20 Years Ago, The Best Sci-Fi Movie Ever Made Got a Controversial Sequel

How do you top The Matrix? The Wachowskis reshaped the cultural landscape with their 1999 film. It was the movie of the aughts, spawning countless copycats, homages, and parodies. The world was hungry for more. More of choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s kinetic action, more bullet time, and more of Keanu Reeves’ glowering protagonist. It would take four years for the Wachowskis to return with a sequel, but in 2003, audiences got just what they were looking for.

Compared to its follow-ups, The Matrix was the tip of the iceberg. It was lean, mean, focused only on the essentials. But just as Reeves’ Neo had barely begun to understand his full potential, The Matrix was winding up for something big. The Matrix Reloaded unleashed the full scope of the franchise on audiences, doubling down on everything that made the original such a hit while adding far more to the mix.

But it wasn’t exactly a home run.

The Matrix Reloaded kicks off six months after the first film. Neo, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and their fearless leader Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) are just a few of many humans freed from the Matrix and fighting to protect the last human city of Zion. An army of robotic Sentinels is on its way, forcing our heroes to brace for an all-out war against the Machines.

Back in the Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is evolving. His last showdown with Neo changed something in him. Now he can copy his code into other beings and create an army of Smiths. All of this is bad news for Neo who, as Zion’s newly-minted messiah, will be called to fight in both the real world and the Matrix. But he’s also tormented by dreams where Trinity faces off against an Agent and dies. Neo’s fear of losing Trinity will conflict with his duties as The One, and that’s far from the only obstacle he’ll have to face.

The Matrix Reloaded had more of everything, including Agent Smith.

Warner Bros.

Reloaded’s departure from The Matrix is marked from the very beginning, and not just by the opening display of Neo’s new skills, or the introduction of new characters like Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Niobe. Reloaded has so much more to say; the politics of choice, the existence of fate, and the importance of faith are just a handful of the weighty topics on its mind. But it’s as tactile as it is philosophical.

Reloaded’s action borders on exhaustive as the film leapfrogs from one unique set piece to the next. Neo faces off against a hundred Agent Smiths, a far cry from their climactic one-on-one in The Matrix. Trinity and Morpheus are similarly leveled up here, each holding their own in marathon action sequences. And, for the most part, it feels real. From the sprawling practical sets that brought Zion to life to the uncanny CGI, Reloaded wants to be a feast for the eyes. But it also wants to stir us spiritually and test us mentally, and that might be its downfall.

Neo comes into his own as The One, but Reloaded has a lot more on its mind.

Warner Bros.

The Matrix saga is something of a Trojan horse, and Reloaded sprung the trap. The Wachowskis badly wanted to deliver an action flick with substance but, even before superhero movies turned shallow storytelling into the status quo, audiences weren’t ready to get that deep. And not everything Reloaded is doing really works: after The Matrix set up a complex messiah myth, its sequel flipped the story on its head to make a statement about the insidious cycle of power. That’s a lot for audiences expecting a bit of mindless wire-fu. But is that enough to write Reloaded off? Revisit it, and you may be surprised by your own answer.

In a world chock-full of risk-averse sequels, Reloaded is an endangered species. It sounds cliché, but movies just aren’t made on this scale anymore. At least the Wachowskis took the leap. And in doing so, they launched one of the most iconic sci-fi franchises ever, even if they stumbled a little on the way.

How do you top The Matrix? The Wachowskis reshaped the cultural landscape with their 1999 film. It was the movie of the aughts, spawning countless copycats, homages, and parodies. The world was hungry for more. More of choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s kinetic action, more bullet time, and more of Keanu Reeves’ glowering protagonist. It would take…

How do you top The Matrix? The Wachowskis reshaped the cultural landscape with their 1999 film. It was the movie of the aughts, spawning countless copycats, homages, and parodies. The world was hungry for more. More of choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s kinetic action, more bullet time, and more of Keanu Reeves’ glowering protagonist. It would take…