The Matrix changed everything. The monster hit of 1999, it went into the annals of movie legend and never released its talon-like grip on the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Everybody was talking about this film. It wasn’t just the groundbreaking set pieces and fighting that had audiences flocking in droves, however. This was an action movie that dared to be smart, thoughtful even, laying out the carpet for a new generation of hyper-charged blockbusters that challenged the audience’s intellect as much as its senses. As much as The Matrix played on the tropes of the genre, it had ideas above its station, majoring in philosophy and Lynchian nightmares. It presented fantastical and spiritual mythos as a backdrop to breathless viscera. Bullet-dodging nailed down the viewer long enough to ask some truly troubling questions.
This was the key to its success. Although they took their time to concoct a series of pulsating duels and beatdowns by all manner of fists and bullets, Andy and Lana Wachowski had bigger fish to fry. Their story – while powered by the simplicity of the hero’s journey and prophecy-fulfilled archetypes – was one that asked all of us to question our reality and discover untapped powers within. The material owed as much to Rene Descartes and John Locke as it did to John Woo and Bruce Lee. On top of this, it was mounted atop a much grander story taking place elsewhere, one involving the total destruction of the human race and a final war for survival. It flirted with the movie epic.
Thus, it was of little surprise that there would be a sequel, two in fact. It wasn’t just the original’s ticket sales; the follows=up came out at a time when The Lord of the Rings was king. Such a goldmine for cinematic world-building couldn’t be turned down. After all, The Matrix left so much untouched and unseen. There was an entire universe to explore, one only hinted at in dialogue. The last human city of Zion; fields of humans harvested by the machines; the dark past of a mankind vs. AI war; and, of course, the promise of a great battle to finally free the human race from bondage, with mercurial hero Neo at the forefront. It sounds, on the surface, like a sci-fi masterpiece waiting to be.
Sadly, it was not to be. There was a withering backlash against Reloaded and Revolutions that still exists to this day, with R&R synonymous with disappointing or unnecessary sequels. That they ultimately failed (critically if not commercially) can be seen as a great tragedy, for numerous reasons. The most significant frustration comes from the fact that while the two films are rather botched in their execution, they are stuffed with so many great ideas that even in their infamy, the sequels are studied and discussed at length by academics and critics. The set-up for the two was immaculate and the basic premise of the films was similarly fitting. But the final product was malnourished and unsatisfying. Contrasting with The Matrix, the question viewers were left to ask after watching Reloaded and Revolutions was “Why are these sequels are so underwhelming?”
It is a legitimate question and, rather maddeningly, one that is not hard to answer upon examination. It would be an easier pill to swallow were the two films fundamentally flawed and thus never fit for greatness. Analysis doesn’t just reveal the strong strand of philosophical and spiritual wondering, it also shows that it is the foreground plot, not the existential subtext that ultimately spoiled the party. Although some critics were quick to point out the over-elaborate and haughtily unabashed apocrypha as dead weight that unbalanced the film, it is a knee-jerk reaction that ignores the basic principle of any thinking man’s blockbuster; just as much as the brainy stuff has to work to make the plot bearable, the plot has to make sense to justify the intellectual material.
This is why Inception was forgiven for packing its dialogue with endless exposition, usually a mortal sin of screenwriting. It’s also why audiences are willing to accept that John McClane is able to take out a dozen heavily armed terrorists singlehandedly. If we are presented with a solid plot, we will not begin nitpicking. Actually watching Reloaded, for example, will reveal that criticisms made in retrospect – such as damning the Zion rave or the Architect’s cameo – are symptoms of a bigger problem. These scenes work and are justified in-universe. It’s just that, presented with a story that does not flow naturally and hits too many time wasting speed bumps, we find ourselves questioning the bits and pieces when the whole is flawed. The Matrix sequels are not let down by the mythos and certainly not by the spiritual element; they are damned by avoidable narrative problems.
So, how does one go about turning such pariahs into masterstrokes? With alarming simplicity, as it turns out. Like so many films that require surgery, the damage can be found within the screenplay and with it the potential for something greater. Here, we shall address Reloaded, the first of the sequels and the essential crux to the trilogy.
The first problem that requires attention is the most ironic; for a film depicting the last stand of mankind, the sequels feel strangely lifeless. Every major human character seems to speak with the same voice and adopt the same principles, conversing over big issues such as the war and the prophecy and the messiah endlessly. Harold Perrineau’s Link and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Niobe, supporting players at best, are the only ones who flirt with the idea of individuality. While The Matrix had defined characters, the most emotive and distinctive presence in Reloaded is Agent Smith, a computer program. Shaking this up immediately brings a human touch to the proceedings. Whether it by presenting the Zion council as a free-society government instead of a clichéd ‘many voices as one’ collective or allowing Trinity to talk about anything other than her love for Neo, you invite the viewer to begin connecting with the men and women they are following.
