Thursday, May 15, 2003
Film: Neo fight
By Jeannette Catsoulis
"I'm in!" declares Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and we're right there with her, crouched in the Matrix wearing glossy black neoprene and filled with hope for this long-awaited sequel. Ever since the excitable Wachowski brothers first delighted us with their vision of a world controlled by a computer program, we've been trembling over the fate of the small band of doughty humans determined to resist the Machines' attempts to turn them into AA batteries. Will Zion, the last frontier, be saved? Is Neo (Keanu Reeves) really The One? Will he ever have sex with Trinity, and, if so, will his expression change?
The answers to these questions are provided, after a fashion; but the real shock of The Matrix Reloaded is we may no longer care. The magnificent achievement of the first film was not its slow-motion bullets or utterly original action sequences--plagiarized mercilessly by less inventive filmmakers--but its terrifyingly imaginable premise: that what we believe to be reality is merely a construct, designed to keep our minds happily functioning while our bodies slumber in slimy pods and machines drain our life force. The Matrix delivered an entire world of ideas and symbols--from the ringing telephone of its escape portals, reminding us of Superman's changing-room, to the enigmatic Oracle--which burrowed deep into our collective consciousness, spawning books and college courses like viruses.
But the new film shows the Wachowskis unwilling, or unable, to develop their vision. Straining to fill a sequel, the brothers go for breadth over depth, stretching the now-familiar fight scenes beyond the point of boredom--one lasts almost 15 minutes--and adding new characters while neglecting to mine the existing ones. There is, to the film's detriment, more of everything: a swarm of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving), a bunch of renegade "programs" that refuse to be deleted, including dreadlocked white twins (Adrian and Neil Rayment) and a hiss-worthy French hedonist (Lambert Wilson) with a swearing fetish.
Above all, there is more sex; but, like almost everything else in the film, it's an adolescent, comic-book notion of sex, at once idealized and immature. When a woman is brought to orgasm by a slice of chocolate mousse, the Wachowskis' camera sneaks between her legs like the hand of a naughty little boy. And the pneumatic Monica Bellucci (Irreversible), playing a temptress called Persephone, is sheathed in a dress so constricting her callipygian rear looks like two balloons jammed in a giant condom. Even Neo and Trinity's inevitable porting scene is filmed in airbrushed sluggishness, a Hugh Hefner tableau backed by a techno-porn score (the film's soundtrack is simply awful) while the inhabitants of Zion--who, presumably to impart an authentic ethnic vibe, are primarily African-American--engage in a weird, voodoo-inspired rave, body-slamming each other in an orgiastic frenzy.
Scenes like this, perplexingly lengthy and meaningless, only underscore the movie's lack of substance. What made the first film so satisfying--the detailed creepiness of human enslavement by machines--is barely touched on here, the Machines themselves granted only a scurry-on appearance. This leaves us a lot of time to ponder the new movie's flatness and, especially, derivativeness: Neo's priest-like dress filched from Hellraiser's Pinhead, the computer screen from Minority Report, the hydraulic lifters from Aliens, the bodies studded with eXistenZ-style steel ports, the power-station grid target from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Though many were present in the original Matrix, this careless grab-bag of signifiers, the riffs on religion and mythology and the college-freshman philosophizing, were all part of the fun; but in the context-free universe of The Matrix Reloaded they've become little more than filler for the vacuum left by the movie's lack of coherent ideas. As Neo accomplishes a resurrection, hunts for The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), and has an impenetrable chat with a character called The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), you get the overwhelming sense of a film disappearing in its own computer-coded fakery.
Which raises the thorniest problem of all. As Neo becomes more God-like, his flesh impervious to bullet or blade or the tug of gravity itself, the outcome of battles is never in question. (Far from losing blood, he never even loses his sunglasses.) So whether facing one Agent Smith or 2,000 it doesn't matter--no one can beat a man who flies away when he gets bored. As for the rest of us, walking will have to suffice.