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July 4, 2003

Matrix Reloaded

Much later than everyone else, I finally saw The Matrix Reloaded, and like Steven Shaviro, I thought the second film was somewhat more nuanced philosophically than the original. Shaviro offers a nice reading of the film, and I'd like to think through some of his ideas and hopefully add to the discussion.

To my mind, one of the second film's major strengths is that it complicates Morpheus's faith in the salvation narrative that provides the structure of the first film. In the second film, Morpheus is frequently doubted by his superiors in Zion who don't share his vision or his faith (specifically with Commander Lock whose name may be a pun on the English empiricist philosopher), and more importantly, the narrative of the film itself bears out this critique quite nicely with the choice that Neo is required to make at the end of the film during his conversation with the Architect of the Matrix and during another conversation with a Counselor in Zion.

This shift allows the filmmakers to move from questions about simulation to an interesting comparison between the Matrix and Zion, a comparison that is figured nicely in the dialogue between Neo and the Counselor. In this sequence the Counselor gestures toward the industrial substructure which keeps the city functioning. The human reliance on machines in Zion is immediately made visible (and, yes, that was Cornel West sitting on the council in a brief cameo).

Along the same lines, our new knowledge about the Architect and the Oracle also imply that Neo's rebellion, indeed the entire battle with Zion, has already been written into the system, leading Shaviro to suggest that "a Foucaultian analytics of power seems more relevant" in reading this film.

This opposition between Zion and the Matrix is also pertinent to the film's treatment of bodies. In his analysis of the action sequences, Shaviro comments that

There's not enough funk and grit in any of these sequences; they are simply too perfect. It's a well known fact that digitally generated sequences have to be "dirtied" up a bit in order to be convincing -- you have to add some "noise," degrade the quality of the images a bit, or otherwise they will be too smooth, too seamlessly rendered, to seem alive. While I'm sure the Wachowski Brothers did this on a technical level, conceptually and in terms of sheer flow the sequences still strike me as too precisely calibrated, or something, to be really gripping. It's in the special effects of the action sequences that we really get simulation and hyperreality -- rather than in the plot and premises of the film.
I had a similar reaction to the action sequences; they felt too crisp, too perfect, too clean, but I think that might contribute to the film's celebration of bodies. The dance sequence in Zion -- while somewhat contrived -- feels much "grittier" than anything that happens inside the Matrix, and I think that is a product of certain perceptions about bodies in relationship to cyberspace. Perhaps it's the technological limitations of digital effects, but I think the grit and dirt and bodies in Zion are meant to affirm the physical world in opposition to the harsh lines and the faces hidden behind sunglasses of the Matrix.

I did enjoy Reloaded, even though my visceral experience of the original was probably stronger since I saw it on opening night in a crowded theater, with no expectations beyond my appreciation of the Wachowskis' low-budget hit, Bound. What were other reactions to Reloaded? How did your experience of the second film compare to your reaction to the first one?

Posted by chuck at July 4, 2003 2:42 AM

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My initial reaction was mildly negative. I thought it had too much talk in places where there was a need to demonstrate the "deep philosophical" elements:

/Are the machines dependent on us or are we dependent on the machines?/

\Ah, I see what you mean.\

/Yes, it's more complicated than you might think./

And then I thought some of the action scenes were too long, particularly the whole freeway battle.

But after reading/hearing the comments of others, I've begun to revise my opinion to one that's a little more positive. I don't have as fully formed a reading as you do, however.

Posted by: George at July 4, 2003 9:29 AM

Generally, I thought this film did a pretty good job of problematizing the issues that were introduced in the first one so that things are not so cut and dried (good/evil, illusion/reality, etc...).

Posted by: George at July 4, 2003 9:31 AM

I haven't read the Shaviro, but I tend to agree with George in that the "deep thoughts" momments all seemed pretty stiff and staged. The discussion about the filtration machines (between Neo and the council elder) is the perfect example--as though the script writers thought, okay, it's time to throw in a little something to maintain the film's "makes you think" rep. Morpheus's big speech to the people of Zion was embarrassing to sit through. And intentionally or not, having Cornell West do a cameo on the council seemed like just a send up of all the oratorical ham.

Or maybe I'm just grumpy this morning.

Posted by: Matt K. at July 4, 2003 10:32 AM

I'll agree that Morpheus's speech in Zion was pretty bad, and I felt that the dialogue was often very stiff (I wonder how much of that is a product of Neo/Keanu's "Zen pupil" style). I've been thinking a lot about how Zion functioned in the first film, and one of the strengths there is that Zion was "unreprsentable," beyond the broken verbal comments of the crew. Once you see it, I don't think it holds quite as much power (although the shot of the walkways *was* pretty cool). I may have overstated my enthusiasm for the film last night, or earlier this morning, because it is certainly flawed.

I do think the discussion of the filtration scenes added an important self-critique of the man-machine opposition, but it could have been done in a *much* more subtle way. Also, I probably should have been a little more careful in the way that the film treats corporeality. I should have said more directly that I was reading that as an ideology/blind spot in the film more than a positive comment.

Posted by: chuck at July 4, 2003 11:15 AM

A couple of points:

1. What's interesting about the Zion material is its apparent endorsement of fascism. The iconography of the Councilman's and Morpheus's speeches is very Triumph of the Will, and then you have what amounts to an imperative to enjoy. So it's not really a choice between the machines (order) and Zion (freedom), but a choice between modes of order. In retrospect, this is consistent with the first film's rhetoric--when Neo asks about Zion, Tank says something to the effect of, "if the war were over, Zion's where the party would be."

