Deconstructing 'Reloaded'

Now that "The Matrix Reloaded" has been in theaters for a full week, we can put to rest the two least interesting debates about the new movie. Debate No. 1: Will it break the box office record for biggest opening weekend ever? Not quite. Its $135 million total is a 4-day record, but the pure, Friday-to-Sunday title still belongs to "Spider-Man." Debate No. 2: Is it as good as the first movie? No, but how could it have been? These debates are uninteresting because the answers have been apparent all along. "Reloaded" is rated-R, so there's no way it was going to top the PG-13-rated "Spider-Man." And while sequels are occasionally better than the original, none of them ("The Godfather Part II," "The Empire Strikes Back," for example) had such a dazzling existential mystery to live up to.

These matters are also dull because they pale in comparison to the movie we did get. "The Matrix Reloaded" is, to me, the most demanding and intellectually fruitful movie of the year so far--a title it will probably hold until "The Matrix Revolutions" comes out in November. The film answers many questions raised by the original but also introduces dozens more, each one more fascinating than the last. Not cutesy stuff like, why are scenes in the Matrix tinted green? I mean weighty matters, the "pretentious nonsense" that movie critics write off without realizing that it's what makes the "Matrix" saga so beloved. It isn't the kung fu. OK, it isn't just the kung fu.

In the days since "Reloaded" came out, I've been chewing over the film with my pals (and fellow "Matrix" obsessives) Jason, Keith, Jeff and Gordon. What follows are Six Big-Brain Questions About "The Matrix Reloaded":

Question No. 1: Why is Zion so heavily populated by people of color?

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Not the most complicated matter but worthwhile because it's one of the more refreshing aspects of the Wachowski brothers' universe. Are Larry and Andy (the writers and directors of the trilogy) simply more progressive than most Hollywood filmmakers? Probably. Are they canny marketers who know that kung fu films have tremendous appeal in the African-American sector? Possibly. But filling Zion with minorities isn't just good politics and good business. It's also logical. The people most likely to reject the Matrix are the ones who are least accommodated by it, i.e., minorities. In an engrossing essay about "Reloaded" for the iconoclastic web zine, Ken Mondschein writes: "If you're a white suburban Matrix resident, driving your Matrix SUV to your Matrix golf club, why doubt the nature of reality?" (Mondschein's entire piece, incidentally, is a must-read for "Matrix" fans.) A last bit of trivia: you may have noticed some audience members chuckling during the Zion council scene when a bearded African-American man speaks. That's because the actor is academic (and rapper) Cornel West, a professor at Princeton and a leading social commentator.

Question No. 2: How does Neo destroy the sentinels at the very end of "Reloaded"?

OK, here we go. As gifted as Neo is inside the Matrix, we have been given no reason to believe that his powers extend to the real world outside the Matrix--until this moment in the film, when Neo stops a sentinel attack just by raising his hand. We see three explanations for how he does this. The first, and less likely, is that Neo isn't entirely human. Something happened to him at some point--either during his swan dive into Agent Smith at the end of "The Matrix" or during his encounter with the Architect in "Reloaded"--that invested him with machine-like capabilities. (Or perhaps he was never entirely human. Perhaps he was born that way. Perhaps he was a machine creation all along.) Personally, I'm resisting this idea, not so much because it's wrong but because I don't like it.

The second, and more likely, explanation is that Zion is another level of the Matrix. In other words, Zion is a creation of the machine world designed to give Matrix non-believers a plausible reality to escape to. The Architect says that 99 percent of humans accept the Matrix, one percent do not. So if you're the machines, why not create a second safety net (so to speak) in the hopes that the "anomalies" don't slip through again? If this notion is true, it would answer a few lingering questions. It would explain why, for starters, the machines simply throw people away once they've been unplugged from the Matrix, rather than killing them: the machines want people to believe they've gotten away. It would also address my biggest problem with the original film: how is it possible that the machines can't find Zion? Could it really be that hard? Wouldn't a simple metal detector do the trick? If Zion is part of the Matrix, there's your answer. The machines have always known exactly where Zion is. They created it. But in order for humans to accept Zion as a plausible reality, they need to believe that Zion's location is a life-or-death secret.

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The third explanation--and probably most likely--is that Neo really is God, the Messiah, the ultimate One, call him whatever you want, and he can do superhuman things even outside the Matrix because, well, he's God. In this scenario, the machines know about Zion and its location, but it is not another level of virtual reality. It really is the real world. But they don't destroy it because it's vital to preserving the fiction of the Matrix.

Question No. 3: Is the Architect lying about having destroyed Zion several times before?

