The Matrix Reloaded: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
The Matrix is a masterpiece of the first order. Coupling state of the art action with mind bending philosophical themes makes the journey of Neo one of the most memorable in the sci-fi-fi genre. But what happens when this journey is complete? Once your protagonist has become all powerful, how do you continue the story while maintaining a sense of conflict? Such is the challenge the Wachowskis faced when writing The Matrix Reloaded, and its a very difficult problem. Whereas the philosophy of the first movie aided the progression of the narrative, the philosophy of the sequel deprives the film of any meaningful conflict. By reflecting on the structure and philosophy in The Matrix Reloaded, we’ll unearth just how one of the most hyped sequels of all time went oh-so-wrong. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Matrix Reloaded: What Went Wrong?
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Matrix Reloaded: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. While there are plenty of recent films that have disappointed us – today we decided to go back in time to Summer 2003- a time when 14 year old me was waiting in line 6 hours early to catch a glimpse at what would be one of the biggest disappointments of my fanboy life. “Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Matrix Reloaded: What Went Wrong? And in case you’ve been living under a rock, spoilers ahead. Part of the reason why the original Matrix worked so well was that it coupled deep philosophical themes with a tight structure, influenced heavily by Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains that a hero’s journey can be broken down into three phases: “separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return”.
This is a classic structure – one that’s been used time and time again. Slavoj Zizek, I mean… Dan Harmon, writer of Wisecrack favorite Rick and Morty, says that this model is “hardwired into [our] nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, [our] stories would follow this pattern” (6). But where does a story go once this cycle is complete? Once the protagonist has become, in Campbell’s words: “Master of Two Worlds” (196), and in Neo’s case, freakin Superman? This is the problem the Wachowski’s faced in writing the Matrix Reloaded – and it’s a pretty difficult problem. Once your character has become all-powerful, how do you craft a meaningful story arc with believable internal and external conflict? To their credit, the Wachowskis’ solution is pretty smart – at least in theory. While they can’t change the fact that Neo is the love child of God and Kryptonite, they can tweak the prophecy that gives him these powers in the next movie. And this forms the central plot of the Matrix Reloaded.
Over the course of the film, Neo and the audience slowly realize that the prophecy is actually just another form control. All of Neo’s powers aren’t evidence of him transcending the system. His ability to do these things are just another part of the system. In other words, Neo isn’t breaking free from the Matrix in any meaningful way, but rather playing a predetermined role in a larger system. Or as the Architect [very cryptically] says: “You are the eventuality of an anomaly, that despite my sincerest efforts, I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected and thus, not beyond a measure of control.” Which brings us to the central problem of the film: action. When we say action, we don’t mean over the top fight scenes, which there are plenty of. Instead, what we’re talking about here is dramatic action – or any choice that a character makes to advance their goal and the overall plot of the film. These don’t have to be big, weighty choices. They can be as small as Luke deciding to follow R2D2 on his mission to find Obi Wan. And, when it comes down to it, there just isn’t much dramatic action in the Matrix Reloaded. Add in the fact that all of Neo’s “choices” are just an illusion created by a larger system of control, and you start to realize that there’s actually no dramatic action here. Zero, zip, none.
Instead, we’re bogged down by lengthy, philosophically confused monologues about determinism. Determinism loosely believes that through cause and effect, every moment in the future is dictated by a moment in the past. Think of it like watching dominos fall. If you know which domino falls first, you can be certain which one falls next, ad infinitum. The Matrix Reloaded takes this philosophy and runs with it. The opening scene is actually from the film’s closing moments, hammering home that the events of the past have already cemented the film’s ending. In the scene, Neo dreams of Trinity kicking ass with a bike helmet before being shot. Factor in that the Matrix has restarted six times already and you begin to realize that the film’s ending isn’t just predetermined, but that the whole world has been literally stuck in a loop.
The punch clock in the guards’ office strikes midnight, showing the literal completion of a circle and the seamless transition from one day’s end to another’s beginning. And the Key Maker, while explaining his plan to infiltrate the tower, says that they have exactly 314 seconds for Neo to reach the Architect – a conspicuously exact amount of time, which happens to be the first three digits of pi. Side note: pi also shows up in other places too, like being spray painted on the wall outside of the Oracle’s apartment. These images are constant reminders that Neo isn’t blazing a new path, but rather retreading a circle for the 6th time. Neo awakes from this dream, worried as only Keanu Reeves can possibly emote. Importantly, there are no choices made in this opening, except for Neo choosing to admit he doesn’t know what to do.
Where is our first point of dramatic action, you ask? The first moment when a character makes a decision to advance his or her goals and the plot? Well, that’s a long ways off. In fact, it’s another 39 minutes off. Almost the whole first hour of the film involves Morpheus and crew playing politics while they seek the Oracle. This gives us such memorable moments as pilgrims asking Neo to bless their objects like Jesus, future tribal rave scene 2.0, and a prolonged conversation between Neo and Councillor Hamman that makes sure the audience knows that the movie is going to question Neo’s agency. So when does the dramatic action actually start here?