2. I think that it's hard to say how much knowledge we gain from the Architect in this movie. Neo believes him, but Neo has never been the best judge of what people are trying to tell him. (After all, he doesn't seem to have understood that the Oracle told him he's not the One so that he could become the One.) He doesn't really consider the possibility that the Architect has either told him a partial truth, or told him the truth to get him to act in an unexpected way.

3. Pedantic theory point: Shaviro is right to suggest that there's a shift from Descartes to Kant, but that's also the reason that a Foucauldian analytics of power is irrelevant.

The Kantian argument is that freedom lies on the far side of determination. (In other words, "freedom" doesn't mean "the absence of determination." Instead, it means something more like "the overabundance of determination.") The 'analytics of power' Foucault tends to ignore this issue. This is, in effect, the argument between Lacan and Foucault. In Lacan's reading of Kant, freedom is "real," which is to say that it's impossible according to the laws of the system, but something that happens nonetheless.

FWIW, I loved the second movie, and tend to think that many people have forgotten what it was like to see the first Matrix for the first time, since it also struck some critics as talky and affected. It wasn't until the DVD that The Matrix became THE MATRIX. There's also the hateration factor. As soon as the Wachowski's decided to release the game, the Animatrix, and the two sequels all in the same year, a certain amount of backlash was predictable, warranted or not.

Posted by: Jason at July 5, 2003 5:01 PM

Good points, Jason. I'll try to respond to them in some form:

1. I remember having a similar reaction to Morpheus's speech, particularly the fact that he has this vision that cannot be questioned. Writing about the movie so soon after I wathed it may have prevented me from remembering that point. When it is viewed in the guise of the faith narrative, it effectively hides the fascist coloration. During that speech, I kept looking for visual allusions to Leni Riefenstahl films, but I'm not sure that the film is capable of that degree of self-critique.

2. I *like* this reading of the Architect. Given what we "learn" about the Oracle in this film, any knowledge that Neo gets from figures within the Matrix is pretty suspect (bringing us back to issues of simulation/illusion once again), and certainly the Architect helped establish the reactions that appear to be available to Neo at that moment.

3. I have to admit that I struggled with the Foucaultian reading of the film. It was the section of my original review that made me most uncomfortable. Another friend had suggested a similar interpretation, but I was having a hard time wrapping myself around it.

I stand by my initial observation that the original felt a little more exciting for me, especially in terms of doing things that were visually new, but I think you raise a good point about THE MATRIX being "made" through its DVD release. I'd still say that The Matrix is probably still the best use of the DVD format I've seen (at least in promoting the film).

Posted by: chuck at July 5, 2003 5:51 PM

Chuck: I wasn't really clear about my hateration point: I of course think that it's reasonable to prefer the first one, and that the first one is, in some sense, more innovative and exciting.

But I also think a fair amount of the mainstream criticism of Reloaded has been overblown, often by critics who woke up to the Matrix late in the day.

Posted by: Jason at July 5, 2003 6:20 PM

In terms of "hateration," that's what I'd understood you to imply. I may have overstated my "defense" of the first film slightly. I actually think the second film might be "better" (more complicated philosophically) although I'm uncomfortable with such evaluative judgements, so my "excitement" comment refers only to that aspect of my experience.

I also had the bizarre experience of watching a group of teenagers dance on the stage in front of the theater as the closing credits rolled and Rage Against the Machine played. Something about that experience made the first film a bit more memorable for me personally.

I think the first film (in its DVD, comic book, and video game reiterations) simply created so much "buzz" that it produced the "hateration" backlash you're describing, and I really do think it took the DVD release to fully allow some of the first film's innovations to become recognizable. I think there is a lot of "false" nostalgia for the experience of the first film based on second and third viewings of the film on DVD, and other "supplemental" materials, including websites and other fan-authored materials. As I recall, Ebert's review (among others) of the first film was rather tepid for some of the reasons you describe.

Posted by: chuck at July 5, 2003 6:54 PM

Bummer. I'm going to have to append my last name or initial now that you are carrying 2 Jason readers ;)

Nice conversation - my comments are trackbacked...

Posted by: Jason (the other) at July 8, 2003 12:15 PM

I saw your interpretation and felt that our readings had a few things in common, especially the way that MR undermines Morpheus as a reliable figure through Zion's politics, and I really liked your reading of the Oracle. We still can't be sure whether or not she is reliable. Also liked your point about bridging worlds. I'll comment in more detail over at your blog (and I would have sooner, but my cold left me feeling pretty rundown). I'll let you and Jason sort out how you identify yourselves...

Posted by: chuck at July 8, 2003 1:22 PM


disinfo matrix piece


Posted by: p.poon at July 9, 2003 2:25 AM

Thanks for the link! These "performances" of MR are an interesting addition to a complicated phenomenon. There is definitely some resemblance, in my reading, to gaming, but reintroducing the matrix into the streets of Tokyo--however mediated they might be--is an interesting political act.

Posted by: chuck at July 9, 2003 11:33 PM

After the thought-shock of the first movie, where one learns that reality is an illusion, echoing the teachings of thousands of years of Eastern thought, the second movie failed to produce an 'aha' effect at all. While the plot was more detailed and the special effects better, the rush of novelty was missing. The God-like Architect and the keymaker concept didn't quite pull it off.

Posted by: Saleem Rana at October 5, 2003 4:41 PM

I think that's the major difficulty with the second film in a trilogy: the "aha!" factor is almost impossible to sustain (regain?). I haven't seen the film since I reviewed it, so I honestly don't remember enough to offer a detailed response, but I think MR does a great job in calling Morpheus's incredibly enticing quasi-Eastern, quasi-Marxist liberation metanarrative into question.

Posted by: chuck at October 6, 2003 11:19 AM

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