Shortly after The Matrix introduced pince-nez glasses to a whole new audience, Neo (Keanu Reeves) hasn’t saved the humans; Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) is somehow still allowed to captain a ship; Zion, the human city, is on the brink of invasion; and the newly freed Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is rapidly multiplying in The Matrix 2: Attack of the Clones.
The story alternates between long-winded philosophical deliberation and inconsequential fight scenes which usually end with Neo flying off. Its lofty intellectual aspirations sit oddly with its gormless main character who seems unable to engage in the discussion, and these scenes are written in an almost comically obscure way where every question is answered with another question.
Its main theme is choice, and whether or not we really have it. It seems to side with free will, as both Neo and uber-Zionist Morpheus are insistent on its existence, but the actions of every character are designed to fulfill a prophecy, so Neo doesn’t make a single free choice in the entire film. This deterministic writing style feels akin to the Star Wars prequels in which the only way to explain everything is that it has to be that way to fulfill a prophecy, with events being secretly controlled by a powerful force (the machines or the Force with a capital F).
This should be utterly unsatisfactory, given it robs characters of their agency, the essence of a good story. But one reason it’s accepted by Western audiences is due to its heavy roots in the Bible story, which is similarly reliant on prophecy and destiny, with any apparent contradictions easily brushed aside as part of a larger plan. Why didn’t God eliminate evil as soon as it came into existence? It’s all part of a plan which contributes to the ultimate aim of eradicating evil once and for all. Anything which appears to contradict this plan is actually a part of it which is beyond our understanding.
But it even presents problems on its own terms. The fact Neo is revealed to be a pawn in a larger system makes Morpheus’s unquestioning faith in his ability to save the humans all the more absurd. It results in the bizarre spectacle of a sci-fi film, with all manner of futuristic technology, being a long advert for blind faith. Morpheus is, of course, vindicated in the third film, but the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) tells us this is the sixth time Zion has been destroyed, meaning that on every previous occasion the Morpheus of that world would have been completely wrong.
It’s also a strange choice that, rather than revealing Neo is a pawn in the final act, after the crew have spent the film working towards apparently genuine aims (giving the ending some kind of impact) this is bludgeoned into us the whole way through, making everyone’s actions feel pointless. And while the Smiths are the main villain(s), our heroes never seem particularly concerned by it, so fixated are they on fulfilling the prophecy.
Also like the Star Wars prequels is the terrible romance at its core, between Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), who never seem to make each other the least bit happy, feeling more like Stockholm Syndrome than true love. But in spite of their miserable romance, we do get one of the great sci-fi sex scenes, intecut with a rave sequence which looks like it was a lot of fun to film.
The fights are brilliantly executed, in true Matrix style that was so influential. The kung-fu further raises the bar, and Reeves deserves credit for his learning of choreography if not for his reading of dialogue. Unfortunately the Wachowskis don’t have much sense of which effects well, resulting in a film which now looks on a par with the Enter the Matrix videogame.
The best performance in the film comes from Weaving, who has a lot of fun and makes a brilliant villain. Fishburne is also effortlessly charismatic as the samurai sword-wielding, uzi-firing, ass-kicking monk guy, and the Wachowskis deserve credit for their commitment to diversity long before it was expected.
After hours of fighting and what feels like hours of long-winded conversations it ends in an identical situation to how it began. The machines are still planning to invade Zion, the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled and we still don’t know happened to Morpheus’s hat. Yet all things considered it remains an exciting exercise in excesss, even if the Wachowskis utterly fail to integrate their pub philosophy into a plausible story.