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Unloading on The Matrix Reloaded

The first Matrix was cool, but this new one needed a bit more work before they let it out of the gate. An open letter to the Wachowski brothers.

author’s note: if you haven’t yet seen The Matrix Reloaded, reading the details of this letter may save you the price of a movie ticket

Dear Wachowski Brothers:

Here’s the main problem, as I see it: After you make a movie that racks up a half-billion dollars nobody, and I mean nobody, says boo to you while you’re sucking in a laughing-gas budget that, like Neo, defies the law of gravity.

Too bad, because when we left the multiplex opening night, my sixteen-year-old son Nathaniel was shaking his head in disappointment, the same slow sad gesture he’d made four years ago as we left the theater after seeing The Phantom Menace. No, you didn’t perpetrate anything as egregious as Jar-Jar Binks, but you still screwed up, and all that anticipation for The Matrix Reloaded now seems like a bad fever dream.

I know it’s too late for my comments to be of any help—the movie’s out, the third installment—god help you—is already in the can. But if you could possibly reload your own movie, here is what somebody should have told you (if gurus are ever in the listening mood):

1. Keep the kick-ass music! I’m no Rob Zombie fan, but that sort of industrial grind worked perfectly for the first movie. Orchestral movie themes just don’t cut it, and when the score for Reloaded starts copping whole sections of Stravinky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, or Philip Glass-ian arpeggios, well, the pretension is thick enough to beat with a conductor’s baton. I know, I know—the Matrix movies are pretentious, with all those dopey names like Morpheus and Trinity (and how about, for future films, Piety, or Eucharist, or Pompous?), but they should be cool pretentious, with scary guitars and such in the background.

2. Get us out of Zion, and fast. Cut the beginning by at least 20 minutes. No one cares, guys, about the petty rivalries down there, which have all the charm of those interminable political machinations in The Phantom Menace (is it a bad sign that I keep mentioning this movie?). And the mass orgy is, on the mass-orgy scale, boring. Did a single soul buy a Matrix ticket hoping to see an episode of The Red Shoe Diaries with a bloated budget?

3. If we have to be in Zion, keep the sets small and constricted. Zion is just too unbelievably BIG, and so doesn’t seem vulnerable, doesn’t enlist our sympathy for this put-upon human outpost. It should be smaller, and dirtier, and more crowded, and—wait, they have real food there? What happened to the white, bland goop everyone complained about on the Nebuchadnezzar? Wasn’t that the point of Cipher’s betrayal in the first movie, that he couldn’t stand the thought of scarfing down the tasteless slop anymore? Or was he merely an impatient fellow, unable to wait for the return to Zion’s delectable chow? And anyway, if Zion actually has real food, then why the hell don’t the ships stock it?

4. Let’s see more of those Machine-Spider-Thingies, as they bear down on Zion. Their ominous advance is the equivalent of that hoary old movie stand-by, the ticking clock, right? (Will James Bond save Fort Knox? He only has 23 seconds left!) So if you’re going to indulge in old movie conventions, swallow your pride and go all the way. Keep reminding us, visually, that those creepy bastards are getting closer and closer. Scare us, please. Your movie could use some dramatic tension to perk up that first hour’s dreary yawn-fest.

5. Since we’re on the subject of dramatic tension, why is the ‘burly brawl’ with all those Agent Smiths so lame? Because there’s no point to it! The scene seems plopped down in the movie for no apparent reason, its own little Clone War (uh oh!). And here, bros, is where you really blew it. The first Agent Smith arrives right after Neo’s interview with the Oracle, right after she safely returns to that hidden corridor with her bodyguard. Well, what if Agent Smith and Co. arrive before she has a chance to escape? Then Neo—and the Oracle’s bodyguard—could fight to protect her from the threat of malevolent carbon copies. With one simple stroke, there’s something at risk, something to lose, which then gives dramatic point to the mayhem. Think of effective, engaging drama as a form of juggling—to hold an audience, one must keep more than one ball in the air at the same time.

6. Would it kill Neo to react just a teeny bit more as the Smith posse keeps replicating? I know we’re talking Keanu Reeves here, but surely the man is capable of emoting widened eyes, a dropped jaw, a wrinkled brow? Seems to me he’d worry just a tad as it becomes clearer and clearer that there’s no end in sight to all those SmithSmithSmithSmithSmithSmiths. Maybe a hint of self-doubt, a dawning fear on Neo’s part that maybe, just maybe, he’s out of his league here?

7. Which brings me to my next suggestion: Make Neo vulnerable. I mean, hell, even Christ was crucified. And ixnay on the Superman owerspay—it’s just so totally dumb—even if Keanu’s last name is Reeves. Okay, okay, let Neo have some increased abilities—I can go with that—but have him struggle to control and focus them. Let him screw up, so the audience can worry about and root for him—this is Basic Narrative Strategy 101. An added benefit to such a change is that, if Neo does make mistakes, then it finally makes some sense that there are those in Zion who have their doubts about whether Superduper Neo is indeed the One.

8. A movie is above all else a visual medium. So give the visuals their own developing structure and emotional pacing. Keep the whole feel of the movie constricted at first, in Zion and in the Matrix, only loosening up slowly. When those doors in the Merovingian’s lair open a second time to reveal mountainous vistas—Naaaaah. It looks as if Heidi is right around the corner, hauling her milk cans, with the Von Trapp family behind her and about to break into song. (You can use this idea in another of the sequels, but you have to credit me as a ‘best boy’ or something.) Make each of those altered entries a strange, darkened corridor instead, something no one would ever want to walk into. After all the visual constriction, when the highway scene arrives, the wide-open view should be a shock, one that corresponds emotionally with the increased menace.

Remember: You once knew all of this. I’m certain of it—I saw that first Matrix movie. It was pretty cool. You know, the movie you made in the previous century before snack-food commercials imitated your special-effects moves, before the fashion industry borrowed your look for a season or two, before an academic industry pried into every nook and cranny of your film stock, before you started wasting your time developing video games, way before it was impossible to find a single person on the Warner Brothers lot who was willing to say, before it was too late, that your new movie sucks.

Your pal,

P.S., Is that why there are so many Smiths in the phone book?

P.P.S., How many Agent Smiths does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb will change into another Agent Smith.

Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he can also play every musical instrument in the world extremely well in his mind. His seres of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at More by Philip Graham