To start with, I should probably state up front that yes, I did like The Matrix. Honest. Granted, I never thought it was the be-all and end-all of science fiction films, or even the best humanity-is-a-cog-in-the-wheel exploration (Dark City is better for that, to my mind, and a whole lot spookier), and I had to laugh at the movie for being the ultimate embodiment of a teenage geek's fondest dream come true: "Yes, in this world I may look like a dork and am unable to get girls or suceed at much beyond D&D or computer programming, but in the real world I'm a cool rebel warrior who gets to hang out with a hot chick dressed all in black leather!" Nerd wish fulfillment is what the original movie was all about, and hey, I'm fine with that (you don't think cool, well-adjusted people sit around typing in online reviews of movies in their spare time, do you?). Everybody needs to dream about escape from time to time -- that's only human.
Unfortunately, The Matrix Reloaded was a step down even from the aforementioned wish fulfillment. Instead of focusing on the story they'd started in the first film or expanding on the characters we met then, the Matrix folks seem more interested in making things look cool this time around. There are fight scenes that last waaaay too long, buildings that explode seemingly just to make a big "boom," and a car chase involving two sets of competing bad guys, neither of whom seem to give a damn about one another. And yeah, it's all very neat to watch, that's for sure -- kudos to Keanu Reeves for handing off his take of the profits to the special effects people, because I'd imagine they essentially gave up large chunks of their lives to do this movie. The sad part is that special effects do not a good movie make (anybody remember Armageddon?).
To make my point a little clearer, let's take a look at another movie, one that was released around the same time as Reloaded, also took some heavy duty computer work, and was also absolutely visually stunning. Both movies center around a quest, a journey through dangerous territory teeming with shar--I mean, bad guys, and heroes who at times seem very unsure of themselves. (There's also a heavy-duty "meaning of life" message behind both films, but I'll leave that one alone...) Give up? Yeah, I'm talking about Finding Nemo, the latest bit of Pixar-created brilliance (yep, I was being real subtle there, I know). Faint-hearted Marlin has to conquer both his own inner demons and dangers in the real-live ocean to find his captured son Nemo, much like Neo's search for "the source", but the result is by far a better movie than Reloaded.
Why? One reason, mostly: the characters. The folks behind Finding Nemo do such an incredible job of characterization throughout the film, all the way from the main characters to supporting cast who only come on the screen once or twice -- even the denizens of Nemo's fishtank prison have fleshed-out, quirky personalities, from the dark, troubled Gill to seemingly 'round-the-bend Deb (the fish who, uh, thinks her reflection is her twin sister). The characters come alive; they seem like real people, despite the fact that they're merely fish, creatures most of us don't talk to on a regular basis.
The creators of The Matrix Reloaded, however, blow it when it comes to the characters. Sure, they've got cool names and fight like kung-fu cowboys, but what are they really like? What motivates them? (And no, "the fight to save Zion" is not a valid answer; people are far too complex for one reason to define their lives.) We get quick flashes of backstory, of people's lives, and then it's mostly either the very vague, mostly meaningless ex-relationship between Morpheus and Niobe, the confusion inside Neo's head, and the one bit of real characterization, Link's relationship with Zee. Think about it -- the only honest-to-God time any of the main characters act like real human beings is when Link agonizes over his decision to join Morpheus. His uncertainty is real...and that's about it. Every other character is an enigma. What does Morpheus think about when he's not kicking Agent ass? Trinity? Niobe? The side players get even worse treatment -- we get a character like the beautifully-named Merovingian...and then he's on the screen and off in five minutes, with no explanation for the name, his motives, or the reason he's survived this long. It's a waste of a promising character.
The end result of all this is that the characters in Reloaded don't seem real. They're cartoon characters, and not in a good way (since yes, there are some beautifully-developed cartoons and comics out there). They're superheroes, and their only problems stem from being shot by the bad guys. Is that the way real humans work? Hardly. Even Superman had problems dealing with Lois Lane and his secret identity, and Spider-Man had a real job and some serious guilt stemming from the death of Uncle Ben. But the Zion humans...do they have real lives? Do they dream, or fight amongst themselves, or have fun? It sure doesn't look like it. Of course, this wasn't entirely the case with the first movie, mostly because of Neo -- he was human, he was real, and he was just like you and me, a regular person pulled into a weird situation. He was scared shitless at the thought of jumping out into the void and leaving the Matrix...and who wouldn't be? If a stranger came up to you and told you "look, the world's all fake, it's one big evil machine, and we can break you out and help you fight it -- you're the one we've been waiting for", what would you do? I can tell you with absolute certainty that I'd smile nervously, back away slowly, and look for the nearest exit. That is how real humans behave, and it's that kind of humanity that was left by the wayside with Reloaded.
The problem with "unreal" characters is that you can't care about them. If you don't know somebody, how can you really give a damn what happens to them? By the end of Reloaded, the only character I felt bad for was Link -- when Zion fell, he lost something concrete, his family, and that's something any person in the audience can empathize with. But Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Commander Lock, and the rest of Zion...who cares? Sure, there were apparently a ton of people in Zion, but so what? Did we really know any of them? The city was only vaguely mentioned in the first film, and in the second it comes off as a cross between a heavily-armed refugee camp and a giant tribal dance party; what about the day-to-day life, the people? What were they losing when the machines broke through? The viewers can't know, because the filmmakers never told us; there was never a real connection there.
By way of contrast, Finding Nemo sucks you in, making even the irritating, annoying characters lovable and real, and by the climax of the film, you desperately want Marlin to find Nemo and stay with Dory. You want them all to have a real family again -- heck, you even want the sharks to be able to keep their pledge. You become invested in the movie, and genuinely sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the outcome (even though yeah, it's ostensibly a kids' movie, so you know it's got to have a happy ending). By the end of Reloaded, on the other hand, I was yawning, wondering when the next special effects sequence would come in. Which movie would you rather see? (Jeremy Hart)
(The Matrix Reloaded -- Warner Bros.; Finding Nemo -- Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios)