It’s hard to be Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). It’s hard to be anyone in the Matrix, since everyone is enslaved whether they know it or not, but it’s extra hard for someone with a sense of history, spirituality, and community to live inside a system devised to stifle same. As his name implies, Morpheus is a keeper and proponent of dreams. He’s also devoted to the war against the machines, the prophecy, and the One, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves). To these ends, he’s a stanch warrior and provocative thinker, as well as a black man in a world where the machines’ agents tend to be white men in suits.
In The Matrix Reloaded, again, the world and the agents are programs. They are precise and certain, where humans, even as they are committed fighters and friends, are doubtful. Between these communities, Morpheus’ unwavering, apparently fanatical faith is useful but also threatening. This is the rub he embodies, this large black man in a movie about a much paler One.
Indeed, the bulk of the film is dedicated to Neo’s athletics: bullet-timing (still the coolest effect); zooming through space, fist outstretched like Superman; and some fighting mad-choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping. No matter whom he faces — Seraph (Collin Chou); 100 Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) in the born-infamous Burly Brawl, or the gnarly twin ghosts (Neil and Adrian Rayment) — Neo is faster and better (even if, on occasion, the CG is so anemic that his digital face looks cartoonishly flat). Neo appears to be power-kicking his way through a series of choices, as is his supposed destiny.
The whole free will and destiny thing bedevils Reloaded, as well as its product line, now waging a long-awaited onslaught on consumers. Immersed in its own legend and expectations, in love with its two-years-in-rendering set pieces, and keen to “revolutionize” moviemaking (as well as make a ton of money), Reloaded can’t be so innovative a meld of genres as the first version. Following the original and also Neo’s search for the truth, the film takes an episodic structure: Neo goes here and there, to chat with the Oracle (Gloria Foster), to find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), to stop whatever next nefarious deed will be imagined by Agent Smith.
The pieces are at once too mythic and too fragmented, but then, as the makers keep insisting, it’s only the second part of a three-part opus. So, believe. As the sequel’s adherents — that is, its major players and Joel Silver — trundle from one interview to another, from TRL to Leno to Access Hollywood, they’re looking more and more like good Matrixian citizens, promoting freedom of thought and, oh yes, purchase of tickets, leather dusters, and Animatrix dvds.
Morpheus, at least, stands his ground, as unstable as it must be. “Everything begins with choice,” he proclaims. Yet his own choice to believe in the prophecy of the Oracle has led to ridicule and rumors about his insanity. As his superior officers chide his lack of flexibility or nuance, Morpheus starts to seem a poster boy for the Matrix’s big fat no-exit problem: red pill or blue pill? Coke or Pepsi? Choose away. It’s all the same.
Throughout Reloaded, Morpheus faces challenges. The first come from Tank’s replacement, Link (Harold Perrineau, Jr.), who’s unsure that his reputedly crazy captain quite understands the risk of a particular order. Morpheus leans into his chair and cuts loose with one of his patented low-volume assertions, all stylishly meditative and convincing: Link must trust him. Cut to Link, nodding, “I do, sir.”
Such zennishness makes Morpheus notorious as a renegade in the (mostly computer-generated) city of Zion, where free humans congregate, a last bastion against the Machines who are tunneling toward them as the film begins. And the powers that be — embodied here by harrumphy Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), white-haired Councilor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe), and Councilor West (Cornell West, celebrity academic, in a role written for him by the excessively well-read Wachowskis) — make use of Morpheus to stir Zion’s rowdy, faceless crowd. Hamann urges him to deliver a dose of what Morpheus terms “truth.”
In his oratory, however, this truth turns oddly mundane: “A century of war, and we are still here! Let’s shake this cave!” And with this declaration of resistance, the mostly of-color Zionites dance while Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) steal away. The film cuts between these parallel, slowed-down carpe diem scenes, the same urgent drum-track under both: bodies writhe and leap on the party floor as the sweaty white-ish couple (Keanu being in perpetual racial flux) engages in earnest, neck-craning sex.
The chosen couple’s once faint resemblance to one another has become more acute this time, as they mirror one another in profile, sharp black outfits, and martial arts flippiness. As well, their love takes on other expressions, including sacrifice and deep penetration (including matrixy green effects). Neo’s messianic mission includes Trinity as audience to his convincing Persephone, a busty (and apparently lonely) program played by Monica Bellucci, that his tongue down her throat is as meaningful as when it’s down Trinity’s (Neo fakes it for the greater good). They also must listen politely to the hyper-rationalizing of Persephone’s mate, the perniciously French Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). “Zee way of all zeengs is causality,” insists this program, perhaps as a way to justify his sexual cheating. “Choice is an illusion,” he says, “Created by zose weez power for zose weezout.”
Zee Merovingian makes a good point. And it’s worth remembering, as he sits at his fabulously appointed banquet table, that he’s part and parcel of the Matrix (“weeth power”), vending its stuff and philosophy for eager consumers of poetic simulacra, ideological significance, and multifaceted ass-kicking. Choice is an illusion for most, which doesn’t make it less promising or necessary. Reloaded depends on it, delivering serials treatises and stunts (including the delirious action centerpiece, a 14-minute freeway kick-and-smash). With all this visual fun, how can ideological angst matter?
“The One was never meant to end anything,” observes an apparent authority. This seems true (the One was meant to generate a mini-industry), but at the same time, it seems willful, a means to challenge the prophecy and the choice, the cause and the effect. Neo’s (probably only pseudo-meaningful) tongue passes for truth, as does Morpheus’ grave declaration of the choice he’s made, so long ago: “It is our fate to be here. It is our destiny.” The question is, who is “we”?
The most mesmerizing wild card in Morpheus’ array of choices and beliefs is his ex, the formidable Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith). Fierce, tenacious, and amazing to see, Niobe changes everything. But she has too little to do (see especially her silliest line, to Morpheus, “Go kick his ass!”). So audacious and so stunning, Niobe just needs more time. She gets it in the tie-in game, Enter the Matrix, where she’s the featured character (though Jada reports that her stepson Trey doesn’t like to play “her,” preferring instead the Ghosts as his surrogate self/selves; a wise 10-year-old choice).
Niobe does fill up her time, in a way that suggests her relationship with Morpheus will, as they say, evolve. But her role only underlines that time in Reloaded needs rethinking. It’s endless and ahistorical, but it’s also attached, to bodies and traumas. In references to Greek and Christian mythologies, Western and Eastern philosophies, art and comic books from everywhere, the Matrixes make clear that the of-color bodies everywhere in sight are meaningful and, in whatever sense you might imagine, true. It’s not that the stories in and of the Matrix are too complicated, it’s that they don’t quite measure their complications against the particular bodies represented. And this is exactly why it’s hard to be Morpheus.