Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the film yet, I strongly recommend you set aside this review until you have.
For a sequel to top the original Matrix would be a tough act; elements that seemed new in that movie are likely to come across as revisited here. The Matrix, as a universe, has already been established. We know what it's about. The novelty of discovery is not something that can so easily be duplicated.
The question is not whether The Matrix Reloaded would seem as fresh as the original, but if it would be a worthy successor. I think it's very worthy; certainly it's entertaining and exciting and still tries to be intelligent. It perhaps isn't as thoughtful as the first film, primarily because many of the most thoughtful questions had already been asked, and the mystery of exactly what the Matrix was had been more or less solved. (Or had it?)
And yet, The Matrix Reloaded, even as it turns into an absolutely unstoppable action behemoth (with sequences that must be seen to be believed), does not jettison its brains. It has new mysteries and developments, and enough riddles to drive the riddle decoders in the audience to madness. I am not among the cadre of riddle decoders; just because there's a riddle doesn't mean it means something.
The Wachowskis, I suspect, wrote some of the dialog here with a wink and a nudge. I can't imagine they took it all seriously, even as the dialog itself is delivered with a straight face and takes itself dead seriously. At times, it edges close to self-parody. Everything that is said has some sort of Buried Larger Meaning. It's like they're challenging you to figure out the hidden subtext beneath. For some of the speeches, I'm doubtful that there's a subtext to find. The ideas here are over-inflated with riddles and spoken paradoxes that give them the appearance of being foundation-of-the-universe truths (encoded truths, to be sure). I'm fairly certain that a lot of it is skillfully manipulated BS, and yet that doesn't lessen the impact. The way the dialog is said gives it a conviction that allows it to hold its own. Even when you don't believe it, you'll feel like you should.
Reloaded picks up six months after the story of the first film. The Machines are drilling down toward the subterranean human city of Zion, and a massive invasion is imminent. Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) wants every ship on the front line of a defensive stand. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) defies orders and insists on maintaining a presence in the Matrix to await instructions from the Oracle (Gloria Foster). He believes with every fiber of his being that human salvation still resides in the ability of Neo (Keanu Reeves) to fight the Machines in the virtual world. To many in Zion, Neo is nothing short of the messiah. But to nonbelievers like Commander Lock, he is a distraction of false hope. "Not everyone believes what you believe," Lock tells Morpheus.
Morpheus has a speech to the people of Zion that is rousing, grand drama, even if the substance of the speech might as well boil down to a single word, like William Wallace shouting "FREEDOM!" at the end of Braveheart. A celebration of the dancing Zion residents is intercut with a sex scene between Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), underscored with a drum-and-techno piece that achieves a raw, engaging energy. These sort of sensational cinematic scenes are always worth experiencing.
Eventually, the message arrives from the Oracle. This leads to a meeting between her and Neo that features the first of the movie's maddening riddles. The funny thing about the Oracle is how she's so matter-of-fact about big, complex questions and is amused that Neo doesn't understand the paradoxes in her pontification. The Oracle tells Neo to visit a person called the Merovingian, who has in his possession another individual called the Keymaker. The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) is the key to ... well, let's just say his purpose is crucial, and he was apparently destined to serve exactly that purpose and little else.
There's a sly method here on the part of the Wachowskis. They essentially move the plot along by having the Oracle say where the characters should go next. When they find the smug and obnoxious Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), he taunts them for witlessly following the Oracle's directions from A to B. There's a Buried Message in here that I found interesting, which is that on some level our heroes make no choices and have no free will. They follow the Oracle's prophecies as a way to hold onto their hopes to solve a puzzle they would otherwise have no idea how to navigate.
The Wachowskis raise this point while at the same time satirizing their own screenplay's resignation to take action from A to B to C with stretches of dialog that essentially tell the characters to go from A to B to C. They employ an ancient plot-driving device (a supporting character supplies the heroes with precisely the information they need to go forward) while making it appear this device is something grander than it may actually be. They legitimize the device with their labyrinthine dialog, which sometimes contains something relevant we can pick out. It's a clever tightrope act.
In the meantime, the film ups the ante on action sequences and special effects. The virtual world of the Matrix here exists almost like a playground for the Wachowskis to entertain their notions of ultra-stylized action and genre-melding. Where the first Matrix brought us sequences that defied physics, Reloaded goes so far over the top that it becomes literally amazing to witness what's on the screen. Some in the audience may be skeptical, but I loved it. In some cases, I couldn't believe me eyes. How in the world did they come up with this stuff?
Neo's apparent destruction of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in the first film has somehow turned him loose as a rogue computer program (no longer an Agent) who can clone himself endlessly. There's a stunningly inventive sequence where an army of Smiths attacks Neo, who defends himself with a metal pole. Watching this scene is like watching a snowball roll down a hill; it just keeps building and building until it takes on an insane life of its own. It's a show-stopper that had me laughing in delirious incredulity. How in the world did they choreograph such a scene, let alone film it? It must've taken months. It's part Yuen Wo Ping martial-arts mayhem, part computer-generated cartoon slapstick. The deadpan persona of all the Agent Smiths makes it hilarious. After the fight ends, they dust themselves off with an almost detached indifference.