It’s not until Neo finally locates the Oracle 44 minutes into the movie that the protagonist is given their quest and starts their journey. Compare this to Star Wars, where Luke receives Leia’s message at about the twenty minute mark. And when this moment finally comes, in typical Matrix Reloaded style, the film decides to beat the living crap out of us with its weighty, deterministic philosophy first. Neo wonders what he should do, but the Oracle reminds Neo and viewers that it doesn’t matter – Neo’s already made his choice. That’s right, in case we were hoping that Neo would make a choice here, we were wrong. So, to recap, the inciting incident is just a bunch of philosophical exposition that reminds us that Neo has no agency at all. Fun. But what about Neo’s quest? Yeah, Neo’s journey is literally a glorified fetch quest. You know, Those obnoxious, shitty gathering quests that has been ruining RPG’s for thirty years now. But at least those in quests, we know why we’re starting them. All Neo’s left with is vague instructions. But don’t worry. The Wachowski’s, sensing their audience might be getting annoyed now, decide to add in an action scene with Agent Smith. And surprise surprise, Smith delivers a monologue on determinism before attacking Neo.
Yep, while Neo might think he’s free, Smith is trying to tell him that he’s only bound by a larger system of cause and effect – just like Councilor Hamaan and the Oracle teased earlier. Instead of having this deterministic theme grow organically through Neo’s actions, The Matrix Reloaded decides to just tell us it straight up. Over and over again. Then we have another action sequence that demonstrates Neo’s Godlike power, a scene that doesn’t advance the plot at all. Adding insult to injury, this fight scene goes on for well over 6 minutes and looks like it was ripped directly from a Dynasty Warriors game. An hour into the film, and the plot finally begins to move. Neo and crew meet with the Merovingian to haggle over the Key Maker. The Merovingian is a reference to the Merovingian Order of the Holy Grail, which supposedly guarded a book detailing the location of the Holy Grail. Keeping with the film’s Christian symbolism, the Key Maker is the book here, while the Source is the Grail. But this wouldn’t be the Matrix Reloaded without another unnecessary speech on determinism.
To prove his point, in what might go down as the most ridiculous scene in an already ridiculous movie, our French friend here to decides to send a girl a piece of cake designed to make her orgasm. Yeah, that just happened. This is now the fourth ramble sesh teasing to Neo that he’s just a puppet on strings. But the Merovingian decides to withhold the Key Maker. Luckily for Neo and company – and unluckily for audiences – the group doesn’t have to think of a clever solution to retrieve the Key Maker, which is, ya know, what protagonists usually do when faced with an obstacle. Instead, the Merovingian’s jilted lady friend, Persephone, offers him up in exchange for a kiss with Neo. If you think that’s male fantasy for you, know that the script actually described her as “sex and death squeezed into a woman’s business suit made of latex” (98). Yeah.
Then begins the movie’s largest action sequence – taking up 22 minutes, or the length of an entire television show. And this scene doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, if you think about it. If Neo is just playing into the hands of the Architect like all his other past incarnations, why is it necessary that the Agents chase the Key Marker? After all, if they delete him, then Neo can’t reach the Source and reintegrate his code. Which means that the Matrix is super screwed, because Agent Smith is going rogue and there’s nothing to stop him. So BOTH of the film’s biggest action set pieces serve no purpose in the narrative. Factor in how much time has been wasted talking about determinism, and you realize that this film can’t have spent more than twenty minutes advancing the plot. But there’s not much time to think about this, because the film moves into its third plot point well past the ninety minute mark: the journey to the Source. This is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it really doesn’t feel like it. For starters, we already know what happens when the group infiltrates the tower. Despite Neo telling Trinity to stay out of the Matrix, we know that she’ll go in anyway and get herself shot as a result.
Meanwhile, once Neo reaches the Source, he doesn’t come up against some insurmountable foe who forces him to become one with himself and the universe, partially because this already happened in the first film. No, we’re given typical Matrix Reloaded fare again. Instead of fulfilling dramatic action, we get MORE exposition- a big ol information dump. The Architect explains the role of the prophecy and how Neo must eventually surrender his code to the Matrix mainframe like his five predecessors have done before him, thus saving Zion from complete destruction. If there’s any hope for Neo making a choice here, rest assured – the film is hellbent on taking away his agency. The Architect even says that Neo was specifically “designed” to feel love more than his predecessors.
And just to make sure the film really hammers the point home, when Neo is presented with the choice of either saving Zion or going to rescue Trinity, the Architect reminds us.
After five monologues on determinism and cause and effect, I think yes. Yes we do. Neo flies off and saves Trinity, removing a bullet from her abdomen – surprising no one. After two hours and eighteen minutes, the audience is left wondering what they just watched. Sure, a lot more happened on screen than in the original – there were more fight scenes, more characters, more plots twists. So why does it feel like nothing actually happened? The answer here lies in our own natural sense of dramatic action. There are only four main plot points here: Neo finds the Oracle, Neo finds the Key Maker, Neo reaches the Source, and Neo saves Trinity. These moments are then diluted by an unnecessary sermons on determinism – sermons, which if you can follow them, just remind you that Neo has no agency. All of this is then glued together by long, unnecessary fight scenes, which have not aged well. And without any dramatic action, the film leaves us with a few very important and slightly dull, philosophical questions. If all of Neo’s choices are predetermined, how is anyone supposed to root for him, let alone care what happens? It seems like the entire point of this 2 hour 18 minute movie is to get the audience to ask themselves: Can Neo actually make choices? Can he break free from the system of control, the very one we thought he broke free from in the first film? Instead of answering this, the Matrix Reloaded tells us to watch the 2 hour long Matrix Revolutions to find out… Great. Just Great.