Saturday, September 03, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

"Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the Matrix.  You are an eventuality of an anomaly."

- The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) informs Neo (Keanu Reeves) that there is no such thing as free will, in The Matrix Reloaded.

Although general audiences by-and-large rejected the film as both baffling and meandering upon its release in 2003, The Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix Reloaded nonetheless ranks in an elite and cherished group of sequels.  Bluntly-stated, it is one of those follow-ups that is equal  to (if not better) than the original.

In that select category you will also find such titles as The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, and The Road Warrior.  But The Matrix Reloaded belongs in that tally because it assiduously expands the scope of both the franchise's philosophical underpinnings and action-packed visuals.

To a nearly exponential degree, actually, in both cases.

In particular, The Matrix Reloaded examines -- from virtually all sides -- the Thomas Kempis hypothesis that "man proposes but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands." 

In other words, The Matrix Reloaded diagrams, on a commendably complex level, the debate between free will, or "metaphysical libertarianism," and hard determinism. 

The equation looks something like this: Either man makes his own decisions, free of constraints, or the conditions of our life (in or out of The Matrix...) are such that there is only one possible, pre-determined outcome for all of us.  

In the text of the film itself, Neo travels "behind the curtain" of the Matrix, to "the Source" and learns that his very nature as "The One" is simply another level of machine control; another system by which machines dominate man's destiny.  

However, Neo's response to this new knowledge (and to his new nemesis, The Architect) is  revelatory.  He does not act in the pre-ordained, statistically-guaranteed fashion expected by his logical masters, but rather bucks his "explicit purpose" in life and forges an irrational choice all his own.  In doing so, Neo confirms his essential humanity; his capacity to choose hope over reason.

Virtually all of the important characters in The Matrix Reloaded are viewed through the prism of hard determinism/free will in this sequel, a fact which grants the expensive blockbuster a unique life-force and singular vision, one entirely different from that of The Matrix.  However, in firmly keeping with the tenets of the first franchise picture, the sequel finds its "solution" to the central dilemma in the tenets of Buddhism, particularly in the concept of pratitya-samutpada or "inter dependent arising." This is a concept which allows for the possibility of both free will and determinism, an algaebraic equation approaching balance, or symbiosis.

Outside the realm of philosophy, The Matrix Reloaded achieves its substantial visceral thrills by playing up the requisite "carnage candy" aspect of movie sequels, which -- according to the verbose Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream 2 (1997) -- means the staging of much more elaborate sequences than seen in the first picture of a trilogy.  Here, a nearly twenty-minute battle sequence on a busy highway (inside The Matrix) outpaces even the pyrotechnics and fight choreography of the original film's climactic high rise/helicopter battle. It is a perfect fusion of choreography, suspense, digital effects and high-impact editing. 

In terms of the near-mythic Agent Smith vs. Neo sweepstakes, the Wachowskis have some wicked fun here by transforming the villainous Smith into a self-replicating program; one who can assimilate other individuals and reproduce himself by the millions, apparently.  In one amazing fight scene (hindered today only by dated CGI effects), Neo does fierce battle with a thousand versions of his committed enemy.  Like virtually every aspect of The Matrix Reloaded, this dazzling fight sequence demonstrates the Wachowski's brawny creative imagination, and their seemingly unerring capacity to go for broke both in terms of visuals and mind-bending concepts.

"We are all here to do what we are all here to do..."

It is a dark time for the last human city, Zion.  Thousands of sentinels have begun tunneling down through the Earth to begin a final assault against the metropolis, and a key human ally, the Oracle (Gloria Foster), has disappeared. 

Meanwhile, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has returned to The Matrix with strange new abilities, and with a sinister plan to destroy "The One," Neo (Reeves).

While Zion masses its ships to defend Zion, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) takes a controversial risk to get Neo inside the Matrix and find the Oracle.  Once found, she informs Neo -- who has been suffering from prophetic dreams -- that he will soon be called upon to make a life-or-death choice regarding Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and that he must "acquire" a program called "The Keymaker" in order to visit "The Source" and confront the program behind The Matrix. 

Morpheus believes that by accomplishing this mission, the war with the machines shall be ended overnight. Others, including Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) are not as certain.

After wresting control of the Keymaker from a hedonistic program called The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), Neo makes it to the Source and confronts the Architect.  There, he learns that the Matrix is much older than he imagined, and that Zion has already been destroyed and repopulated five times.  

Additionally, Neo learns that "The One" is but another facet of machine domination, and that he is expected to make the same life-or-death selection that his five predecessors made...

"There are Two Doors..."

