There is a book in the Society for the Prevention of Christian Knowledge bookshop in Bristol. It is entitled. 'What does the Bible say about the Matrix?' I thought perhaps it was going to be one of those jokey books of blank pages, with titles like 'Everything men know about women' or 'The wit and wisdom of George W Bush.' But actually, it seemed to be a serious resource for Bible study leaders, using Popular Culture as a starting point for discussions about Religious Issues. Free will and predestination; prophecy and faith; Platonism and the nature of 'reality': there is indeed more religious material in the Matrix than in the average installment of Songs of Praise. A book in the same series asked the equally intriguing question 'What does the Bible say about The Full Monty?'
Matrix Reloaded is the exact opposite of the Phantom Menace.
Phantom Menace (according to some people) was not merely a disappointing sequel: it actual managed to suck all the goodness out of the original films.
Matrix Reloaded, on the other hand, was not merely a disappointing sequel. It was such a muddle that it actually managed to make The Matrix seem coherent.
Not that I ever hated the Matrix all that much to begin with. If I had never read Phillip K Dick (or for that matter Descartes) then I might even have thought that it was profound. Perhaps I found it harder than some people to appreciate the film because I still expect Neo to say, 'How's its hangin', Morpheus dude!' at any moment.
However, having seen the sequel, I find it much easier to appreciate the film's strengths. The Matrix took a simple, none-too-original idea; stayed focused on it, explored all its permutations and ended the movie when most of the juice had been sucked out of it. The Matrix Reloaded sprawls in all directions so that the basic premise gets lost. Many cars are smashed, many people are kicked, and many bullets are slowed down, but one is left with an overwhelming sense of 'What the heck was that all about?'
The Matrix was a post-internet superhero story, with religious over-tones that were not too over-done. (I was about to write with 'subtle religious overtones', but if you are looking for a word to describe a film with characters called 'Trinity' and people who say 'The prophecy will be fulfilled, he is the One', subtle isn't it.) Indeed, it kept its comic book roots sufficiently well hidden that it didn't occur to me to say 'Hey…that was a Marvel origin story' until several nano-seconds after I left the cinema.
The film knew the distinction between 'plot', 'back story' and 'plot machinery'; and kept them roughly in the correct proportions. The film's true premise, stripped of its post-religious superstructure was very simple. 'What if the world were really a computer program; and you were the only person who knew…what if you could get outside the program, and re-write it: you could do anything…anything at all.' Like all superhero wet-dreams, this is then qualified by 'But what if there were other, evil people who also knew it was a computer programme and who could therefore give you a hard time?' The plot machinery which justifies this fantasy is kept in the background—which is just as well, because the notion of evil robots who have to keep the human race alive in a virtual reality in order to provide them with, er, heat is, to use the technical critical term, codswallop. We see just enough of the world outside the Matrix to be intrigued by it, but it never becomes the subject of the movie. We really only see Morpheus's ship, and some glimpses of tunnels and evil robot squids. But we stay on the ship long enough for it to acquire a sense of place, and for us to get to know the crew. There is enough mystical hokum for Neo's story to acquire religious gravitas—he's not merely a superhero, he's Jesus!--but we aren't really asked to take it very seriously. The scene in which the Oracle bends spoons, gives out cookies and informs Neo of his true destiny seems to be there mainly because it's fun and atmospheric, and only incidentally to advance the plot, which in any case it doesn't.
The Matrix Reloaded on the other hand, rubbed your nose in its comic-book sources. It's probably a mistake to have Neo flying around, fists outstretched with a black leather jacket flapping in the background, more like Christopher that Keano. It's definitely a mistake to have other characters saying 'he's playing at being Superman.' A Neo who is a fully fledged superhero (sometimes, when he remembers to be) is actually a good deal less exciting than one who is simply slows down time in order to do impossible martial arts stunts. Neo's burgeoning omnipotence makes the world of the matrix—theoretically our world, what we think of as 'reality'—feel just like a computer game playground—a Star Trek holodeck. Nothing which happens there matters. The basic fantasy of 'what if I could re-program the world' has been submerged.
The films next mistake is to ask us to focus on the plot machinery: to pretend that Zion is what the movie is about, and that we care who created the Matrix and how it works. Much of the first half of the movie, with free humans having festivals and strategy meetings in dark chrome-ey halls and temples, felt as if characters from The Matrix plugged into an off-the-peg cyberpunk setting: Star Trek meets Empire Strikes Back on the set of Blade Runner. A lot of additional characters were introduced; and some old ones were re-introduced, at such a rate that they rapidly faded into a very stylish blur. (Little trouble was taken to remind us who the main characters were: I have never seen a film that goes so far out of its way to baffle the casual watcher. I've seen the Matrix twice, and I got lost a couple of times: if you haven't seen the first film at all, don't even think about going to see this one. If you'd never seen Star Wars you would have had little trouble working out what Phantom Menace was about, although you might not have cared.)
