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May 21, 2003

I’ve been interested in how much people disagree about The Matrix Reloaded. We saw it last night; we were entertained. Ambling through the blogosphere this morning, it seems like Julian Sanchez saw the same flawed but interesting action comic-book shot through with playful philosophy references that we did.

Just as common are reactions like MemeMachineGo’s:

My mind boggles that there are actually people reading depth and significance into the Matrix. Phil Dick was examining these themes with 100 times this depth 50 years ago. With 1000 times the depth in his later career, 20 years ago. Not to mention all the literature he inspired.

But, of course, one has to have actually read science fiction to know that. Even if you haven’t…c’mon…”what if we’re just brains in vats”, “what if we don’t have free will”—these aren’t exactly exciting and new questions. And the Matrix doesn’t offer anything interesting in considering them…it just raises them and hopes the audience will confuse special effects with sophistication.

Well, leaving aside the question of whether there are all that many “exciting and new questions” at this level of metaphysics, I have to wonder whether this isn’t making an extravagant claim on behalf of poor old Philip K. Dick. Exactly how much of Dick’s “depth” actually has to do with his brilliant answers to questions of philosophy and epistemology? Indeed, it seems to me that a lot of very good written SF, including Philip K. Dick’s best work, primarily uses this stuff as titillation and decoration, just as MMG plonks The Matrix for doing. It “doesn’t offer anything interesting in considering them…it just raises them and hopes the audience will confuse special effects with sophistication.” With the understanding that irony, tone, and sketched-in characterization are just another kind of “special effect” (and they are), you could say exactly the same about Valis or Ubik. You’d be right. And you’d have gotten no closer to understanding why Valis and Ubik are good books.

I dunno, maybe after all these years working with prose SF, I’m just less impressed with its inherent formal intellectual superiority to action movies and comic books, the claim for which seems to be an article of faith with many of my friends. I’m not arguing that The Matrix and its sequel are inherently profound. They’re entertainments, not treatises. I feel like I’m making my way by touch down a darkened hallway with a blindfold over my face, but I think I’m becoming radically opposed to the notion that we should “boggle that there are actually people reading depth and significance into the Matrix.” It’s hard to avoid noticing that, on the commanding heights of literary culture, the official position on writers like Philip K. Dick is to boggle that there are actually people reading depth and significance into their work.

Am I suggesting that there’s no such thing as artistic merit? Not a chance. Am I coming to suspect that it might be more complicated than the rigid hierarchies of merit (Ironic dialogue: virtuous! Chopsocky action: sinful!) we all seem to be in a big hurry to construct? Could be. [09:05 AM]

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Comments on I've been interested:

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 09:44 AM:

Well, the thing has the pacing appropriate to a single five hour movie, which was odd when seeing just the first half, but I find myself totally undecided as to its artistic merit.

The thing *could* be setting up to do rather a lot -- severely deconstruct created-world memes or the pestilent Rennaisance salvation-through-love ideas, frex -- or it could be setting up something as hollow and trivial as :The Two Towers: turned out to be. No way to tell before November.

sinboy ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 09:50 AM:

Irrespective of the validity of the "old school" questions prompted in Matrix Reloaded because of age, I'm still unconvinced that they were asked in a serious and thought provoking manner.

My favourite questions were ones about AI.

Who were these independent programs like Smith or The Oracle? How do they think, in relation to the way we think? If they have wants, what are those like in relationship to ours? Can there be morality for a computer program that wasn't programed in? Is a programed morality any different from ours?

I think Reloaded managed to ask those questions with a certain amount of style. I think that, from that perspective, the fact that Weaving stole the movie isn't a bad thing. The programs were the main actors in the move. They held all the cards, but for Agent Smith, there was something new.

Plus, the action scenes were worth the $9.50 all on their own.

Mr Ripley ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 11:10 AM:

"Exactly how much of Dick's 'depth' has to do with his brilliant answers to questions of philosophy and epistemology?" To be fair, MMG talks about "examining these themes" and "considering them," not providing "brilliant answers." Still, I would suggest that PKD is not the twentieth century's great ontological thinker, and that it's a mistake to respond to a "What if the perceived world is illusory" story by asking "How Phildickian is it?" or complaining that it substitutes martial arts action for the Phildickian virtues.

To me, Dick's "depth" has to do with the extent to which I empathize with his characters and their needs and anxieties: I recognize the feelings that are elicited by the entropic, ontologically uncertain worlds they live in and indeed see how modern life can give rise to a sense of decay and unreality. There's "titillation and decoration" too, of course --that's part of what distinguishes Dick's sf from his Naturalist novels of the Fifties-- but the stories being decorated are deeper in the social or psychological realm than the philosophical.