All of the philosophy, all of the tech-talk, all of the amazing action in The Matrix Reloaded comes down to an extremely simple (and brilliant) dialogue sequence.   It involves Neo entering a small room and being forced to reckon with the future itself, which is represented explicitly by two doors. 

This is, as Neo says, "the problem of choice."

If he walks through one door, the system (the Matrix) survives, and the cycle of war begins all over again...for the sixth time.  This is the very choice Neo is expected to make, and the determinist machines have always gambled correctly that "The One" would make such a choice. At this point, they are five for five.

Through the second door, however, is a chance to possibly save Trinity's life, but also the utter destruction of the human race.  By ultimately selecting this door, Neo makes the case for free will, defying the "nature of things" and even his nature as "The One," an anomaly or error inside the Matrix, but one deployed by the Machines for purposes of controlling mankind.

Neo isn't the only one countenancing the debate between metaphysical libertarianism and hard determinism in the film.  Agent Smith is now a Satan figure in some ways (assuming the Architect as the God figure of the Matrix construct).  Importantly, Smith notes: "We're not here because we're free.  We're here because we're not free.  There is no escaping reason; no defying purpose." 

Thus, he is a fallen angel rebelling against the Order of Things, or God, yet -- ironically -- still subscribing to the philosophy or belief of that very order.  He hates that Order, and yet, so much like the fallen Lucifer, still clings to it as a governing principle.

Uniquely, the heroic Morpheus also seems to believe in the determinist nature of life.  The good captain believes blindly in "the Prophecy of the One," and is unable -- until circumstances force otherwise -- to see outside that Prophecy.

Morpheus sees the divine hand of "Providence" ending the War and guiding his every move, his every action.  He sees purpose behind every eventuality, and notes that events must happen this way and couldn't happen any other way.  Free will does not enter the picture.  "There are no accidents," he meaningfully asserts.

Accordingly, Morpheus undergoes a serious spiritual crisis in the film when he learns that his beliefs are built upon shaky firmament; and that not everything occurs for a reason.   When Neo went to the Source, the war was supposed to end...but it did not. And the result is that Morpheus's faith is shaken.  Has he been duped by a system of control invisible to his eyes, outside of his detection?  And yes, this subplot may indeed be a subtle commentary about the role organized religion in our world: imposing control and standards of behavior while making promises about outcomes (and the after life...) that may have no basis in reality.

The Merovingian, a rogue computer program living inside the Matrix, is one of the film's most intriguing new characters, and he too has a unique viewpoint on the debate involving free will.

The Merovingian  is amusingly presented as a French hedonist and cynic who attempts to gain the utmost advantage from the deterministic nature of the Matrix.  The Merovingian defines himself as a "slave to causality," thus viewing the universe as a simple chain of events based on the interconnection of cause and effect.

Within that narrow viewpoint, The Merovingian carves out for himself a little fiefdom where he can, cynically, enjoy himself at the expense of others.  He can just party till the world ends (or re-boots).   Given such a philosophy, the Merovingian revels only in physical and carnal pleasures.  He knows (or believes he knows) that existence is following a pre-determined path, one unshakable and unalterable.  "Choice is an illusion," he suggests. 

Given the fact that this is so, why not enjoy himself for as long as possible, right?

Humorously, The Merivongian learns a real and painful lesson in causality (and perhaps free will as well...) from his wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci), another rogue program featured in the film.  She is tired of her husband's atttempts to control the destiny of others (including herself), and throws a monkey wrench into his plans. 

But her point is pertinent.  Through his behavior, The Merovingian has "caused" this most unpleasant "effect."

Trinity meanwhile, is the fulcrum of Neo's prophecy, and the crux of the free will/determinism debate.  Neo has asked Trinity to remain outside of the Matrix, lest she be killed in action.  He has seen her death in his dreams, and wants to avert it.  He wants to "control" her destiny.

But Trinity "chooses" to enter the Matrix, save Neo, and ultimately face her demise,

Her action is one of choice, yet interestingly it is also pre-ordained or determined, at least from Neo's viewpoint.  He always "saw" that she would make this particular selection.  Which then raises the important question: was it her choice to begin with?  Or was her choice determined?  In answering this question and viewing Trinity's plight as being both free and determined, we begin to detect that there is a third path bridging these two philosophies.

Many Buddhists believe that human existence is neither entirely free nor entirely deterministic, but see "connections" (or networks of interaction) as the factors which can affect both.  The pratitya samutpada is a kind of middle path between free will and determinism, and it is the path, ultimately, that Neo takes in the film.  It's the path of interdependence, in a sense.   

