Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: Against all odds, the event-movie movie season is in full swing, so it’s time once again to look back on unsung summer blockbusters—the flops, the critical bombs, or the merely forgotten Hollywood spectacles that deserve to be rescued from the trash bin of movie history.
Between 1999 and 2003, The Matrix was done to death. Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s innovations could be seen in low-rent parodies like Kung Pow!: Enter The Fist and bullet-time-heavy video games like Max Payne. Slick kung fu, black leather trench coats, and techno were everywhere. So how would the writer-directors make a sequel to the most influential film of its time? Simple. They’d break The Matrix.
With expectations rivaled only by the Star Wars prequels, it’s no wonder that audiences rejected Reloaded and Revolutions. Though it made lots of money and scored decent reviews, the second film caught a backlash, which manifested in lackluster box office performance for the third one. A quick Google search shows how the films are viewed today, with endless articles about how to fix the sequels and what went wrong. It’s a shame, because The Matrix Reloaded is the work of two directors trying to unplug people from the mechanics of Hollywood filmmaking by deconstructing their own mythology.
Set roughly six months after the first film, Reloaded follows Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Neo (Keanu Reeves) on the dirt path towards fulfilling the prophecy, which states that Neo will free the world’s humans and destroy the machines. Said machines are digging toward the last human city of Zion as Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, stealing every scene as a computer program cursed with free will) runs throughout the Matrix, turning its inhabitants into copies of himself. The last movie ended with Neo confidently soaring into the skies. Here, he’s giving off some real “Christ In The Desert” vibes. In some ways, his uncertainty echos the Wachowskis’ filmmaking journey. As Neo ponders what he’s supposed to do, it’s easy to picture the filmmakers struggling to figure out how to top their milestone hit. Permitted to essentially do whatever they wanted, the two went for broke, throwing out every idea they had for fear they’d never get another shot. Reloaded’s ambition is restricted only by its runtime, two hours and 15 minutes that feel downright slender by today’s blockbuster standards.
Much of Reloaded plays like a reaction to The Matrix, but the Wachowskis still give up the goods. The action scenes are expertly staged, inventive, and technically sound, even with all the early-2000s CGI on display. The 100-Smith fight still boasts photorealistic backgrounds that could fool even the most cynical viewer. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s wire-fu and fight choreography is intricate and balletic—so much so that the movie occasionally resembles a musical with punches and gunfire adding another percussive track to the electronic-meets-classical Don Davis score. And the extended freeway chase still bests anything from the Fast And Furious movies. As much as the Wachowskis want you to think about systems of control in this film, they want to show you a good time, too.
At the same time, the Wachowskis seem very intent on not giving the audience what it wants. Despite the promise of the first movie, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity don’t go around unplugging every human on Earth. Instead, The Matrix Reloaded tosses out questions that fans perhaps never thought to ask. How many Matrices were there? Is Neo a program? The prophecy, we learn, is another system built by the machines—like most IT issues, OS hiccups are solved by turning the Matrix on and off again. As the Oracle tells us, “There’s no way you can really know whether I’m here to help you or not.”
The Wachowskis outright ask audiences to question everything they’re being told on screen. They want us to disengage with Reloaded as a narrative and look at it from an outside perspective—to unplug and see the code, to detect the manipulation in their filmmaking and apply it to their understanding of Neo’s journey. Whether or not that’s always successful is up for debate, but it’s certainly a risky move for a $150-million movie. Eager to use the whole buffalo and explore every cranny of the Matrix, the filmmakers made a movie for an audience willing to engage the material with an open heart, an open mind, and a willingness to step outside their multiplex expectations. It’s no mystery why Reloaded left some disappointed—but we could use more summer fare like it.
Availability: The Matrix Reloaded is available to rent or purchase digitally.