3.5 out of 5 stars

It was inevitable The Wachowskis would be asked to make a sequel to The Matrix (1999). That sleeper hit grossed $463M and wowed audiences with its smart sci-fi concepts and cutting-edge VFX. What was surprising was being told they’d be working on two sequels, shot back-to-back in order to make the combined $300M budget go further. Warner Bros. was hardly going to say no more from the money-spinning Matrix universe, so gave the Wachowskis carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. In retrospect, it’s a shame the studio’s trust was more like blind faith.

Filming again took place in Sydney, Australia, at the Fox Studios, from March 2001 to August 2002—with the exception of the freeway chase and so-called ‘Burly Brawl’, which were shot at the decommissioned Naval Air Station Alameda in California, USA. The production even built a 1.5-mile stretch of freeway to shoot Reloaded’s standout car chase on, then recycled 97% of the used material to build low-income housing in Mexico.

Understandably, with expectations sky-high and excitement over the sequels building ever since they were announced, the Wachowskis were hopeful they could top the revolutionary VFX that had stunned audiences in 1999. The Matrix Reloaded again utilised the now-famous ‘bullet time’ effect, but it simply wasn’t as jaw-dropping four years later, and in my opinion not deployed as effectively. The slo-mo sequences the Wachowskis wanted were far more ambitious, so VFX guru John Gaeta had to mothball his original bullet-time technique and create a new system that involved a virtual camera with 3D backgrounds. The results aren’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t look as believable somehow, perhaps because we’re more aware of how impossible getting certain shots would be. It’s a lot easier to buy into the simpler idea of a camera spinning around a near-static object, even if doing more variations of that would undoubtedly get boring. 

The sequels don’t actually lean on ‘bullet time’ much, using it more like a motif during a few of the action sequences. The real VFX progression was with the aforementioned virtual cameras and highly detailed scans of actors’ faces and the photorealistic environments. The fight sequence where Neo (Keanu Reeves) tussles with hundreds of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) in a city park was incredibly ambitious for the time, and still leaves an impression today. The CGI replacements for the characters aren’t impossible to detect (and weren’t at the time), which gives the melee a video-gamey feel, but it mostly manages to hide its shortcomings with enjoyable choreography and judicious editing. Although it’s amusing to spot Weaving’s obvious stunt doubles lurking in the background or on the periphery of shots. Digital facial replacement has come a long way since ’03 and, if attempted today, the Burly Brawl would be much less choppy and flawed. But at the time, as producer Joel Silver loved to exclaim in his interviews, the Wachowskis were doing what would only become “easy” five years later. They were blazing another trail.

The Matrix Reloaded itself, as the awkward middle child of a trilogy, disappointed most people at the time. I wasn’t amongst the haters in ’03 (maybe an element of denial kicked in), although it was undeniably less exciting than its predecessor because it had to forego the simplicity of a zero-to-hero transformation for Neo and delve into the lore that was less appealing. The first half-hour is the most disjointed and difficult to warm to, as it does a number of things that dampens the excitement of seeing these characters again. Agent Smith’s introduction happens way too early with him awkwardly delivering a package to Neo, and there’s a lot of time trying to get us invested in the underground city of Zion and its cave-dwelling inhabitants.

It’s understandable the Wachowskis would want to broaden the scope of this franchise by spending time getting to know new characters, like Morpheus’s ex Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), a woman stuck at home fretting about her ship-bound husband called Zee (Nona Gaye), Councillor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe), and Neo obsessive ‘the Kid’ (Michael Karl Popper). And it mostly feels like wasted time because so few of them have any bearing on the events of Reloaded. A few do come into play more strongly in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), sure, but I’m never comfortable giving a pass to a movie for failing to stand on its own two feet just because there’s another instalment coming soon.

On the plus side, I do like Link (Harold Perrineau) as the Nebuchadnezzar’s new Operator, and it was interesting to give Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) a leadership rival in Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), who disbelieves his prophecy about The One ending the hundred-year war with the machines. I’d never considered some other citizens of Zion wouldn’t be in lockstep with Morpheus’s beliefs during the first film.

Another positive of the sequels, in general, is how much stronger and closer they make Neo and Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) relationship. The Matrix’s climax relied on the emotion of Trinity revealing her love for Neo, rousing him from death itself, but the moment worked for other reasons that supported her whispered admission. Reloaded does a better job with their love story, making it a genuine and touching ingredient that helps the narrative bloom. They even have a sex scene that works surprisingly well, which seems to be a speciality of the Wachowskis ever since Bound (1997) and continued in Netflix’s Sense8 with the infamous orgy sequences.

