Diminishing Returns Are Reloaded in the Wachowskis’ First “Matrix” Sequel

The Matrix Reloaded Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, from Warner Bros.

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)

In hindsight, more Matrix was inevitable. Following runaway box office success and an ending that begs for a sequel, the Wachowskis quickly got to work crafting a continuation of their dark green, digital franchise. Soon, they generated scripts for two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and sold the studio on shooting both back-to-back.

And Reloaded definitely qualifies as more Matrix. Enjoyed it when Neo (Keanu Reeves) fought Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)? Well, now there’s more, as “The One” does battle with dozens of Smith duplicates. Liked the heady implications of the Matrix’s vast simulation? Well, buckle up, because the climax of Reloaded is Neo discussing his existential purpose with “The Architect,” a sentient computer program who speaks exclusively in five-syllable words. Impressed with the synthesis of visual effects and fight choreography? Don’t worry, because so much more is in store, only none of it hits as hard this time.

If anything, Reloaded underscores just how well The Matrix (the first one) balanced its ideas with action. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how well the Wachowskis set themselves up for a sequel: the screenplay for their first installment is whip-smart and expertly structured, concluding with Neo accepting that he is indeed “The One,” but leaving billions of people at the mercy of their machine overlords. It was satisfying and self-contained, while leaving the door open for more.  

The problem is that Neo is still “The One” when we meet him at the start of Reloaded, meaning that he can see through – can bend – the Matrix to his will. He flies like Superman and kicks copious amounts of ass without breaking a sweat; for the past six months, he’s been returning Morpheus’ (Laurence Fishburne) favor, freeing as many minds as he can. He’s also fallen even deeper in love with Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss), though Neo is plagued by dreams of her death.

Although Neo’s new powers are neat, the broader consequence is that the movie loses any sense of tension as a result of them. There’s simply no trap he can’t escape, no agent he can’t defeat. It’s an odd oversight from the same sisters who made Bound, a movie that bleeds suspense from the start of its second act until the credits roll (although they do restage a frame from their earlier work, in which the lips of two people kissing are shot in extreme close-up).

On first glance, it could be mistaken for the future of the Terminator or Alien movies, odd (again) when it’s clear so much work and care went into giving the Matrix itself such a distinct aesthetic.

Neo’s only ever vulnerable in the “real world,” as Reloaded shows us the underground, “last human city” of Zion. Alas, this setting isn’t exactly interesting, and comes across as pretty standard post-apocalypse flare. On first glance, it could be mistaken for the future of the Terminator or Alien movies, odd (again) when it’s clear so much work and care went into giving the Matrix itself such a distinct aesthetic. We spend a lot of time in Zion during the first act of Reloaded,  and there are some engaging details along the way, from the massive party at the end of the world to the way all of the character’s clothes are always ripped and worn. Also, Cornel West shows up as a character named “Counselor West.” But Hoth Base Zion it is not.

Yes, it certainly seems like the Wachowskis envisioned Reloaded as their Empire Strikes Back, right down to the cliffhanger ending. But the story takes almost an hour to get moving, and when the dust settles, it’s clear this is a sequel that fails to live up to original.

Still, some of it works. A freeway chase sequence at the end of act two thrills, with Trinity and Morpheus taking center stage against a pair of phase-shifting twins. Then again, nothing around it quite adds up (just who is “The Keymaker”?), and it’s only exciting because of Neo’s absence. Meanwhile, Neo’s confrontation with The Architect is too wordy, but the reveal of his sinister purpose does make sense. Hugo Weaving remains excellent as Agent Smith, but his replication borders on giving the audience too much of a good thing. His ambiguous position in the battle between man and machine complicates everything, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

Finally, there’s the total lack of chemistry between Moss and Reeves. I wouldn’t dare say anything bad about Keanu Reeves in 2019, and his intentionally stoic stage presence here helps sell him as a messianic figure – but doesn’t do any favors when we’re supposed to see him as half of a flaming, passionate relationship. Things weren’t much better in the first Matrix, but all of Reloaded’s emotional stakes are based in Neo’s anxiety around Trinity’s death. Their attraction feels obligatory, although Moss does her best throughout (especially in a late scene, jumping back into the Matrix and refusing to sit on the sidelines).

Sixteen years later, it’s clear that Reloaded doesn’t quite come together. The action’s lost its bite, and the material regresses from thought-provoking to dorm-room philosophizing. More Matrix just wasn’t supposed to be like this!

“The Matrix Reloaded” Trailer:

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