2003’s The Matrix Reloaded was perhaps the most anticipated motion picture sequel of all time, not named Star Wars. To this day, I can’t decide if the Wachowski siblings’ blockbuster sequel belongs alongside the crop of Summer 2003 hits like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Bad Boys II, and 2 Fast 2 Furious as the ultimate guilty pleasure or if it’s genuinely an outstanding follow-up to the classic original. Either way, it’s still the most underrated Matrix movie and far better than you might remember.

For starters, Reloaded kicks off on a fantastic note with Trinity kicking the snot out of a bunch of unsuspecting guards before diving head first out a window leading to this snazzy sequence:

So far, so good.

Immediately, we jump into our first fight sequence as Neo takes on three agents, then does “his Superman thing” and blasts into the sky. This is what we all wanted, right? Neo demonstrates his unique God-like abilities amidst techno music and moody green colors — this is the sequel we’ve dreamed about for four years.

Morpheus continues to push Neo’s journey as the One but is presented here as a controversial prophet whose philosophical views clash with Zion’s military leaders. The gist is that 250,000 Machines are digging into Zion, and humanity’s only hope of survival lies in a hackneyed religious ideology. Either Neo is the One, or humans are screwed. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, this leads to the much-criticized rave sequence in The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus implores Zion’s citizens to dance the night away to tell the Machines, “We are still here!” The scene made me laugh in the theater, but I didn’t think about it too much. Sure, it’s dumb and way over the top, but the scene also illustrates the very essence of humanity. Humans feel compassion, energy, and exhilaration; we also stink, sweat, and tire quickly. We are everything the Machines are not, which is one of the trilogy’s ultimate conflicts — a human’s ability to choose versus a Machine’s pre-programmed obedience. Which deserves to rule the world?

We cut to a brief action beat where Agent Smith infects Bane. “Oh God,” Bane says. “Smith will suffice,” the agent quips. I always thought this bit was rather significant. In the original film, Smith has no choices. He’s stuck in the Matrix, at least until he destroys Zion. His inability to choose drives him mad. Then, when he’s exiled, he makes the first choice of his existence and returns to the Matrix. That sense of freedom infected his mind and drove him to recreate the Matrix in his image. So, when he likens himself to God, Smith, freed of his obligations, certainly believes he is more potent than his creators.

Neo then reiterates all of the above during his conversation with the Counsellor. Humans need machines, and machines need humans. One cannot exist without the other. Essentially, we’re getting our first hint at the most glaring problem with this war: no one can win. The only way forward is to find an amicable arrangement that allows people to choose simultaneously. Choose what? To live in or out of the Matrix? To work with or without machines? To know the truth?

As far as I can tell, Neo’s entire journey revolves around his desire to choose. His love for Trinity blinds him to his pre-ordained obligations and opens his eyes to the clearest path. Humans must have a choice, or else they will cease to exist. The problem with the Matrix and the One is they are programs designed around the illusion of choice, which can only sustain humanity for so long. Hence, the constant need to start over.

Neo effectively finds a clearer path. No, he chooses the clearer path, which allows humans to break from their bonds and start anew in the real world, where they have the right to choose for themselves. Ironically, by doing so, the Machines can now also prosper alongside mankind. Indeed, we see Machines working side-by-side with humans in The Matrix Resurrections in a prospering environment.

All this to say, Reloaded has some brainy ideas up its sleeve if you take the time to think about them. Granted, the execution is a little stiff, but there’s plenty to ponder here if you choose. For many, the Zion sequences were too Star Trek-ish, riddled with cheesy sets, ridiculous costumes, and bad acting. General audiences wanted the Matrix. To that end, The Matrix Reloaded doesn’t disappoint.

About 40 minutes into the picture, after another conversation with the Oracle revolving around choice, Neo confronts Agent Smith in the film’s first big action set piece — the legendary Burly Brawl.