There’s just more attachment to Neo and Trinity as a couple this time, with Neo spending much of the film trying to prevent a premonition of his girlfriend’s death from coming true. It gives us more relatable and personal stakes than the enormous threat of mankind’s possible extinction. Moss also embraces getting more to do in the sequel, having proved her mettle last time with the physical side of the character, and Trinity’s role is sometimes more enjoyable than Neo’s because she’s more fragile.

As we discover more about Zion and the subterranean real world, we also delve deeper into The Matrix’s inner workings. One disappointment with both sequels is that the virtual world no longer feels like “our world”, as we don’t spend much time in a recognisable city where the occasional crazy thing happens involving “fugitive cyber-terrorists” and “government agents” on dark streets and rooftops. The Matrix instead becomes a video game-style playground for superhuman chases and fights, with wild characters who are fully aware this is a simulated prison.

The Oracle (Gloria Foster) returns to offer more pearls of cryptic wisdom, but now she’s guarded by an ass-kicking bodyguard called Seraph (Collin Chou), and we eventually meet relics from past Matrixes: the arrogant Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his treacherous wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci), their ghost-like henchmen the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), and a likeable program called The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) who can access secret backdoors to The Matrix program. It almost feels quaint when a few bullet-dodging Agents turn up, now we have this stranger bunch of entities to compare them to. And did you know two of the other Merovingian aides are vampires, which is why they’re seen watching an old Hammer horror movie? 

The Matrix Reloaded is fuelled by more big sci-fi ideas, which means it’s intellectually richer and deeper than the original, while also being more scattershot and prone to getting weighed down by its own pretentiousness at times. The Wachowskis do ensure there are moments that are more superficially entertaining, but they’re thrown in haphazardly as if agreeing to a studio note they need an action sequence every 20-minutes. 

The Burly Brawl is certainly a highlight for sheer technical ambition for the early-2000s, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the freeway chase everyone else seemed to enjoy more. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it better, even if it now looks janky because some of the greenscreen looks more obvious and the CGI vehicles (with their low-res detailing and washed-out colours) are easier to pick out in shots. But it’s still incredible work for the time.

However, I’ve always preferred the moments most people disliked about Reloaded, like the divisive scene with The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis). The moment Neo enters ‘The Source’ and essentially comes face to face with The Matrix’s godlike creator is widely ridiculed for its verbose language. You certainly might get lost if your own vocabulary’s limited, but I’ve always enjoyed this scene. It takes balls to (almost) end a sci-fi action blockbuster sequel with a very long scene of thick dialogue, and one that answers a huge amount of questions and complicates matters no end.

It’s here that Neo discovers his hero’s journey is just the latest of six, and he’s therefore not as special as he thought—he’s just a statistical inevitability of harvesting so many human minds and putting them into a VR simulation like this. The Machines are actually used to “The One” appearing and effectively hit the reset button when it happens. Only this time Neo won’t do the logical thing and agree to start ‘the game’ again, he’ll risk the extinction of mankind because there’s a slim chance he can save Trinity’s life in the short term.

It’s also a nice reversal of the original’s ending, seeing Trinity die from falling out of a skyscraper window but this time she’s the one being resurrected thanks to Neo’s help and a miracle he can perform by interacting with her Matrix code.

For all its flaws, The Matrix Reloaded should be praised for not delivering more of the same, even if some of the Wachowskis’ creative swings don’t all connect. I bet they secretly regretted ending The Matrix with a shot of Neo soaring into the sky like Superman, as the scale of his abilities does hamstring his character a great deal in the sequels. He’s always having to be flung miles away from the real action, or has to be overburdened with the workload of fighting hundreds of Agents. There’s passing mention of the Agents having being given “upgrades”, to presumably help them keep up with Neo’s abilities, and the other Matrix entities seem more powerful or trickier to tackle, but there’s always a lingering thought that Neo shouldn’t really be operating at 100% in Reloaded. A better movie would have perhaps kept his potential unfulfilled, physically/mentally.

The Matrix Reloaded has structural issues and suffers from being the middle part of a trilogy, with a terribly abrupt ending—although the chyron “to be concluded” has since become a lie with The Matrix Resurrections (2021) around the corner at time of writing. There are still enough ambitious ideas and envelope-pushing VFX to justify a return trip to The Matrix, but without the same sense of discovery and drum-tight scripting, Reloaded is more leaden and lumpy. Thankfully, its highs are still there and the lows at least have some merit.

USA | 2003 | 138 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH FRENCH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

writers & directors: The Wachowskis.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne & Hugo Weaving.