As the movie opens, Neo feels a prisoner of his own free will, and of his esteemed reputation as "The One."  "I wish I knew what to do," he declares.  And yet, when the Architect very clearly informs Neo of his role in the Order of Things, Neo rejects "knowing" what to do out of hand, and chooses his own trajectory.  This happens because, perhaps, human beings boast a quality called "hope." 

As Morpheus notes in his speech to the assembled citizens of Zion: "we still have hope." 

Furthermore, the Architect terms hope both the human being's greatest weakness and greatest strength.  It is hope, suggests The Matrix Reloaded, which permits us to believe, perhaps, in free will, and our own importance in the order of things.  It is hope which leads Neo to reject his "purpose" as The One, to choose a different "door," and to save Trinity's life.  It is hope that allows for the possibility that life is not an either/or, binary decision, and that unforeseen outcomes unfurl from free choice beyond the sight, even, of reality's architects.

What will happen to Neo for rejecting his prescribed path?  Well, as the Oracle bluntly acknowledges "we can never see past the choices we don't understand."  

His human capacity to select an irrational path -- even at the risk of the species itself -- suggests that humans live a life of, at least, moderate free will.  It is one in keeping with pratitya-samutpada, the middle path.  Neo will save Trinity first, and then worry about the rest of the human race. 

What outcomes will grow from his choice?  What new pathways has he opened by selecting a different door this time around?

The seeds for Neo's burgeoning belief in pratitya-samutpada are planted throughout The Matrix Reloaded.  A councilor in Zion named Harmann (Anthony Zerbe) speaks to him at length of the interconnectedness between machine and man.   He notes particularly, the life-support machines of Zion: "Down here, sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines I... I can't help thinking that in a way... we are plugged into them.."

This observation leads to a debate about control.  "What is control?" Harmann asks Neo, and in considering that interrogative, Neo begins to imagine a "middle way," a path in which the machines and humans are not necessarily enemies, but beings in symbiosis, ones who need each other.  This formulation leads the trilogy to its resolution in The Matrix Revolutions, and I'll cover this aspect of the saga in more detail next week. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Matrix Reloaded  remains the depiction of the "programs" who live inside the Matrix. 

The Merovingian, Persephone, the Keymaker, The Oracle, and even The Architect all seem to have picked "sides" in the war between man and machine.  Some have become man's allies, apparently, and some his dedicated enemies. 

And yet if one steps back from these perceived allegiances, one can detect how all the programs are mechanisms of "control" fulfilling their pre-ordained purpose.  The Oracle gives Neo exactly the advice he needs so as to return to the Source, "disseminate" his code, and begin the cycle of life in The Matrix all over again (for the sixth time).  On one level, the Oracles' instructions seem to help Neo and the resistance, but on another level all together she is simply fulfilling her "purpose," doing what she is meant to do in the grand scheme of control.

The Keymaker is very much of the same nature.  His purpose is to get the key to the One, so the One can reach the Source and disseminate his code (and re-boot the system of control, essentially).  Yet he too seems to be an ally, one who can help the Resistance achieve its end.  Importantly, the question becomes: who is in control?  And furthermore, how do you perceive reality?  Is the Oracle a friend, or a program asserting machine control?  Can she be both at the same time?

Essentially, what The Matrix Reload proposes is a hierarchy or system of control above and beyond the system of control represented by the Matrix itself.  There are different levels of control, all determining the shape of reality and the fate of all individuals. 

Neo was always meant to be "The One," and to challenge the machines, but the result of this challenge to machine control was always a fait accompli.   Eventually, he would succumb to a higher system of control, and re-establish the Matrix and the "way of things."  But this time around, when Neo detects the order and becomes aware of it, he makes a different choice and all bets are off. 

Again, this is a startlingly positive, humanist philosophy.  The machines can never go against order and purpose (not even the untethered Smith), but humans can do so.  Machines must fill their purpose as it is written and programmed.  Human beings -- programmed by nurture and nature -- boast the freedom to interpret their own purpose, it would seem.

If The Matrix Reloaded suffers from any particular problem in terms of structure or filmmaking, it is that the film ends with no real or powerful conclusion.  The movie just...stops. 

Although it is the second movement of a trilogy -- and, like The Empire Strikes Back, a dark one -- it nonetheless does not feel finished in a meaningful sense. 

After the high-point of the Architect sequence and the "two doors" scenario, the film drops off in interest and it feels as though we're watching a two-part episode of some old TV series, with the words "to be concluded" transmitted across the screen.   In Empire, there is a yearning for more story yet to come, but also the feeling of completeness; of a chapter of a larger work opened and closed.  For all its genius in terms of visuals and philosophy, The Matrix Reloaded doesn't get this equation right.   

