trade show in the Joseph Campbell Convention Center.
My point is, The Matrix Reloaded moves more heavily than its predecessor. At times, the picture even grunts with effort, as when it builds up to the sex scene between Neo and Trinity. The whole first act of the movie seems devoted to getting the two of them naked, a process that requires the Wachowskis to intercut a full-scale orgy, featuring thousands of people bumping and grinding in the Temple of the Stalactites. Dreadlocks are flung about; piercings are flaunted (by “piercings,” I mean the jack-plugs that are Matrix cyberequivalents); and a group of primitivist drummers bangs away like the road band of Stomp, until slowly, slowly, Neo pushes himself toward Trinity’s bed. As the close-ups loom, you might notice that Trinity has a long face, with thin lips and a pronounced chin–not unlike Neo’s. Another instance of repetition: Keanu Reeves seems to be kissing himself.
More laborious still is the scene in which Neo must approach Persephone, played by the international sex goddess Monica Bellucci. In an episode that is noticeably awkward and protracted, Bellucci demands that Reeves kiss her as if he means it. I suppose the filmmaker Mark Rappaport will make much of this moment some day, when he puts together Keanu Reeves’s Home Movies. He will note, as I do now, that the Wachowskis were fully aware of what they were doing. In fact, they’re always too knowing by half. For the boys of whatever age who are the primary ticket-buyers, they supply PG-13 sex in an R-for-violence context, with the act coolly performed by a character who is neither in nor out of the situation. For more worldly-wise ticket-buyers, they provide a wink and a nudge. (Hey, we told you–it’s all a simulation!) But to people who want passion and expansiveness from a movie, and ideas that are fresh rather than recycled, the Wachowskis have become an obvious drag.
They will make a gazillion dollars anyway and soon will tread moviedom under their boots once more, when they release the third and final Matrix. Necessity, more than choice, now rules the process (to cite for the last time the film’s argal-bargal). The truly cool are few, but multitudes flock to a winner–as you may learn from Mr. Bush, another leading marketer of simulated liberation.
Do you think I’ve lost proportion, comparing an entertainment to a war? Then consider how The Matrix Reloaded continues and worsens the most disgusting feature of the original. At the end of this picture–I rejoice in spoiling the plot–human beings are murdered by the thousands, off camera. You hear about the massacre in passing; your sight is untroubled by anatomical details. A quick report is given, as “collateral damage” might be mentioned on the evening news, while the film’s attention remains concentrated on the only people who matter: the stars.