by Mel Valentin
Before seeing "The Matrix: Reloaded," most people will say, I want to be entertained. What does that really mean? Viewers are willing to shell out 10 dollars to sit in a darkened movie theater to share what exactly? An intense emotional bond with the characters in a film, and tangentially, with a crowd of strangers. What makes characters compelling? Characters forced into a dilemma, forced to choose between two equally unpalatable alternatives, characters who act, and aren't passive (they can be, but that's a different kind of story altogether, that's "Hamlet," but even then he makes a series of choices and decisions, even if halting, hesitant ones). "The Matrix: Reloaded" won’t meet their expectations.The Matrix owed its surprising critical and commercial success to an inventive combination of a sci-fi dystopia, Philip K. Dick, and groundbreaking special effects, centered on “wire-fu” (e.g., kung fu and wire work), choreographed by martial arts legend, Yuen Woo Ping, and, of course the “coolness” factor embodied in the costumes and set design. The Wachowski brothers certainly provided audiences with plenty of eye candy and action in the first film, but they hung the action on a mythic structure, the so-called ‘Hero’s Journey.”
"A highly disappointing sequel that bodes ill for the concluding chapter."
The late Joseph Campbell studied founding myths across different time periods and different cultures. His studies led him to formulate an uber-myth, a common myth with common elements. If we look at The Matrix from Campbell’s perspective, we see, to an uncanny degree, similarities between Campbell’s hero and Neo’s journey. Campbell’s uber-myth is based on archetypes, on symbolic images or prototypes that form the basis for all that follows. His archetypes include the following, the Hero, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, and the Trickster. Different characters can serve multiple functions, as the story demands. For example, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) can be Mentor and Threshold Guardian (in the case of The Matrix, Morpheus literally guards the threshold between the real and virtual worlds). By the same token, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) can be Shadow (the Hero’s opposite) and Shapeshifter (he literally can change form, or use the forms of others to obtain his goals). Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is, of course, the Trickster character.
Moving from archetypes to the stages of the journey itself, we find additional similarities. The stages of the “Hero’s Journey” (and Neo’s) includes the following: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting w/Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold, Tests, Allies, Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, Ordeal, Reward (Seizing the Sword), The Road Back, Resurrection, and the Return with the Elixir. Without repeating or closely analyzing the first film’s plot, a casual perusal of these stages suggests that the Wachowski brothers simply borrowed both archetypes and structure from the “Hero’s Journey” and made it Neo’s. With the subsequent sequels, however, the Wachowski brothers probably found themselves in a bind, either repeat the Hero’s Journey, or develop an altogether new structure for the sequels. It appears they attempted to do both, with ultimately disappointing results.
As The Matrix: Reloaded unfolds (or rather unravels), Neo (Keanu Reeves) drifts with the tide, barely contributing anything. I expected, however (as did many others), that Neo would have taken a more active role in the Zion leadership, but he doesn't. He doesn't even take a leadership role within the ship's crew. His ONLY role or function, as defined by the Wachowskis, is his Superman-like ability within the Matrix. He has absolutely nothing to offer but a blank face in the second film. In one scene, one character asks another, "Hey, where's Neo?" The other character responds, "Oh, he's playing Superman again." For Neo, the Matrix is also intoxicating, drug-like, because he doesn't have to face the complexities of the real world.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) retains the role of true leader, not Neo. Morpheus argues, makes decisions, and takes risks. In essence, the Wachowski brothers divided their protagonist between two characters. I can only conclude that the Wachowskis made a mistake in allowing Morpheus live at the end of The Matrix, and compounded the problem by not reducing his role in The Matrix: Reloaded. One, it's contrary to the prophecy (I know, I know, that makes the prophecy, and maybe the Architect's pronouncement false). Two, it makes little narrative sense. In general, the "Hero's Journey" removes the teacher from the story when he's no longer useful, when the student's capabilities rise to the level where he can lead. By keeping Morpheus alive, Neo's growth as a character is stunted, blocked. He can't lead. All he can and does do is fight. Is that all there is to the Chosen One? Apparently so. That and the constantly befuddled look on his face, and the occasional elder or Oracle to step in to tell him what to do or where to go. He's reactive: Agent Smith always finds him, he never finds Agent Smith.
On to the Zion subplot. Zion is the last redoubt for the rebel humans, located deep underground. Here, humans live comfortably, thanks a natural power source (geothermal vents, presumably). Zion is a multi-ethnic paradise, led by a wise council of elders. Morpheus and Neo arrive in Zion with singularly bad news: the sentinels have discovered Zion’s whereabouts and are preparing for a concentrated attack. The new Zion characters are cardboard thin, the political maneuverings inside the council chambers goes on too long, and, of course, there’s the justly maligned rave scene, intercut with Neo and Trinity's campy love scene, and moments before the rave, Morpheus' uninspired speech to the Zion masses, something to the effect that if tomorrow we face death, let's show what human freedom is all about, and party. As a subplot, Zion disappears at several times during the movie, diminishing the sense of urgency that the audience should feel for Zion's impending doom. Hell, you never even see someone raise their voice, or show any concern about their impending doom within Zion. Everyone is just too cool.
The Wachowski brothers intended the Matrix trilogy, first and foremost, to function as popular entertainment with wide, cross-demographic appeal. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have received $300 million dollars from a major Hollywood studio to make a personal art project. Of course, the response to my argument will be: yes, it’s popular entertainment, but the Wachowski brothers intended the Matrix to be a profound exploration of ideas about man and technology, predestination, free choice and causality. Sadly, it’s evident the Wachowski brothers had too little story to tell in the second one, or were simply sloppy. Perhaps it was the pressure to start filming the sequels on an accelerated scheduled that forced them skip out on polishing their drafts for the second (and possibly third) film(s). Would they ever admit that in an interview? Not likely.
And before Matrix apologists jump to the Wachowski brothers’ defense, I suggest they saunter into their local bookstore (or college bookstore) and find a philosophy primer. There you'll find all the key philosophy subjects from the dream world vs. real world question, to free choice vs. predestination. The Wachowskis took the dream vs. reality question and built the Matrix world around it (and their first, successful film). For the sequel, the Wachowski brothers flipped through their primer and settled on to free choice vs. predestination. The Wachowskis attempted to integrate these philosophical ideas into the plot through dialogue and monologue (the ten-minute monologue at the end of The Matrix: Reloaded by an entirely new character, the Architect, is the most egregious example), rather than active character choice, reflection, and action.
Let me conclude this review with a quote from Robert McKee's Story (it seems to apply to the Wachowski brothers):
"When talented people write badly it's generally for one of two reasons: either they're blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they're driven by an emotion they must express."In short, the Wachowskis were blinded by their desire to include more metaphysical doodling than story in "The Matrix: Reloaded," ruining the precarious balance they achieved in "The Matrix." They presumed audiences wanted more dialogue, extended monologues to introduce new philosophical ideas. Wrong. Audiences wanted (and want) compelling narratives with characters who feel, who confront conflict and obstacles, characters who make choices, who win, lose, and try again to attain seemingly unobtainable goals. Now that's drama (but it’s not "The Matrix: Reloaded"). "The Matrix" should have been left as a stand alone film. The Wachowski brothers have sadly expended all the goodwill they built up with the first film. It's gone now. They have something to prove with "The Matrix: Revolutions."
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originally posted: 06/05/05 01:59:49