Friday, August 31, 2012

From the Archive: The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

"Karma's a word. Like "love". A way of saying 'what I am here to do.' I do not resent my karma - I'm grateful for it."

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Ending a trilogy well is not at all an easy task.

Final installments in cinematic trilogies are, in fact, notoriously rough going. Consider Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Godfather III (1990), for example.  In cases such as these, it's fair to state that it is much easier to forge a beginning than a satisfying ending.

There’s also the opposite instance of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I suppose, which earned a Best Picture Oscar.  Yet there remain a number of critics (myself included) who consider that trilogy-ender wildly over-praised and overlong, and certainly not the finest of the three pictures in the series. 

So why do trilogy-enders tend to fail in terms of audience and critical appreciation? 

In large percentage, I suspect, because of deeply-held expectations. Viewers carry along much emotional and time investment when it comes to ending a trilogy; and also weigh-in a great deal of narrative 'history' in determination of how well a ''final" chapter succeeds.  Opinions about how a tale might end have already been, perhaps unconsciously, forged by the advent of a third film.  A trilogy-ender must, by necessity, satisfy those expectations, and yet not in an obvious, routine, or predicable way.

Unfortunately, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix Revolutions doesn’t escape unscathed from this “trilogy” curse.

In fact, it is undeniably the weakest film in The Matrix trilogy, in part because it devotes so much screen-time wrapping up the details of existing story lines rather than exploring more deeply the philosophical terrain excavated by the earlier movies.

To an unexpected extent, The Matrix Revolutions is also scuttled by an unfortunate but necessary re-casting in a central role, and by a storyline which, essentially, drops the two most interesting characters – Neo and Trinity – for an egregiously long spell. 

On the first front, Gloria Foster portrayed The Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures, but passed away before her scenes could be completed for The Matrix Revolutions.  Mary Alice replaces Foster and does an absolutely fine job in the role.  And yet Foster's more laconic and familiar presence is sorely missed here, despite the crafty manner in which the shift in The Oracle's appearance is explained.

Again, I'm not picking on Mary Alice, or claiming that the filmmakers were wrong to re-cast the role.  Clearly, they had no other choice.  And yet still, this time around I miss the human connection to Foster's indelible, dynamic character.  Foster's Oracle was tough as well as charming.  Alice's interpretation seems "straighter," if you will, without some of the flamboyant affectation that made Foster light up the screen in each of her memorable scenes.

Regarding the second matter, Neo and Trinity are sidelined from the film for a long spell as war comes to Zion, and Neo makes a pilgrimage to the Machine City, a kind of wondrous, mechanical version of Baum's Oz.

While Neo and Trinity are away, the film showcases an intense, large-scale battle to hold Zion, and the sequence is dominated by incredible special effects.  In essence, this show-stopping special effects triumph depicts the Machine/Man war that the Terminator films always seemed to promise but never truly delivered.  These visual effects are indeed awe-inspiring yet, and the battle also does a nice job of showcasing two minor human characters as they fight, moment-to-moment, overwhelming odds. In so many ways, it is this battle that it the very centerpiece of the film.

Yet -- and forgive me for saying so -- this isn't really why we go to see a Matrix movie.

We go to see Neo, Trinity and Morpheus in action...inside the Matrix, preferably.  And to one degree or another, all three of those characters are essentially side-lined while second tier characters (Niobe, Zee, Mifune, Lock) fight the war, positioned in the driver's seats.  This narrative structure seems a miscalculation because it asks us to relate to characters we don't as easily identify with, and because it takes us out of the Matrix for such a long time.

The Matrix Revolutions boasts some other notable problems too.  For the first time in the franchise, the audience is already well-ahead of the characters here, at least in terms of critical thinking.  There's one absolutely agonizing, poorly-directed, poorly-acted scene during The Matrix Revolutions in which Neo -- with all his new found abilities -- fails to recognize Smith in the body of a human, Bane.

Heck, you don't even need those special psionic/metaphysical capabilities to recognize Smith because the actor portraying Bane, Ian Bliss, does a masterful, almost supernatural imitation of Weaving's distinctive speech patterns.  Listening to Bane speak, it is impossible not to recognize him as Smith virtually instantly.  And it's not like Neo's attention isn't focused or something.

That Neo fails for so long to recognize Smith in his new, human guise  does not speak well for the hero's intelligence or even his sense of intuition.  Again, this scene represents one of the few instances in the entire trilogy during which we have time to grow bored with the film making, performances and writing.  I'm not generally a critic of Keanu Reeves' acting style.  I believe he's a good actor who can either be used very well in a film (Speed, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded), or used poorly (Bram Stoker's Dracula).  Generally, the mix is right in The Matrix films, but Neo's Revolutions plays into the perception by many audiences that Reeves comes across as a dolt.  And The One can't -- and shouldn't -- be a dolt.