I have also read complaints from viewers about the scenes set in Zion, particularly the notorious party scene.  As you may recall, this is the early sequence in which several hundred gorgeous, half-naked men and women sweat and gyrate to the beat of pounding drums.  The sequence is intercut with images of Neo and Trinity making love in their home.  I'm not certain why this sequence attracted so much negative attention, but structurally and thematically it makes an abundance of sense.  How so?  Simply on the grounds that in this war, we must know what we are fighting to preserve. 

And what is being fought for here, quite simply, is our humanity.  Our irrationality, our hope, our love...all those qualities which enable us to believe that we have free will, and can change our destiny if it is not to our liking.  This sensual, romantic montage explicitly reminds the audience of human nature, and differentiates man from the machines.  Without this scene, an essential piece of the film's human equation would be missing.

The Matrix Reloaded remains a great film, and a terrific sequel because it considers so fully those aspects of the human equation on a cerebral yet passionate level.  It asks us to question our lives, the levels of control in our lives, and our unique capacity to break out of the chains of others' expectations. 

No, we're not completely independent vessels.  We can't be, because we are connected to our physical environment and to our biological needs (food, sex, etc.). Therefore, those aspects of our lives are indeed determined, in some critical sense.  But we also needn't choose what others have chosen before us.  We need not be now what others perceive us as being...or wish us to be.

Every time we make a new choice, a new door opens.  And then another new door opens, and then another. 

The Matrix Reloaded understands the potential in the problem of choice, and to paraphrase the film, asks the audience a profound question:

 Do you know why you're here? 

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"You have many questions, and although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not."

- The Architect, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
(to be reviewed here Friday this weekend! Sorry for the delay...)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Gobot "Monsterous" Combiner (Tonka; 1986)

I know that far and wide these days, the Transformers are greatly preferred to their contemporaries from the 1980s, The Gobots.  In fact, I remember a great joke from Clerks II (2006) when a character noted that Gobots were the "K-Mart" version of Transformers.

Certainly, the machine-robo denizens of Gobotron haven't experenced the popularity resurgence of their Cybertron counterparts in the 21st century.  That fact established, there are still many great collectible toys from the Tonka Gobot line.  The die-cast "Super" Gobots, in particular seem to have held up very well.  The smaller plastic Gobots...not so much.

One of the weirdest and most wonderful toys from the Gobot catalog is "Monsterous," often misspelled as "Monstrous."  Monsterous is actually a combiner, consisting of six Gargoyle-like Gobot Renegades (the Gobot verson of the Decepticons). 

The six Renegades that transform (er, "convert") into Monsterous are: Weird Wing, South Claw, Heart Attack, Gore Jaw, Fangs and Fright Face.  When combined (with Fright Face at the top of the pyramid, as it were...), these ghoulish folks form the monster you see at the top of this post, a very colorful and fanciful-lookng creature, by any definition. 

Relatively few combiners were made for the Gobot line -- just the Renegade Puzzler and the Power Suit Combiners -- so Monsterous is a pretty cool and odd toy.  He certainly doesn't look quite like your typical Gobot, and in his original Japanese incarnation he was called, ominously enough, Satan 6.

Monsterous also originally came in at least two color variations that I've seen while haunting E-Bay.  This particular Monsterous (pictured) is currently my son Joel's absolute favorite toy.

At least until I can get my hands on a Transformer Preda-King Combiner for him...but that's going to cost a pretty penny. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Eyes

Identified by Hugh: Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek: "The Omega Glory."

Identified by Will: Patrick Duffy as The Man from Atlantis

Identified by Will: Maya (Catherine Schell) in Space:1999.

Identified by Will: Steve Austin (Lee Majors) in The Six Million Dollar Man: "The Return of Big Foot."

Identified by Hugh: A Cylon from Battlestar Galactica: "The Lost Warrior."

Identified by Will: Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) in "Ardala Returns."

Identified by Will: David Banner (Bill Bixby) in The Incredible Hulk.

Identified by Will: A Visitor in V.

Identified by Brian: John Crichton (Ben Browder) in Farscape: "A Clockwork Nebari."

Identified by Hugh: Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in Smallville: "Heat."


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mahalo Author Series Video Posted

If you feel like listening to me talk about film and television for forty minutes or so (!), Mahalo has now uploaded the long-distance video interview they did with me a week ago, wherein I answered twenty reader questions.  I really appreciated being included in this Author's Series, and hope you enjoy the video.

The audio is somewhat variable at points, but check it out: