from Film Forum, 05/15/03

As Film Forum was being wrapped up this week, Christian film critics were just beginning to post their reviews of this weekend's surefire box office champion, The Matrix Reloaded. For moviegoers who want to hear early reports about Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and Agent Smith, the word is this: Don't set your expectations very high.

Reloaded is big on dazzling visual spectacle; it sets new standards for CGI-enhanced kung fu, digital animation, and car chases. But the plot meanders, stringing together redundant, even tedious action scenes that are short on new ideas. The intriguing philosophical questions that made the first film so compelling and relevant are reduced here to a marathon of dull and dizzying monologues. In the areas of character development and storytelling, the movie is running on fumes. Here are links to reviews by Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), and David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). My own review is at Looking Closer.

from Film Forum, 05/22/03

Whenever a highly anticipated action movie like The Matrix Reloaded arrives, most moviegoers have the same question on their minds: Is it as good as the hype?

But beyond that, discerning viewers have other questions on their minds: Is there more than just entertainment on the screen? Is there anything worthy of praise? Is the experience edifying or challenging? Does it offer us glimpses of truth or cleverly packaged lies?

Parents add even more questions to the mix: Is the movie safe for my kids? Should I let them sit with their friends, or should I be sitting next to them?

Regarding The Matrix Reloaded, critics will give you different answers to the first question. Some are thrilled, but others feel it is not quite what the hype promised.

Reloaded takes the most notable aspects of the first film and super-sizes them. There are more awe-inspiring visuals, more stylish and thrilling kung fu, more superhuman and CGI-enhanced feats, and more brain-bending ideas about reality, illusion, freewill, and determinism. But in my opinion, these excesses should qualify Reloaded for an "Oversized Load" sticker. The philosophical riddling becomes too talky and convoluted. The awe-inspiring fight scenes run too long, are more Sega than saga, and deliver few surprises and zero suspense. And the movie carries us along at such a rapid pace that we fail to develop a sympathetic connection with any of the major characters the way we did in the first film. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Kid-safe? Absolutely not. This is science fiction for grownups. And even discerning adults will have to filter carefully what they see and hear. As filmmakers, the Wachowski Brothers are too quick to indulge the baser appetites of the audience. The violence is harsh, excessive, and often completely unnecessary. A scene set in the city of Zion shows the masses preparing to face an advancing enemy by indulging in a dirty-dancing marathon (gee, you'd think they'd want to load their weapons, pray, or do some stretches). The scene is intercut by an unnecessary and explicit sex scene between the hero and heroine.

It is a shame. There are so many metaphors that ring true in the Matrix's metaphysical stew. From its inklings of the world's need for a Messiah to its compelling portrait of a world blind to its own enslavement, this is a saga rich with storytelling opportunity. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' preoccupation with action and heavy speeches distract us from the metaphors. Rather than finding a engaging fusion of action, ideas, and storytelling (as Bryan Singer did with X2: X-Men United), the Wachowski Brothers give us an unbalanced, schizophrenic hodgepodge that satisfies only in wowing us with special effects.

Several religious press critics share similar sentiments. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "It is amazing to watch the technological prowess of the filmmakers. It is just too bad that the Wachowski brothers choose to move the story sideways instead of forward. We learn nothing new about most of the old characters. Perhaps further revelations will come in the final sequel that will tie things together, but at the end of the second film, there are a number of unexplained loose ends that make for a frustrating viewing experience."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) shares that frustration. The film delivers, in eye candy, he says, but it's not enough. "While the Wachowskis have made their world more complicated, they haven't made it more interesting. The sense of urgency, danger, or even plot relevance to the fight scenes is lacking."

He adds, "The movie undermines its own clumsy attempts to suggest that 'everything starts with choice' with plot-level revelations that, based on what we know from the first film, make even the most fundamentally human choices—even love itself—inescapably deterministic."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The film's glamorized violence—earning it a well-deserved R rating—overshadows an otherwise intriguing premise. And while the high-octane sequel leaves the eye-popping visuals of its predecessor in the dust—no mean feat—it breaks no new ground story-wise. While the filmmakers have crammed their film with clever Christian motifs and mythological allusions, the metaphysical mulligan stew serves to obfuscate the overstuffed and at times incoherent plot rather than affect any real philosophical musing."