Where the first film dealt in quasi-religious hokum, and used the computer software metaphor to give it a veneer of plausibility, this one shows signs of actually wanting to make sense. The Oracle re-appears, and mutters a little about free-will and predestination: but her main function is to dump a lot of plot coupons in Neo's lap. The mystical truth is: go to such-and-such a place, and meet such-and-such a character, who will give you the McGuffin needed in order to justify the next really big fight scene. In order to bend the plot, you must understand that there is no plot. Where before she spoke almost interesting fortune teller wisdom, here she starts giving us data about how the Matrix functions. (If I understood the film properly, then there are a lot of autonomous bits of software, independent from the evil robots, and some of them working against them from within the virtual world….but I may not have done.) The end of the movie tells us about previous versions of the Matrix, and future versions of the Matrix, and what Neo's purpose inside the program may be. They may interest us; they may possibly make us want to see the movie a second time in order to understand what the hell was being said: but they don't excite us or boggle our minds in the way that Neo's first martial arts lesson in the Matrix arguably did.
In the Matrix, Morpheus is a numinous, god-like figure, who leads Neo to a kind of enlightenment and who, in a fairly clever flip, ends up needing to have faith in him. In the Matrix Reloaded we see Morpheus in the context of the rest of Zion, as a person under orders from a higher command, as a dissident voice, as no-one very special. It feels as if he's been downgraded from a metaphorical figure of spiritual wisdom to a rogue Star Fleet captain. He even gets to deliver some suspiciously Jean-Luc Picard-like lines.
The Matrix created its own, highly stylized, form of violence, part superhero, part martial arts, and part computer game. Very cleverly, the stylization of the battles was not merely a filmic device, but part of the internal reality of the movie. The action happened in slow motion because that's what Neo's perception could do to the world, if he wanted it to. But it had also spotted that this sort of thing is not very interesting, or at least, not for long. Arguably, the whole film is a build up to the final action sequence in which Neo, because he finally believes in Himself is able to do literally anything. The sequence is genuinely exhilarating because we have waited for it for so long, and we are almost convinced that slow motion Kung Fu is a sensible metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. (We have complained previously that Hollywood morality is often reducible to an essentially repressive doctrine that 'you can do anything if you try: just believe in yourself.' The Matrix actually manages to create an entire universe such that this cliché is literally true.)
The Matrix Reloaded is full of impressive battle scenes of this kind, bit none of them appear to exist for any reason: they are just there because they are cool. Without the philosophical build up, fights in slow motion are just, well, fights in slow motion. And the fact that the hero is more or less indestructible, the world not really real, and most of the fights not about anything very specific doesn't help. A central chunk of the movie consists of a mammothly over-the-top car chase; which, though thoroughly well done and enjoyable, seems to just drop out of the sky. Like the ghost of some bad 70s TV series, we have two built-in plot devices—the heroes can only leave the Matrix by finding specific telephone-shaped exit-points and the evil agent Smiths can pop up literally anywhere and chase them. This means that a fight scene can happen whenever and wherever the scriptwriters want it to. The great Games Master in the sky says 'Okay, time for a car chase: exit point over there, agent smith down here….go for it.' If this is meant to feel like a computer game, then it succeeds all too well. (Neo, having become Superman, has to be trapped at the other side of the world to prevent him turning up to early and spoiling the fun. I believe that in the old Justice League comics, Superman was regularly sent into space to destroy passing asteroids, in order to give the lesser powered characters back on earth something to do.)
So while all the individual bits of the movie are fun—I haven't mentioned the mad Frenchman or the fight against the infinite number of Smiths, or the festival in Zion which is, if nothing else, beautifully designed—it totally fails to hang together, and totally submerges the interesting philosophical core that made the first film worth being patronizing about.
But who knows? By the time Empire Stroke Back emerged, there was an audience (me) who didn't need to be reminded who Darth Vader was and were sufficiently at home in the first movies setting that they would revel in any movie which gave them more, more, more of the same. For all I know, there are people who have been watching and re-watching the Matrix ever since it came out, can remember who all the minor characters are without being told, and for whom this film makes perfect sense as the next chapter of what is going on in the Matrix universe. And who would want to deny them their fun?
People keep saying: 'Well, it's the middle section of a trilogy: part three will be much better.' Well, hopefully. I keep thinking about how much of a let down Return of the Jedi was compared with Empire Strikes Back and how much smarter Back to Future Part II was than anything else in the series.
In part 3, Neo will discover that in order to save everyone else from the Matrix, he will have to go back into it forever, forget that he was the One, and believe everything is Real. We will be left wondering whether the trilogy was, in fact, just one hacker's far-fetched power fantasy.
Or else, it will turn out that Zion itself is in the Matrix, and Neo will ascend through a series of higher and higher realities, and eventually become a sort of Uber-programmer, a god figure unable to go home again.
Or else something entirely different will happen; I have been wrong before.
What does the Bible say about Matrix Reloaded? Very little, I suspect.