Monday, May 19, 2003


I could also name this essay Hunger, Satisfied, for lots and lots of reasons.

Even though there is still no spoon.

There are several films I've been eagerly awaiting of late. A drooling comic book fan from way back, I was delighted to learn that Ang Lee was taking on the Incredible Hulk. A sequel to the excellent X-Men movie would be welcome. Of course I look forward to watching them crown Viggo Mortensen king this coming Christmas.

And then there's these two Matrix sequels.

I have approached these with trepidation. I loved The Matrix, but for different reasons than most. A long-time devotee of Christian and Jewish apocrypha and heresies, I loved The Matrix's blatantly Gnostic/Manichaean theme, its hip updating of an old belief that our world is a creation of malignant forces who have trapped the divine spark of humanity in a million tiny cells to be tortured and enslaved, bound by laws of physics, confined by fear and death and base animal instinct, and only a few enlightened individuals who awakened to the truth could ever set it all free. Instead of Archons and the Demiurge we have Agents and the vast and complex machine society that grows humans as crops and turns them into batteries.

Plus, the soundtrack kicked ass, and even Keanu Reeves, one of the most enjoyably mockable creatures ever to pretend he's an actor, wasn't too irritating even if I did think of Bill and Ted a little too often.

The messianic plot was also great fun, and I'm enough of a fan of, e.g., John Woo and his Hong Kong predescessors to have also enjoyed all of the silly wire-work kung fu and all of the other special effects, too.

But, since they'd pretty much already used up the entire "Hero With a Thousand Faces" plot in this first film, I wasn't sure the Wachowski brothers could really make two more set in this milieu, at least not without betraying their original achievement.

So I almost didn't go see this film.

I'm glad, though, that I did, because the brothers had lots of other goodies up their sleeves.

OK, I'm going to try not to completely spoil this movie for those of you who haven't seen it but plan to, but I can't meaningfully discuss this movie – or persuade a few of you who might not otherwise bother with it to go see it – without giving away a little bit. If you're a complete anti-spoiler fanatic (which I am; I deliberately avoided reading any criticism of TM:R so my initial experience would have as clean an impact as possible), you might want to stop here, but for most people a little foreknowledge can't hurt.

At the end of the first film, Neo the demigod has finally been revealed as such in a dazzling sequence of light and cascading source code that conveyed better than just about anything I've ever seen how absolutely everything can change whe the apple cart is well and truly upset. He has stopped speeding bullets that were flying toward him, he has come back from the dead, he has apparently destroyed his nemesis, Agent Smith by turning Smith's own great tactic against him (i.e., diving into the same "space" occupied by Smith's "body" and basically overwriting him). And he can fly.

Unstoppable Neo! Obviously he's gonna save us all, as he says in his final phone call to the Artificial Intelligence gestalt who built and run the Matrix.

And herein lay my misgivings about sequels. How much fun would it really be to watch Neo just kick more ass and take more names? Maybe if he gets bored and turns evil, yeah, that might be fun – omnipotence and its attendant boredom always carries with it the threat of corruption.

But the Wachowskis had other plans, and they were undeniably cool ones. Neo's neutralization of Agent Smith by overwriting him meant a lot more than just the end of a fight scene; not only did Smith survive the overwriting, but there was a co-mingling of what I can only think of as Neo's and Smith's digital DNA. As we quickly learn in TM:R, Smith derived frightening new abilities (that lead to one of the most ass-kickingly cool fight scenes ever, and made a simple, two-word sentence, "Me, too" into one of my favorite movie lines, maybe ever) that make him a greater threat than ever. Neo, too, would appear to have benefitted from the exchange, having forged a whole new connection with the machines he will fight, as he demonstrates in a climactic scene when those giant mechanical squid, the sentinals, menace his actual, physical self in the non-Matrix, non-virtual "real world."

That alone would be a pretty cool basis for a sequel, but that's not all the film had to offer to satisfy my hunger for more noodle baking, more loud industrial music, more stylistic pyrotechnics and more Hugo Weaving (so much more Hugo Weaving!).

Another powerful hunger of mine was satisfied in our getting to see Zion, the last human city, deep underground and still utterly dependent on the very technology that got us where we were – machines purifying the recycled water and air, machines providing heat and light, machines refining and working metal to build and maintain the last, vast human habitat – and this irony does not escape comment.

And yet more to satisfy me: the civilization dwelling in Zion is a visual feast of utterly gorgeous and achingly real humanity of every race, hue, style of dress and body art, like the last human city should be. It's a 21st century young person's dream, everybody's just people (though it's perhaps a little disappointing that the black guys have black girlfriends and the white guys have white ones, but oh well, one battle at a time, I guess), united in common cause and, in one of the film's greatest scenes, partying like it's the end of the world because it just might be.

I live in an overwhelmingly white and monolingual state: Zion's appeal to me is very real. I didn't realize how I have been missing the sight of other faces, other races, until I was vicariously drawn into the ultimate multi-culti rave party. We are still here, the prophet-like Morpheus has reminded us, and it is our duty to celebrate that, celebrate our animal nature that makes us different from the machines, shake our groove things and get it on. Yeah!

I am also howlingly entertained by this film's journey deeper into the territory of mythology and archetype. A new character emerges, the Merovingian, and he is delightfully arrogant and French like the conspiracy theorist/heretic's ultimate idol, the monarchial descendent of Jesus Christ (the Merovingians were kings of France and some theories maintained that their origins lay in Jesus' having impregnated Mary Magdeline, and in Joseph of Arimethea's having brought her to France to give birth to and raise their semidivine progency after the crucifixion), ought to be. At first he seems meant to be a helper in Neo's quest to find his way to the core and find a way to prevent the machine's imminent attack on Zion, but he is quickly revealed as having his own agenda and no concern for what aren't, after all, his fellow humans. Like his mythological original, this Merovingian isn't really one of us, and it takes the oldest trick in the book, betrayal by a wronged woman, to get past him and out of his empire. I would have liked to have seen more of him, but maybe he'll have more to do in the last film. I'm crossing my fingers.

One last spin TM:R puts on the Matrix milieu: as mentioned briefly in the first film, what Neo et al are fighting against is not the first Matrix... and Neo isn't the first Neo! A great effort is made to convince Neo, and by extension us, that he isn't, in fact, anybody's savior, that he isn't, in fact, doing anything of his own free will; he is an inherent anomaly in the program that crops up at regular iterations and while he is something of an annoying bug in the works, the Matrix has accommodated that bug and harnessed it.

This of course raises lots of tasty issues for the final film, due out in November. Is Neo part of the solution or part of the problem? Is this just another run-through of an age-old scenario, the endless cycle of Ragnarok that is the Norse cosmology, or is this a Christian-style ultimate ending and apocalypse that's coming?

I for one think that Agent Smith, with his new abilities and his new freedom of thought and action, is what's really going to make the difference this time. I eagerly await seeing if I'm right.

A final note: Yay for the action scenes, whatever. The kung fu was amusing in the first film, but there's just too damned much of it this time, and while I knew I was supposed to be mighty thrilled by, e.g., the extensive car chase on the freeway and the battle with the monk/guardian program, for me the only fight scene that was actually fun was the Smithalicious first one. Me too.

Sometimes it's just awesome to be wrong!