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[Wednesday, May 21, 2003]


Zion dub

You have probably already guessed that I am adding my own two, leaf-bedecked Canadian cents to the chorus of opinion on The Matrix Reloaded. Before I leap, all nonchalant and cassock-wearing, into that fray, some possibly relevant background. By which I mean, in the rhetoric of Blogopolis, things I want to talk about because they relate to how I react to the movie.

Neuromancer. Y'know, I could just stop there: you can fill in for yourself the Gahan Wilson-esque graphic of a huge, brushed-steel cube, like a NeXT with rabies, the single word "Neuromancer" etched into it, awed masses paying it reverence. You can scoff at the sequels, or at the near-future sequence that began with Virtual Light; you can snicker at Johnny Mnemonic: The Motion Picture -- though in fact I rather liked it: sure, they did Molly all wrong, but I loved Rollins as the righteous slum doctor with the ass-kicking Rollinsmobile, and the reliably talented Ice-T was a great Lo-Tek, and Keanu seemed really pretty decent about how they shamelessly stole basically all his scenes, except for the rant. ("I.. want.. room service!") You can probably spurn the Abel Ferrara adaptation of New Rose Hotel, but I can't, because I haven't seen it. Anyway, you can diss all that if you like, but there is no dissing Neuromancer: it was perfect as what it was, and remains so. That pure vision of downloading your soul into software was like a bolt of lightning: it would appear shortly afterwards in Tron as almost pure nightmare, but Gibson knew how seductive
it was, the horror of the messiness of the organic, the fear of pain and loss and death that drove it. Still and all, in the end the Flesh finds the weapons to defeat the Book: and not least among these weapons is righteous dub from the Rastafarian orbital colony Zion.

Flash forward a decade or so. One of the things that sold me on graduate school was spending a year (plus change) working for a Large Old Computer Company. One day at lunch one of my officemates, another student intern, mused that what our department really needed was a Rasta. I pointed out that LOCC was almost certainly Babylon. Still and all, Cabaret Voltaire had hymned a Digital Rasta, and having one kicking out Perl in the next cube would have ruled. Other colleagues had much more Gnostic desires. "Aren't you so sick of living in a body?," one asked me, out of the blue one day. "I can't wait until I can just download my brain into software." This was somebody who spent his weekends chasing girls, but I guess he would have preferred being spared the necessity. Rather than answer the question, I favoured him with some "Sailing to Byzantium":

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold, and gold enamelling..
But my own taste for the artifice of eternity was daily diminishing.

Shortly after that came The Matrix. That same year had seen the same obsessive mathiness surface in Darren Aronofsky's Pi, and the same Plato's-cave metaphysics in Cronenberg's Existenz, but The Matrix was so much more satisfying than either. It touched nerves through deft metaphor: Hackers and Sneakers had paid lip-service to the wizardly self-image of geeks, and countless action movies had given form to fantasies of defying gravity and physiology, but here the imagined world allowed a short-circuit directly from a programmer's agility and strength of mind to pure ass-kicking in the virtual dojo. The Matrix was a non-repeatable phenomenon, and that made following it up a tall order. Rumours of sequels began almost immediately, of course; I was told more than once that the sequel would be entitled Zion, after the free human city that we never get to see in the first movie. When the title The Matrix Reloaded was settled on, I felt a little disappointment; but I was repaid, because Zion is front and centre in it.

In Reloaded, in what for me (and Andrew O'Hehir, one of the few reviewers who seems to have seen the same movie I did) was the main touchstone of the whole movie, we see Zion celebrating, in a massive, thunderous rave, while Neo and Trinity consummate their love in private. It puts the whole first movie in clear perspective, and sets the stage for the second one: what exactly are they fighting for? What do they take so seriously? Oh, right - it's this. Cypher sells this vision out for imaginary steak in the Matrix, and seeing Zion play as it works, with passion and focus, you can only shake your head at the poor deluded fool. I bounced impatiently in my seat on both viewings, wanting to get up and dance in the aisles of the theatre. Rocky Horror is a tradition, whose very silliness and self-parody invites us to join in, but Reloaded, like the first movie, is all about choosing involvement over detachment. Reacting to it felt right; at least the rules of opening-night shows let me cheer the fights and the good lines, even if dancing would have been beyond the pale. At the end of this sequence, when Morpheus looks out into the main shaft of the city and murmurs "Goodnight, Zion" I had the overwhelming desire to yell back "Goodnight, Morpheus!" -- not just for the funny, but because the Wachowskis had just made me feel like Zion was my home, too. (And not only because my town could use a few sensible, dreadlocked councillors.)

Of course, after emerging blinking into the moonlight, I thought of all kinds of little problems with the movie. The expository dialogue is terrible. It's still not sufficiently justified that programs in the Matrix mostly play by slight bending of consensus-reality rules, instead of just using the marvels of random-access memory to delete irritating problems. The characterization is not bad, in a broad brush-stroke sort of way, but I didn't find myself caring about the characters quite as much as I should; and the potentially-interesting Captain Niobe was woefully sidelined. Those are all issues. The thing is, though, after running through all these objections - I found that I really didn't care. Pretension ahoy, but I can't think of any other way to really put words to my reaction: Reloaded engaged me as a work of art, and its storytelling was only one side of that, adequately compensated for, to my tastes, by all the others.

A bed to be made, and a bed to lie in
One hand on the darker side, and our sights set on Zion
The heart of a skeptic, and the mind of a child..
-Indigo Girls, "You and Me of the 10,000 Wars"

posted 4:03 PM |