The past 12 months have been glorious for nerds everywhere. The latest installments of four high-profile fantasy/sci-fi franchises finally arrived, bringing hope, insight, philosophy, and lasers back into our lives: the second Star Wars of the prequel trilogy and parts two of Lord of the Rings, X-Men, and now The Matrix. Sadly, the Star Trek series seems to have finally run out of steam for now, as Star Trek: Nemesis did poorly enough for Patrick Stewart to call it quits. This is probably best for Trek, since they diluted themselves with too many TV series and not enough action or galactic wisdom to go around. But this is melancholic for Trekkies and sci-fi fans who must depend on the genre to provide popular culture's most profound source of philosophical discourse, not to mention a feeling of intellectual family: characters we like, can rely on, care about. And, genealogically, they are lovingly incestuous: Star Wars and Lord of the Rings share baddie Christopher Lee. Rings and Matrix share Hugo Weaving. Rings and X-Men share Ian McKellan. X-Men and Star Trek share Patrick Stewart. More importantly, most of these films share a sense of betterment improving the world through the exchange of ideas and the pursuit of understanding and good.
In The Matrix Reloaded, an undetermined amount of time has passed after the end of the first film. Neo (Keanu Reeves) grows ever more aware of his messiah-like abilities and gets it on with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). The battle with the Machine Army wages on, but with two complications: Agent Smith (Weaving) has strayed from his original programming and is now on his own, working against the resistance using his own devices (which include the new ability to multiply himself at will). Also, the Machines have detected Zion, the underground refugee city that is home to 250,000 humans who have been freed from comatose enslavement to the colossal energy-sucking device that has entombed the world's populace. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) grows in authority but also is at odds with his superior, Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), who has snagged Morpheus' beautiful ex Niobe, (Jada Pinkett Smith). The Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) advises Neo that choices are ahead of him but that they have already been made. It is up to him to understand, not make them. Neo's task: find The Keymaker (not to be confused with The Keymaster, all you Ghostbusters out there), open the right door, and the war will end.
My problem with The Matrix series is entirely in its "big ideas." Visually, the films are the quintessence of contemporary cool: sleek, dark, brooding, tough. I can't dispute how fantastic they look or the awesome-ness of the action. They are first-rate. And for a nerd like me I could only wish to be as bad-ass. They wear cool leather jackets, cool sunglasses (my mom would take exception to the fact that they do so indoors; it will ruin their eyes) and have cool names like Trinity, Neo, and Morpheus. The performances are fine. Fishburne is always a class act everywhere he goes, and Reeves' lines are just sparse enough to keep us from doubting his casting as a reluctant, universe-saving Christ figure (remember Little Buddha?) What I can't get my mind around, or rather my heart, is the idea of a cold, joyless universe in which its inhabitants never smile and seem to fight only for survival, and not for a way of life. Now, granted, if I lived in a cave city, forever eluding the onslaught of massive, tentacled machine-devils, I might not smile myself. But witness Star Wars trilogies one and two where even in the darkest moments there is some concept of joy, of something worth fighting for more than life itself. People laugh. They joke. There is fun. And I'm not talking about comic relief like C-3PO or those damn Ewoks, but rather a sense of life. Likewise in Rings. I am reminded, of all things, of the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life, in which Brooks has died and is being juried in the afterlife as to whether or not he is fit for heaven. Pressed to find one noble or extraordinary moment in his whole existence, he cites his survival of a snowmobile crash in which he had to crawl miles to safety. This act is dismissed as mere survival. He didn't save anyone else, and possessed no more courage than the fear of death. It wasn't good enough for heaven. He did only what he had to. This is a mantra of The Matrix. The Keymaker says it at the best moment: "We are all here to do what we are all here to do." If that is true, writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski are here to make visually stunning, cardiologically accelerating action movies. Save martial arts spirituality for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The Matrix is cool but spiritually hollow.