[Note: this is an old, we might say antique, piece I wrote on commission for a volume of essays that, in the event, never saw the light of day. You can tell, if you read it, that it was written before the final film in the original trilogy had been released, which dates it quite precisely to early, but not late, 2003. At any rate, I came across it on my hard drive and figured I might as well blog it.]
1: “Good, but not as good as the first film …”
This is perhaps the typical response to The Matrix Reloaded—after all the release-year hype and expectation fans found themselves saying: “it is good, but not as good as the first film.” Apart, that is, from those people who think less of the movie than this: “it is not good, I expected it to be better.” Nobody, to my knowledge, has asserted that the film is better than they expected it to be.
This is not merely a commentary upon the withering power of hype to stack the stakes so high that disappointment becomes almost inevitable. It is in fact a central insight into the film itself. The Matrix Reloaded is, in an important way, about disappointment, about anticlimax—or to be more precise, it is about the intimate dialectic between climax (personal, sexual, spiritual) and anticlimax. In this sense, although it is paradoxical to assert it, the film is indeed better than the original movie.
I'm enough of a fan to consider the first Matrix movie a tough act to follow—an astonishing piece of cinema, really. But it was cinema is only one mode: high-powered kinetic drama, big exciting actions set-pieces layered with a big exciting premise and intoxicating cod-philosophising. Its glory is that it is so intensely exhilarating a film. The Matrix Reloaded is not exhilarating in the same way, which is one of the reasons for the tinge of disappointment recorded many fans. Accordingly it is worth asserting that the sequel is not setting to exhilarate in the same way, or perhaps it more accurate to say, the film is not ‘about’ exhilaration in the same way. It is a designedly slower, or at least gappier piece of work, creating a pervasive mood of difficult-to-pin-down sadness. This mood must be explained as more than simply the plot device of Trinity’s ever-impending death—more than this because the film is about more than death (although it is also about that): it is about what happens after we get what we strive for.
More, the mood of the second film is melancholic where the first was thrilling, precisely because it is dramatises this dilemma. We can put this several ways. One is to compare the trajectories of the two films. In the first picture an ordinary man, unhappy and stuck in a life he does not enjoy, who finds out first that the world is not what he thought it was: the boredom of his existence is replaced by adventure and excitement; then he discovers that he is much more important than he thought; then he performs acts of unimaginable heroism; then he discovers that he is more than just important, that he is indeed the ‘One’ the saviour of the world, and gets the girl.
The second movie picks up the story from this point. But this point is exactly the moment at which, in the western tradition, stories traditionally stop: the saviour has come; all lived happily ever after. What else? The unimagined pleasures of paradise?—these sorts of pleasure must remain unimagined, or else they will start to seem necessarily anticlimactic (what if the pleasures of heaven become a bit monotonous? A bit boring? What if existence in paradise is in fact a type of blissful depression?). The Matrix Reloaded takes the bold step of taking Neo’s apotheosis simply in its stride. He is now the messiah, but life goes on—indeed, it goes on in a lower key than it did in the first film. Life in Zion, for all the frenetic dancing of the central party scene, is grim and carceral. As messiah Neo can do little for the misery of the ordinary people who throng around him. Neo’s return from life in the first movie was a powerful and transcendent moment: his existence after that moment of transcendence is, it seems, characterised by forms of impotence and anxiety, most acutely the anxiety that the woman he loves is doomed to die. The first film was about the build up to the revelation of the messiah; the second film is the come-down afterward.
Take the form of the two movies. The Matrix builds expertly through a complex plot and a number of increasingly exciting set-pieces to a magnificent cinematic climax: Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus from the custody of the agents through hails of bullets, Neo fights Agent Smith, is killed and comes back to life as the One. This is where the film ends; which is to say, the form of the piece expresses a well-modulated crescendo of excitement building continually to a final climax. The shape of The Matrix Reloaded is different. In the second movie the big climax occurs two thirds of the way through the film: the marvellous chase sequence on the Freeway. But after this detailed and thrilling set-piece the film’s actual conclusion inevitably feels a little underpowered.
