All Words Are Weapons:
The Matrix Reloaded

jakec / 24012019

When I was 12, I knew every word to The Matrix Reloaded in the same way that a parent knows every word to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’. That is, every word was inscribed onto the interior surface of my eyelids, and every time I blinked, they would cascade downwards like so much green rain. Several years later, I started drinking alcohol habitually and forgot everything I’d ever learned, but I remember this fact because once, on a long road trip during which I listened to a parent sing every word to ‘Brown Sugar’ at least three times, I recited the entirety of The Matrix Reloaded to myself. I didn’t have the script in front of me. Maybe I wasn’t right. I’m fairly certain I was right. “You can never know anything for certain” is a cliche. It is also not right.

There is one thing you can know for certain: The Matrix Reloaded is the greatest film of all time.

Uh, relatively speaking.

The Matrix Reloaded shouldered all the hype stoked by the incredible success of the first film. In the 20th century, new sci-fi properties - even ones that lacked stars or wars - could still reap huge success. I sort of figure that the cerebral fuckery and the ensuing critical disdain of The Matrix sequels is why audiences stopped taking chances on science fiction for a decade afterwards (also: wizards, vampires.) The Matrix wasn’t just science fiction though; it was cyberpunk, a notoriously dense and critical flavour of science fiction which targets the pandemic of technology and turbo-capitalism. Well, audiences didn’t really need that in the late aughts either. They were living it. Society is only now reckoning with the consequences but even at the time, in those halcyon early iPhone years, there was a sense we were living in the news reel preamble to some bleak apocalyptic story.

The great trick of The Matrix was framing cyberpunk in a hyper-tight blockbuster that hid its genre trappings well. That the franchise abandoned this disguise at the same point of the story when the protagonists began to explore The Desert of The Real is not a coincidence. This is integral to understanding the expectations that became misconceptions about what exactly The Matrix franchise is. The Matrix was a cool action movie. The Matrix wasn’t just a cool action movie. Its sequels pulled back the veil for its characters and its audience. It was a lot to deal with.

Part of this trick involved spending as much of the first movie inside the simulation of the Matrix as possible. Shout outs to real DeBord heads here: the Wachowskis understood the allure of the Spectacle and hooked audiences in with pioneering cinematography and familiar tropes: destiny, individualism, romance, and head-busting explosions. The first film exists entirely unto itself, if you want it to, and apparently a lot of people do. That there are no Matrix sequels has become a meme eerily similar to the premise of the simulation itself. 1999 was the height of civilisation and living in its perpetual 1999ness allows us the comfort of never questioning what came after.

Ergo the reception to The Matrix sequels vis-a-vis the original irrevocably proves that we are, in fact, inside the Matrix.

The Wachowskis had much more to say, so two years later and with significant clout, they attempted to make explicit what was implicit in the first film. The result was an expanded universe that attempted to present a grand unified theory of human history and mythology expressed as a cautionary technofable. Groaning under this rhetorical weight, Reloaded and Revolutions explained it incoherently. The role of clearing it up was afforded to the odds and ends of other media, but asking audiences to spend hours exploring wikis, tie-in games, comics, prequel anime shorts, and philosophy classes to understand a narrative is too much. Let’s be real here: it’s a mess.

The onus is not entirely on the film-makers, always, and it shouldn’t be. Film should be allowed to inhabit mess. Packaging a narrative to be tidy is ultimately adhering to an arbitrary system of authority (commercial appeal) and not an intrinsic responsibility of art, even if it’s ostensibly “accessible”. Bertrand Russell never included bullet time in The Problems of Philosophy and Peter Singer has never written about ninja vampires with battle axes. The Matrix Reloaded was simply too weird and its influences and ideas too disparate to make a coherent film in the context it was presented. As a Hollywood blockbuster, The Matrix Reloaded is kind of a failure. But as a piece of storytelling, it becomes singular and richly satisfying under a different set of expectations.

