“The Matrix” (1999), written and directed by the brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, inspired so much inflamed pseudo-philosophy that it’s all “The Matrix Reloaded” can do to stay ahead of its followers. It is an immensely skillful sci-fi adventure, combining the usual elements: heroes and villains, special effects and stunts, chases and explosions, romance and oratory. It develops its world with more detail than the first movie was able to afford, gives us our first glimpse of the underground human city of Zion, burrows closer to the heart of the secret of the Matrix, and promotes its hero, Neo, from confused draftee to a Christ figure in training.
As we learned in “The Matrix,” the Machines need human bodies, millions and millions of them, for their ability to generate electricity. In an astonishing sequence, we saw countless bodies locked in pods around central cores that extended out of sight above and below. The Matrix is the virtual reality that provides the minds of these sleepers with the illusion that they are active and productive. Questions arise, such as, is there no more efficient way to generate power? And why give the humans dreams when they would generate just as much energy if comatose? And why create such a complex virtual world for each and every one of them, when they could all be given the same illusion and be none the wiser? Why is each dreamer himself or herself, occupying the same body in virtual reality as the one asleep in the pod? But never mind. We are grateful that 250,000 humans have escaped from the grid of the Matrix, and gathered to build Zion, which is “near the Earth’s core–where there is more heat.” As the movie opens, we are alarmed to learn that the Machines are drilling toward Zion so quickly that they will arrive in 36 hours. We may also wonder if Zion and its free citizens really exist, or if the humans only think so, but that leads to a logical loop ending in madness.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) has been required to fly, to master martial arts, and to learn that his faith and belief can make things happen. His fights all take place within virtual reality spaces, while he reclines in a chair and is linked to the cyberworld, but he can really be killed, because if the mind thinks it is dead, “the body is controlled by the mind.” All of the fight sequences, therefore, are logically contests not between physical bodies, but between video game-players, and the Neo in the big fight scenes is actually his avatar.
The second comes when Morpheus returns to Zion and addresses the assembled multitude–an audience that looks like a mosh pit crossed with the underground slaves in “Metropolis.” After his speech, the citizens dance in a percussion-driven frenzy, which is intercut with Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) having sex.
The third sensational sequence is a chase involving cars, motorcycles and trailer trucks, with gloriously choreographed moves including leaps into the air as a truck continues to move underneath. That this scene logically takes place in cyberspace does not diminish its thrilling 14-minute fun ride, although we might wonder–when deadly enemies meet in one of these virtual spaces, who programmed it? (I am sure I will get untold thousands of e-mails explaining it all to me.) I became aware, during the film, that a majority of the major characters were played by African Americans. Neo and Trinity are white, and so is Agent Smith, but consider Morpheus; his superior Commander Lock (Harry Lennix); the beautiful and deadly Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who once loved Morpheus and now is with Lock, although she explains enigmatically that some things never change; the programmer Link (Harold Perrineau); Link’s wife, Zee (Nona Gaye), who has the obligatory scene where she complains he’s away from home too much, and the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster, very portentous). From what we can see of the extras, the population of Zion is largely black.
It has become commonplace for science fiction epics to feature one or two African-American stars, but we’ve come a long way since Billy Dee Williams in “Return of the Jedi.” The Wachowski brothers use so many African Americans, I suspect, not for their box-office appeal, because the Matrix is the star of the movie, and not because they are good actors (which they are), but because to the white teenagers who are the primary audience for this movie, African-Americans embody a cool, a cachet, an authenticy. Morpheus is the power center of the movie, and Neo’s role is essentially to study under him and absorb his mojo.