Such flaws established, The Matrix Revolutions does add at least one new element of philosophy to the series mix, namely in the explicit debate regarding karma.

We learned in The Matrix Reloaded that Neo is actually the sixth "One" -- part of a chain -- and that his actions in this life will impact future lives and future selves.  That's the essence of karma, in the Buddhist sense, and if Reloaded concerned the idea of making "free" choices in what seemed a deterministic universe, Revolutions focuses squarely the impact of our choices on our lives, our world, and our  bigger destiny.  Rightly, Revolutions is about causality, how results, sometimes unintended, follow choices.  This is the film -- the ending -- that must concern such results.

The Matrix Revolutions isn't exactly "the bad one," as so many critics have claimed regarding the trilogy, but the film's balance does seem off, for the first time in trilogy history.  There's far too much focus on hover crafts weaving about in impossibly complicated sewer systems, much like the Millennium Falcon in an asteroid belt, and the battle sequences -- though incredibly impressive -- suck momentum away from Neo and Trinity's tragic love story.

Finally, the ending "detente" between machine and man, while assiduously layered into the trilogy (especially in the middle film), somehow fails to satisfy on a dramatic level.  We leave the film wanting more; wanting to see the defeat of the machines.

One way or another, I'm getting on this train

Neo (Keanu Reeves) has become trapped in the domain of The Train Man (Bruce Spence), a subway station with no end and no beginning.

"This place is nowhere.  It is between our world and your world," he is informed  by a kindly program, Rama Kandra (Bernard White).

While trapped, Neo learns that such programs  have not only learned to reproduce, but to "love," an act responsible for the child program, Sati (Tanveer Atwal).  He is shocked to realize that machines have developed the equivalent of human emotions.

Outside the way station, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Seraph (Collin Chau) confront the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) to free Neo. Once released,  Neo takes a hover-craft with Trinity to reach the Machine City, a path that Neo has seen laid out for him in visions, while Morpheus and Captain Niobe attempt to return to Zion to defend it from Machine attack.

Meanwhile, in the Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) assimilates the entire population, turning one and all into mirror images of himself.  Amongst the lost are The Oracle (Mary Alice) and young Sati.

Once he arrives at the Machine City, Neo attempts to negotiate a truce between the machines and Zion, but the machines have a task for him: He must destroy Agent Smith once and for all, before Smith's corrupting influence can be allowed to pollute the "real" world.

It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity

Karma is all about the way that actions lead to results, and is also one of five categories of "causation" in Eastern beliefs.

Karma suggests that actions spring from intention, and karma also drives samsara (the flow of life, essentially) for each being; the process of life, death and re-birth.

The Matrix Revolutions gazes deeply at the idea of karma in terms of its lead characters. Though Neo optedto save Trinity rather than the Matrix and Zion in Reloaded, he gathers additional information about the Machines and Programs in this film, and then  re-establishes his foretold destiny as established by the Architect/Oracle.   He chooses the path the Architect sought for him, but not in the way the Architect desired.

Namely, having lost his mortal love at Trinity's death, Neo arranges a peace between the machines and the humans.  And after defeating Smith, Neo also "re-boots" the world for the dawn of the Sixth and next Matrix.  It is true that things happen slightly differently this time around on the wheel of fate, but the end results are the same:  Zion continues.  The Machine City Continues.  And the Matrix continues.

By saving every element in the world (machine, man and program), Neo creates a "sunny" future for Earth, as the film's final, idyllic shots reveal.  This peace may be fragile, but it exists, and so when Neo returns in some future life, his karma will be positive.   He is "The One," and Neo learns in this film that being "The One" means not simply representing human beings.  On the contrary, he is the savior/messiah for the Programs and Machines as well.

When the Oracle is asked by Sati if she will ever see Neo again, The Oracle answers in the affirmative ("I suspect so. Someday.") because in the cycle of birth/death/rebirth, Neo's actions have been wholly positive.  To put it another way, "our" Neo --  through self-sacrifice and heroism -- has created karma in this world, but it won't be until his next life that he actually gets to experience it and feel it.  That's how karma works.  We make karma in this life at the same time as we deal with karma from a past life.

Smith's karma also plays a role in his defeat in The Matrix Revolutions.  Smith "outgrew" his role as an agent in The Matrix when Neo (at the end of the first film), became one with him -- suffused him -- and then, essentially, blew him up.