The plot coalesces around the need to get Neo into a certain room at a certain time: but this can only be accomplished by the destruction of two power stations in the city, with various other obstacles to be overcome. But, when compared with the climax of the first movie, this adventure, its vicissitudes (the deaths of key figures in the plan, Trinity’s desperate riding to rescue) appear on the screen in an almost desultory fashion. The whole action sequence is then interrupted by a lengthy, slow-paced dialogue between Neo and the Architect in which concepts and language of rebarbative difficulty are exchanged, draining away narrative momentum further. But this, I think, is a deliberate device: by shifting the climax of this movie back towards the narrative midpoint the Wachowski brothers articulate in cinematic terms the experience of existing post-climactically.
Other features in the film reinforce this sense. At the film’s conclusion we learn that the machines have fought a great battle with the defenders of Zion; but we are not shown this apparently climactic conflict (despite the fact that the film has spared no expense in realising massive set-piece scenes when it wants to). Instead we are shown only the despondent bedraggled remnants of the defence force, icons of postconflict disappointment.
On a smaller scale we see a similar pattern all through the film. At the beginning of the picture Morpheus disobeys a direct order: it seems he will face court martial, a term in the brig; but these consequences are simply elided. The ‘burly brawl’ in which Neo fights a hundred copies of ‘Agent Smith’ is an exciting set-piece with its own anxieties (can even the super-capable Neo deal with so many ‘agents’?): but the fight is so lengthily extended as to pass the point of local excitement and become, whilst still arresting and weirdly beautiful, rather monotonous: and it ends not with a resolution, but with Neo simply flying away leaving the rather nonplussed-looking Smiths to wander away. My response on first seeing this sequence was one of excitement, but as the fight persisted on the screen, went on and went on, I found myself thinking that it was going on too long. Only afterwards did it occur to me that this going-on-too-long, this dwelling on the moment after the peak of excitement was passed, could be the whole point of the film.
In another scene Neo, Morpheus and Trinity must get past some powerful guardians to find a ‘keymaker’: these guardians are, it seems, hangovers from a previous version of the Matrix, and cannot be persuaded or overpowered: until, in a strangely oblique move, one of them (played by Monica Belucci) decides to give away the keymaker in return for—one kiss from Neo himself. This scene plays oddly, partly because it makes little sense in narrative terms, but also because the price Neo pays for the crucial ‘keymaker’ is so much less than we were expecting. Because, in other words, there is an element of anticlimax about the encounter. These hangover programmes live as languid, decadent aristocrats; bored and unimpressed with existence. Their being is the very locus of disillusionment.
So frequently repeated is this trope of expectation-excitement-disillusionment that is dominates the form and mood of the whole picture. In other words disillusionment is precisely what The Matrix dramatises: Neo lives inside the Matrix; Morpheus comes to reveal that this life is an illusion—which is to say, he dis-illusions him. Of course this disillusionment is a mournful as well as a truthful condition (hence the ascetic, pared-down, miserable life inside the Nebuchadnezzar, as also in Zion). Indeed, the Wachowski’s boldest aesthetic experiment is to try and represent disillusionment, anti-climax, in the idiom of the climax-addicted form of Hollywood action-blockbuster.
After all, in its purest form the Hollywood Blockbuster—take for example Speed—finds a format that keeps the anxiety-excitement as high-pitched and increasing for as long as possible (in that movie when the bus is successfully stopped the film scrabbles with an addicts desperation for more chase-thrills, hurrying into the subway). The Matrix Reloaded is too canny to do this. It is a text that knows that after climax (becoming the messiah! Connecting with the woman you love!) comes after-climax. What happens after you transcend? What if, instead of ascending to even higher levels of bliss and thrill, you return to the level of the ordinary, the unexciting, the melancholic?