Zed ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 01:02 PM:

I'll note that I said I enjoyed "The Matrix Reloaded", precisely for its chopsocky action. I was commenting primarily on my astonishment at what some people read into it, that I don't consider to be there. Maybe the Wachowski Bros. are as surprised as I am, and my comment of "[the movie] hopes the audience will confuse special effects with sophistication" isn't fair. But my guess is that they're hoping for that reaction.

And I'm making no claim that PKD had brilliant answers to philosophical and epistemological questions, but I do think he offered many interesting things in their consideration.

And certainly nowhere did I claim that written sf holds any formal intellectual superiority to action movies or comics. I've found a lot of the most smart and exciting writing of the past 20 years to have been in comics. I'm still waiting for an action movie (specifically an action movie) with impressive intellectual content, but it could happen.

Who knows? Maybe the 3d movie will have twists and turns that recontextualize everything and impress me with the trilogy's ideas and how they were examined. But if I go, which I probably will, it'll be to see some more ass-kicking, not in hopes of that.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 01:40 PM:

"My favourite questions were ones about AI."

Yeah. The Architect, the Malvonginian, the various combat viruses. Fascinating critters.

My thought: The Matrix isn't only a place to keep the human EverReady Battery population busy, it's WHERE THE AIs LIVE. They may have access to parts of it that are more interesting, less late-20th Century pedestrian, but their quotidian realities may be essentially human MOD being software critters.

Perhaps they started out as role-playing characters, or the downloaded minds of batshite-crazy extropians.

OHHHHHH, delicious thought: Maybe the first generation of the EverReady Battery population settled into support pods and plugged in VOLUNTARILY, to play a nice long session of EverQuest v. 9.0, or Star Wars: Galaxies v. 3.0, or FurryMudLive!.

And they only THOUGHT they were reentering the real world when they unplugged to take a break...

aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 02:17 PM:

I found that I was disappointed in Matrix Reloaded largely because the action scenes felt contrived and because the effects had lost their "wow, that's cool" effect; the philosophical-metaphysical stuff was the only part of the movie that was actually interesting to me. But fundamentally I think my problem with Matrix Reloaded was similar to my problem with Phantom Menace: the predecessor movies had completely blown me away, and thereby created expectations that the sequel could not possibly have met.

Darkhawk ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 02:29 PM:

It had a distinctive 'second part of trilogy' feel for me; the people I saw it with and I were commenting on that.

I'm working on a theory that the power-generation thing is supplementary; it may be what the humans know, but like Stefan Jones said, the Matrix is where the AIs live -- and I suspect at least some part of it is generated from human minds. Hence why they don't just chuck the humans and go for a more efficient fusion reactor.

The rhythm was different than the first one; Kevin didn't like that, I'm still pondering what I think of it.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 02:40 PM:

There were a couple of points at which I wanted to reach through the screen and grab Neo and say 'ask Smith what he wants, you dimtwit!'

The fight scenes were tedious; too many of Neo's opponents fought like unco-ordinated idiots, and too much of it was an attempt to make volume due for style.

The issues about control, and the teetering-on -the-bring-of-explicit-mention that control of information is control of action, that might well get somewhere interesting in the sequel.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 03:30 PM:

Considering how much martial arts were employed in the movie, I'm just glad, in the course of two hours plus, the Wachowski brothers saw fit to spare us the cliche of someone throwing a backhanded punch over the shoulder. Even Peter Jackson dropped his guard in the TT and fell for that one.

kodi ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 05:56 PM:

If Revolutions succeeds in wrapping up the loose ends unraveled in Reloaded, then the two taken as a whole will be remarkable for having realised a consistent, interesting fantasy world. I question whether anyone can be claiming that Reloaded is/is not "deep", considering that all we know at this point is what various characters of unknown pedigree have told Neo. The nature of what he's been told will change the character of the movie greatly, I think. Analyzing it right now is kind of like analyzing 2001 right after "Open the pod bay doors, HAL." (I know I could come up with a better example, given time.)

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 06:42 PM:

I really enjoyed Neo's coolheaded and compassionate discomfort as messiah.

Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 07:10 PM:

FWIW, some of the AIs seem to have interestingly different motives from others -- in particular, the Merovingian and Persephone both act *as if* they were motivated by some pretty basic human drives which you wouldn't expect programs to share, and which the Agents, for example, seem to lack. I sincerely hope that point isn't thrown away in the third film...

Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 07:31 PM:

I watched about the first half of The Matrix on DVD,
and while the effects were impressive, I was
completely bored and went and watched my grass grow instead.

I like some amount of characterization and logic and I just didn't see it.

I'm also not really fond of movies/TV that boil down to be mostly about fighting. Ironically, that's what turned me off of Buffy for most of the last 7 years, but, in the end, I wound up liking Buffy DESPITE the fighting!

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2003, 10:03 PM:

A good post, Patrick. Cripes, we have so much trouble in skiffy lit circles defining terms like "skiffy lit" itself-- I have zero desire to get bogged down in a discussion of something as subjective and razor-edged as "depth." Although I will snarkily add that for some folks "deep" is inevitably symonymous with "unpopular and obscure," so of course the *Matrix* films can't possibly qualify. Wink, wink.

I rather enjoyed the film despite its pacing flaws, and have had a rousing few days of pleasant correspondence about it in a few forums out in 'net-land, all sorts of convoluted "what did the autonomous artificial intelligence know, and when did he/she/it know it?" stuff.

If I may hazard a generalization, a lot of the people in my circles of acquaintance aren't so much enjoying the "grand philosophy" of the *Matrix* films as the novel chance to analyze a pair of films where almost nothing, deep or shallow, intelligent or silly, logical or ludicrous, seems to be left to chance by the film-makers. Much of the symbolism is no doubt totally superfluous to the plot and the revelations promised in the third film, but virtually every tiny little passing detail seems to have been stuck there on purpose-- everything from the symbolism of character names to the subtle hints in dialogue and the teeny-tiny color-scheme and clothing details.

The Wachowskis *might* be all sorts of things-- silly, pretentious, etc., but they plainly care enough to leave the landscape of each film scattered with clues. As a result, they not only invite audience speculation, they *reward* it in a way that, say, the *Star Wars* prequels painfully don't.

And, like I said, that's rare and novel, and it leads me (and others!) to say, "Eh, so what?" to various other blemishes in the story.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 03:41 PM:

Scott Lynch: What you say interests me and, for the first time, almost makes me want to see the 2 movies. I guess I've never really got over being an English major. I adore symbolism and coded messages and all that sorta stuff. I shall have to give it serious thought because I'll have to overcome my truly serious personal aversion to things which mess with the borders of reality in ways I find disturbing. Hm. Yes. Must think


Damien Neil ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 06:04 PM:

Scott Lynch: You state my feelings almost exactly. I have no opinion on whether the movie is "deep" or not (nor on what the word "deep" means); _The Matrix Reloaded_ is, however, a movie which rewards speculation. Perhaps the themes are not original (Gnosticism is, after all, a couple thousand years old), but events flow together in a logical and carefully-constructed fashion. It's possible to talk about Agent Smith's motivations and have some reasonable expectation of accurately predicting events in the next movie.

For this reason, I find _The Matrix Reloaded_ to be a more interesting movie than _The Matrix_, although the latter is a better movie overall. _The Matrix_ was too perfectly crafted, too self-contained--there weren't enough dangling ends to grab hold of and talk about.

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 10:47 PM:

Mary Kay wrote:

"What you say interests me and, I guess I've never really got over being an English major. I adore symbolism and coded messages and all that sorta stuff."

Heh. Well, then, if you only ever see one series of films where stylishly trench-coated people float through the air dodging bullets and fighting machine intelligences with kung fu, see *The Matrix* and its sequels.

"I shall have to give it serious thought because I'll have to overcome my truly serious personal aversion to things which mess with the borders of reality in ways I find disturbing."

Well, that all depends. If you do see the film and you take Morpheus' (Laurence Fishburne's) explanation for what human beings are to the machines at face value, the whole thing can become comfortingly silly.

If you assume the possibility that he's misinformed or omitting some complexity for the sake of dramatic impact, well, the heebie-jeebie factor goes right back up again.

And Damien wrote:

"For this reason, I find _The Matrix Reloaded_ to be a more interesting movie than _The Matrix_, although the latter is a better movie overall."

You took the words right out of my gray matter! The first film is more atmospheric, better paced, constructed in a tighter fashion, and seemed to put the characters at a bit more risk (the bruises and blood were more frequent, and they felt more real). On the other hand, the second film handed out five new mysteries or lines of speculation for every old one it purported to answer, and I'm an absolute sucker for that sort of thing.

Skarl ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 11:19 PM:

I'm not sure that 'deep' and 'sophisticated' are synonyms when it comes to philosophy.