This infusion of the One's power,led Smith to grow exponentially in strength until he was the dominant force inside the Matrix; a force he used for negativity and evil.  In The Matrix Reloaded, these events come full circle as Smith totally absorbs and suffuses Neo, providing the protagonist the opportunity to corrupt the Smith-ian status quo, and similarly overturn it.  This act is a reversal of what we saw in The Matrix, and the Oracle reminds us, trenchantly, that Smith is Neo's "opposite."  Their karmas are also opposite.

It's also worth pointing out that Trinity reaches her pre-ordained destiny in this film. She dies young, at Neo's side, after willingly giving her life for him over and over again.  Neo may have rescued her before, but he was only delaying her fate, not changing it.  Trinity's selection was always to die for Neo.  That was her "karma," and it too paved the way for a future of peace.  If Trinity is to be re-born at some point, one would also anticipate her karma  in that iteration would be positive.

Each Matrix film has utilized some aspect of Buddhist philosophy to a substantial degree, and it's rewarding that The Matrix Revolutions -- on the event of the series' ending -- should focus on the big idea of our actions creating meaning; and the epic sweep of life, death and eventual rebirth.  "Change is always a dangerous game," according to the film, but in forging change, the film's heroic characters, particularly Neo and Trinity, build a new and better world.  Not the best world, mind you, but a better one.  They end the war.

The question that roils me to this day, however, is this one: Is this change enough?  The machines are still growing human slaves in those fields.  And millions of human souls are still locked in the Matrix, essentially a "lie" about reality.  The film ends with this paradigm as the status quo.

Yes, Zion is free, but what are the rules of this new peace?  Must the humans of Zion stop attempting to free the minds of the enslaved?  And will the machines truly leave Zion alone, in defiance of history and five previous attempts to overwhelm it?

Again, the idea of detente (not defeat) is built into the Matrix films, and I do understand that.

In Revolutions, fore instance, we learn that programs can be loving fathers and husbands, and also broach such concepts as self-sacrifice.  Such qualities make them not an enemy to humans, essentially, but a competitor.

This is a noble, uplifting idea --- peace between biologicals and mechanicals -- but again, slavery is involved in the equation. Is it right to go on living happily in Zion knowing that your brethren are enslaved, exploited as "living batteries?"

The Oracle glosses over this idea at the end of the film by noting that anyone who "chooses" to leave the Matrix may now do so.   But don't we already know, from Reloaded that the Matrix works in the first place because there is a choice involved, and that the slaves implicitly have accepted their slavery in The Matrix?   In other words, the System is designed to overcome choice, so how can the Oracle blithely state that the slaves have a "choice" about leaving?

Something about this truce just doesn't sit right.  Slavery is a moral evil, no matter the degree of "choice" apparently provided by the master. I don't believe for a minute that Morpheus would simply "retire," knowing that machines are still growing human beings for use as batteries.  The whole point of the war, it seems is freedom for all.  Not just the lucky thousands already dwelling in Zion.

In terms of drama, I believe the resolution of this film is extremely disappointing.  We have been told that this is a war of survival against the machines, and then -- at the last minute -- it isn't.  The machines offer a truce to Zion, Zion accepts, and life continues.  The change wrought by Neo -- beyond the welcome destruction of Smith, of course -- appears mostly cosmetic, not in the real nature of things or systems  It's no wonder that Morpheus asks "is this real?"   As viewers we wonder the same thing, and wonder how the truce can last (in the same manner that the Architect ponders this question).

I hope you feel I have not been too hard on The Matrix Revolutions.  Some elements of the film are downright gorgeous.  The Machine City, for instance, is an incredible vision of what a robot utopia might look like, and splendidly, terrifyingly-realized.  The battle to hold Zion, as I indicated near the top of my review, is a stunning vision, and one of a scope almost beyond our capacity to imagine.  I also appreciated the visuals of a thoroughly corrupted, rainswept Matrix, transformed into grisly embodiment of Smith's degraded, egomaniacal id.  Neo's funeral in the Mechanical City -- very much like a Viking funeral -- represents an unforgettable visual as well.

These are all sights worth seeing, and the message about karma -- about how our choices impact our future -- is certainly valuable and in keeping with the franchise's noble history.  But there's still a feeling, when The Matrix Revolutions ends, that -- if you'll pardon the expression -- the "hopey, changey" thing isn't really going to cut it; not when there are still two sides of such diametrically opposed interest involved. Ultimately, either the machines will win, or the humans will win.  The planet doesn't seem big enough for both.  Maybe what we're left to ponder, then, simply is that Neo has given the world a new beginning.

And the world sometimes needs a new beginning...

The Matrix Revolutions is not the conclusion to the franchise everybody hoped for, but it remains an important part of what is, arguably, the most ambitious trilogy in cinema history, as I hope my reviews over the last few weeks have indicated.

