Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Matrix Reloaded’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
It doesn’t matter if you took the red pill or the blue pill, one thing is inarguable — when The Wachowskis introduced us to the concept and world of The Matrix, they made a revolutionary film. But, over two decades later, I wonder, was it for better or worse? To find the answer to this question, I’ll follow the white rabbit down the hole and onto its new path with The Matrix Revolutions (2021), which is slated for release on December 22, 2021. However, before we arrive at that eventuality, let’s look at the second act that is The Matrix Reloaded (2003)!
The Matrix (1999) is one of the few perfect films out there. There’s always trepidation in my adult brain when a sequel to such a cinematic rarity is made. However, you could not have told my teenage brain that nearly twenty years ago. On the contrary, when Warner Bros. announced in 2002 that The Wachowskis would finally be following up the original film by completing their intended trilogy, I was beyond jazzed for them. Although, I frankly can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers honestly had a trilogy in mind or if they chose to expand the story into one after the huge success of The Matrix. Either way, it would be hard to tell as that’s the publicity and marketing narrative the studio was presenting to us back in the day.
Mind you, it was hard to avoid the hype of these sequels for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Warner put all their faith in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) by producing the two films simultaneously in Australia. Furthermore, the release plan was unique, at least for my life thus far. Originally, these sequels were intended to be released several weeks apart. But the studio quickly decided that it would be best to stretch the taffy on these two installments though; and understandably so.
Therefore, Reloaded was released on May 15, 2003, and Revolutions hit screens six months after the movie in review on November 5, 2003. Such a whole-hog style to making movies had been done twice before. About a decade-and-a-half prior, the same method was used with Back to the Future: Part II (1989) and Back to the Future: Part III (1990), albeit to diminishing returns. And, of course, it’s worth mentioning that all of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003) installments were shot simultaneously (more or less) and then released one year apart from each other. If you think about it, this approach is almost like splitting movies in half as is occasionally done these days — Dune: Part One being the latest example of this.
Beyond the production and release, though, the studio and its ancillary partners made a hard multimedia push to expand The Matrix universe. Up to this point, the only additional universe-building was in The Matrix Comics (1999-2003) from Burlyman Entertainment, featuring numerous notable talents in the comic book industry like Geof Darrow (Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot) and Neil Gaiman (The Sandman). Then, of course, the video game Enter The Matrix (2003) served as a side-story which runs parallel to Reloaded. I had a lot of fun playing Enter The Matrix on the OG Xbox back in the day, and the video game is worth noting because it was also written and directed by the franchise’s creators. Looking back on it, though, these large ancillary projects didn’t add much to the overall series. Aside from these multimedia releases, every product that could be tied into these sequels was … and it seemed audiences were eating it up.
That is until The Matrix Reloaded was released, at which point the entire concept became divisive among audiences. Before I get into which side of the movie theater aisle I sit in when it comes to this sequel, though, let’s look at what it’s actually about.
Taking place six months after its predecessor, The Matrix Reloaded finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) having some level of comfort traversing The Matrix while living in The Real World — in part, no doubt due to his love affair with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). But he still has problems. See, Neo is having trouble adjusting to the fact that he’s seen as a messianic figure by many who are unplugged. Among these believers, of course, is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who espouses his faith in The One with vigor.
But, Neo will have to put his existential crisis and the visions he’s haunted by on hold. Our heroes must first unite with all the other resistance forces in The Real World to keep the machines from destroying Zion, their underground homeland. Beyond that, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has not only found his way back into The Matrix, but he’s also found a way to multiply himself. To stop all of this chaos, our heroes must save a program known as The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who is the only one who can lead Neo to a mysterious place within The Matrix known as The Source.
I’ve not had many of my opinions and relationships with movies change too often. Alas, this is undoubtedly the case with both Matrix sequels. After it hit home video, I was gifted the ten-disc Ultimate Matrix Collection on DVD (2004) for a major surgery recovery. This massive set helped me get through a tough time. For that reason, I’ll always have a little bit of a soft spot for them. Unfortunately, I seen more negatives than positives in the sequels in recent years and more still upon this rewatch of The Matrix Reloaded.