PKD's sci-fi was good because he wrote really, really well about paranoia, mental illness, and mostly a rather Gnostic essential flaw in the world - at least in those of his novels I have read. He managed to make the reader experience that view of the world.

The deep questions of philosophy - why are we here, are we here, etc. - are simple and personal. If The Matrix and its sequels manage to make people feel the importance of these questions, and cause them to think about them, then as far as I am concerned, they will be every bit as valuable a work as PKD's novels - perhaps more, given the much larger audience.

I guess I could have just said "Patrick is right!" Ah well.

Thomas Yager-Madden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 12:40 AM:

I'm also on the Scott Lynch/Damien Neil "Reloaded is fun to talk about!" bandwagon. I've actually found myself surprised at just how many words about it I've found myself typing into various forums in the week since I saw it - especially considering that my immediate reaction to seeing it was pretty tepid. "Rewards speculation" is putting it mildly, I think. If you add it all up, I've probably cranked out enough material for a decent and fairly lengthy undergraduate paper, and I am having a blast. I do begin to suspect (and this point has been made before me, as well) that this might have more to with those of us taking part in the discussion than with any intellectual rigor intrinsic to the films themselves. Still, that the movie can even occasion such intriguing speculation is more than merit enough.

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 04:43 AM:

Thomas wrote:

"I do begin to suspect (and this point has been made before me, as well) that this might have more to with those of us taking part in the discussion than with any intellectual rigor intrinsic to the films themselves."

Bingo! This is why I hightail it away from most "depth" debates as fast as humanly possible. If the viewer can infer depth that the writer or director didn't mean to imply, and if the viewer takes pleasure in his speculations, it's plain snobbery and joykilling to wag a finger at the viewer for doing so.

Which is, like Patrick said, not to say that there are no such things as artistic standards or justified quality control-- merely that a bit of reflection before opening one's big yap-hole is usually wise.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 10:45 PM:

Hi, Patrick! I'm taking sitting & waiting for a rendering as an excuse to wander the blogosphere. So...

Herewith unsubstantiated opinions on aesthetics. You have been warned...

I think Dick shone in making the philosophical abstractions he was interested in into plausible human experiences; so the work was "about" those abstractions, and also literary art.

I also think (as someone who won't be seeing the second movie until the end of the term) the conflict here is largely the disjuncture between the non-verbal--especially visual--and verbal content of the movie--I believe the non-verbal content of the first movie was superior to the verbal and I think this is probably true of the second movie as well.

To some people quality on the verbal side is the an extremely important criterion of artistic validity and some of these people will have a serious interest in literary art. So there is one source of criticism. Then, some people are simply unresponsive to the visual devices of particular films, or even all film. To people who the work simply does not reach the experience of viewing the film will be unpleasant. It is easy to go from "I had a 'bad' experience" to "most people who view this will have a bad experience" and thence to "this work is bad." (And what is meant by "bad" in such sentences, anyway?)

As someone who has to carefully prepare for the reviewer's question, "What's the big idea of your design?" I am, at this time quite sympathetic to Patrick's position. (I used to be quite unsympathetic.) Without engagement of the building user's sensibilities, I don't see how one can claim a design as architecture. At the same time...it also isn't architecture if god's own critics of light, climate, gravity, and so forth aren't addressed. That most practical of arts has to be about both to stand.

Film is not--execept as it makes money for investors--a practical art. And yet...and yet...I will venture the opinion that there has to be something "there" for a work to have value. Whether or not there is will take a while to decided, and I expect many minds to change over time.

Rich Magahiz ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 10:09 PM:

I came into the movie with lowered expectations, having paid only $6 US for it (and at an evening showing on opening weekend, at that). I'm not certain I enjoyed it well enough to call it a $10 movie.

It sort of reminded me of life in graduate school, with long stretches spent in seminars barely understanding what the people trading monologues are going on about, interspersed with mindless activity appealing to the senses: an alternation of set pieces.

The only action sequence I felt didn't go on too long however was the celebrated freeway scene, which doesn't even feature Neo. I was surprised when I realized that there was virtually no gunplay the way there was in the first movie's lobby scene.

Also it seemed as if there were some characters who didn't really seem to have a reason for being in this film. This gave this sequel a weird sense of incompleteness, because I'm having to think "they'll explain the reason behind the introduction of that Neo-worshipper Zion kid in the last of the three movies."

I'm half hoping that the last movie will have a decent epistemological payoff to justify all the build-up. But to be honest, I think it's as likely that all this philosophizing was being done as a matter of style, not content.