The Matrix movies are ones about reality itself, and about how -- through Buddhist philosophy, mainly -- we countenance, interpret, shape and accept that reality.  It has been eleven years since the first film was made, nine since the last, and yet the trilogy remain girded with stunning ideas and brilliant visuals.  That's why I prefer these films to, for example, the Lord of the Rings movies.

It's one thing to create an epic story  regarding  the clash between good vs. evil.  It's quite another to  look at the forces underlying that battle.  Forces such free will, karma, phenomenology, and so on.   It's the difference between brilliantly showcasing the specifics of a war, and attempting to explain why human beings go to war in the first place.  One film cycle is about  (admittedly impressive) surface values, and one is about the meaning of life itself in addition to those superficial traits.

Frankly, I could watch The Matrix again next week and write an entirely new review of the film, one that doesn't even gaze at the same concepts I enunciated in my review of two weeks ago.  Not many blockbuster action films so brawnily open themselves up to that  level of criticism, analysis, and debate.

Like the system featured in the films themselves, this is a trilogy that seems to renew itself on each and every viewing.  In that way, it becomes more than the sum of its lesser (Revolutions) parts.

From the Archive: The Matrix Reloaded (2002)

"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 Wachowskis' 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? 

From the Archives: The Matrix (1999)

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
- Morpheus, in The Matrix (1999)

When I first saw The Matrix in April of 1999, it was a Star Wars moment for me.

In other words, it was a moment in which everything I believed I knew and understood about the parameters of movie-making and visual storytelling changed completely.  Watching this film for the first time is like having a mind-altering experience, and even though we are more than a decade away from the movie's release, a re-watch of The Matrix today still arouses those electric feelings of  a fresh, unfettered mind-state; of the doors of perception swung wide open.

Like Star Wars back in 1977, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix represented a quantum leap forward in terms of special effects presentation.  In particular, the film makes extensive and imaginative use of "bullet time," a digitally-enhanced simulation of variable speed that can be deployed to escort the viewer literally inside a slowed moment of time to observe details from nearly-infinite angles. 

In bullet time, the audience can watch projectiles approach a target in super slow-motion.  In bullet time, space and time become untethered, and audiences rocket around characters, seeing their movements -- and actions -- from more than one perspective.  The technique involves the breakdown of space and time in the frame; the slicing of reality into smaller snapshots.  "Bullet time" uses CGI as a guide, but it is based around the conceit of still cameras surrounding an object and filming dozens of perspectives simultaneously. 

When coupled with The Matrix's extraordinary wire-work and fight scene choreography, bullet time proved an absolute revelation.  In the immediate aftermath of the film, this special effect technique was utilized so much as to become a bad joke, but in the context of The Matrix itself, it still works beautifully.  After all, the movie concerns the very idea of re-shaping reality to our liking through the power of the mind, and bullet time ably reflects that conceit since it too reshapes conventional film grammar, and plays with longstanding cinematic notions of what is real, unreal, possible and impossible.

Beyond special effects breakthroughs, The Matrix also very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Y2K Age.  I can only describe that Zeitgeist as a permeating hunger and trepidation for a new kind of experience; one that reflected and commented on our ever-more technological-based lives.  The film came out at the end of the nineties: the first decade of the Internet, and the age in which the exterior, existential "Cold War" morphed into Pat Buchanan's interior "culture war" within our own borders.    We had peace and prosperity in America, and yet there was uneasiness roiling beneath the boom times.  There was a feeling that, spiritually, we were lost, and that in the Internet and other technological advances there could be a new opportunity to define ourselves and our place in the world at large.  It seemed as if we stood at the doorway of a new reality (a virtual or cyber reality).

Accordingly, The Matrix deals with the shifting-sands of our technological reality, and does so by asking basic questions about how human beings "see" life itself.  For instance, the film forces audiences to countenance the idea that, as individuals trapped by our physical senses, we can't detect objective reality.  Furthermore, it suggests that, in response, we must focus on an almost Buddhist peace about this fact -- that there is no spoon -- and focus instead on the powers of our own minds.   In that quest, The Matrix suggests, prevailing systems and entrenched orders that are inimical to the human spirit might be overturned, or at least, for the first time, truly "seen" and understood for what they are.  It's a delicate dance: the intertwining of Phenomenology with Buddhism with, finally, to a large degree, Marxist, anti-capitalist sentiment.

Innovative in visualization and revolutionary -- even incendiary -- in theme,  The Matrix remains the thinking man's Hollywood blockbuster, the kind of imaginative foray into science fiction thought that seems to come only once a generation.

"It's the question that brought you here."

In the year 1999, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker, alias Neo, by night and a bored cubicle jockey by day.  His latest obsession is tracking a mysterious figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a legendary hacker himself.

