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Saturday
May172003

Matrix Reloaded, A Mighty Wind, Down with Love

[Our Sunday Visitor, May 19, 2003]

The Matrix Reloaded

George Lucas, watch your back: the Wachowski brothers have gone and made a Star Wars movie. The writing-directing team that gave us “The Matrix” (1999) is back with “The Matrix Reloaded.” It’s got a multi-level industrial hideout for the good guys. It’s got giant walking robot thingies. It’s got grandiose background music. It’s got gray-haired councilors saying grim and ponderous things. It’s got bold crews on ships—not a space ships, but ones that travel inside the earth, so I guess they’re dirt ships.

What it doesn’t got is heart. Lucas could give us Luke and Leia, Jabba the Hut, and even audacious failures like Jar-Jar Binks. The Wachowskis give us two leads who are samples of perfect cold androgeny. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are a sleek dark-haired man and woman who are lea n and agile and nearly interchangeable. His face is smooth as a woman’s; her face is angular as a man’s. Both work their eyebrows determinedly. When they mingle in a naughty scene, hairless chest against hairless chest, it’s hard to tell in longshot who is who.

This is a shame, because it misses the opportunity to do the one thing this film could have done. The middle film of a trilogy is always bound to be a problem child. Where a first film makes its mark by breaking new ground-in the case of “The Matrix,” combining mind-blowing philosophical questions with budget-blowing special effects-the middle film can only keep those assets simmering. It can’t have the surprise of the first film, or the satisfying conclusion of the last. The best it can do is deepen our investment in the characters, make them warmer. But Matrix style is so cool it’s frozen.

In the original film, computer hacker Neo learns that all of visible life is a computer simulation being piped into his brain. In reality, he is reclining in a fluid-filled pod alongside billions of others, who are maintained as fuel for “sentient machines” that have taken over the earth.

It’s a terrific premise, but so startling that whatever happens next must inevitably be more familiar. As you would guess, a plucky few are escaping from pods and gathering far below the earth, in hopes of overthrowing the machines. Perhaps Neo is the One, the prophesied savior who will bring victory. At the end of the first film he dies and then comes to life again at a kiss from Trinity. Some think this makes him like Jesus, but I think it makes him like Snow White.

That film combined themes from numerous religious and philosophical systems, and prompted much good discussion. Many Christians perceived a rare opportunity to discuss theology with non-believing friends, and the new film is likewise required viewing for those engaged in cultural evangelism. Few films provide such fodder. A web search of the terms “Matrix” and “philosophy” yields several hundred thousand hits, something that doesn’t happen with, say, “Legally Blonde.”

Those who relished the first film’s intellectual buffet will find less here to chew on. The new insights we are given into Matrix reality are a letdown, for example the clunky suggestion that vampires, zombies and the like are glitches in the software. Instead of mind-bending new ideas, verbal philosophizing now just runs in circles. Both noble good guys and sneering bad guys deliver porridgy lines like: “There is no choice, only blind fate, and that is the power of our destiny, for those in power have chosen to blind the ones whose destiny it is—to *choose*.”

These films are so packed with allusions that discussion amounts to following your favorite red herring. Mine is: why is Morpheus named for the Greek god of sleep? Is all he tells us more illusory than we suspect? When he exhorts the rebels to send a defiant message to the invaders, they obey by dancing, which has not historically been thought an adequate defense. But it does resemble a scene early in the first movie, when Neo obeys a mysterious command to “follow the white rabbit” and ends up in a dance club. Morpheus then offers to show Neo “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Is Morpheus the dancemaster of dreams? That would be a good twist, but it’s only one of dozens possible in such an avalanche of references. You could as well ask why Trinity has a name that by definition refers to three persons. My guess is that these names were chosen because they sounded cool.

Coolness is these films’ affliction. Given the “middle film” jinx, “The Matrix Reloaded” could have spent its time making the characters deeper—as they say, more human. And this is ostensibly a story about humans battling machines. But the human leads are so resolutely cool that they are robotic. Perhaps that will be the big surprise of November’s final entry, “The Matrix Revolutions:” the machines have been in control all along.

***

A Mighty Wind

If you’re a cultural evangelist dutifully waiting in line to see “The Matrix Reloaded,” you might notice that folks seeing some other films are going in quicker and coming out happier. “A Mighty Wind” is the most enjoyable film I’ve seen this year, a mostly-improvised mock documentary about 60’s folksingers reuniting for a concert. Produced by the team who brought us “This is Spinal Tap” (1984), “Waiting for Guffman” (1997), and “Best in Show ” (2000), this new entry is just as funny but more affectionate and nuanced-at times, poignant. The parody tunes, written by the actors, are as toe-tapping as any hootenanny original.

***

Down With Love

“Down With Love” also takes us back to the 60’s, in a careful replica of Doris Day comedies. Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) has written a bestseller urging women to forsake romance in favor of career; Catcher Block (Ewan MacGregor) is a reporter who schemes to make her fall in love. The design’s candy-colors and even the obvious touches of artificiality are charming. The chemistry between the two fails to ignite, however; Zellweger is too complex and wary to be the naif the role calls for, and MacGregor is too good-natured to be the girl-hungry wolf that should balance the seesaw. The film veers from homage to parody, but parody destroys trust in homage. It’s the kind of fun that gets tiresome halfway through-but the visuals leave such a delicious aftertaste you want to go see it again.

***

Video Club

If you haven’t seen a Doris Day comedy you might imagine it syrupy-stale. Rent “Send Me No Flowers” to see why these films deserved their success. The clever script concerns a hypochondriac (Rock Hudson) who thinks he’s dying and wants to pick his wife’s next husband. Day is delightful, with her mobile, earnest face and breathy voice.

In “Down With Love,” Zellweger lacks Day’s innocent freshness, replacing it with overt sexual banter. Zellweger also lacks Day’s hourglass figure, which “Down With Love“‘s producers, for all their concern about period authenticity, curiously ignore. Ask: Does a comedy romance have more zing with a shapely innocent or a sinewy jade?

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