The Matrix Reloaded

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 12 07:32:55 MDT 2003

The New Yorker, May 12, 2003


What’s wrong with the Matrix?

For the past four years, a lot of people have been obsessed with the 
movie “The Matrix.” As the sequel, “The Matrix Reloaded,” arrived in 
theatres this week, it was obvious that the strange, violent 
science-fiction film, by the previously more or less unknown Wachowski 
brothers, had already inspired both a cult and a craze. (And had made a 
lot of money into the bargain, enough to fuel two sequels; “Matrix 
Revolutions” is supposed to be out in November.) There hasn’t been 
anything quite like it since “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which had a 
similar mix of mysticism, solemnity, and mega-effects. Shortly after its 
mostly unheralded release, in 1999, “The Matrix” became an egghead 
extase. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s latest work, “Welcome 
to the Desert of the Real,” took its title from a bit of dialogue in the 
film; college courses on epistemology have used “The Matrix” as a chief 
point of reference; and there are at least three books devoted to 
teasing out its meanings. (“Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and 
Religion in ‘The Matrix’” is a typical title.) If the French philosopher 
Jean Baudrillard, whose books—“The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” is 
one—popularized the view that reality itself has become a simulation, 
has not yet embraced the film it may be because he is thinking of suing 
for a screen credit. (The “desert of the real” line came from him.) The 
movie, it seemed, dramatized a host of doubts and fears and 
fascinations, some half as old as time, some with a decent claim to be 
postmodern. To a lot of people, it looked like a fable: our fable.

The first “Matrix”—for anyone who has been living in Antarctica for the 
past four years—depended on a neatly knotted marriage between a 
spectacle and a speculation. The spectacle has by now become part of the 
common language of action movies: the amazing “balletic” fight scenes 
and the slow-motion aerial display of destruction. The speculation, more 
peculiar, and even, in its way, esoteric, is that reality is a fiction, 
programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by evil computers. When 
we meet the hero of the “Matrix” saga, he’s a computer programmer—online 
name Neo—who works in a generic office building in a present-day, 
Chicago-like metropolis. Revelation arrives when he’s recruited by a 
mysterious guerrilla figure named Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne 
with a baritone aplomb worthy of Orson Welles. Morpheus offers Neo a 
choice between two pills, one blue and one red: “You take the blue pill, 
the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to 
believe. You take the red pill . . . and I show you how deep the rabbit 
hole goes.” Neo takes the red pill and wakes up as he really is: a 
comatose body in a cocoon, his brain penetrated by a cable that inserts 
the Matrix, an interactive virtual-reality program, directly into his 
consciousness. All the people he has ever known, he realizes, are 
recumbent in incubators, stacks of identical clear pods, piled in high 
towers; the cocooned sleepers have the simulation piped into their heads 
by the machines as music is piped into headphones. What they take to be 
experiences is simply the effect of brain impulses interacting with the 
virtual-reality program. Guerrilla warriors who have been unplugged from 
the Matrix survive in an underground city called Zion, and travel in 
hovercraft to unplug promising humans. Morpheus has chosen to unplug 
Neo, it turns out, because he believes Neo is the One—the Messiah figure 
who will see through the Matrix and help free mankind. The first film, 
which told of Neo’s education by Morpheus and his pursuit of the 
awesomely cute and Matrix-defying Trinity (the rubber-suited Carrie-Anne 
Moss), ends with Neo seeing the Matrix for what it is: a row of green 
digits, which he has learned to alter as easily as a skilled player can 
alter the levels of a video game.

What made the spectacle work was the ingenuity and the attention to 
detail with which it was rendered. The faintly greenish cast and the 
curious sterility of life within the Matrix; the reddish grungy reality 
of Morpheus’s ship; the bizarre and convincing interlude with the 
elderly Oracle; and, of course, those action sequences, the weightless 
midair battles—few movies have had so much faith in their own mythology. 
And the actors rose to it, Laurence Fishburne managing to anchor the 
whole thing in a grandiloquent theatricality. Even Keanu Reeves, bless 
him, played his part with a stolidity that made him the only possible 
hero of the film, so slow in his reactions that he seemed perfect for 
virtual reality, his expressions changing with the finger-drumming time 
lag of a digital image loading online.