But then, one day, Morpheus finds Neo with the help of a beautiful woman, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss). This duo seems to promise Neo an eye-opening revelation about the very nature of existence itself, but at first a reluctant Neo demures.  Instead, he is captured by an apparent Federal agent, Smith (Hugo Weaving), who wants his help capturing Morpheus and Trinity, both apparently known "terrorists."

Before long, however, Neo follows Morpheus and Trinity down a path of no return.  He learns, in fact, that he has mistaken a computer program called "The Matrix" for the "real world."  Morpheus frees Neo from the Matrix and then reveals to him the true history of the world. 

It is actually the twenty-first century, and some years earlier, man created a brand of artificial intelligence that, feeling endangered by his creator, launched all-out war against him.  A nuclear war followed, and now the Earth's sky is black, shrouded in total nuclear winter.  Requiring energy to survive, the machines now grow and utilize human beings as batteries to propel them. 

At the same time they harness human bodies, however, the machines "fool" their unwitting slaves into believing that normal life goes on as before.  All of the enslaved humans "live" in the Matrix, unaware of the real world, and the war for supremacy going on outside it.

Morpheus awakened Neo because he believes that Neo is "the One," a mythical messiah figure who can free humans from the Matrix and take the war to the machines themselves.  As Neo trains and begins to understand the rules of the Matrix, Morpheus is undone by a traitor on his team, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and captured by the villainous Smith...really a policeman of the machine world, dedicated to the machines'  sinister agenda.  

If Morpheus breaks under torture, Smith will know the location of the last, real human city, Zion, and the war will be lost.

Teaming with Trinity, Neo plans to return to the Matrix to save Morpheus, even though he has grave doubts that he is actually "The One"...

"Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions."

A dizzying blend of action and philosophy, The Matrix remains one of the most intriguing and cerebral of all modern Hollywood blockbusters.

At the same time that the film pushes the technological art of film forward  a generation by the pioneering use of  new special effects, it simultaneously harks back to a period in genre history when thematic subtext and intellectual gamesmanship played a critical role in the film making process.  Like the dystopic visions of Planet of the Apes (1968), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974)  and even John Carpenter's Dark Star (1975), The Matrix  utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation.

At a very basic level, The Matrix is about the very structure of our human existence.  Most importantly, it is about how we, as living creatures, perceive what is real and what is not real.  Morpheus puts a fine point on it when he muses "What is "real"? How do you define "real?"  This interrogative is perhaps the most basic question a human being can ask about his or her environment, about his or her life.

In terms of philosophy, we would probably term this idea an example of Phenomenology, after Edmund Hasserl's field of study and research.  In particular, the film obsesses on the idea that consciousness itself is always the consciousness of something or someone.   It is not objective.

What we see and perceive with our senses therefore represents only one side side or aspect of reality.  Because of this fact, what we claim to "know" is not actually known in an objective sense.  Again, Morpheus describes the crucible of this dilemma in The Matrix: "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."  
In other words, if our senses can be tricked, we can be tricked.

In absence of  the ability to discern concrete, objective reality, it is our intention regarding an object  or person that then creates our sense of reality around said object.  To put it another way, our mind creates an elaborate web of reality around a glass of red wine, or a slice of steak, for example.  We bring to these things our sensory experiences and memories. 

Again, this is our so-called "intention," and it colors our view of the objects in question.  In The Matrix, Cypher considers this problem in detail, when he seeks to be returned to the material world of pleasure inside The Matrix.  He notes, of a restaurant dinner: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

And so we get down to the nitty-gritty of how The Matrix uses Phenomenology.  The film appears to state that if we cannot detect, for certain, the shape of objective reality, then the one thing we can control is our own internal reality.  We must not seek validation, legitimacy, or destiny outside, we must look for it within.  In other words, knowing the path is not the same as walking the path.  We must walk the path.

If Phenomenology proves the root problem of human existence, The Matrix suggests some tenets of Eastern Thought, especially Buddhism, as the response to that problem.  In viewing reality as it is and not as it appears to be (a concept called Prajna), Buddhism suggests mental discipline as the key to mastery over one's mind.  "Right concentration" -- or Samadhi -- in other words, is the secret to mastering life.  Such mastery takes practice, effort (vyayama) and awareness (smrti), and again, these concepts are important facets in the film's narrative. 

At length, we follow Neo through his training process, as Morpheus teaches him how to control his thoughts, and how to shape reality in the Matrix to his thoughts.  The first step in this training involves the acknowledgment of the fact that our sense of reality is not necessarily objective reality.  "Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?"  He asks.  "Do you think that's air you're breathing now?"

