Today: Memorial Day, The Matrix

I took down the flag at sunset, and did my little memorial day ceremony then. There’s something about the folding of the flag that makes you stand up straight and wipe that smile off your face, because you can’t help but wonder what it would feel like to hand it to a widow.

I’m particularly grateful today for the sacrifice of the soldiers, who allowed me to live in a nation whose Constitution does not permit my child the right to whine for chocolate milk for six straight hours. The EU Constitution will, it seems, at least as I read Article 24: “(Children) may express their views freely.” And these views “shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them, in accordance with their age and maturity.” I WANT CANDY is now a Constitutional issue. I exaggerate of course, but the EU Constitution gives me the creeps. The more specific the set of rights, the easier it is to deny all others, and infringe on the rights your Eurobetters kindly deign to grant.

I’m doing a Newhouse column on this, and alas I haven’t the space to draw all the parallels with the 1977 Soviet Constitution, which I have right before me now. It’s a masterpiece of high-minded hypocrisy, and there are so many passages that mirror the EU Constitution - which of course proves nothing. <sgtschultz voice. IT PRRRRUVS NOTINK! </sgtschultz voice> But one does get the impression that in either case it’s the state granting the rights, not acknowledging that you have these rights already and that the state shall promise to get out of the way. Small, tiny, minor point. Almost too small to mention.

I saw the Matrix Reloaded Friday. I was looking forward to this one, since I loved the original. I don't care about any of the subtextual meanings or the backstory or whether it's the purest distillation of the zeitgiest, etc. - I just thought the first Matrix was like no other movie I'd seen, and I wanted to go back to that story and get knocked around some more.

Short version of the review - Attention, Wachowski Brothers: put down the bong and step away from the script.

Long version follows.

Of my innumerable complaints, the one that rankles me the least is Zion, but it's a long-standing worry of mine: who builds these massive lairs? Zion is a gigantic underground complex; looks to be about thirty stories deep. Who built it? Oh, I know: after the machines took over, everyone got down on their hands and knees and just dug like crazy until they heard Chinese voices. No, that can’t be right. It appears to be some sort of pre-Matrix industrial facility; I think I saw “ZION STEEL” on the side of some great wheel. If so, that makes perfect sense. Let’s imagine the pitch to the board of directors:

“Ladies, gentlemen, thank you for coming. I have here the design for our latest, most modern steel plant, a facility I believe will be the envy of the industry. We’ll be locating it here, three-quarters of a mile underground, right by downtown. As you can see from this diagram, there will be a thirty-story chamber that will house the 250,000 people required to staff the facility; over here, in a separate 10-story chamber, we will house the machinery necessary for growing food, recirculating the water, and so on. Of course, you’re wondering - where will we put the hovercraft that will ferry the steel to the surface through huge tunnels? Right here, in a vast bay the size of three Sydney Opera Houses. I expect that we can begin work on the service tunnels next year, and complete them within seven years. Questions?”

“Um - it’s all underground? The steel mill is entirely underground?

“That’s right. Tall as a 50-story building, when completed. It will be the world’s biggest underground steel mill.”

“It’ll be the world’s only underground steel mill.”

“True, but even if that were not the case it would probably be larger than any other by a factor of five.”

“Mate, this Australia. We have land. You can drive for three days without seeing another car. And you want to dig a mile deep pit in a Melbourne residential district to build a steel mill?”

“Well, if you put it right in the suburb, they’d complain about the pollution, now wouldn’t they? And the noise. And the lights at night. This way no one smells or hears a thing.”

“Yes, but isn’t that what industrial parks are for? And you could take the steel out on trains.”

“I’m not quite following you.”

“Trains. Choo-choos? I think I can I think I can? They go on the ground on tracks -”

“So you want to put tracks in the tunnels?”

“No! I don’t want to build any bloody tunnels at all! Your design calls for the equivalent of seven Chunnels to be constructed before we even get around to building the steel mill - and at a time when international steel prices are at historic lows!”

“Which is why we should get started as soon as possible, yes.”

Yet the visionary prevailed, and Zion was built. I don’t know what the filmmakers thought our reaction would be, but to me it was sheer hell: a rusted hole full of hippies in robes. One look at the place and I’d lasso a squiddie, head to the surface, and bang on the door of Evil Machine HQ: Hello, one Coppertop wants in, sign here, THANK you.

The Matrix may be fake, but so is lo-fat soft-serve dessert. Zion is that crappy homemade ice-cream that has chunks of salt and carob instead of proper chocolate. Everyone’s commented on the infamous rave scene, in which the population of Zion crams into the Temple Of No Particular Faith and confronts their imminent death by dancing ecstatically. Big huge slo-mo close-up of feet squishing in the mud. All of a sudden I was channeling my inner Agent Smith. I can’t stand the smell, he said of the Matrix. Buddy, if you thought an average air-conditioned office was bad, try 3 AM in a huge nightclub packed with a quarter-million sweaty people who live on beans.