Steven Isaac and Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agree: "Reloaded does very little to further the plot of The Matrix. At the end of the first film, Zionites face extinction by the machines and pray that Neo can save them. At the end of the second, Zionites face extinction by the machines and pray that Neo can save them." They conclude, "Reloaded isn't as much a story as a glorified video game. At each stage, heroes fight off attackers in order to finish that level and proceed to the next one."

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says the film "roars on the screen like a juggernaut, with both the visual power to stun the senses and the philosophical underpinning to tantalize the intellect." But he too is bothered by "too much exposition [and] … all kinds of speeches … that make the movie drag at the beginning."

Rather than exploring the film's strengths and weaknesses, Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) shares how the film gave him some insight into his own life. He finds Neo's dilemma—to save his endangered beloved or to save the threatened masses of Zion—to be a picture of his own struggle between the requirements of intimacy and the demands of following Christ's call to give up everything to serve others everywhere.

Brian Shipman (Relevant) focuses on the theme and its echoes of the gospel. He writes, "If The Matrix was about freedom, then The Matrix Reloaded is about purpose and choice. The plot progresses powerfully, and there's a few jaw-dropping surprises and twists that will change a lot about what you assumed in episode one." Shipman praises both the special effects and the dialogue: "Like its predecessor, this movie thinks before it speaks. No matter how much you listen, there's always something new and deeper."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "a disappointing, derivative sequel, not only on an aesthetic level, but also on a moral, philosophical, and spiritual level as well. Most disappointing of all … is the movie's failure to create a convincing portrayal of Zion, the last human city. There is no depth or character, much less variety, to this one-dimensional city's culture, which leaves one to ask the question: Why is this city worth saving?"

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says she "enjoyed this movie more than the first one." But she shares the prevalent concern about the film's potentially damaging effects on younger viewers. "It's up to parents to be discerning for their children—no matter how old they are. What might make a lasting impression is if parents see this movie with their mature teenagers and afterwards discuss the deeper meaning of this movie."

The Phantom Tollbooth offers no fewer than three critics' reviews of the film. Marie Asner says it doesn't go anywhere: "There is a fine line between action and dialogue, and this film crosses over into maxi-action and mini-words. Perhaps the last film, Matrix: Revolution will explain everything, but right now I am beginning to doubt it."

Gareth Von Kallenbach calls it a misfire: "What I saw was a film that had some nice effects that quickly became boring as the setup … and the plot lacked cohesion."

But J. Robert Parks says the negative reports are overblown. "Is Reloaded a better movie than the original? Probably not. And there are certainly some glaring weaknesses. But the good parts are very, very good, and those are the parts that most moviegoers want to see anyway. If you don't take it too seriously, if you don't get caught up in the expectations game, you're going to have a fine time. Ignore the critics. Free your mind."

Reloaded ends with the words "To be concluded." There are loose ends everywhere you look. The Wachowskis have a lot to resolve in The Matrix Revolutions, which opens in November. You can bet the debates, interpretations, and assessments of this saga's significance will continue with renewed vigor at that time.

from Film Forum, 05/29/03

Travis Carl (Christian Spotlight) joins the host of religious press critics Film Forum quoted last week who found the second Matrix film flashy but forgettable.

Carl writes, "For those who enjoyed the Christian symbolism of the first film, prepare to be disappointed. Though the spiritual parallels (such as free will versus predestination and the way materialism blinds us to reality) are revisited, this Messiah bears no resemblance to our own. He accomplishes all of his missions through brute force and seems swayed by any mystical wind blowing his way."

from Film Forum, 06/05/03

The struggle to discern what The Matrix Reloaded is really about is keeping religious press critics busy, just as the original film in the franchise inspired Christians to claim it as a religious allegory.

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) finds that the new film subverts the very messiah-story that led so many believers to celebrate the original. "The Matrix Reloaded may cause Christian fans to rethink their appropriation of Neo's story, not least because the new film seems to undermine the very messianic overtones of the first film. The new film asks whether there is any real difference between Fate and the Matrix—it asks, in effect, whether prophecies and promises of salvation may be just another form of control. Alas, pondering these questions is not as fun as it used to be, since The Matrix Reloaded is basically just one fight scene after another, with little to give them the meaning or narrative purpose that the fight scenes in the first film had."

