worth all the hype
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Date: May 2003
Review by Steve Tomkins
The Wachowski brothers face the same problem as St Luke when he came to write Acts. If you ended your first story with the hero dying, rising again with superhuman power and ascending to heaven, where on earth do you go for a sequel?
Luke's answer was to get a new hero, focussing on the very human Paul. The Wachowskis try various ploys with their messiah Neo, from sticking him up a mountain while frail mortals fight it out below (until, what do you know, he swoops down to rescue them at the last moment), to inundating him with 100 baddies at once (Agent Smith in an accident with a Xerox machine) to simply giving us a lovingly CG-Ied trouncing of the opposition.
None of it really works, leaving Matrix Reloaded but a dream of its predecessor, which seems to confirm what theologians realised 1800 years ago. People need a human saviour, who struggles and bleeds. An omnipotent hand reaching down from heaven just isn't up to it.
The basic story is set in Zion, the last human city in the real world, where surviving rebels await one last apocalyptic onslaught from their binary foe. Morpheus assures everyone that the prophecies promise that final victory is at hand. Stepping out in faith, he deserts his post for Neo's last crucial consultation with the Oracle.
But is he right? Near the end of the film comes the horrifying revelation that the faith of Morpheus, Neo and Trinity is mistaken and reality is rewritten again.
Come part three, their faith will presumably be vindicated after all. Morpheus is given the job of preaching, at length, everything the film seems to believe in - truth, freedom, providence. If they are genuinely going to overthrow this whole belief system, the W brothers will be doing something extremely edgy, dangerous and intriguing - three words which don¹t apply to the film otherwise. November will tell.
Those who enjoyed spotting the religious symbolism and parallels of the life of Jesus in The Matrix will have less to keep their interest here. Those for whom the main point was the joy of seeing Keanu Reeves hitting people are better catered for.
There is some though. Watch out for Neo hearing intercessions, shedding his blood and paying a self-referential visit to floor 101.
The French character Merovingian takes his name from a European dynasty supposedly descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalen, confirming hints in The Matrix about parallels with Neo and Trinity. The hybrid spirituality of The Matrix is summed up by a shot of a Last Supper scene sitting on a souvenir stall next to a purple Buddha.
The religion of the humans in Zion is an interesting development of this. They have prayers and a temple, even a rosary has survived, though only as a talisman. But just as the parallelism of The Matrix lacked any God-figure, so the prayers of Zion are not to anybody, but merely of a 'let us remember our loved ones' kind. This confirms one of the most intriguing features of The Matrix as a religious movie - its atheist spirituality. It is drenched in religion but looks to no God out there, only 'my higher self'.
As Neo tells one of the the souls he has rescued from the matrix, who thanks him for saving him, 'You saved yourself'. In fact the nearest we come to a God figure is the Architect, who created the matrix. This will delight those who saw The Matrix as a Gnostic parable, Gnostics believing that the world was created by an evil lesser god.
If the spiritual theme of The Matrix was salvation, the theme of Matrix Reloaded is damnation. Zion is, ironically, a dark subterranean realm for those delivered from life on the 'earth' of the matrix. Like souls in purgatory, or in the biblical Sheol, they await deliverance from this grim existence.
Our heroes are aided by the treachery of one Persephone, who in Greek mythology was the goddess of Hades. The thematic swearword of The Matrix was, appropriately, 'Jesus'; here it is 'damn'. 'Goddamn, it¹s good to be home¹, says Link when they arrive in Zion.
Tied loosely to this is the most dominant theme of fate. The AI baddies believe in nothing but inevitable cause and effect, the goodies uphold both freedom of choice and, paradoxically, supernatural destiny. They debate the subject a lot, and while this is nowhere near as boring as the interminable kung fu, it fails the so what test. Characters are given various tussles between love and duty but few are convincing enough to make you care very much one way or the other, which is fatal.
One can¹t review Matrix Reloaded without a word about the special effects, so here it is: boring. The effects in The Matrix were superb, because they were new and because the action mattered to the story and the story mattered to us. But not even $100 million worth of flying and explosions can redeem a story that has nowhere to go.
The Wachowski brothers have done their best to leave us in real doubt about whether the human race can be saved. The more pressing question is whether the Matrix trilogy can be saved.