Bullets and Ballet

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Review of 'Matrix Reloaded', directors Larry and Andy Wachowski

The 'Matrix' films take place in two parallel worlds. In the real world, machines rule. Most humans are kept in tanks to be farmed by the machines to provide their fuel. The few that remain free live in the last surviving city, Zion, deep within the earth's crust. Our world is the world of the Matrix - a computer simulation designed to keep the bulk of humanity pacified while the machines feed. The 'Matrix' trilogy chronicles the struggle against the machines, which takes place in both the real world and the illusory world of the Matrix.

Morpheus - part prophet, part guerrilla leader - moves between these two worlds and recruits forces for Zion by freeing people from the Matrix. He is driven by his belief in prophecy, which gives him an extraordinary self-confidence. Two of the humans he liberates, Trinity and Neo, are central to the plot. In the first film, Neo, a computer hacker, stumbles across the Matrix and, with help from Trinity and Morpheus, discovers that he has powers to fight against the deadly computer-generated agents within. For Morpheus this proves that Neo is the 'chosen one' who can win the fight against the machines.

'Reloaded' begins as thousands of robotic sentinels are sent to destroy Zion and the last remaining free humans. Morpheus, Trinity and Neo re-enter the Matrix, believing that this is the only terrain on which they can defeat the machines. Here they encounter a series of bizarre sentient programmes that try to help or destroy them.

The second in a trilogy of films (the final episode - 'Matrix Revolutions' - comes out later this year), 'Reloaded' is one of the most anticipated films in recent years. 'The Matrix' broke new ground by combining computer-generated special effects and stylised kung-fu moves to create a new kind of action sequence. The technique, dubbed 'bullet time' by the directors, was taken up and copied in a number of other movies such as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Equilibrium'. But 'Matrix' was also successful because it used the concept of the Matrix to deal with real themes, such as the superficiality of everyday life and the relationship between humans and technology. The central preoccupation in both 'The Matrix' and 'Reloaded' is the question of choice and free will. Sometimes this is dealt with rather heavy-handedly. Characters tend to represent different ideas and themes, rather than being well-rounded personalities, and there is a lot of cod philosophising. But there is an interesting and unresolved ambiguity running through the sequel. For Morpheus and his supporters, Neo is a messianic figure who will inevitably bring down the Matrix; this mysticism is constantly challenged and undercut as the plot develops.

'Reloaded' also builds on the 'bullet time' technique. The fight scenes and car chases merge real actors with computer-generated characters and backgrounds in a completely new way. It is certain to set new standards in the film industry. This is an extremely violent film, but the violence is so unreal and choreographed that it is more like a kind of deadly ballet. The sheer beauty of these sequences is the only thing that prevents them from becoming a completely dehumanising barrage of images and sounds. These techniques create new possibilities, extending the palette for future directors. It would be interesting to see them used in other, less violent, contexts.

Although at times the acting and the script do not match up to the quality of the action sequences, 'Reloaded' does attempt to create intelligent science fiction that uses an unreal world to deal with real questions.