Still a reluctant hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is believed to be the One by not only Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) but legions of followers in Zion, the last remaining free human outpost, buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by robots and fueled by the energy generated by the slave race of man. But time is running out for Neo to prove his mettle, as the robots are drilling straight toward Zion. Conflict breaks out at the city's Jedi-like council as one faction requests all ships remain underground to fend off the attack while Morpheus insists on taking Neo to the surface, where he will fulfill his destiny. What he is supposed to do to save the human race, however, neither of them has quite figured out yet, necessitating a consultation with the Oracle, the rescue of the Keymaster and a visit with the Architect of the Matrix.
Much talked about in the first installment, it is in this episode that Zion finally makes her debut, lending additional texture to a film already characterized by the juxtaposition of the sterility of the computer-simulated world and the claustrophobic grit of the ship. Zion is a primal place--industrial, like the bowels of a ship, hot and steamy, and not just in terms of the subterranean environment. After a rousing “We are still here” sermon by Morpheus, the masses celebrate with an orgy-esque rave crosscut with a love scene between Trinity and Neo--she's hard and chiseled, like a boy; he's soft and rounded, like a girl. (It is the casting of Moss--so tough, so strong, so beautiful, if non-traditionally so--that is one of the franchise's greatest assets.) While arguably gratuitous, these scenes--along with the liberal use of close-up shots--represent what these people are fighting so hard for: their humanity.
That fight naturally involves some hand-to-hand combat along the way, the first confrontation involving Neo's nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) who, since the last installment, has experienced an upgrade: He can replicate himself. The result is a balletic fight in which Neo takes on an ever-multiplying horde of Smiths in a scene that escalates to cartoonish levels. Not that that's a bad thing: The action all remains within the logic of the world that the Wachowskis have created, including Neo's newfound ability to fly, or “go Superman,” as one character quips--launching the franchise, which already draws from Asian cinema, comic books and the sci-fi catalog, into superheroics as well.
What's particularly remarkable about the scene--and the car chase sequence later in the film, although “car chase” hardly begins to describe it--is its perfect choreography with Don Davis' alternately driving techno and operatic score. Not only does the timeless music match the action on screen, but sometimes the action matches it, the aforementioned special effects pausing the action, holding its breath, as the score reaches climax.
Oh, yes--the car chase. Fourteen minutes long. Cars, motorcycles, semis. Martial arts in and on top of and on the side of moving vehicles. A specially built stretch of highway at a cost of $1 million. A three-month shoot, just for this scene. It's indescribable except to say that, when Trinity throws her Ducati motorcycle into a 180 and weaves in and out of oncoming traffic, one literally gasps.
Yet none of this thrill ride is without meaning: Every line of dialogue here spouts philosophy. The first “Matrix,” as intellectually challenging as it seemed at the time, requires the mental gymnastics of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in comparison. Musings here include humanity's reliance on machines (Zion is as slave to them as the Matrix is, it is argued); fate versus choice (“You are not here to make a choice,” the Oracle tells Neo. “You have already made it. You're here to find out why”); purpose (“Without purpose, we would not exist,” Smith says); causality (“The only truth is causality”); and the characterization of legends about ghosts, angels, vampires and aliens attributable to something as simple as program failures in the Matrix. The film is so intellectually complex, so stimulating, that multiple viewings are required--perhaps a calculated move on the Wachowskis' part for one of the most anticipated films of the year, if not the era. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving and Jada Pinkett Smith. Directed and written by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. release. Scifi/Action. Rated R for sci-fi violence and some sexuality. Running time: 138 min