July 08, 2009

The Matrix Reloaded

Welcome to the second installment of Matrix reviews, brought to you by our guest poster known as d. If you missed her review of The Matrix, check it out too!

"And after a century of war I remember that which matters most: WE ARE STILL HERE!"

The above quote was taken from the speech Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) uses to galvanize the people against overwhelming odds and almost certain annihilation. And as far as gender parity in action films go, I feel as if we're up against the same dismal odds. Thankfully there are bright spots. Is The Matrix Reloaded one of those spots? Like I'm gonna spoil that one! But there are some immediate differences that you'll notice as you watch the second act of this tale of man against machine.

Firstly, the pacing is different. The Matrix is hero myth, cast in the dark hues of film noir. This is not. In many ways, Matrix Reloaded is like your basic action flick: a guy saving the day; a love interest in peril; and a heaping bucket full of action. Does all this sound like a turn-off? If so, don't blink just yet; it is and it isn't. In fact, that's the basic gist of the plot: it is, and it isn't. Ok, the more straightforward plot point is that Neo (Keanu Reeves) now accepts he's "The One," but needs to figure out what exactly that means, and what his ultimate purpose is, or else he may be responsible for the death of all of humanity. But getting back to those clich├ęs - they serve a purpose, and it's not just to make the hero look good.

But since I'm not writing a novel (yet!), I'd rather focus predominantly on the obvious HC, because that is where you're going to see the most radical divergence from anything you've seen in... well, heck, I'll say any film, but I'd be happy to hear of other films that do this. And unlike the last review, I'm only gonna really talk about 1 thing (since it more or less encompasses everything): Zion.

I didn't talk at all about Zion in my last review. Zion, according to previous Nebuchadnezzar crew member Tank, is "where the party would be" if the war was over (although they do quite a bit of partying anyway). It's the last human city, comprised of both free range and factory farmed humans, set deep within Earth's crust (so they can keep warm). And Zion is diverse... VERY DIVERSE.

Sci-fi landscapes are so devoid of any kind of real ethnicity that this became the theme at 2007's WisCon. Here's a snippet of the discussion topic, written by The Angry Black Woman (an oft-linked to blogger in these parts):

It's great that there are many great SF shows on television with diverse main casts... However, if you look in the background it doesn't take long to notice that even though the main players aren't all white, everyone else seems to be... Why is the Universe so damn white and what can we do to change that?

Well, if diversity (and not tokenism) is what you seek, this film is the real deal. Zion is ruled by an elder council, moderated by a female. On a couple of Matrix websites, they list the council with a gender ratio of 12 women and 6 men, but when I counted I only saw 7 women & 5 men on screen. Either way, that's radical considering the state of politics these days, at least in the U.S. The ethnicity isn't completely even on the council, but there is at least one female and male of noticeable Asian, African, and European descent. We've already seen one war ship and its crew. In Reloaded we see many more crews, and thankfully those crews look just as mixed as Morpheus's. Men and women seem to fill all the necessary roles for society. This includes the military, which is great - when the battlefield is the mind, women and men are equal. Period.
It's not just the actors that are diverse; the culture is a big mish-mash as well. In the real world (not the matrix) they dress in loose fitting eastern dress. There is a long dance scene, intercut with another scene of Neo & Trinity having sex. The scene could be described as some crazy rave (which quite a few reviewers did). Or, it could be described as a ritualistic celebration that many indigenous cultures perform(ed).

But there's one area that is not really diverse at all. You guessed it, the matrix; it looks like, well, modern day America. It has hierarchies, rules, and order. The people in power are white, and everyone at the bottom is still mostly white. There are no agents of color. In fact, in Reloaded they are downright Aryan. When Neo fights the new set, he comments that they are upgrades, which illustrates the mindset of the machines in more ways than one. These new agents are taller, more chiseled, more beefy - less ethnic looking than the first set. They are contrasted nicely against Neo, who is himself multi-ethnic. And, as we begin to see a wider variety of sentient programs (not just agents), they hold the same patterns: white head, and maybe people of color as henchmen. Women in this world are abused, ignored... the usual stuff. But in the real world there's no rigid stratum of society. Sounds all touchy-feely, but it's not. There's plenty of conflict in Zion, and it's interesting to see world views very different from Morpheus's crew.

All of this wonderfulness comes at a price: by really developing the many inhabitants of Zion, by necessity the screen time of the main characters decrease. We see less Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), but we see less Neo as well, and heck, it's kind of his movie... and it's not. Even at its length, it feels a bit episodic, and a little less cohesive. I think the Wachowskis are using that to show the state of things in the movie's plot, but it can be noticeable.

The only other flaw, which I'd be remiss not to talk about, is the Asian representation in the film. With such a heavy Asian influence, from the fight choreography to the matrix code itself, you'd think we'd have more main Asian characters. What we do have are a good amount of background characters, and a couple substantial supporting characters: Seraph (Collin Chou) and the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim).

By the way, I hope you didn't get the impression that Trinity has now been reduced to a romantic sub-plot. She still gets a good portion of heroic action to balance out the quieter, romantic scenes with Neo. One of my faves is when she jumps off an exit ramp onto a moving truck, steals a motorcycle from the flatbed, drives it onto the highway, reverses when she's chased by the police, and dodges oncoming traffic. Also joining the fray is Jada Pinkett Smith as captain Niobe; the two of them are nice foils for each other both in combat and romance.

So all in all, while the main gender HC is lessened, there are many more women and their influence in the story is expansive and critical. And even without a real main Asian character (besides Neo) the ethnic HC is unparalleled. So to me that says four stars! It's almost unbelievable actually, since some films' HC peters out long before the end credits. And now we have not 1, but 2 films that are cinematic breaths of fresh air. But can it last through the final installment? You'll just have to wait and see!

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