Desert of the Whoa
In 1999, just in time for the dot-com crash, The Matrix hypothesized that, despite our upwardly mobile computer jobs, we weren't the savvy technocrats we saw reflected in our PowerBooks each morning. Perhaps we were just slaves to our machines, our lives reduced to a thought bubble in a hard drive, our minds perceiving nothing but a simulacrum of the world around us. Don't be seduced by artifice, the movie warned, right before seducing us with a neon-green FX fantasia that seemed to explode onto the screen.
"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?" the prophet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) once asked of The Matrix's hero. "What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" Good question. Indeed, by the time we catch up with Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix Reloaded, the poor dude has been searching for signs of waking life for so long that he's plagued with insomnia. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees the woman he loves, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), falling from a tall building. In the next 72 hours, he'll not only have to prevent Trinity from meeting her grisly fate (shades of Vertigo): He'll also have to steal some rather important keys from a French dandy (Lambert Wilson); tease the meaning of life from the Oracle (Gloria Foster); decode some heavy references to Gnosticism, Gödel's theorem, and Greek myth; and save Zion--the last city on Earth where humans don't believe in the virtual reality they're fed by machines. To quote the philosopher himself: Whoa.
Just as Neo sets out to free the minds of the drones, though, a uniquely contemporary fear seizes the film. What if, when the compelling facade we perceive as reality disappears, nothing remains? French theorist Jean Baudrillard posed this question of empty duplication in Simulacra and Simulation, and Neo--who learned to fight in Baudrillard's "desert of the real"--answers it by kung-fu kicking some evil-clone ass. Enter shades-sporting malefactor Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the presumed-dead villain of the previous film who's now bent on creating others in his own image. ("Oh, God!" screams one victim just before he's turned into the agent's doppelganger. "'Smith' will suffice," quips the villain.) While Neo battles 100 angry Smiths at once, unable to determine which is his true enemy, the scene becomes a Baudrillardian allegory of the mechanical age: In an era of unlimited reproduction, the original no longer exists. Remember when countless movies appropriated The Matrix's "bullet time" idea for their own aims, nearly erasing any reference to the source? Well, the Agent Smith clone war can be seen as a big Screw you to those derivative filmmakers. (Even Entertainment Weekly hears the Wachowski Brothers whispering, "Copy this, suckas.")
Still, we mortal viewers, faced with a smooth-as-ice-cream torso like Keanu's, are sometimes prone to having reproduction fantasies of our own. So who can blame Trinity for taking a ride on Neo's own private Nebuchadnezzar? Even the Zionists who hold up Neo as their redeemer should be thrilled that their savior isn't saving himself for long: How else can they be assured that his progeny will populate the brave new world he'll secure for them? Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that when Trinity and Neo finally get it on (and they definitely make it worth the wait), they do so just as the Zionists declare war on the mechanical mind-suckers who use their blood as batteries. Only this very human act distinguishes us from lesser machines. At long last: proof that you can indeed screw to save your species.
But if Neo spends his post-coital naptime devising a wakeup call for the drones, he certainly makes the revolution look dreamy. The Matrix Reloaded is the opium of the pupils: Bullets zing through the air as liquid mercury, fighters' limbs bend as if seen through wine glass reflections, and sex appears almost too delicate for the body to handle. (When Neo and Trinity kiss, a string of saliva connects their mouths like the thinnest icicle.) Even the film's David Hume-inspired ramblings about fate versus free will aren't so invigorating as the visual splendor of imploding buildings, blood-spurting stunts, and...er, Keanu's torso. Plus, set that torso atop a moving truck and you've got a 14-minute car-chase scene that's a pure symphony of timing and movement--enough to make you believe that you might be trapped in some glorious R.E.M. stage yourself.
As Morpheus might say, the Wachowski Brothers are pulling a world over our eyes to hide us from the truth. And thank God (or Agent Smith?) for that: What a great escape it is to get lost in this dizzying alternate reality, to wander the film's cultural matrix of philosophical texts, biblical references, and comic-book tropes in search of myths more real than Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings--or NBC Nightly News, for that matter. Four years ago, when two little-known Midwestern college dropouts presented us with their sci-fi blockbuster breakthrough, they reminded us that filmmakers and moviegoers alike have the power to dream. The challenge is to live that dream with eyes wide open.
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