His next point hammers it home: "Don't think you are, know you are," he implores Neo, suggesting that Neo must overcome the construct of "reality" his mind has erected around him.  The movie's most famous line of dialogue involves the awareness of this truth.  You cannot bend a spoon with your mind because there is no spoon.  It is the mind that must do the bending.

Even the Buddhist concept of samsara -- a cycle of suffering and re-birth -- finds voice in The Matrix, since Neo learns he may be the re-incarnation of "The One," the quasi-religious figure who freed the first trapped humans from the Matrix.  Later films in the trilogy focus more heavily on this aspect of the hero's journey; on the idea of life seeming to repeat itself, over and over, throughout time.

So Phenomenology is established as the basis for the film's philosophy, and Buddhism represents the means by which the self can conquer the existential issues surrounding that philosophy.  This intellectual grounding leaves the film to provide a third important component to wax philosophical about: a villain.  And here, in devising a world of "illusion" and blind, unknowing service to a machine culture, The Matrix delves whole-hog into a a kind of quasi-Marxist argument about man's sense of freedom, and place in the world. 

Specifically, according to Martin A. Dunahay and David Rider, in The Matrix and Philosophy (2002, Open Court, Page 217):  "workers under capitalism do not recognize the relationship between their labor and the capital that they produce because they have become "alienated" from the realities of work.  They also do not recognize that they are forced to work, believing that they are operating in a "free" market in which they sell their labor voluntarily.  In fact, Marx argues, they are exploited because they cannot choose how and why they work."

This paradigm very much reflects the slavery diagrammed by The Matrix.  Trapped by his own way of "knowing reality" (Phenomenology), mankind cannot detect that he is being exploited by the A.I. Machines as a source of labor (of free energy, a copper top battery).  Men like Thomas Anderson believe they are free -- and boast free will -- but such freedom is an illusion fostered by the oppressive, controlling structure. In this case that structure is not Marx's punching bag of capitalism, but the controlling A.I . interests.

Interestingly, the end result of such slavery is viewed as being much the same by Marx and the makers of The Matrix, as this passage from Karl Marx indicates"...once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine...set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself, this automaton consists of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages."

What Marx writes of here, in one sense, is the idea that the individual worker is ultimately subsumed into the machine. Not a literal machine, perhaps, but a philosophical construct or structure, again in the service of capitalism.  The Matrix literalizes the hypothesis, however, actually physically transforming unaware humans into "linkages" of the machine: becoming their necessary energy source; a cog in the larger automaton. 

Just as capitalism derives capital from a labor's work; so does the machine world of The Matrix derive capital (energy) from human participation in  the dream world of "the Matrix."    In The Matrix, the humans are not conscious of their true purpose -- they are lulled into a world of luxury and tactile pleasures by their masters -- just as in the capitalist system, the accumulation of goods and material are the thing which "lull" people into continuing to support and  prop up a system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.  This paradigm makes the film, perhaps, the most Marxist-leaning science fiction film since Metropolis in 1927.

I'm not arguing for or against capitalism, by the way.  I'm merely observing how The Matrix is conscious and cognizant of how a system of control (any system of control...) operates, and how easily people can buy into that system if they are rewarded for their participation.  Cypher turns the other cheek -- ignorance is bliss-- rather than confront his enslavement, and that's what the film concerns, largely: enslavement in a system so large and pervasive that is almost impossible to "see" in its entirety.  The structure of the Matrix program reflects this structure in human life.  It provides law enforcement and government (in the form of the Agents) and religion of a sort (in the Oracles), as well as tactile pleasures.  And yet some especially insightful people (like Neo) rightly still see the system as a trap.

This notion comes across most plainly in the early section of the film, as Neo searches desperately for some sort of meaning or answer about life itself.  He works in an ugly, green-hued office environment, in a small, anonymous cubicle, "a cog" in the vast corporate machine, as it were.

When he is called on the carpet by his wrong-headed boss, the directors of the film cut suddenly to a view outside the window, of a window-washer cleaning the transparent surface.  This shot is a metaphor for Neo's life at this point: he is trapped inside a system in which he feels unimportant.  Meanwhile, just outside, something tries to get in; to affect his consciousness; to draw his attention to something beyond the system which manipulates him.  He's on the verge of seeing it, on the verge of perception, but not yet ready... 

And again, this is an idea that carries real currency in America today.  We don't live to work; but we have to work to live. Many of us devote the majority of our "waking" time -- forty hours a week, at least -- to an agenda which is not our own, but which pays the bills and permits us to put food on our tables and a roof over our heads.  Even when we are not physically at work, we are connected or linked to this "work" matrix through e-mail and cell-phones.  As Morpheus notes in the film, "it is the system that is our enemy."  It's a subversive and fascinating point.

