Matrix Reloaded and its attendant animated eight or nine context films - collectively known as The Animatrix - had an almost unbearable weight of expectations. As the second part of a trilogy, they had the burden of living up to the first film, setting up the third, but without spoiling either. The films had to justify the vast resources provided for their production, and the directors also imposed on themselves the need to flesh out the backstory and surrounding philosophy. Despite the many negative reviews, I think that Matrix Reloaded achieved all of these aims.
The most impressive of its achievements was that, as a major Hollywood film, it had the courage to undermine its own messianic narrative. The trajectory of the plot was for Neo to fulfil the Oracle's prophecy and to get to the central source, to jam the program and liberate humanity. This sounds uncomfortably like Tron, except instead of a frisbee to jam the MCP Neo has wire fu skills to stop the Architect. However, unlike Tron, once Neo gets there he finds out that it is not so simple.
The explosion of the unitary plot - one Oracle, one prophecy, one Neo - transformed the riddle of the Matrix. Instead of being a sphinx-like riddle with a solution, the riddle of the Matrix becomes like a Zen Koan. Questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" don't have single answers, they have multiple ones, and the point of the question is to exercise the mind by living and thinking through the question. At the end of the first film, Neo had become the equivalent of a Gnostic prophet; he had gained the secret knowledge that all was illusion, and had the magical power to hack the code. Now, Neo is questioning whether that entire structure may be part of an even larger system of control which, the Architect has said, has already played itself out five times.
Reloaded radically transforms its religious allegorical meaning, and adds a consummately historical one as well. Religiously speaking, no one - however enlightened - exists outside of the Matrix; each individual enlightenment is better described as part of the overall program, and there is no real freedom. Politically, we citizens of high capitalism are increasingly conditioned to "think for ourselves" within ways so closely circumscribed as to be pre-determined. We think that "just do it" means to be, in some way, an individual apart from the corporate matrix - but of course, we are just playing our part within that matrix. (See related article) What we think to be exercises of our autonomy are increasingly determined by systemic economic forces.
Reloaded wasn't a great film, but I think many critics' unease came from their dislike of living in the moment, i.e., living through the question of the Matrix. Critics, by definition, want to look back, analyse things, and find the answer. In Reloaded there is deliberately no answer. We see this when the Architect reveals that this is the sixth iteration of the Matrix (itself an allusion to Hindu, Mayan, and Kabbalistic myths that the world goes through six epochs before the seventh, final one), but even more clearly in the Being John Malkovich fight scene between Neo and hundreds of Smiths. Clearly Neo doesn't need to take part in this fight at all (he could just fly away), but in fighting he gets to know Smith who is a crucial part of the 'question' of the Matrix.
The main question that The Matrix series now presents, I suggest, is
not how illusion can be distinguished from reality, but rather "do we have
anything to offer machines?" Can our lives be said to be meaningful at all?
Machines have efficiency and logic to offer us. We, according to the Matrix series,
offer only meek acquiescence and the occasional rebellion, which itself
is predictable and thus controllable. (In the Animatrix films, humans also reveal themselves to be mean, venal creatures, persecuting the machines and bringing disaster upon themselves.) What, in the broadest possible terms, is the significance of our lives?
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
Click for details