It also means that quiet scenes can be entertaining and perhaps even enlightening breathers rather than plot-burners. Alternatively, said interludes can be cut to avoid the tepid cliché of ‘relationships during times or turmoil’ arguments seen in every other disaster and war movie. Love triangles involving military commanders and ship captains are also fodder for the editing room floor, not only because they serve as distractions but because they add nothing to the film. Morpheus is essentially a holy man, dedicated to a path following in the wake of the holy one. He should not be muddied by melodrama, nor does he need such contrivances to place a firm wedge between himself and Harry Lennix’s militantly minded Commander Lock, his ideological nemesis. Niobe’s status as a badass is undermined by her being the subject of romantic entanglement.
Of course, removing these character elements has an effect converse to the previous point; injecting some life into proceedings. This is where you introduce the ace in the hole: a new character.
It seems pretty clear that early in the script’s development, the character of ‘Kid’ (as depicted in The Animatrix) was intended to have a more significant role. He is introduced early on in Reloaded as being one of Neo’s worshippers, personally indebted to the One for his release from the Matrix and eagerly attempting to forge for himself a big part in the battle ahead. It is also established in this scene that the crew of the Nebuchadnezzer is below strength. There are only four serving onboard the ship even though the original crew comprised eight and the other ships seem to have a similar contingent. This becomes particularly jarring when Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo plug into the Matrix and leave Link to man the ship. It seems like we are setting up for a series of circumstances that will have Kid join the crew and add a fish-out-of-water element that was a core strength of the first film. But then, inexplicably, this numerical problem and Kid’s significance is ignored and never brought up again. It seems as if depicting Kid as an irritating underager without the smarts to avoid tripping over himself wrote the Wachowskis into a corner.
It’s not just a lack of heart that creates the need for a new presence, it is also the nature of Neo as a protagonist; he is the fulfilled prophecy, a superman who is unbeatable in the virtual world and revered throughout Zion as a savior. There is very little one can do with this kind of character aside from a little angst here and a piece of doubt there. Although the script attempts to address this, the beefing up of Morpheus’s role is similarly misguided since his prophet status makes him necessarily one-dimensional. Ditto to Trinity as Neo’s champion. Link is comic relief, almost, a welcome human touch but too experienced and loyal to add any real depth. For some three-dimensional characterization to be added, desperately needed as it is, a second protagonist is needed.
Imagine a character named Jason. Liberated by Neo just as Kid was, he is a young man troubled and cut adrift in the real world. Within Zion, he finds little resembling a home, and is without purpose. Facing the prospect of an impossible war against the machines, he begins to question whether taking the red pill was just. In short, he is questioning his faith. Unlike his friend Kid, Jason is also resourceful and pragmatic, cynical and skeptical but also intelligent. He acts as an audience surrogate, not just in his ability to ask questions to ease the viewer’s confusion, but also in his attitude towards talk of messiahs and providence. He is disturbed by the Zion rave and flees to the engineering deck. The scene between Neo and Councilor Hamann now overlaps with Jason’s breakdown. During this alternate exchange, Neo and Jason have a heart to heart, during which Neo shares some insights into how difficult it has been adjusting from the false comforts of the Matrix into his role of mankind’s savior. Though Jason doesn’t believe the prophecy, the words have an effect on him. Seeing something of himself in Jason, Neo puts a word in for him with Hamann. After proving himself extremely worthy as a flight officer, Jason is drafted on to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. This exchange not only adds a perspective to the film that is barely explored beyond Cypher’s treachery in the first film, it also gives Neo a human moment to offset the weight of the religious aspects.
Now we have a skeptic in the crew, a different voice who can act as a counterpoint to Morpheus, and a witness character. Jason sees the events of the sequels firsthand and begins to believe in Neo. Cash in on the Morpheus-Lock conflict by having the latter force new crew members upon Morpheus, justifying the inclusion of a relative newbie, and most importantly throw a fish out of water into the action to prevent further audience alienation. Jason’s journey is similar to the protagonist’s in the first film. Crucially, he also becomes important in Revolutions, as will be discussed later.
These additions should give the audience a firmer connection to the action, essentially including them in the big stuff and allowing them more material with which to sustain themselves. It also lessens the workload on Keanu Reeves, who is forcibly stuck in a one-note performance by the script (a necessity that many mistook for a bad performance). So, now our focus switches to the story, or more accurately how it is presented to us. The backbone of this odyssey is sound, particularly in its originality. While many fans anticipated a build-up to the Matrix being destroyed and with it the machines, the refusal to fall into this and focus on the Faustian relationship between the machines and the human race is admirable. It means that this is epic sci-fi with something new to say, much like the first film. In short, the destination isn’t the problem, the journey is.
Much of this can be fixed with some tinkering. There is much complaint over the entire Smith/Bane arc, which can be eased by a couple of simple means. The first is to introduce Bane ahead of time, in the early scenes before his possession. This means there is a small but tangible connection made with the character beforehand. The second would be to make Bane the captain of his ship, increasing the peril of his corruption. Explaining how a computer program within the Matrix can control a human being in the real world can be addressed in Revolutions. The human assault on the machine’s drilling devices, Bane’s treachery and the resultant slaughter should be depicted, even if only briefly, falling in with the principal of ‘show don’t tell’. Thus, none of his part in the proceedings feels forced.