Did I mention that there’s a Spunky Kid in Zion? An eager Spunky Kid who idolizes Neo? Gosh, Neo, next year I’ll be old enough to join a crew, and I was thinking I could join yours! It’s as if someone sampled a ladleful of an early draft of the script, pursed their lips, and finally said “Needs more Wesley Crusher. And maybe a dash of Short Round.” At one point the Spunky Kid gives Neo a gift from all the other orphan kids down at the Zion Orphanage and Bean-Paste Processing Center. It’s a spoon. Get it? A SPOON! Because as we know from the first movie, there is no spoon. Except when there is.

That’s the level of metaphysical pretension at work here. The first hour of the movie is so incredibly talky you begin to wish Freddy or Jason would show up and start disemboweling people. Every scene goes like this:

“Let’s have supper. I want some beans.”

“Ah, you think you want beans. But what are beans? Do you want the beans you are thinking of, or the beans you will have?”

“I am not certain. Perhaps the Oracle will know.”

“Perhaps. The Oracle knows beans. Whether she knows whether the beans she knows are the beans that are right for you only she will know. You must choose whether you accept what she says.”

“But what if I do not?”

“Then perhaps you wanted a nice salad. Perhaps you wanted the salad all along.”

“But I have chosen beans.”

“Did you really? Or did you not choose the beans because you were predestined to do so by the fact that you bought corn chips last week? And is that really choice?”

I’m not kidding. By the time they sit down with the Marovingian we’ve had half a dozen of these gas attacks. And then the Marovingian launches into another. By way of demonstrating what an evil SOB the Marovingian is, we see him make a woman eat a slice of cake that makes her . . . do what? Explode? Speak in tongues? Fly out the window? No: it makes her get up from her table and go to the bathroom. He’s invented cybernetic laxative! But do we really choose to run to the bathroom with the cake suddenly causes our bowels to flutter, or -

And so forth and so on, for two-plus hours. More wire-fu, none of which means anything because it’s apparent you could drop a Monty-Python-brand 10-ton weight on Neo and it wouldn’t ruffle his hair. He’s Superman, flying with his fist outstretched. Actually, given his status as the Savior / pagan renewal archetype, he’s SuperChrist the Systemic Anomaly Fisher King.

I knew I was disengaged from the movie when the Oracle told Neo to find “the keymaker,” and I thought of Harold Ramis joining Sigourney Weaver to bring about the rule of Zuul. Come to think of it, the movie needed a big dose of Ghostbusting. Not in the gentle wisecracking Bill Murray sense. It needed plagues, ghosts, apparitions, giant Sta-Puft Marshmallow Men stalking down the streets in Matrixland. If Neo and his crew wanted to defeat the machines, why not play with the heads of everyone in the Matrix? Get inside the program. HACK IT. Use your m@d h@X0r skilz and give everyone a reason to disbelieve reality. But from what we see Neo et al have spent the last four years doing nothing but assembling a top-notch team of Scowling Operatives whose day jobs consist of crafting really cool sunglasses. Because, you know, you really need sunglasses on a planet with no sunlight.

Finally: there’s that interminable highway set-piece. A few minutes into the much vaunted highway chase, I realized that the opening trailer for Bad Boys 2 had been much more exciting. Oh, I wanted to enjoy this part, and I did, I suppose. (Whenever someone decides to go the wrong way on a freeway in a movie, I always wish they’d be passed by William Pederson.) But from the start you had to deal with the Albino Twins, both of whom studied marksmanship at the Fett School of Riflery. And after they’d been dispatched, we had a very, very, very long fight on top of a semi trailer. Lots of kicking. Lots of not-quite-falling-off-the-truck moments. Oh, it had some spectacular visuals, but compare it with the penultimate action scene in the original Matrix. That scene consisted simply of two protagonists walking & shooting the length of a office building lobby. And it was more exciting than 12 minutes spent racing down a hundred miles of highway.

The Architect: good scene. It could have been a little clearer, and if they hadn’t spent half the movie ladling out cold chunks of dormroom reefer-party philosophy, this could have been a killer scene. This would have yanked the carpet out from beneath the entire premise, but by the time we got to him he was just another character with a sackful of cynical bromides. At least you’re glad it’s not Donald Sutherland, because when we first see him you think: hey, it’s Donald Sutherland. Any movie that gives you Anthony Zerbe is warning you that

At one point the Architect notes that he had to add the blacker, badder human elements to the Matrix to make the simulation work. The video screens show Hitler. And for a second they show George Bush Sr. Boy, that’s the sort of insightful commentary I thought you had to read Boondocks to find.

When the green-and-grey Warner Brothers appeared and the CRT characters started raining down, I was happy. It reminded me of how I felt with the first Matrix began, how I instantly felt dread, strangeness, and anticipation. Not a single moment in the two hours gave me any of those feelings. The action scenes all moved quickly but you had the feeling of an immense machinery beneath the surface laboring hard to produce the illusion of fleetness. After the opening sequence I had the exact same impression I had after the opening sequence of “Batman Returns.” Ten times the budget, ten times the production values, ten times the hype. One tenth the enjoyment.

There were six other people in the theater. Two of them rose at the end of the movie, went down the hall to another theater where the “Matrix Reloaded” was also playing.

If Star Trek fans are Trekkies, does that make Matrix fans “Trixies”?