Probably not--for many of the reasons above. But in the great, annoying Socratic tradition, let's answer this question with another question: can machines lie?

Question No. 4: Was the Merovingian a previous incarnation of the One?

During his encounter with the Architect, Neo learns that he's actually the sixth version of "the One" to come along. Assuming the Architect is telling the truth, who were the other five? Could the Merovingian have been one of them? He's clearly a machine of some kind in "Reloaded," but perhaps he started out human, confronted the Architect, chose to save the Matrix and was reassimilated back into the Matrix with machine components. There's only one real hint that this is the case: when Persephone says that the Merovingian (her husband) used to be different, that he used to be like Neo. Well, what else could she mean by that? The Wachowskis have clearly set up the Merovingian and Persephone to act as echoes of Neo and Trinity. Think of them as Neo and Trinity in 30 years, or 100 years, or 300 years: cynical, decadent and loveless. Mondschein, in his essay, contends that the Wachowskis conceived of the Merovingian as a "daemon," a term from Greek mythology meaning "an inferior divinity" or, more tellingly, the ghost of a fallen hero. In other words, someone who once upon a time was "the One"--but didn't get the job done.

Question No. 5: What's going on with Agent Smith? Is he still operating on behalf of the machines?

No, he and the machines are no longer on speaking terms. He's now a free agent, and he has no intention of signing with a new ballclub. Smith's final appearance in the film is revealing: he blocks Neo's path to the doorway leading to the Architect. No one wants him there. Neo obviously needs to get by him. And the Architect has arranged everything just so this meeting with Neo could occur. Smith's interference is a clear sign that he's a rogue agent messing everything up for everyone, including the machines. There's a term for that in the computer world: a virus.

At this point in the trilogy, all Smith cares about destroying Neo--or, as he puts it, taking away that which Neo took from him: purpose. The thing is, Neo is really, really powerful now. In order to destroy Neo, Smith is gonna have to get really, really powerful himself. It's clear from the "Revolutions" teaser at the end of "Reloaded" that Smith is going to play a crucial role in the final outcome. A good guess is that Smith is a variable that the Architect (and the rest of the machine world) didn't account for. Perhaps, in "Revolutions," Smith becomes so powerful that he threatens both worlds-machine and human-and both worlds have to figure out a way to stop him.

So we're back to the beginning: what's going on with Smith? How exactly is he getting all this power? We don't know yet. Neither does Smith. He says as much to Neo when they meet for the first time. But whatever it is, it happened when Neo destroyed him at the end of the first movie. Here's a theory: maybe Neo isn't entirely human and when he jumped into Smith, some of Neo's "specialness" copied onto Smith. In other words, Smith is becoming more like Neo (and Neo's becoming more like Smith).

Question No. 6: Why don't the critics get that this movie rocks?

Here are some snippets from the reviews:

"To an audience inured to spectacle, flipping and scrambling demonstrations don't raise the pulse in this convoluted yet rudimentary yarn." ("Entertainment Weekly")

"A film that's as likely to transfix fans of computer gamesmanship as to baffle anyone with quaintly humanistic notions of life on Earth." ("The New York Times")

"Strictly for guys in their teens and 20s." ("Daily Variety")

"The movie is nonsense." ("The New Yorker")

Sorry, I pulled a bit of a switcheroo. Those bits are actually from reviews of the first "Matrix." My point isn't so much that the critics whiffed on the first movie. It's that the original's cleverness took some time to emerge. Also, to be fair, most of the reviews have been mixed, not negative, with critics making reasonable points about the clumsiness of the Zion scenes and the diminished charge of the kung-fu sequences.

The reviews worth getting in a twist over are those suggesting that the Wachowskis abandoned the high-mindedness of the first film for a CGI fight-fest in part two. These reviews that make me wonder if we were all watching the same movie. The most egregious offender was Adam Gopnik in last week's "New Yorker," who wrote that "it would have been nice if some of [the original "Matrix's"] complexity, or any complexity, had made its way into the sequel." Gopnik's essay is gorgeously eloquent on the intellectual marvels of the first "Matrix"--he knows his Philip K. Dick from his Derrida--so how could he miss everything in "Reloaded"? I scoured Gopnik's entire piece and found just one line in which he grapples with the philosophical issues raised in the sequel. Here it is: "There are a few arresting moments at the conclusion when Neo meets the architect of the Matrix." That's it. How is it that Ken Mondschein found so much in the film and Gopnik, who's obviously a bright guy, found so little? They've both read the same books. At the risk of being overly charitable to Gopnik, I think he just needs to watch the movie again.

Deconstructing 'Reloaded' | News