It seems to be a law of the Internet that, whenever someone mentions the Wachowskis’ 1999 film The Matrix, someone must inevitably snarks, “It’s a shame they never made any sequels.” Sure, the first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, never reaches the heights of its predecessor, but it also isn’t worth tossing aside.
Welcome back to “In defense of,” io9’s semi-regular series defending works of pop culture (and science) that are unfairly dismissed or despised.
There is no question that, when it comes to telling a complete narrative (or, god, the dialogue), that The Matrix trumps its 2003 sequel. But the reason that I still adore The Matrix Reloaded is that it’s the movie I rewatch when I want to sink into the world of The Matrix (see also: The Animatrix).
If 1999’s The Matrix is the franchise’s Jesus story, The Matrix Reloaded is its Alice in Wonderland. By now we understand that humanity lives in the Matrix and that a world exists outside the Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded decides to start poking at that world. If we’re all living in a computer simulation, let’s have fun with that.
And The Matrix Reloaded has fun. It has vampires and ghosts and a guy who make keys to anything you need. It has married computer programs engaged in a feud that’s been simmering for centuries. It has that incredible highway chase scene. It shows us the culture of Zion, imagining what would happen if you pulled people from all over the world out of the Matrix. (The rave scene is silly, but I feel deliciously uncomfortable every time I watch Neo among his petitioners. You’re a sucky messiah, Neo.) It’s a movie where the Wachowskis’ visual aesthetic, for the most part, works with the story rather than overwhelming it.
Plus, we get that nice and creepy introduction to Agent Smith’s new arc. Somehow, Hugo Weaving is even scarier when he can copy himself.
But my favorite thing about The Matrix Reloaded is how it completely dismantles what it means for Neo to be the Chosen One. The first Matrix movie is chock full of wish fulfillment: dissatisfied desk jockey not only gets in on a reality-shattering conspiracy, he also learns that he’s the Chosen One destined to save everyone. The Matrix Reloaded unravels the whole idea of a Chosen One — in fact, it knocks the very notion of rebelling against the system down a few billion pegs.
The Matrix has this strong, simple end: the Chosen One is revealed and now humanity has a fighting chance against the machines. The Matrix Reloaded shows us that, as appealing as that story is, it’s just another pretty lie. Throughout The Matrix Reloaded, characters hint that Neo isn’t the first Chosen One, and when he finally meets the Architect toward the end of the movie, the truth is revealed: Zion is part of the machines’ plan. The Chosen One is part of the machines’ plan. It’s a handy way to control other people — by making them think they’ve slipped the controls.
And The Matrix Reloaded manages to make this revelation without falling into nihilism. It turns out that the Matrix is more complicated than the humans of Zion ever dreamed, but it’s also more complicated than the machines realize. Everyone throughout the movie is talking about control and choice and destiny — Councillor Hamann, the Oracle, the Merovingian, the Architect — and for a heartbeat, it looks like every move that Neo makes will inevitably be anticipated.
Then we get that pair of heart-pounding cliffhangers. Neo has some power over machines outside of the Matrix? Smith exists in a human body? If there’s any reason to pretend that The Matrix Revolutions doesn’t exist (and really, that “they never made any sequels” joke has gotten wearisome), it’s so that, for a few minutes after The Matrix Reloaded ends, we can maintain that sense of anticipation, wondering how the hell the Wachowskis are going to wrap up this increasingly pulpy epic.