Jamey Bennett (RazorMouth) praises and defends the film. "Reloaded brings philosophical issues to the forefront of our culture, raising questions of destiny, choice, and purpose."

But Joel McDurmon (RazorMouth) criticizes the film on several counts. First, he argues that the plot offers chaos over coherence. But he's more upset that the film is "the latest cutting edge attempt to subsume Christian ideas under the umbrella of New Age thought … Reloaded is the perfect idol of our generation. Aimed at the teen to young-adult audience, it has the potential to intrude the man-deifying heresies of Gnosticism, pantheism, etc., in the minds of young Christians under the guise of what's cool."

In last week's Dick Staub Interview, Chris Seay, coauthor of The Gospel Reloaded, said, "I cringed when I would hear people say that The Matrix was a Christian film, because of all the other religious traditions that are represented in The Matrix. We need to be really careful though, [because] the majority of the Christian metaphors are actually a Gnostic Christian influence and not really mainstream orthodox Christianity." Still, he concludes, "To leave behind doubt and to embrace faith is really what this movie is about."

Frankly, I found the film more tedious that tantalizing. But I saw it a second time this week in order to get past the sensory overload of its excessive action sequences and concentrate on its philosophical riddles. Reloaded raises more questions than it answers, calling into question whether the Christ-figure is really a messiah at all, whether he is acting with freewill or merely following metaphysical orders, and whether all religions might be merely systems of control that keep us blind and subservient. I have a discomforting suspicion that the film will not conclude that there is any Higher Power worth serving. It seems much more interested in the development of someone "merely human" into some kind of superman rather than emphasizing humanity's need for a savior. Morpheus staggers offscreen, devastated by what he perceives as the failure of his beliefs. But clearly, he must pick up and go on before all is lost. Similarly, Neo scolds one of his fanboy-disciples: "I didn't save you. You saved yourself."

I hope I'm wrong. Where do you think the series is headed?

from Film Forum, 06/26/03

Elsewhere, Charles Colson (Breakpoint) is talking about discernment at the movies. Commenting on The Matrix Reloaded, he says, "The film combines Eastern and Christian concepts in a way that does justice to neither worldview and only serves to confuse the audience."

from Film Forum, 07/17/03

Dave Benoit (Relevant) talks about the failings of The Matrix Reloaded.

from Film Forum, 04/22/04

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) presents a summation of the Matrix trilogy this week—just after the video release of the third film, Matrix Revolutions. Greydanus argues, " The Matrix isn't really a Christian allegory, any more than it is a gnostic fable. However interesting the film's Christian references may be from a critical perspective, The Matrix offers little in the way of genuinely edifying or uplifting moral or spiritual significance, at least as regards the Christian parallels."

And he concludes, "Viewed as a trilogy, the Matrix story-arc ironically lacks something common to both gnosticism and Christianity: transcendence, connection to ultimate reality or absolute truth above and beyond the finitude of the created order."

Related Elsewhere:

More content from around ChristianityToday.com:

Film Forum: Talking About Revolutions | What religious critics are saying about The Matrix Revolutions... (November 6, 2003)

The Dick Staub Interview: Why We Are Drawn to The Matrix | Chris Seay, coauthor of The Gospel Reloaded, says the first movie was about finding belief and the second looks at walking that path. (May 27, 2003)

Film Forum: Matrix Sequel Flaunts Flashy Effects, Tedious Talk | Christian film critics find little enthusiasm for The Matrix Reloaded, Down with Love, or Daddy Day Care, but they are impressed with Man on the Train. (May 22, 2003)

The Matrix Reloaded | Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here's what other critics are saying (May 15, 2003)

Liberated by Reality: The Matrix | Tony Jones (September 1999)

The Matrix Trilogy Bible-based Discussion Guide | What do these ground-breaking films say about the nature of self-knowledge, faith, love, reality, free will, and destiny? For personal use or as a group series, download this Reel-to-Real study to look deeper at these challenging moral and philosophical questions.