My thanks to everyone who voted in my recent "Fill In My Blockbuster Gaps" poll. Because nature and my OCD abhor a vacuum, before I review the film that won, I'm going to start out by reviewing the film that came before it, or else I'd have a gap in my review index that would itch like a rash till I filled it.
The Matrix. I am not one of them - I enjoy it well enough, but it doesn't loom very large in my memory - nor was I in 2003, which is where our story begins. For it was in that year that two of the most heavily-anticipated movies of the 2000s were released, having been shot together as a single production, in the grand tradition of Back to the Future, Part II and Part III. I refer, of course, to The Matrix Reloaded from summer, and The Matrix Revolutions from autumn, undoubtedly the biggest sequels of that year outside of the mammoth The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - yet another "sequel" that was shot as part of a single, multi-film year of production. Things were more barbaric then; now, of course, we enjoy the elegant simplicity of Marvel Studios always making movies all the time without a pause.
But back to The Matrices. If you were of a certain age in 2003 - and I happen to have been at exactly that age - the sheer volume of hype in the first third of the year is almost impossible to describe; The Matrix Reloaded was The Event Movie of the summer. On the other hand, the vacuum of anti-hype in the months separating it from its sequel is almost as impressive: The Matrix Revolutions had gone from being one of the big movies of the fourth quarter to being, instead, something of an obligation: and while I know many people who dutifully went to see it opening weekend (it was a great big hit, though smaller than Reloaded), I don't recall a single one of them actually looking forward to it in anything other than a utilitarian, "I have to see how it ends" sense, kind of like people going back to a show they stopped watching just to see the series finale.
The difference, of course, is Reloaded itself: not, I guess, one of the worst sequels that has ever been put in movie theaters, and not, for me, one of the most disappointing - like I said, I wasn't the biggest Matrix fan in the first place, so my own expectations were fairly muted. But damn, is it ever a grind.
The Matrix, it is assumed you will remember - another tradition of sequels in the '00s it fulfills is to not bother with even a single sentence of recap - is the computer simulation where most of humanity resides some 200 years in the future, enslaved as sentient batteries for the uncountable number of machines that have long since taken over the Earth. Only a small population of homo sapiens is free of the Matrix, living in a subterranean city called Zion, doing all they can to free as many other humans as possible; this, in effect, was the entire plot of the first movie. The situation in Reloaded finds the machines having just about finally run out of patience for the Zionites, and thus launching a major attack to destroy the human enclave once and for all. And so it falls to the heroic crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, one of the ships in the armada fighting for human liberation in the metal caves under Earth's surface, to find a way to stop it: the mysterious, sagelike Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), love interest Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and especially Neo (Keanu Reeves), who Morpheus believes to be "The One", the human being whose ability to manipulated the Matrix from within is so profound that he along can save humanity from its doom. That, anyway, is the short version.
The long version would probably set my keyboard on fire. Because, as everybody knows, Reloaded is the talky, plotty Matrix film, the one that takes the relatively stripped-down scenario of the first picture (a man whose world is a computer simulation can fight like a batshit crazy wire-fu motherfucker) and lards it up with so much mythology, philosophy, and crazed world-building that you don't even know what to do with it. The standard line is thus that it is the movie that spoils all the fun of the first Matrix film, by bogging down the slick, action-heavy narrative of that movie with lots and lots and lots of exposition that is inordinately dense, according to both definitions of the word "dense".
I'm not about to break with the standard line. What is elegant and interesting about The Matrix is that its structure is, in effect, a video game tutorial turned into a feature film: the plot entirely overlaps with Neo's leaning how to manipulate the Matrix, meaning that exposition is the story, and since Neo learns by doing, all of the action in the film is exposition, and the whole two-and-a-quarter hours is an extended information dump disguised in technologically innovative fight slow-motion fight choreography. That's a pretty darn nifty way to build a movie, from where I'm standing, and it would seem like the sensible thing to do with a sequel would be to use the fact that we now understand the way things work - we've learned the game mechanic, if you will - the Wachowskis, the sibling pair whose very personal baby The Matrix is and always was, could just treat themselves and us to an explosion of ever-heightened and crazily inventive fights that go out of their way not to be bound by the rules of physics.
But that's just not what the Wachowskis found interesting. Instead, they latched onto Morpheus's vague spiritualisms from the first movie, and expanded them into a massive worldview that symbolically reflects several spiritual systems in our own reality, and has them spelled out in exhaustive, miserable detail. This is why I hate Reloaded more than it probably deserves, much like I turned on Michael Haneke after Funny Game U.S.: it's a lot easier to stomach willfully cryptic, half-baked (emphasis, in this case, on "baked") philosophisin' when you assume that the filmmakers are just having you on and using it as goofy filigree; the moment it becomes clear that, no, that's actually what they mean, and what they want you to take away from their movie, tha's when it becomes quite vexing. Say what you will about how thoroughly George Lucas destroyed his universe with the prequels, but at least he didn't try to make Jedism a coherent, layered philosophical system whose explication is the sole point of the movies (instead, he just pissed all over himself by inventing psychic space germs).
That's it, really: I do not object to Reloaded being so fucking full of talking, scene after scene after scene (criminally, the film's great big climax is: something like 10 minutes Neo chatting with a grumpy old white dude with a beard, about inscrutable esoterica). There are plenty of talky movies that are just great. It's that everything they talk about it so insipid, the kind of "life, man, what's it mean?" stuff that is fine for propping up your gaudy sci-fi action thriller but surely not deep enough to actively replace the action, which is precisely what has happened here.
Oh, and there's also one of the most wildly misconceived sequences in 2000s cinema, in which Morpheus gives an inspirational speech to the people of Zion that culminates in a momentum-slaughtering five-minute long rave intercut with a deliriously awkward sex scene staged and shot by people whose interest as filmmakers has never had anything to do with human sexuality
The damnable thing is that, scattered throughout the agonisingly long slog, there are some truly excellent moments: Neo's fight with a small army of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving and several CGI Weaving clones) - Agent Smith being the sentient program who, after the events of the last movie, has developed a self-guided will and a really nasty mean streak - is a terrifically fun bit of wire-fu, maybe the last truly great fight scene in that style that so very quickly wore out its welcome in the early '00s; and then there is an epic-length car chase that involves some of the most crazily ambitious camerawork and choreography of any fight scene in the modern era, including the one moment in all of Reloaded that's as wildly creative as the first movie was most of the time, imagining what it would be like to have physical fights in a simulated environment: choreographing a pair of fighters who have the ability to become immaterial in the blink of an eye; though being immaterial doesn't just mean that the good guys can't hit them, they also can't hit the good guys, or stand on solid ground. There are some jaw-dropping moments playing around with that idea. And then the whole thing culminates in the very best bullet-time shot in the picture, as two giant trucks slam into each other. And it is good.
But moments that are aggressively cool like that, even in the tawdry, shallow way of popcorn adventure movies, are exceedingly rare: mostly, this is a film of self-serious ideas presented at great length, and that seriousness infects every inch of the film, from the acting (Fishburne is particularly unbearable in his way of Stating every line rather than delivering it) to things like the imperious cinematography and brooding sound design: this is a movie that has journeyed exceedingly far into its own ass, and is delighted to be there. More power to the Wachowskis for trying to do something serious and thoughtful within the limitations of populist cinema, but surely it could have been watchable in the process? Christopher Nolan wasn't really a thing yet, but his 2010 Inception is everything Reloaded needs to be: confusing, and far less intelligent than it's convinced that it is, and obsessed to distraction with exposition, and fun. Fun, apparently, is too much to expect from a Keanu Reeves movie about fistfights.