Regardless how it all hangs together, the set pieces in The Matrix Reloaded are some of the best in the business. As an action film, it can’t compare to the original, whose structure was built for immense catharsis in the final act. This one takes an inverse approach, opening with a bang and closing with a bridge to the next film (which in turn, does not open with a bang).
It’s a sequel in the order of Halo 2 or Metal Gear Solid 2. It’s bigger and more ambitious, and perhaps this was its downfall. It’s not a perfect movie, and it’s one that I have no illusions about apologizing for here. They say that if you cut together this one and Revolutions, you might get one solid movie, leaving the philosophy and exposition at the door.
In earlier days, I might’ve agreed. But The Matrix story and mythos, while too grim to be escapist enough to support an expanded universe and franchise, is complex — and only becomes convoluted in its telling (the Architect, the Oracle, etc.).
These characters seem confusing to us and to Neo because they are the ultimate game-players. They’re the ones driving the story, with the Oracle in particular acting as super-protagonist. And in this entry, we discover that the Prophecy is actually just manufactured by the Machines as another layer of control, an incredibly fucked up idea that’s more literary SF than anything I’d seen around that time.
It’s a more physical reflection of the matrix itself, a prison for our minds but this time taking the form of unshakable faith and a religious belief in salvation. If this is our Empire Strikes Back, dark second chapter (as it were), that’s about as despairing as a situation can become. We might have our prophesized warrior, but all of the invincibility he displayed earlier will have to come from within — and indeed, the next movie tests him in different ways.
The Matrix trilogy appeals to me because it manages to balance two things: genre pastiche, and focused art direction. The former is what makes the movies so exciting, combining influence from anime and Hong Kong action cinema toward set pieces that are cool in themselves, and directed with otherworldly skill. In this film, this is best exemplified in the Neo/Seraph fight scene, where the camerawork should be studied as a requirement for all action movie directors.
The focused art direction begins when we explore the real world, mostly centered around Zion. There’s Giger-influence in the machines and in the architecture, and the whole of it is appropriately post-apocalyptic, but far from generic. All too often in science-fiction cinema does world-building take on familiar or even blank aesthetics.
The Matrix Reloaded embodies this balance better than others in the trilogy, because it’s an intermediary between the slick, almost noirish original, and the operatic epic of the final entry. We have the art direction applied to the genre pastiche, such that the John Woo action and HK martial arts is sunglasses and virtual superpowers.
The ‘Burly Brawl’ might be too gimmicky or CG-obvious, but for my money, the Chateau fight is the big scene. This is where that balance comes in, where we have these guys who can jump real high, and you combine that with medieval weapons (to make the set piece unique), unique soundtrack by Rob Dougan, and that direction that makes for some jaw-dropping shots.
Is there anything more to it than this balance? This collection of set pieces, unique to The Matrix universe and embodying everything cool about the blend of scifi and HK cinema? The narrative is in development, to be paid off. This is setup, so you have to hope that there’s enough there to carry you through emotionally. There was enough for me, but I understand where it falters for others.