Let’s talk about violence. A person pulls a trigger on a gun. A small explosion sends metal tearing through the dome of another person. Everyone can recognise this as violence, but it’s also a pure expression of debate. Quod erat demonstrandum, baby, and don’t forget to take the cannoli. All violence in media is sexy discourse. It’s not always zero-sum, but most often, incorrectly, it is. As with the more conventional pas de deux, it’s more satisfying to reach the climax together, mutually changed.

(NB: We’re gonna use some terms like “Asian media” and “Western media” and “Hollywood”. These are nebulous and somewhat unhelpful terms that academia is still in the process of reconfiguring, so for our purposes, take “Asian media” to mean “Chinese and Japanese cinema and television” and “Western media” to refer to the US and UK — strictly because they’re the only ones I feel familiar enough with to comment on.)

Asian media has expressed this way better than Hollywood, reinforcing that as emblems of imperialism and capitalism, Americans are selfish lovers. The gun analogy is useful because it reflects the simplicity of Western stories which often fit a narrative of conquering: the triumph of good over evil etc. Where violence appears in Western media (everywhere, always) it’s the triumph of one idea over another. Where exceptions arise, they’re usually acclaimed as exceptional: tropes like the anti-hero or unreliable narrator, which actually just account for the nuance of inter and intrapersonal relationships, are seen as remarkable instead of what should be the norm. Asian media, some of which directly influenced The Wachowskis in the creation of The Matrix franchise, has a strong history of expressing this ideological conflict through physical conflict.

Some of the following examples came after The Matrix Reloaded, so I don’t mean to present them as influences. Instead, I think The Matrix franchise was ahead of its time and helped bring some of these ideas to popular consciousness, so what came after is still helpful in understanding it. The main thing is this: all words are weapons. All weapons are words.

Let’s start with the Chinese action genre wuxia. After The Matrix, a few wuxia films made it big overseas. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a touchstone of early aughts cinema, followed by Hero in 2002 and House of Flying Daggers in 2004. These properties cemented Asian cinema internationally as something to contend with, where previously it was best known for parodies involving bad English dubbing and corny late-night flicks airing on channels nobody watched. But the Wachowskis were way ahead of Western audiences (besides Wu-Tang, Tarantino, et al.) in recognising its value. The ravages of time have left just one scene from The Matrix as its epitaph - the infamous bullet time sequence on the rooftop - but in 1999 there was another scene that was just as iconic and it happens right at the start of the movie. Trinity is surrounded by cops. She leaps into the air. The frame freezes. Then she kicks the absolute shit out of the guy trying to arrest her. Yeah, man, those wire stunts were cool as hell, especially if you’d never seen a kung fu flick before. Wait, you mean we can have action heroes - not just superheroes - who fly?

In the finest examples of wuxia, these fights aren’t just trailer sugar. They’re moments of character development and allegories for clashing ideals. They are red hot debates, in the conventional sense: not just a screaming match between two wills trying to dominate, but an actual conversation. The cops, for example, are only an idea, and not a strong one. Every cop in The Matrix franchise is barely an obstacle for its other characters; they’re weak, unformed arguments co-opted by the system (the Agents, who use them as vehicles for their own will by repurposing them (i.e. taking over their bodies)) or easily countered by its opponents (the protagonists, whose wills are empowered by their convictions.)

This is also present in a few relevant examples of anime. The one with the least similarity to The Matrix is the Monogatari series. This is a series with vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies, and other tropes that typically lend themselves to hyper-violent displays. Similar to The Matrix, the monsters in Monogatari are allegories for willful behaviour that contradicts the norms. In The Matrix, it’s programs rebelling against their assigned purpose. In Monogatari, it’s manifestations of accumulated human emotion like neglect, spite, or the need for punishment. Physical violence is extremely rare in Monogatari. Instead, the sparring is constant conversation, and this is the thing people who don’t like Monogatari cite as the reason it quantifiably sucks ass.

