Humans unplugged

The Matrix Reloaded

Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, ready to dispense a fortune-cookie aphorism in <i>The Matrix Reloaded</i>.

Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, ready to dispense a fortune-cookie aphorism in The Matrix Reloaded.

Rated 3.0

For film, 1999 was supposed to belong to George Lucas and the revival of his canonized Star Wars saga. Instead, writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski and their upstart cyberpunk spectacle The Matrix raised the bar not just on smart, philosophical science fiction but also on cinema in general. The visionary filmmakers and their film knocked the breath out of the industry and public alike with a virtual-reality tale drenched in state-of-the-art technology, cyberspeak, leather-clad attitude, fashion statements (the budget for dark sunglasses alone must have been staggering), religious mysticism, theology and bracing Hong Kong action. Dimension hopping had never been so provocative and saturated with sensation and pure thrills.

Inspired by anime films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, the science fiction of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick and the daydreams of Lewis Carroll, the brothers gave birth to a story that pondered the essence of identity and illusion and the power and threat of unbridled machines. Humans were enslaved and grown in pods by machines that harvested their bioelectric energy as a power source. The brains of these people were kept active by being plugged into an artificial reality called “the matrix.” A few people escaped and started covertly freeing other minds as the mysterious Morpheus searched for the messianic leader destined to lead the resistance against humans’ mechanical and computer oppressors.

The Wachowskis return this year with both the current release of The Matrix Reloaded and the November release of The Matrix Revolutions. They approached these second and third installments of their trilogy as a single film that is presented in two parts. You need to see the original to understand Reloaded, which is sort of a circular story.

Computer freak Neo (Keanu Reeves) continues his most excellent adventures after deciding to believe in himself and to accept his role as the possible savior of mankind. He is referred to as The One by his supporters, which include his lover Trinity (Memento’s Carrie-Anne Moss kicking butt better than ever) and mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne often walking around with his hands behind him, emulating Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty). Neo’s digital enemies, such as the relentless Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), refer to him as The Anomaly.

The crisis at hand is that 250,000 sentinels programmed to destroy the human race are burrowing toward Zion, the only remaining rebel enclave. Morpheus gives everyone in the complex a pep talk about his faith in Neo’s role as a savior (Neo can fly like Superman and freeze bullets in the air with the wave of a hand). The populace breaks into a drum-fueled tribal dance that seems as though it would be more at home in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or a Tarzan movie than it is here. And Neo and Trinity, who have been pawing at each other since disembarking from their flying craft, have sex. There have been 100 years of conflict, and now Neo must decide what to do to bring an end to the War with the Machines.

The good news is that the excitement and special effects are amazing once again. The slow-motion innovation now known as “bullet time” has been digitally elevated to a new level, and the martial-arts fighting feels smoother and more like a futuristic ballet than a battle. One highlight is an epochal 14-minute car chase and battle on the freeway. Another splash of visual cream is a brawl between Neo and 100 Agent Smiths. The bad news is that the story has become a near-parody of itself, as dense narrative and mind-teasing ruminations on the reality of reality are dumbed down considerably.

We are spoon-fed hollow insight (“You do not really know someone until you fight them”), howlingly obvious direction (“Protect that which matters most”) and doublespeak that made me dizzy (“If we don’t ever take time, then how can we ever find the time”). Some lines (“Some things never change, and some things do”) disrupted the film like fingernails on a chalkboard. Kahlil Gibran this is not. This is fortune-cookie twaddle channeled through Buck Rogers.

Reloaded talks about trust, faith, control and the influence of external forces (such as religions, TV and parents) on our beliefs. It ends with irritating abruptness. And the Wachowskis had better hope that more people come around for the final installment than waited for the brief preview of Revolutions that follows the longest closing credits since Apocalypse Now!