As much as we want to escape beyond the system, it's not possible for the vast majority of us to do, unless we are -- as Cypher dreams of being -- someone "powerful."  So The Matrix is about the yearning to be free of corporate masters; a dream which often leads to a double life, after-hours -- moonlighting, like Thomas Anderson.  We seek to find a way to thrive outside the system, outside the restrictive structures which propagate and continue the system.  But the system is too big, too all-encompassing, to beat. 

And yes, certainly, The Matrix understands the ways in which big systems can squash the individual, or the individual spirit.  "You think you are special?  That somehow the rules don't apply to you?" Those are the words used by Neo's boss to keep him in line.  The idea is that he must choose -- with his livelihood at stake -- to either be a drone or a maverick.  If he picks the former, he dies inside a little bit at a time.  If he chooses the latter, the "system" will make it exponentially-harder for him to succeed.  Again, what The Matrix truly discusses here is fighting entrenched, established interests.  It's about being Preston Tucker fighting the Big Three, for lack of a better example.  Why not just join the system, rather than try to beat it?

If the anti-capitalism angle makes you uncomfortable about the film, just look at The Matrix in more generalized, inspiring terms. As being a wake-up call from middle-class complacency; a call to see the mechanics of the system, question the system, and in some small way, at least, buck the system

And indeed, there's a darkness to this film also, in the suggestion of how to beat the Matrix.  Although Trinity and Neo are certainly "heroes," at some point they come to realize that they must use any means possible to destroy their enemy. 

Inevitably, this involves killing some of the people who are enslaved inside the Matrix.  These are innocent people.  One of the film's most famous and incendiary scenes, involves Neo and Trinity -- adorning trench coats -- entering a heavily guarded, secure building, and opening fire on security guards and police. 

The scene is brilliantly wrought, and yet Neo and Trinity are still "murdering" people, even if their victims are slaves to the Matrix.

Some critics have described this sequence as an incitement to violence because it turns "people," essentially, into video game avatars.  And it's easier, one supposes, to blow away an avatar than a living human being, right?  The outsiders to the Matrix (the freedom fighters like Neo), are able to look at other human beings as being simply "pawns" of the machine, and somehow less valuable, the argument goes, I guess.  In that sense, some people might view the film according to another philosophy: fascism.  The chosen few decide who amongst the rabble lives and dies, with an Aryan-like "One" leading the purge.

Now, in my opinion, this scene isn't an incitement to violence, necessarily, but some in the media certainly treated it as such.  Remember all the criticism leveled at The Matrix after the Columbine shootings, and how the now discredited myth of the "trench coat mafia" took hold so rapidly in the mainstream media?  In some sense, this attack response by the networks was the system -- the Matrix itself -- responding to that which it deemed unacceptable: a movie advocating that, as rational, intelligent individuals, we must occasionally break out of our systemic purgatories and act subversively.

The film's purview is combat and all-out war, with the survival of the human race on the line, so Trinity and Neo are no more inciting violence than Luke Skywalker was when he destroyed the Death Star, and all the people aboard that vast space station.   We accept such situations in spectacular action films, rightly or wrongly, and The Matrix need not be singled out as a negative example, especially when there are far more objectionable films out there (see: 2008's Wanted).

Another really terrific and intriguing aspect of The Matrix is the fashion in which it utilizes ancient, historical and mythological language to reflect the nature of this "future" battle with the A.I. machines.  Take the name of the last human city, Zion., for example. In Kabbalah, Zion (or T'Zion) is the "spiritual point from which reality emerges."  In the film, Zion is the base for free humans, the location from which people awaken the "slaves" of the system, so there's a strong connection there. 

Similarly, the mythical Morpheus is the "God of Dreams," who could appear in dreams to speak directly to the dreamer.  In The Matrix, Morpheus appears in the "dreamworld" created by the system -- a land of enforced dreams -- and awakens people from their forced slumber.  Even his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, is connected with the idea of sleeping and dreaming, referring to a king who -- like those awakened from the Matrix -- had a "troubled  mind" and "could not sleep," (Daniel 2:1).

The name Neo, of course, means "new," and in The Matrix, Neo is a new recruit to Morpheus's mission.  Yet "Neo" is also Mr. Anderson's secret identity; a reflection of his desire to find something new outside and beyond the parameters of "the system" that enslaves him.  Trinity represents the number three, part of a triumvirate, but being of the same essence as the other components.  This joins her, explicitly, to Neo and Morpheus, as human freedom fighter and stalwart hero.

Finally, The Matrix does one thing that all great science fiction films must inevitably do.  It not only presents a consistent and driving philosophy for its heroes to pursue (in this case, the way of the Buddhist warrior essentially...), it also achieves the same thing for its main antagonist. 

