Clash of the titans. The Wachowskis explore challenging, cosmic themes in their subversive middle chapter of The Matrix Trilogy.
There's a charmingly chucklesome moment during the making-of documentary, The Burlyman Chronicles, in which the Wachowskis are standing in the middle of a vast, hangar-like building with cast members Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Lawrence Fishburne, training at the very beginning of the pre-production period on the highly anticipated sequels to the 1999 cultural phenomenon, The Matrix. A cross-legged Lawrence Fishburne insists, "You wanna start out on a high. You wanna start out with high expectations. Gotta reach for something." Referencing producer Joel Silver's public proclamation that "in terms of trying to raise the bar, there is no bar," Andy Wachowski replies, "Where the ambition is on this movie? Day two: Uh, can we lower the bar a little bit?" At which point everyone bursts out in unanimous laughter.
And therein lies the heart of the challenge. How do you deliver a sequel to one of the greatest films of all time and not disappoint your audience? Clearly, this is a huge ask. Great sequels to great films can be counted on one hand. By contrast, sequels that are inferior or that disappoint make a much larger, much deeper pile. So which category would this fall into? Would it enter the elite pantheon of high quality sequels? If you listen to the current public consensus, the answer is a resounding, "No."
Fortunately or unfortunately, I do not agree with the public consensus.
When Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, and when Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was released in 1982, many critics accused their respective creators of being pretentious. Of creating ponderous, boring works that prioritised spectacle over story. Style over substance. They were dismissed with vitriol as being self-indulgent nonsenses whose authors had gone mad with money and had lost the discipline necessary to make a 'proper' film. To quote Morpheus from the first film, "Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony." An irony that I hope will repeat itself, for just as those aforementioned masterpieces were far too ahead of their time, far too ambitious in their scope for contemporary audiences to fully understand, so too is The Matrix Reloaded - together with its sequel, The Matrix Revolutions - one half of a monumentally misunderstood modern masterpiece.
"We think the most important sort of fiction attempts to answer some of the big questions."
-- The Wachowski Brothers
Not only would the Wachowskis go on to challenge "some of the big questions", they would take it upon themselves to the biggest question - specifically, "What is the nature of the universe and what is my place in it?" Indeed, Larry Wachowski once described The Matrix Trilogy as "an exploration of consciousness" - an ambitious goal if ever there was one. Whereas some may despise the Wachowskis attempting this and look down upon their ambition as little more than raving, egotistical pretentiousness, I personally find their artistic zeal thoroughly laudable. Not since Stanley Kubrick have we had filmmakers who appear to harbour such lofty cinematic ideals of where the medium could and should go.
But what of their execution? Does their skill live up to their clear ambition? The answer is a resounding, "Yes." The Matrix Reloaded bravely subverts many of the elements set up in the first film. In this sense, the plot twists and turns, albeit mostly in the second half of the film. Reloaded does not have the dizzying first act of its predecessor, instead choosing to backload its more heady narrative gymnastics until later. While this structural choice appeared to bore some audience members, I found it compelling to be so firmly rooted in the world of Zion, its people, its hopes and dreams, only to have all those things ripped away one at a time. Combined with an opening that confers perpetual curiosity upon its audience until the film's climax, the film really is an elegant construction unto itself, despite being only half of a four-hour extravaganza.
I am reluctant to expand this review too far beyond the usual length, and so I will address more substantial aspects of theme, character and narrative in my review for The Matrix Revolutions. That said, The Matrix Reloaded is a jaw-dropping spectacle, whose visual virtuosity is matched by its intelligent, well-crafted story and expertly painted themes.