Now, some roll their eyes at this scene, while others, like me, bend backward to justify its existence. Why didn’t Neo fly away? In truth, he could and probably should have. I always took this scene as another example of Morpheus’ declaration about dodging bullets in the original film. Except, rather than bullets, Neo fights off waves of Smiths without realizing he doesn’t have to battle any of them. We see in Revolutions that the only way to stop Smith is to choose not to fight him. At this point in the story, Neo isn’t ready to make that choice and doesn’t see the full extent of his journey, so he takes Smith head-on, hoping his God-like powers prevail.

I think there’s also a particular “Holy shit, this is getting out of hand” aspect to this brawl to consider as well. Neo sees Smith, knows he’s a threat, tries to stop him, realizes it’s futile, and flies away before things get too out of control. In other words, there are many ways to justify the sequence besides calling it a fantastic action beat with some dodgy CGI.

Anyways, we get more mumbo-jumbo about choice from the Merovingian, who explains it in terms of love and sex. Is love a genuine feeling or merely a pre-programmed desire built into our brains that goes off at the right moment? Does Neo love Trinity, or are his feelings simply another product of being the One? It’s all fascinating, but the Wachowskis could have truncated the monologues to make them more coherent.

This entire picture could lose about 45 minutes and not miss a beat.

The Matrix Reloaded skips ahead a bit too much

The problem with The Matrix Reloaded is that it feels too much like a finale. We only stepped into this world a few years ago and are already about to cross the finish line. A proper sequel to The Matrix, in which Neo learns the true extent of his powers while further exploring the system and deepening his love for Trinity, might have served Reloaded/Revolutions well. As is, you jump into Reloaded feeling as though you arrived 30 minutes late. The film spends much of its first hour catching us up on events that transpired in the intervening years. There’s not much forward momentum. Every conversation is another iteration of the conversation that came before, and all of them end with the same conclusion: choice is the solution and the problem. We get it.

Imagine a sequel that picks up where The Matrix left off and ends with Smith’s reappearance and the Machines’ arrival at Zion. Talk about the ultimate cliffhanger.

A strong ending makes the sequel standout

Thankfully, Reloaded picks up considerably in its second half and delivers the type of action spectacle everyone came to see. The freeway sequence is the stuff of dreams, and while it does drag on and on, it’s still incredibly thrilling to behold. Ditto with Neo’s fight against the Merovingian’s henchmen. We know what’s at stake – the Keymaker – and now get to kick back and watch our heroes overcome the odds to achieve their goal.

From here on out, The Matrix Reloaded is more akin to a video game. We gotta do a thing to achieve a thing so Neo can do his thing. In this case, our crew must break into a building, shut off its power, and enter a door at the perfect moment, thus allowing Neo to fulfill his purpose.  Obstacles litter their paths, and Trinity is forced to go into the Matrix to save her pals. (All of this is exciting stuff, particularly when timed with Morpheus’ grand speech.)

Eventually, Neo enters the door and has his now-famous chat with the Architect. Again, there’s lots of dialogue and big words, but irrevocably, this scene merely underlines the ideas presented before. Choice is the problem, kids. Also, Neo isn’t the One. Well, he is, but he isn’t. The One is merely a product of the system, designed to restart the program once it gets out of control.

My question is: does some iteration of Smith always appear with each One? Or was his return an unexpected occurrence? It would have to be the former, right? Because Neo wouldn’t have a fighting chance against the Machines otherwise, right? Smith is the key to his negotiations with the giant robot face thingy in Revolutions. If he didn’t exist, then there’s no need for Neo. Does that mean Smith didn’t have a choice, either? Was he following his programming by returning to the Matrix, fulfilling a prophecy the Oracle set up? Or, is this the first version of Smith to actually choose to return, which is why everyone is actively pulling for Neo to make the correct choice on this go-round? My head hurts.

No matter. Neo tells the Architect to piss off, saves Trinity because he “loves her so damn much,” then reveals the truth to Morpheus and destroys some sentinels in the real world before passing out. Fin.

As you can see, there are enough ideas, gnarly action, and philosophy to fill hours of entertainment. Unfortunately, none of it is groundbreaking like The Matrix was in 1999. However, it still is enough to make it the most underrated Matrix movie and one worth revisiting.

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