Here, Smith likens humanity to a virus, in a delicious but ultimately difficult-to-refute manifesto: "It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

Given the exploding population of man, and the consequences to our planetary environment of our increasing numbers, Smith seems to have a point, doesn't he?  Also, it's important to note that in the film, it is man who begins the nuclear war when it is clear there is no other way to "beat" the machines.  He has  not only failed to create equilibrium with the surrounding environment, he has followed a literal "scorched Earth" policy regarding it. If he can't run the playground, there will be no playground.  Smith is a great and monstrous villain, and yet he is not simply "evil" for the hell of it.  He has reasons for his belief system, and they makes him a fascinating opponent.

The look of the film is also extraordinary.  From the first frames of The Matrix, which feature imagery of green computer code cascading down a screen, the film forges a sickly, emerald palette for moments involving life inside the computer/Matrix.  It's an inhuman, antiseptic color that makes audiences aware immediately that something is wrong; that something "inhuman" is happening beneath the scenes.   The generic "establishment" look of the agents works in a  very similar fashion.  At first, the agents seem anonymous and indistinguishable in their suits and ties, but soon we begin to understand that look as a kind of uniform," one that generates terror and dread.   

In the final analysis, The Matrix is a rousing action film, one in which the incredible action cannot succeed without the intellect behind that action.  It's a visceral, brilliantly-directed film, but one in which the weighty ideas carry even more power than the blazing action scenes. 

In other words, the film lives up to one of its core conceits: the body cannot live without the mind.  Here, the mental acrobatics carry the day, even over dynamic stunts, mind-altering bullet-time and tons of kung fu, Finally, The Matrix thrills on the landscape of ideas. But you can't just take my word for it.

Ultimately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #30: Screening and Writing Rituals?

A reader and aspiring movie journalist named Chris asks me if I have a “movie watching ritual” or “writing ritual” and if so, what those rituals entail.

Thanks for asking the question, Chris. 

I understand that ritual can be an important part of the creative and writing process because it’s like priming the pump, or stretching a muscle.  In other words, you undergo a series of familiar actions as you ready yourself to begin writing.  Ritual is, essentially, exercise, or the preparation to exercise.

In terms of movie watching, my only ritual is that that every time I screen a film I have a college-lined notebook and pen with me for extensive note-taking.  I generally write two-to-three pages of notes per movie I watch, and often write the time stamp of memorable or important images.  If I’m screening the film at home, I make certain I have at least one light on in the room, so I can see what I’m writing.  I prefer watching movies at home, because in movie theaters, writing notes is much more difficult.  On the left side of my note pages, I write comments on the plot line.  On the right side, I write impressions, make connections, and pose questions (to answer as I compose my review.)

In terms of how I gear up to start writing, I begin every day by blogging, and save my book-writing for the afternoon.

I do this because I find that the blogging experience gets my creative juices flowing, and gets my mind working at a faster and more efficient pace.  Some days, I’ve learned, I just don’t feel like working on a specific book assignment right off the bat, and if I start out forcing myself to work on a project I don’t feel ready to write for, the day generally goes…badly

Writers are not machines, and in my case, the more I force myself to do “one thing” at the outset of the day, the less likely I am to actually get that thing accomplished.   Instead, I just kind of idle for a few hours, wallow in self-loathing, and admit to my wife that I have to work for a few hours at night to catch-up for a wasted day.      

If, however, I start out blogging -- and the blog offers me so many possibilities, from horror to toys, to sci-fi TV to movies, to creating galleries -- then I can invariably figure out a way to get started and “activate” my writing muscles in time for a productive afternoon. 

Effective time management is a critical aspect of the writing life, and so I generally have enough time built-in to my schedule to blog in the morning and devote afternoon to paying assignments.  Also, I try to be ahead on my blog by about a dozen or more posts, with some gaps, obviously, so I can leap off blogging and go to work on something else if I should fall behind.

I should hasten to add, you have to do what works best for you.  If I’m not writing and writing steady by 9:00 am, for instance, it becomes harder and harder for me to “get into” writing.  I know that other writers prefer working at night.  I’m most productive if I start writing early…and don’t stop until late afternoon.

If in terms of rituals you’re thinking about something like Misery (1990), wherein the author Paul Sheldon always has a chilled bottle of champagne handy when he completes a deadline and finishes a manuscript, I think that’s mostly bullshit, or the kind of things that only very, very wealthy authors can afford to do, especially in this day and age.  I’m generally suspicious of writers who feel the need to reward themselves or pat themselves on the back after finishing each and every task. 

Besides, the one time I did do something like that -- drinking a glass of white wine after I met a book deadline in 2006 -- I spilled the drink on my laptop and destroyed it.

Don’t forget, ask me your questions at

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...