Monogatari is talky because it fronts up to the allegory of fighting-as-debate-as-fighting. The exposition is the fight sequence. Monogatari makes as much clear with its use of editing - fast, disorienting cuts which impact the viewer like a clap to the ear - and sound which build anxiety and tension in the way you’d expect (although often don’t get) watching two big beefy boys slug it out with each other.

In too much Hollywood cinema, the fight is inevitable and therefore inconsequential. Before the first trigger is pulled, Good has beaten Evil. In Monogatari, death is especially rarer than violence. These fight sequences, so to speak, are instead about one becoming the other becoming each other. Death is rare because the series acknowledges a truer truth: after the debate, we still have to live in the same world as each other, and in fact the debate is the process of getting there.

There are two more examples of anime that have bearing on understanding the violence in The Matrix franchise. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga. The canonical adaptation is Mamoru Oshii’s film in 1995 which the Wachowskis cited as a direct influence on The Matrix. Along with Blade Runner and Akira, you can see this clearly in the aesthetic of the Wachowskis’ vision: the architecture of the world is wound by massive tangles of pipes and wiring, a metaphorical tether as much as a noose around the neck of civilisation. This is referenced almost explicitly in a conversation between Councillor Hamann and Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, where deep in the stomach of Zion they question the nature of control: humans put these pipes and wires here, but they’re beholden to them as well. They could destroy them, but in doing so, would destroy themselves.

But Stand Alone Complex, which came out in 2002 and so couldn’t have influenced the Wachowskis, is still important in parsing the sensibility of The Matrix Reloaded. Violence is more common in Stand Alone Complex than Monogatari. Almost every episode has some big shoot out. Hey, it’s a cop show! But the violence is equally conflicted as a conversation between the characters and the world. Major Kusanagi, the main character, has an entirely cybernetic body. Only her brain is “intact”, and the series asks audiences to question what “intact” means in that context (and the intrinsically but dubiously positive connotations of preserving what we nebulously define as “life”.) When she destroys errant machines, she’s forced to reckon with how much she ought to identify with them.

The sides aren’t clearly defined in Stand Alone Complex; the human bureaucrats she works for are as insidious, violent, and corrupt as any wayward AI. And sometimes the ones enabling that AI are benevolent. In the climax of the first season, Kusanagi talks to the Laughing Man, the hacker who has been the antagonist of the overarching plot. They discuss his motivations, the philosophy of society (citing Fredric Jameson in the process), as well as hers and what she’s defending. There’s no big run-and-gun finale; they meet in a library and they exchange ideas. Ultimately, the Laughing Man goes free.

Nearly a decade later, Production I.G., the studio behind Stand Alone Complex, released another cyberpunk series called Psycho-Pass. Psycho-Pass is heavily indebted to Ghost in the Shell. Psycho-Pass even imitates the opening shot of Ghost in the Shell. It also has a very similar climax. In Psycho-Pass, the city exists in an enveloping surveillance state where an artificial intelligence identifies people likely to commit crimes, either sending them to therapy or immediately to jail. In the end, formerly wide-eyed cop Tsunemori Akane confronts the AI. In Hollywood, this scene would be where she plants a bunch of explosives and drives it all straight to hell, because freedom and uncertainty are better than safety and imprisonment. Instead, they talk. Tsunemori comes to learn that an imperfect means to peace is better than the alternative, which is flawed in other ways anyway, and resolves to hold the system to account while working with it. This is not, maybe, as satisfying as watching violent liberation. I don’t think it’s a projection to say the viewer’s tendency is to privilege free will above all else. Instead, the conclusion is sticky, but more honest. A gun or a fist cannot solve everything.