Other issues are just as straightforward, such as the acquisition of the Keymaker. This is a pivotal plot point and yet is poorly handled, particularly with a laborious and cringe-inducing ‘kiss of love’ scene with Persephone. Her presence creates more problems than it solves, since the idea of programs having spouses is so mind-boggling that it threatens to destroy the tenuous suspension of disbelief. A better approach lies within the scenario; the Merovingian is an exile program, an AI outlaw, and seems to specialize in collecting other wayward systems. As an outlaw, the Merovingian would surely be prey for the Agents, enforcers within the matrix. Thus, Neo and his team lure the agents to the Merovingian, sparking off a furious battle. During the carnage, they are able to grab the Keymaker and make their exit. The Merovingian is apprehended during this battle and all is going well until the heroes are spotted, leading into the motorway sequence, easily the best action sequence of either sequel.
Action is a key word, since it ultimately defines the series and presents not just Reloaded’s finest moment but also its worst. While the freeway chase is spectacular, the burly brawl is an utter mess of over-indulgence and ill-logic. Its purpose is understandable, since it marks the first confrontation between Neo and the now-altered Smith within the sequels, but any merit the exchange possesses is quickly lost. Five minutes of CGI Smiths assaulting Neo and being flung off, only for Neo to fly off at the end, is both ponderous and pointless. It also shows a shocking lack of ambition or scope, something the first film was glorified for. Instead of having invincible Medusa Smith attacking unbeatable Jesus Neo over and over, why not end the fight after Smith tries to assimilate him? Having barely managed to stop him, Neo then makes his escape.
Rather than flying away, a cheap ploy, he finds his strength has been sapped and has to make rather ineloquent efforts to reformat his surroundings (remember Morpheus talking about the One being able to control the Matrix in the first film?) and outrun the many Smiths for long enough to reach a phone. This quickly shows us that, despite his gifts, Neo is not infallible, and he has found an enemy capable of hurting him. It foreshadows the fate of the Matrix as Smith continues to assimilate program after program until he controls the entire system. This is where the real terror should come from, and Hugo Weaving is perfectly able to carry this off non-verbally without the use of incessant brawling or poorly judged attempts at comic relief.
With the threat within the Matrix and the tangible danger of the impending war established, characterization improved and expanded, and a human touch brought into the machinations of plot, Reloaded is now a much healthier beast. It rings more resonant. However, there is still one last trick and it is perhaps the most crucial. So intrinsic is this twist, in fact, that it is foreshadowed in the writing and built up perfectly despite never occurring. At the end of the film, we get a sense of the danger and yet we don’t at the same time. Nothing is really lost; the stakes don’t seem as high as they should be. Neo has defied all laws of logic by rescuing Trinity from certain death. But during all these dark warnings and promises (“She is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it”) there is a lurking and ominous presence, one that plays with the nature of choice and free will.
With this set-up, Neo deciding to rescue Trinity needs a payoff. And the platform for this exists in the script. Think back to Morpheus’s “Isn’t that worth dying for?” speech before the mission to enter the source and meet the Architect. Notice how his only role is to preach the wisdom of the prophecy, and how his role in Revolutions is notably withdrawn. With Neo now the special one, he has essentially taken up Morpheus’s ‘destiny’ mantle, making him unnecessary as a character.
So rewind to the film’s climax. Neo meets the Architect (a scene this writer wouldn’t dare touch in rewriting), is told that he must sacrifice Trinity, but goes after her anyway. He takes the door back in to the Matrix. As a result of this, both he and Trinity are jacked in when the machines attack the ship. No bomb, just a good old fashioned hands-on assault, echoing the end of the first film. While Link tries to get Neo and Trinity out, Morpheus, Jason, and the other new crew members are forced to fight off the attack without using the EMP. The ship is decimated and the newbies (except Jason) are killed.
Facing his own death, Morpheus quickly has to choose whether to trigger the EMP and kill Neo or bow out. So convinced is he of Neo’s divinity that he chooses the latter and dies. Neo and Trinity finally leave the Matrix and emerge to chaos. Jason hits the EMP and the sentinel assault is ended. Neo is horrified to discover that his choice to stay and save Trinity has not only left them stranded and surely doomed within the sewers, but has caused the death of his mentor. This is the true cost of choice. Trinity leads a shellshocked Neo out of the ship, Jason and Link in pursuit, and they try to run as the sentinels descend upon them. The climax plays out as it does in the finished film. In a pique of rage, Neo destroys the squids and the Mjolnir comes to the rescue.
With this, Reloaded finds its grit to go with the substance. The cliffhanger leading into Revolutions is not only infused with fervent anticipation but traumatized emotional severity. As we approach the endgame, all bets are off.
To be concluded…