Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Getting with the program

It’s a fair charge to suggest that, in writing about The Matrix Reloaded, I fell victim to the same hype and publicity I derided in that very same review as well as in this space four weeks ago.

Why, after all, was I so lukewarm about the first movie, giving it two stars, and then turned around four years later to give the sequel three stars? Was the second film really that much better than the first one? Or was I unduly influenced by the hype and the huge success of the original? Or was I just under-appreciative of the original Matrix and belatedly correcting my grade?

Heck, I don’t know. I just write about these movies. I don’t actually think about them that much.

It’s worth pointing out that, while it’s rare for a sequel to be equal to, let alone better than, the original movie, there are cases where this does happen. For example, The Godfather Part II and Superman II are considered by many (real) critics to be superior to the films that preceded them—although the originals were none too shabby in their own right. Of course, for every example like those, there are scores of the likes of Rocky II and More American Graffiti. Still, a film deserves to be judged in its own right and not how it compares, whether favorably and unfavorably, with any predecessors.

It’s also worth noting that I have no particular insight into what will or will not be commercially successful. In 1987, I wrote a fairly scathing review of Dirty Dancing. Part of my pique derived from the fact that its screening at the Seattle International Film Festival was a last-minute substitution for an Ettore Scolta film I really wanted to see. Even so, I found Dirty Dancing corny and trite. I was convinced that, if it got a release at all, its time at the box office would be brief and forgettable. So, I was totally gobsmacked when it turned out to be the hit of the summer. As some sort of poetic justice, I was forced to listen to the receptionist at the office where I worked go on every day about how wonderful the movie was and what a dreamboat Patrick Swayzie was. To this day, I still wonder how I and so many paying moviegoers could diverge so totally. But then, my purpose in cyberspace isn’t to tell readers what they like. It’s to tell them what I like.

I was similarly surprised when The Matrix turned out to be a huge hit. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I found it very clever and well done. The acting wasn’t something to write the motion picture academy about, but it worked okay for a tale about the dehumanized future. We tend to forget now that four years ago Keanu Reeves was verging on has-been status. The Matrix revived his fortunes big time and, in doing two sequels, he showed he has pretty good artistic and commercial sense. He knew enough not to do the Speed sequel but was sharp enough to sign up for these two.

Anyway, the question in my mind was, with all the adequate-to-good science fiction movies being made over the past few years, why was The Matrix such a runaway success and, say, Dark City wasn’t? Possibly, better marketing. Also, clearly The Matrix was a very well-made film. The Wachowski brothers know what they’re doing. We could see that in their debut feature, Bound, which deserved the three stars I gave it for the mere fact of casting Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon as lovers. The plot of The Matrix was clever enough, but it wasn’t necessarily the last word in originality. But apparently, its theme of a grimmer world out beyond the well-ordered façade we call reality and the ever-popular notion that I (or you) could turn out to be a messiah just waiting to be discovered resounded with audiences. Its flamboyant sense of style and the whole computer game tie-in didn’t hurt either. And maybe there was an immense audience out there starving for stylized action, which somehow hadn’t yet discovered (or been sated by) Hong Kong movies.

So, in hindsight, I was rightly favorable to The Matrix, but I wasn’t sufficiently appreciative of its mass appeal. But the other question remains: am I right to maintain that the sequel is better? The answer is: I had to give The Matrix Reloaded three stars; the computers at Warner Bros. made me do it. Now please disconnect this cord from the back of my head!

Seriously, folks… The overload of hype I got prior to the film’s release, if anything, made me less disposed to like it. Hype just has that effect on me, which is why I try to avoid reading in advance about movies that I really hope to like. Moreover, the movie’s early scenes were a bit too much like other sci-fi films I had seen, and this is not a good thing. Some of the scenes in Zion even started to remind of certain Star Trek films. So what happened? A couple of things. In particular, the extended scene with the late Gloria Foster, as the Oracle, gave the film a wonderful breath of humanity, just when it needed it. How appropriate that, in a movie where the human characters can seem a bit machine-like, the most human character is actually a computer program! I was further won over by the unlikely comedy of the restaurant scene involving Lambert Wilson and Monica Bellucci, again as computer programs. Intentionally or not, it was a wonderful send-up how Americans see European films and, to some extent, how some European films really are. Finally, the appearance of Helmut Bakaitis as “the Architect” was the icing on the cake. His wonderfully convoluted explanation of the Matrix and the prospects of destroying it was, at once, a brain-twisting echo of Kubrick’s 2001 and any number of Star Trek episodes. Also, the fight scene between Neo and zillions of clones of Agent Smith was really cool!

To be sure, I am not exactly counting the days until the third film is released (in November) like I am for the last of the Lord of the Rings. But I will definitely go see it. But then I have no choice. The computers at Warner Bros. will make me.

-S.L., 5 June 2003


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