Now, I won’t go so far as to deem The Matrix Reloaded as a lousy movie. After all, it’s too well made to even qualify for that category. But Reloaded is a disappointment in comparison to the original film. See, this movie can’t help but be an unsatisfying middle chapter in a trilogy — but not for the obvious reasons you might think. Upon rewatching The Matrix Reloaded, I realized why it just does not work for me. Ultimately, The Wachowskis made Reloaded into a deconstruction of everything they introduced in the first film.
For better or worse, I’m not a fan of using a sequel to deconstruct an established narrative or universe. To me, such a storytelling approach rarely works and usually feels like a big “screw you” to the audience. While Reloaded is not as egregious a deconstruction as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), it is still frustrating. One of the significant new concepts revealed in Reloaded is that just about everyone in The Matrix is a program. Folks, frankly, I’m not too fond of this idea because it makes any character who takes the red pill feel less significant in the scheme of things.
The same can be said for the revelations offered by The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), which ultimately dulls the impact of Neo’s hero’s journey; something, it could be argued, is completed in this second picture. However, I will say that I find The Architect’s explanation of reality as the only aspect of this movie I find interesting from the narrative standpoint. Otherwise, this movie spends way too much time in Zion — a dull place bogged down with politics and sweat-drenched raves. Unlike the original picture, the pacing of Reloaded is slower than molasses.
Sadly, aside from the story itself, the bad pacing results from the filmmaking choices on display here. Despite having much of the same crew, The Matrix Reloaded feels inferior on every level. Director of Photography Bill Pope (Spider-Man 2) still shoots a good-looking film, but it’s a bit washed out for my eyes. Every visual aspect of the first film was tangible, whereas this sequel feels mildly artificial, a quality which comes from the fact that most of the fight scenes and all of the acting feel somewhat stilted on the second go-round. According to Pope, shooting the sequels was stressful and exhausting. Unlike the original movie, Reloaded and Revelations were high-pressure projects with an abundance of oversight from Warners. The cinematographer also stated that The Wachowskis choosing to adopt Stanly Kubrick‘s ninety-plus-takes shooting style didn’t help matters either.
Any saving grace to Reloaded‘s pacing are the two big setpieces. For the most part, The Burly Brawl between Neo and eighty Agent Smith, which took twenty-seven days to shoot, still holds up and is a shot of energy to the movie. Then, of course, there’s The Highway Chase — a three-month shoot in its own right — which is undoubtedly one of the best car sequences in movie history. Just for a bit of context, three months is the average amount of time it takes to shoot most feature films in their entirety. On Reloaded, much of this time was spent on the 1.4 miles looped highway consisting of three lanes. This massive set was promptly demolished after the sequence was completed. Speaking of destruction, General Motors (GMC) contributed 300 vehicles to the production. All of which were ultimately wrecked.
For me, the gap between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded is like going from Windows XP to Windows Vista. In other words, this sequel is a disappointing drop in quality. I can certainly respect what The Wachowskis were trying to do here. Heck, maybe they intentionally made the choice to add that aforementioned artificiality to amplify the deconstruction that is this middle act. However, it just doesn’t compute for me. The Matrix Reloaded is a frustrating and largely uninteresting Franchise Implosion, despite the world-building it attempts to do.
While many fellow fans feel the same way, that didn’t stop this movie from being a success. Produced on a budget of $150 million, The Matrix Reloaded grossed $741.8 million worldwide, thus making it the highest-grossing entry in this franchise to date. Moreover, it was the most financially successful R-rated movie at the box office at the time of its release. But, would audiences return to see the conclusion with Revelations? Find out next time when we finish what was to be a trilogy.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003) is available on all home video formats & to stream on HBO Max.
Next time, we’ll re-enter the simulation with The Matrix Revolutions (2003)!
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) will be released simultaneously in theaters & HBO Max on December 22!