If it was the spectacle that made the movie work, though, it was the 
speculations that made it last in people’s heads. It spoke to an old 
nightmare. The basic conceit of “The Matrix”—the notion that the 
material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil 
with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history. 
It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect 
known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers, too. The 
Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by 
Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way 
beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The 
Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was 
that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and 
die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief 
that swords do not exist.

The Cathars, like the heroes of “The Matrix,” had an especially handy 
rationale for violence: if it ain’t real, it can’t really bleed. One 
reason that the violence in “The Matrix”—those floating fistfights, the 
annihilation of entire squads of soldiers by cartwheeling guerrillas—can 
fairly be called balletic is that, according to the rules of the movie, 
what is being destroyed is not real in the first place: the action has 
the safety of play and the excitement of the apocalyptic. Of course, the 
destruction of a blank, featureless, mirrored skyscraper by a 
helicopter, and the massacre of the soldiers who protect it, has a 
different resonance now than it did in 1999. The notion that some human 
beings are not really human but, rather, mere slaves, nonhuman ciphers, 
and therefore expendable, is exactly the vision of the revolutionary 
hero—and also of the mass terrorist. The Matrix is where all violent 
fanatics insist that they are living, even when they are not.

It would have been nice if some of that complexity, or any complexity, 
had made its way into the sequel. But—to get to the bad news—“Matrix 
Reloaded” is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in 
places a campy conventional comic-book movie, and in places a 
ludicrously campy conventional comic-book movie. It feels not so much 
like “Matrix II” as like “Matrix XIV”—a franchise film made after a 
decade of increasing grosses and thinning material. The thing that made 
the Matrix so creepy—the idea of a sleeping human population with a 
secondary life in a simulated world—is barely referred to in the new 
movie; in fact, if you hadn’t seen the first film, not just the action 
but the basic premise would be pretty much unintelligible. The first 
forty-five minutes—set mainly in Zion, that human city buried deep in 
the earth—are particularly excruciating. Zion seems to be modelled on 
the parking garage of a giant indoor mall, with nested levels clustered 
around an atrium. Like every good-guy citadel in every science-fiction 
movie ever made, Zion is peopled by stern-jawed uniformed men who say 
things like “And what if you’re wrong, God damn it, what then?” and “Are 
you doubting my command, Captain?” and by short-haired and surprisingly 
powerful women whose eyes moisten but don’t overflow as they watch the 
men prepare to go off to war. Everybody wears earth tones and burlap and 
silk, and there are craggy perches from which speeches can be made while 
the courageous citizens hold torches. (The stuccoed, soft-contour 
interiors of Zion look like the most interesting fusion restaurant in 
Santa Fe.)

The only thing setting Zion apart from the good-guy planets in “The 
Phantom Menace” or “Star Trek” is that it seems to have been redlined at 
some moment in the mythic past and is heavily populated by people of 
color. They are all, like Morpheus, grave, orotund, and articulate to 
the point of prosiness, so that official exchanges in Zion put one in 
mind of what it must have been like at a meeting at the Afro-American 
Studies department at Harvard before Larry Summers got to it. (And no 
sooner has this thought crossed one’s mind when—lo! there is Professor 
Cornel West himself, playing one of the Councillors.) Morpheus, 
winningly laconic in the first film, here tends to speechify, and, in a 
sequence that passes so far into the mystically absurd that it is almost 
witty, leads the inhabitants of Zion in a torchlit orgy, presumably 
meant to show the machines what humans can do that they can’t; the 
humans heave and slam well-toned bodies in a giant rave—Plato’s Retreat 
to the last leaping shadow. Neo and Trinity make love while this is 
going on, and we can see the cable holes up and down Neo’s back, like a 
fashion-forward appliqué. (Soon, everyone will want them.) No cliché 
goes unresisted; there is an annoying street kid who wants Neo’s 
attention, and a wise Councillor with swept-back silver hair (he is 
played by Anthony Zerbe, Hal Holbrook presumably having been 
unavailable) who twinkles benignly and creases up his eyes as he wanders 
the city at night by Neo’s side. Smiles gather at the corner of his 
mouth. He’s that kind of wise.



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