The world’s excitement for the 2003 release of The Matrix Reloaded was quantifiable. When the original Matrix opened in 1999, it grossed a respectable $28 million on its opening weekend. Four years later, Reloaded grossed almost three times that to the tune of about $92 million, one of the biggest opening weekends ever at the time. The Matrix had officially become a mega-franchise and everyone headed to the theater to see how Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus would attempt to battle the machines and save humanity.
Of course, then people saw the movie and The Matrix Reloaded is very, very different from the original film. While the original is all about discovery and shock, Reloaded dives deep into the world, sometimes literally—we travel into the depths of Earth to see the last human city of Zion. Characters have lengthy conversations about politics, religion, and the nature of being. Eventually, the entire concept of the One is flipped on its head in an infamous climax that features Neo in a room being talked to by a completely new character. The reception to the film wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, and by the time the third film, The Matrix Revolutions, opened just seven months later, that opening weekend dropped to below $50 million.
But we’ll get to that movie next week; you’re here to read about The Matrix Reloaded. All that context is crucial though because it frames how many of us have felt about the film in the almost 20 years since its release. I was there opening weekend and was confounded by the dense storytelling the Wachowskis had in store for part two of their trilogy. The action sequences were highly enjoyable—in particular, the two showstoppers of Neo vs. all of the Agent Smiths and the highway chase—and yet I exited the film way less excited about The Matrix than I was a few hours prior. Watching the film again for the first time in decades, I felt mostly the same way, with one big exception.
Upon rewatch, I found the first two-thirds of The Matrix Reloaded to be a slog. Sure, it’s cool that we get to see Zion and the resulting mega party/rave/orgy is... something. Neo has some decent fights early in the film too but, much of the story mirrors the character of Neo himself—he doesn’t know what he needs to do next and neither does Reloaded, at least at the start. He gets a bit more direction when he meets the Oracle again but she just sends him on a seemingly repetitive mission to find another character called “The Key Maker” in order to finally get some answers. Answers that are delayed by an odd scene with an orgasm cake, among others. (You forgot about the orgasm cake, didn’t you!) [Editor’s Note: Never. -Jill P.]
With one or two small exceptions (like the Neo vs. Smiths fight) everything up until the Key Maker is acquired isn’t great. It even gets to a point where the fact that there are multiple scenes where Neo, on his own, fights a bunch of bad guys felt detrimentally repetitive. Seriously, in the first half of the film, the action scenes feel more like an obligation to the audience rather than a crucial addition to the story. However, once Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity get the Key Maker, we’re rewarded with an all-time set piece on a long stretch of highway which Neo plays very little part in until the end. Instead, we get to see Morpheus and Trinity, who haven’t done a ton to this point, finally being the heroes they are. That’s coupled with jaw-dropping visuals, effects, and stunts.
That then leads to the aforementioned ending where Neo finds himself face to face with “The Architect,” the program that created the Matrix. Historically, people crap on this scene because it’s just so much. And, truly, it is. We’re talking about a near eight-minute exposition dump where the audience is being told, not shown, all of the secrets of the franchise, most of which are disturbingly bleak. We learn that the One is nothing but a glitch in the Matrix which the machines are not only aware of, but wrote elaborate programs to handle. So the Oracle, the Key Maker, everything Morpheus has been led to believe and that we, the audience, have been watching, has all been a ruse. The hope is these systems will lead the One to accept he’s a glitch and reset the Matrix, saving everyone attached—a choice every one of Neo’s predecessors has, apparently, already made. Of course, Neo decides to not do that, potentially dooming humanity in the hopes that he, unlike the six other Ones ahead of him, can actually defeat the machines.
Everything about the scene is a mind fuck and while it’s understandably off-putting, watching it this time, I kind of loved it. For a film to lay all of these mega secrets out there in such a blunt, direct way felt oddly refreshing. Is it lazy and a little boring? Sure. But the past 20 years have been filled with so many franchises deepening their mythology in long, drawn-out ways over several years, it was shocking for a character to just sit on screen and be like “Here’s the deal. Everything you thought you knew was wrong.”
Then, of course, you get this very good cliffhanger ending where Neo somehow now has powers in the real world. Plus, a version of the independently evil Agent Smith we previously saw makes his way into the real world and has seemingly sabotaged humanity. “To be concluded,” the film says, in a very Back to the Future Part II way.
Overall, the sense I got with The Matrix Reloaded is the Wachowskis put all their eggs in the basket of the first film, which is why it was a hit, and for the second, they didn’t quite know what to do. So they started answering questions they didn’t actually have answers to. Some of that is rewarding, some of it isn’t, and lots of it allowed them to explore issues that feel tangential to the overall story, just because they could. Along the way, the film obviously pushed the franchise’s groundbreaking visual effects even further with bigger, better action set pieces filled with more and more characters, in a very “sequel” fashion.
And yet the idea that this almost religious belief Morpheus had about the One saving everything was, itself, a system created by the machines is rich and fascinating. The fact that the machines actually had to create this quest for the mistaken anomaly called the One is also really fun to dissect and think about. It’s just a shame all of that is shoved so compactly into the last 15 minutes of the movie instead of being left to breathe a bit. Though to be fair, I have almost zero memory of anything that happens in the next film so maybe, hopefully, those ideas get explored much more.
I’ve never loved The Matrix Reloaded and I didn’t this time. But I do think it’s hugely ambitious, technically marvelous, and borderline audacious how far it pushes the franchise away from what audiences thought it was. That it divided the fan base makes so much sense and I’m now anxious to revisit Revolutions to remind myself how it all ends.
- Agent Smith’s storyline as a free program—a sort of ying to Neo’s yang—that’s creating havoc everywhere, feels forced into Reloaded. He’s not a huge part of the story and while he makes a great adversary, he kind of pops up out of nowhere. That he ends up being the big cliffhanger feels very much like his story in this movie is only there to seed the third film, and that hurts this movie a bit.
- There are some very weird cameos throughout Reloaded. The first is champion boxer Roy Jones Jr. He plays Ballard, one of the human ship captains. Unfortunately, Roy isn’t a very good actor. So even as a sports fan, to see this larger-than-life talent in a Matrix movie is just odd. Then there’s Leigh Whannell. who’s on one of the ships that gets destroyed near the end. I damn near jumped out of my seat when I saw the man we now know as the director of The Invisible Man and co-creator of Saw and Insidious.
- The Matrix Reloaded is obviously a cool title because it’s the second movie so you’re getting “reloaded” from the original. But it wasn’t until this watch though that I thought more about it. When Neo chooses to not reboot the Matrix and to instead continue fighting the war he’s told he is destined to lose, that’s itself a type of reload too. I know. I’m a little slow.
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