Earlier in the series, there’s another climactic fight between another cop, Kogami, and the terrorist Makishima. This is both more and less similar to the climax of Stand Alone Complex. Makishima quotes Blaise Pascal and Kogami retorts with Jose Ortega y Gasset. This is a proverbial drawing of swords and a proxy to their fundamental disagreement. Briefly, Makishima attempts to reason with Kogami. The most interesting part of this is when Kogami says he’s here to kill Makishima and Makishima says “I’m surprised to hear that from a detective.” He says this with a smile because this is delicious Sartrean bait. Makishima’s entire motivation is to encourage people to live authentically, so while he’s apparently questioning whether Kogami is acting in bad faith (because detectives shouldn’t be murderers) he’s also excited that Kogami is acting, as Big Daddy Sartre would say, in good faith — not as a role but according to his authentic self. Makishima is marvelling that their ideas have become intimately close, as the resolution of a conversation in good faith should. It’s Kogami who ends the conversation early. Kogami throws the first punch.

It’s important that an exchange of words precedes an exchange of fists. Physical violence is the only recourse when words are inadequate. Typically, when the fight starts, the conversation is considered to have ended. This seems like a reductive concept of how people actually exert their own will and interrogate others’. The fight isn’t the end of the debate. The fight started with the debate. The debate is continued in the fight. It’s also important to note that the winner is not, therefore, moral. But in the contest of ideas, theirs has prevailed.

These examples are dialogue and exposition heavy; in the aforementioned stories, scenes like the one with Neo and the Oracle on the park bench or Neo and the Architect at the path to the Source wouldn’t feel at all out of place. Unlike Hollywood products, where climaxes are often built on a zero-sum physical contest, the aforementioned put far more emphasis on philosophical contention. A superficially similar event occurs in Hollywood films too — the familiar trope of the villain asking the sweet, unblemished hero to join them. But often these temptations are egregious misunderstandings of the protagonist, demonstrating just how detached the antagonist has become. Where anime often differs is an attempt between protagonist and antagonist to reconcile their views via something like Socratic reduction. Inevitably a point of difference is found, usually something irrational, at which point the only recourse is violence. The ultimate expression of irrationality, but also a natural extension of their discourse.

Seraph and Neo fight inside the tea house. When they stop, Seraph tells Neo he had to be sure he was The One. Neo says he could’ve just asked. Seraph explains the raison d’etre of violence in The Matrix franchise: “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”

The first Matrix film kept the exposition light. It had the tools to do so: Neo was our proxy and Morpheus was The Wachowskis. We learned as Neo did about the immediately relevant details of the world. Fortunately for the sake of visual dynamic, most of those relevant details involved doing flips and looking at babes in red dresses. This interplay between form and content was perfectly digestible. In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo was still our proxy, but the content was more abstract. The ideas as they were expressed in dialogue weren’t articulated visually in The Matrix Reloaded like they were in The Matrix, because they couldn’t be.

In the previous examples, the contests of ideas happen simultaneously. In The Matrix Reloaded , they happen sequentially. There are four tentpole conversations in The Matrix Reloaded: The Oracle’s, Smith’s, The Merovingian’s and finally the Architect’s. In every single one, Neo is on the back foot. He struggles to keep up. You can see him struggling to comprehend everything he’s taking in — he doesn’t really talk much throughout the film. These conversations are particularly dense and consequential and it isn’t a coincidence that the viewer might find it disorienting as well. In a conversation, Neo can’t compete with these programs. He doesn’t fully understand the system in a way he can articulate. But every single one is followed by an action sequence. This isn’t just for the sake of pacing. While Neo can’t articulate his understanding of the Matrix, he understands it intuitively to a degree the programs can barely grasp.

Every time Neo is presented with a new idea about the world and his place in it, he challenges it immediately after. After his conversations with The Oracle, where he doubts his ability to make a choice, and Smith, who offers to take the choice away from him, Neo reacts by affirming his own will and rejecting Smith. After the Merovingian, he reckons with the broker’s ideas of predestination by saving the Keymaker in order to enable his choice. After the Architect, he acts in defiance of the notion that any action besides returning to The Source is futile. You can think about this in the context of Hegelian dialectics with Neo becoming the concrete, but it’s just as helpful to see it in terms of its existentialism. It’s easy to imagine the spiritual Morpheus checking out some Kierkegaard from the Zion Public Library, although Kierkegaard would have something to say about Morpheus’s certainty. On the other hand, The Architect is an existential nihilist, confounded that Neo would choose one life over the many.