A theological shorthand for this might be to characterise The Matrix as a Jewish and The Matrix Reloaded as a Christian film. For Jews the messiah is yet to come, and can be looked forward to as the moment when all injustice, misery and dissatisfaction will be overcome. Christianity is based on a radical revision of this powerful human yearning—so radical and unsettling, in fact, that it may be the case that many Christians prefer not to think it through: what if the messiah comes and nothing much changes as a result? Judaism, theologically, operates in the space of moving-towards-climax; Christianity operates necessarily in the space of post-climax, which is to say, of anticlimax. The common Christian story of the second coming of Christ is a desperate attempt to fill the psychic gap left by this radically anticlimactic theology, by co-opting Jewish theology to its own ends: but it is deeply flawed. If the messiah comes more than once, why only twice? Why not a hundred, a million, or an infinite number of times? And if that is the case, then doesn’t it fatally dilute the actual appearance and sacrifice of Christ?
I’m framing these questions in a theological idiom partly because so many interpreters of The Matrix Reloaded have chosen to read the film as religious allegory. There’s little point in rehearsing all the minutiae of this interpretations (the seemingly-significant names, the messianic storyline and so on), because I want to suggest a different context for reading the movie, philosophical rather than religious. The Matrix Reloaded is a much more thoroughly Nietzschean text than the first film; and more particularly this second film is fascinated—to the point of obsession—with two of Nietzsche’s central concerns: free will and Eternal Recurrence.
These two topics are perhaps not the first Nietzsechean concepts that come to mind when we think of the Matrix franchise, but they seem to me absolutely central to an understanding of the movie. Indeed, it struck me that the second film seems relatively uninterested in another (more famous) Nietzschean concept, the figure of the ‘overman’ or ‘superman’, so eloquently described in Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-5). What is so puzzling about this circumstance is the fact that the first Matrix film was so very interested in precisely this Nietzschean archetype. Indeed, the first film can be seen as the narrative of how Neo joins the overmen (and overwomen) of the Real World. But The Matrix Reloaded takes this state for granted, and instead frets away at these two other Nietzschean worries.
2: Free Will and Eternal Recurrence in the The Matrix Reloaded
The conceptual centre of The Matrix Reloaded is the encounter between Neo and the Architect. In this weirdly staged but oddly powerful encounter we learn that Neo is not the first manifestation of the One. In fact he is one of we don’t know how many to have come to existence inside the Matrix, and the sixth to have developed so far as to be able to infiltrate the television-crammed room of the Architect himself. There is, it seems, a radical instability inside the Matrix, one that inevitably throws up fatal flaws in the programming and which also, inevitably, creates the One as a control mechanism for dealing with those flaws. The Architect tells Neo that he must accept the destruction of Zion, and choose a small group of men and women from the Matrix to be freed and sent to the earth’s core to rebuild it, starting the whole process over again. He, or his previous incarnations, have already done this many times. In other words, the events of the first two films have, it seems, happened before several times; and will, we can imagine, happen again.
This is a dramatisation in popular-cultural terms of a concept Nietzsche called ‘the Eternal Recurrence’ or ‘the Eternal Return’. Of all Nietzsche’s major ideas this is surely the least widely understood, and yet it is crucial to his philosophy. It goes like this: if the universe has have existed for an infinite amount of time (which Nietzsche believed), then all possible permutations of forces and matter must have occurred not once, but many times, and indeed an infinite number of times—this, after all, is the nature of infinity. This means, Nietzsche tells us, that you have lived your life before, down to every minute detail, an infinite number of times; and you will live it again an infinite number of times.
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession or sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” [Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 273]This prospect is, in the first place, a profoundly depressing one: there’s nothing we can do, we are all trapped on this wheel of being (“would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”). When Zarathrustra, Nietzsche’s prophet-philosopher character, first learns that this is the nature of things he is so shattered with despair that he falls into a coma for seven days. But, according to Nietzsche, once we grasp this fundamental truth, it will be the cause of deep joy. It frees us from the illusion of ‘free will’.
Free will, of course, is one of the recurring concerns of the Matrix movies. In the first film it is embodied in Morpheus’s iconic pills, one blue and one red, offered to Neo: one will return him to the Matrix to continue his life none-the-wiser, the other will free from him his illusions. He ‘chooses’ one, but was it in any meaningful sense a ‘free choice’? The existence of the Oracle, who knows the future, emphasises the fact that (from our perspective at the end of the film) we know Neo chooses the red pill. Had he not chosen it there would have been no film. In the second movie this drama of choice is staged by the Architect with two doors: one leading to the possibility of rebuilding Zion after its inevitable destruction, the other leading back to the Matrix where Neo can save the otherwise doomed Trinity but by doing so condemn humanity to extinction. We know, of course, which door Neo will choose. In an important sense he has no choice.