There's plenty more where that came from, including an impressive martial-arts showdown between Neo and the Merovingian's forces, and a prolonged chase sequence on a freeway that practically reinvents vehicular chase sequences. Car chases have been done to death and can be deadly dull in the movies. Not here. Cars flip through the air and crash in ways I've never seen before, and there's an incredible fight between Morpheus and an Agent on top of a semi-truck that ends in a spectacularly envisioned, calamitous way. The mobile camera angles achieved in this sequence are nothing short of impossible (many of them must have been faked with CGI), including shots that follow behind Trinity as she rides a motorcycle against traffic at 70 mph. The camera passes between and underneath oncoming vehicles. In terms of fresh, innovative action, this movie delivers.
One thing that works better here than in the original film is the love story between Neo and Trinity. I didn't buy it in the first film, and it's still not exactly moving here, but it's a substantial piece of the story and benefits from being fleshed out significantly. Neo is uneasy being the One — like all comic-book heroes he has a massive burden to carry and is not sure how to carry it — and one senses here that his feelings for Trinity help keep him grounded as a human being. He's burdened with repeatedly envisioning her death, which plays a significant arc in the storyline.
The movie has a host of supporting players, including Link (Harold Perrineau), the new operator for the Nebuchadnezzar; his concerned wife, Zee (Nona Gaye), who has already seen enough death in her family; Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), the captain of another ship and a former flame of Morpheus who is now the current flame of Commander Lock; Councilor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe), who waxes philosophical with Neo on the humans' and machines' codependent nature; and Persephone (Monica Bellucci), the Merovingian's estranged wife, who is happy to undermine him if she can get something worthwhile in return.
One central idea is that many of the powerful characters inside the Matrix — like the Oracle and Merovingian, among others — are actually obsolete rogue programs floating around cyberspace that are deemed "exiles" by the system. The Agents have as high a priority to destroy the exiles as they do the freed humans. The Matrix cannot simply delete any program it wants, but must send in the Agent subroutines; as a result, the rogues are free to roam the system, akin to the inmates taking over the asylum.
The movie's climax surrounds a caper-like mission involving all our characters and the Keymaker in an attempt to save Zion and bring down the Matrix. This is a sequence that I think the Wachowskis botch to a certain degree. The way it's edited is genuinely confusing, with a speech by Morpheus intercut with actions inside and outside the Matrix taking place at different times. The technique is similar to what the Wachowskis used to document the caper setup in Bound — but in Bound it made a lot more sense. Here there are so many disjointed pieces that it unfortunately comes across as an unfocused mess, which is too bad. Perhaps a second viewing would be helpful.
The story's most provocative aspect involves Neo meeting an entity named the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who drops a revelation that forces us to re-examine many things we and the characters had taken for granted. The Architect unloads the movie's most puzzling riddles and contradictory doublespeak, using a pretentiously expansive vocabulary that is likely to go over the heads of many in the audience. Again, I don't buy a lot of the endlessly cryptic dialog and unfollowable logic (and I imagine the Wachowskis grinning at the absurdity of it all), but what the Architect has to say about Neo's real role in the Matrix — and the tortuous choice he puts before him — is very interesting indeed. It's intriguing to see how this affects the true believer that is Morpheus, whose mission in life followed a prophecy that has now been shattered. The theme here again rises from the question of whether anyone in the Matrix, or even those free from it, actually has free will. The Machines' alleged creation of the One would presumably be a way to influence those human beings who exist outside the Matrix.
Which brings me to one last chilling possibility: that no one has escaped the Matrix at all — that being presumably "outside" the Matrix is simply being inside an alternate program that simulates the "real" world. The Wachowskis may be protecting a cosmic joke beneath the cryptic dialog between Neo and the Architect, and that joke may be that life is but a dream. There's evidence here to support such a possibility, including the Architect ominously revealing that the Machines have destroyed Zion half a dozen times already, and that the One has been previously created in a half-dozen other permutations (possibly everything exists as a programmed loop) to play toward the human capacity for hope. Among other curious seeds planted for the next chapter, Revolutions, include a mysterious Zion resident who looks like a would-be assassin, and some remarkable new abilities — outside the Matrix — that Neo suddenly develops after his conversation with the Architect. Perhaps the secret of the Matrix has not been solved after all.
Some may experience whiplash at the way the movie ends; it doesn't actually end but simply stops, with the words "TO BE CONCLUDED" printed across the screen, which to me almost seems tongue-in-cheek. This is without a doubt a middle chapter, with many elements set up that do not yet pay off.
Still, though, as a stand-alone that isn't even meant to stand alone, Reloaded is a satisfying entertainment, one I'd be willing to pay to see a second time. It should probably be said that Reloaded does not engage the mind or imagination quite as much as the original did, or have as much pure atmosphere, but as a follow-up it lives up to the original as best as I might've expected, and there are some truly tantalizing possibilities. As a franchise, this series is certainly a lot of fun — by far more lively and provocative than the Star Wars prequels have been. Hopefully The Matrix Revolutions will tie everything together with a final chapter that lives up to the first two and provides a payoff that makes sense of what we've learned here — that it could be a film that might've been worthy of the title The Matrix Revelation.