This isn’t a philosophical study of The Matrix Reloaded.

This is just to make the fight scenes seem, like, really smart.

These conceptual underpinnings and their relation to genre tropes are essential to sympathising with every other part of the film. The exposition is dense because it is posing an abstract problem, the fight scenes are elaborate because they are attempting to reconcile that problem, and these are familiar to genres that don’t often appear in huge summer blockbusters. But there are other qualities to The Matrix Reloaded that are equally jarring that do appear in huge summer blockbusters. Here is one example that critics do not at all love: the rave cave.

After the Nebuchadnezzar returns to Zion, Morpheus gives a big inspirational speech to the free humans. This is superficially coded as a military leader rallying the troops, but it’s more like a high priest addressing his congregation. Morpheus talks a lot about faith. It isn’t just about nationalism; his speech is about imbuing the people with religious zeal. In this context, the ensuing party makes a lot more sense. It’s probably foreign to the conservative Christian-raised audiences that people would get fried and sweaty following the words of a priest or the words of a military leader. But it isn’t at all strange to the vast majority of cultures throughout all of time, where religious ceremonies were massive celebrations and affirmations of life. Through a puritanical lense, it is weird to see Neo and Trinity doing the bump and grind while Link et al. cut a dirt rug. But anyone who’s been to a good music festival can tell you they are about as close to god as believers and non-believers can actually, viscerally feel.

Here’s another quirk of The Matrix Reloaded that hangs sorta crooked: the fact that the movie has vampires, werewolves, and g-g-g-g-ghosts. When the Oracle explains to Neo that rebel programs become movie monsters, even the most zealous defender of this franchise has to roll their eyes and laugh a little. Here’s a franchise that makes compelling arguments about being a serious philosophical ice-breaker, and then here’s two fangy goons watching a vampire flick before Monica Bellucci pops one with a silver bullet.

Given its influences, that genre mash was pretty timely. Around the turn of the Millennium, another creator steeped in cyberpunk and dystopian fiction was putting vampires into his big action opera: Hideo Kojima. Kojima’s groundbreaking Metal Gear Solid series is, on the surface, a stealth game: you play a spy called Solid Snake and you have to sneak around bad guys to stop a world-ending conspiracy. Anyone who was only prepared for that much has never finished a Metal Gear game. In between the sneaking and stopping the conspiracy are psychics, zombies, robot ninjas, and yeah, even vampires. Similar to the Matrix franchise, Metal Gear is a sprawling playground for its authors ideas which spans dozens of properties. But people who love Metal Gear still tend to roll their eyes at The Matrix Reloaded and it’s worth asking why. Is it because media actually produced in Japan is expected to be weird while media merely inspired by Japanese work isn’t? Or is it because The Matrix Reloaded is ostensibly more self-serious, making its surrealisms feel incongruent?

The former is unquantifiable, but the latter gets back to the initial problem. The expectations set by The Matrix and its marketing fundamentally undermine the traditions the franchise actually continues. But it was sort of doomed from the start. It’s not that marketing it differently would’ve changed much: the 80s and 90s were full of weird sci-fi flicks that still did numbers. But none of them are considered seriously worthy of examination. From Star Wars and Star Trek to Demolition Man, Escape From New York, and Johnny Mnemonic, sci-fi has always been considered schlock, a guilty pleasure, the domain of anoraks and maladroits. It’s done plenty to warrant that, but at the cost of its greatest ideas remaining untouched (except by other sci-fi) for fear of whatever ooze might rub off. The Matrix snuck into the canon by hiding its whirring and winding guts under the surface of a palatable blockbuster entry point, only to disgust audiences when the plug was pulled from under them. But that was the whole point. It was an incredible achievement. And 20 years later, that impact deserves recognition.