This ‘drama of choice’ informs almost all aspects of the films’ construction: the slightly tired plot device at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded whereby Morpheus is faced with a conflict between his orders (‘necessity’) and his personal inclination (‘choice’) is a miniature version of the same problematic. In The Matrix the Oracle tells Neo he has a choice between Morpheus’ death or his own, and he makes this choice, although it is inconceivable he could have chosen a different path (‘without Morpheus we are lost’). At every point characters have seeming choices placed before them, but they choose as they must.
Nietzsche says that although this determinism may seem depressing and disempowering in fact it is liberation. Lee Spinks puts it well when he says that although we tend ‘to establish the concept of an ‘I’ upon which all notions of subjective autonomy are based’ in fact this “‘I’, Nietzsche complains, is just a retrospective synthesis of the series of conflicts that bring it into being … in this sense, ‘free will’ is not the ultimate subjective ground of human identity; it is merely the way we view actions after the event” [Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche (2003), p.50]. This, of course, is precisely what the Oracle tells Neo: the point is not to live under the illusion that one has a free choice (you have already made the choice); the point is to come to understand why you made the choice you made. This is in an important sense the moral of the trilogy.
Spinks uses the example of the movie Groundhog Day to illustrate the Nietzschean Eternal Return. In that film, when the character Phil Connors finds himself doomed to live out the same day over and over again, his first reaction is depression, and attempts to kill himself. But, unable to free himself from his predicament even with so extreme an action, he later learns to accept and even relish his state. “All things become possible because instead of being confined within a differentiated personal life, we could live each day as one more moment in an eternal and impersonal becoming … Connors’s life begins comically to express this radical potential: he becomes a jazz pianist, a virtuoso ice-sculptor and an expert in French symbolist poetry” [Spinks, p. 131]
The Matrix Reloaded is, clearly, no Groundhog Day. But it dramatises precisely the melancholia that first attends the realisation of the illusion of Free Will and the inevitability of Eternal Return. This explains not only the pervasive mood of anti-climax (and how could the film possibly have built on or extended the supreme climactic excitement of its predecessor?); it also explains the sense of deja-vu with which we, as audience, witness yet another brilliantly choreographed kung-fu display, yet another team blowing up a city building, yet another attack upon a Zion ship by the arachnoid Sentinels . This is not a failing in the Wachowskis’ abilities as film-makers: this is an inevitable and central aspect of the whole project. And it suggests ways of appreciating the movie in ways that move beyond first disappointment: to—for instance—dwell on the present beauties of motion and grace in every moment of the burly brawl rather than asking vulgarly ‘but who will win this fight?’ (you always already know how this fight will end). The specificity of this film is extraordinary: the attention to detail minute and appealing, the design and form harmonious and beautiful. Watching the film a second time, and watching it again and again, means we can see these beauties as if for the first time.
In The Will to Power Nietzsche observes the world, under the aegis of eternal recurrence, as beauty and ugliness:
The world exists; it is not something that becomes, not something that passes away. Or rather: it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become, and never ceased from passing away—it maintains itself in both. It lives on itself: its excrements are its food. [Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p.548]As Morpheus says in The Matrix “I have seen the remains of the living liquefied to be fed intravenously to the living”. But, when you think about it, isn’t this merely a statement of a larger truth, of the relationship between all older and all newer generations? The Matrix Reloaded may put off some fans because it has replaced the Platonism of the first movie (“…there is a truer world beyond this seeming world of shadows, and you must choose this truer reality…”) with a pervasive melancholia of consummation, a sense of the mechanistic determinism of existence. But both moods are integral to the vision of the whole. “The two most extreme modes of thought,” Nietzsche argues, “—the mechanistic and the Platonic—are reconciled in the eternal recurrence: both as ideals” [The Will to Power, p.546].