In The Matrix Reloaded, an insanely pretentious and dazzling cyberaction sequel written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, Neo (Keanu Reeves), the former hacker who has been unplugged from the technological delusions of the Matrix, flies through the air like Superman in priest’s robes. He also snaps in and out of a state of suspended liquid movement, then in and out again, with a millisecond precision that makes it seem as if he’s sucking the universe under the spell of his own gravity. Throughout, he’s accompanied by music of such tactile, percolating techno drive that the scenes feel almost 4-D. This isn’t merely action — it’s physics gone majestically stoned. Yet none of it stops Neo from staring off in a glum Zen trance to say things like ”I just wish I knew what I was supposed to do.”
I just wish the filmmakers could tell him. To pin down his destiny, Neo once again consults the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster), that mystical inner-city matriarch, who offers a koan of advice on his ambiguous role: ”We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.” ”The Matrix Reloaded” combines mainframe pretzel logic (I use the word loosely) with an overall atmosphere of sodden, junky, faux-Kubrickian philosophizing. It would be hard to think of another sci-fi movie that said so little while trying to mean so much. If there were a McDonald’s inside the film’s grainy futureworld, I have no doubt that Neo would wander in, order a Big Mac and fries, then look away with a gaze of dreamy blankness as he asked, ”Was I meant to Super Size those fries?”
Yet just as the dour verbiage of fate is starting to make your head hurt, something exciting happens. After Neo’s meeting with the Oracle, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the manifestation in black with the sallow skin, shows up in the park. He has been transforming other agents into clones of himself (they’re zapped through a nifty effect that makes them look, for an instant, like rubbery Francis Bacon paintings). As Smith and Neo engage in leaping and gliding combat, the clones multiply almost imperceptibly. There are three, four, then a dozen, then two dozen more, and as Neo kicks and bats them away, they bounce back all the stronger, like roaches or Hydra heads. This outrageously kinetic replicant war is a funny and bounding fantasy of exponential aggression: Buster Keaton meets Doom III. Unlike much of ”The Matrix Reloaded,” the sequence isn’t pretending to be important, yet watching it, I felt it scratch that itchy pleasure center somewhere between adrenaline and awe.
When Neo, in ”The Matrix,” was led through the urban canyons of steel-and-glass illusion that he had left behind, it was no coincidence that the fake universe resembled a luxe commercial for a stock brokerage. ”The Matrix” was a cautionary parable of the late boom years, merging fantasies fostered by the Internet and advertising into a nightmare of collective hypnosis. But with media delusions in shorter supply now, the Matrix has been all but exhausted as an imaginative metaphor. Early on, Neo heads to Zion, the underground cave city of the rebels. The moment he arrives, it’s easy to see why the Matrix was such a tempting mirage: Zion is one of those gloomy industrial dystopias that appear to be populated by bedraggled extras from ”Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” It may be the last refuge of freedom on Earth, but it’s not a fun place to visit, especially when the infighting among the rebel leaders sounds as if it were scripted by George Lucas in his tone-deaf, digital-bunker mode.
Keanu Reeves, who has learned that the best way to act profound (at least when he isn’t wearing tiny designer sunglasses) is to keep his lean and milky facial contours as impassive as possible, has the dubious task of making the film’s gloppy metaphysical mumbo jumbo sound less preposterous than it is. Neo is grappling with the paradox of predestination — a variation on the one that has bedeviled biblical scholars for two millennia. If Neo has been ordained as ”the One,” does he, indeed, have any more choice than those enslaved by the Matrix? Is he the messiah or a systematic anomaly? These are the sorts of thoughts that lead everywhere and nowhere, and the movie is stuffed to its chilly, portentous gills with them.
And yet. If ”The Matrix Reloaded” is a trip through high-toned mediocrity, not nearly as suggestive or cohesive as ”The Matrix,” it’s one of the most wizardly mediocre movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a relief when Neo and his comrades, the vinyl-encased Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the increasingly blah-in-his-stoicism Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), plug back into the Matrix to find clues to the war that’s about to be mounted against them by the forces of the machines. The science-fiction fight scenes fly past the first film in terms of imaginative logistics; they just about make your eyeballs dance. A spectacular 14-minute chase combines ghostly dreadlocked assassins, cars flipping and coming apart on the freeway like disintegrating atoms, and Morpheus unleashing his fists of fury atop a speeding truck, which crashes and explodes in an extended moment of time-lapse delirium.
Is this, after all, the future of movies: action severed from meaning and downloaded into your brain? Let’s hope not. But it’s certainly one of the many futures of movies — trash made heady and volcanic and bravura. Supersized.