06 December 2010

The Matrix Reloaded

The problem with sequels and manufacturing trilogies out of successful films is that in most cases (see: Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, and definitely The Matrix) the original stood alone so well that it needed no story to continue it. In each case the original bore hints of a deeper, larger world around its edges but it worked best when you left that kind of thing to the imagination and didn't overliteralize the experience. Well, overliteralizing is Reloaded's primary problem, I'd say, and probably the reason most people complained it didn't hold up to the original.

In each and every one of the above examples of serializing standalone science-fiction/fantasy stories, the second installment expands the world by exploring further reaches of the world. The Empire Strikes Back expands the story to bounty hunters, Imperial Armadas, and Jedi training; both the future and an alternate-reality present are explored in Back to the Future II; the savage humans and their proto-"culture" are explored in Beneath the Planet of the Apes; new pirate-mythologies are expanded on in the second Pirates film; and the city of Zion and the nature of the Matrix are explored in The Matrix Reloaded. The problem in each case is you expand the world by making concrete some of the more telling abstractions from the original, and the more literal it becomes the more you open your story up to skepticism. The more time I spend with time travel, or a world with intelligent apes and savage men, or a universe of (space | sea) pirates and (aliens | sea-monsters) and (Jedi knights | magic curses), the more I start to question the validity of it all. I buy wholesale into the Matrix of the first Matrix movie because it's sharp, elegant, and an easy-to-grasp metaphor I haven't seen done (on the big screen) before. But when you open up the world and start talking to me about rogue programs and architects and we actually see the city of Zion and its culture, people, government -- well, the more rules and boundaries you show me, the more I start to question the ramifications of those rules and boundaries. To put it another way: if you show me only a clock face, I am pleased and impressed that the thing tells time so accurately and applaud you on the elegance of your design... but if you open it up and start showing off the gears and clockwork, I might see weak points and inconsistencies, and the magic will be utterly gone.

Further, The Matrix was full of all these fascinating and maudlin monologues unabashedly pontificating on various philosophical themes, and while the dialogue was never "good" in a traditional sense, it was enjoyable on many levels. The Matrix Reloaded, however, seems hellbent on being very direct and straightforward, literal with what is said. Even when philosophy gets discussed, it is in egregiously straightforward (and muddled) ways, as when the Merovingian explains his idea of causality (vs. freewill) by serving a "program" (slice of cake) to a woman which triggers in her an orgasm and somehow convinces her to sneak off to the bathroom (where, we learn two scenes later, she gives him a blowjob). It's confusing and frustrating, but it's not a symbol: he literally does the thing he's saying he could do as an illustration of an idea he lays out in no uncertain terms. It actually feels a lot like someone else wrote a sequel and didn't have the grasp of layered dialogue and visual metaphor that the original creators had. Of course, that's tacitly not the case, and so I'm left to wonder why this film lacks the magic of the first. It's not that it's bad, mind you, it's just too obsessed with continuing a story, and the more poetic, thematically driven elements of the first are set aside to that end. More's the shame, honestly.

Additionally, I can't leave without noting: in each and every one of the above "manufactured trilogy" examples, the story is made darker by putting the characters in more dire straits and ending on a cliffhanger: Han Solo is in carbonite and Luke is a one-armed kid with some shocking family news in Empire; Doc Brown has been thrown back to 1885 and Marty's stranded in the past in Back to the Future; Jack Sparrow throws himself into the massive vagina dentata of the kraken in Pirates; the astronauts set off the nuclear bomb and destroy all life on Earth in Apes; and Neo is told that the prophecy is bunk, Agent Smith has escaped the Matrix, and the sentinels are on their way to finally eradicate all of Zion in Matrix Reloaded. Every time, you explore the nooks and crannies of the world, expand the mythology and cast of characters, and you end on a devastating low-note, anticipating your third installment.

Well, I'll start the third installment, but I doubt I'll finish it tonight. Then again, I predicted I wouldn't finish the second.

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