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This Week in Genre History: The Matrix Reloaded fires into theaters and crushes the box office

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May 13, 2020

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

It was the mid-1990s, and a talented pair of aspiring filmmakers, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, were working with the high-powered action producer Joel Silver on Assassins, their first big project. Unfortunately, that movie, which starred Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, and Julianne Moore, turned out to be a disaster. But the Wachowskis and Silver hit it off, and he was excited to check out any other screenplays they might have written.

“The minute I started reading the script for The Matrix, I wanted to see it,” the producer later recalled. “But then [they] said, ‘And we want to direct it.’ That was going to be tough,” since they had never directed a feature before.

You know the rest: Eventually, Lana and Lilly got to make The Matrix, which was 1999’s most innovative and thrilling sci-fi/action film. Audiences craved a sequel, and four years later, they’d get their wish.

This week, we celebrate The Matrix Reloaded, which hit multiplexes on May 15, 2003, helping to cement this franchise as one of the most iconic modern film trilogies. The sequel brought back all your favorites from the original: Neo (Keanu Reeves), the prototypical everyman who discovers he’s destined for greatness; Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the fearless warrior who falls in love with him; Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the badass leader of the rebellion who’s a mentor to our hero; and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the snide villain determined to snuff out this uprising.

As is normal for a follow-up to a blockbuster, The Matrix Reloaded was bigger and more ambitious, boasting a wider scope and fleshing out the world of the Matrix, the virtual-reality simulation in which artificial intelligence has enslaved humanity. The Wachowskis introduced us to new bad guys — including the ferocious, dreadlocked assassins the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment) — and new rules about what exactly is going on inside the Matrix. And in the process, they crafted a Part Two that was even more commercially successful than Part One. What remains up for debate, however, is whether Reloaded (and the subsequent Revolutions) improved on the original or tarnished its legacy forever.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Riding high from the success of The Matrix — which won four Academy Awards, including trophies for editing and visual effects — the Wachowskis got the green light to film back-to-back sequels, which would continue and conclude Neo’s epic battle with the machines. Warner Bros., which put out the first installment, had every reason to be excited about The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. By the summer of 2000, the studio had sold more than three million DVDs of The Matrix, the first film to reach that lofty level. And when Warner Bros. unveiled the first teaser trailer for the sequels, on May 15, 2002 (a year before Reloaded’s release), the internet went crazy: The film’s website scored more than 20 million page views in the first 72 hours.

Just how big was Matrix Reloaded mania? Companies like Samsung and Powerade built whole ad campaigns around the imminent release of the film:

This hunger for more Matrix shouldn’t have been surprising. At a time when the Star Wars prequels were hits but creatively uninspired — revisiting an old, albeit enduring franchise — The Matrix felt like a revolution in cutting-edge studio filmmaking. (The first film’s use of bullet-time technology and martial-arts fight scenes helped it stand out from the action fare of the day.)

Plus, the Wachowskis were viewed as visionary artists. When Esquire asked different critics in early 2000 to pick the filmmaker they thought would be the next Martin Scorsese, The New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell nominated the siblings, declaring, “More successfully than anyone else, the Wachowskis have translated a comic-book sensibility to the movies: action heroes without costumes.” (Funny enough, The Matrix was eventually turned into a comic book.) Both sci-fi fans and highbrow cineastes couldn’t wait to see what the pair would do next. 

What was the impact? The original Matrix grossed an impressive $464 million worldwide, but The Matrix Reloaded crushed that figure, bringing in $739 million around the globe. During a summer that also had X2: X-Men United, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Finding Nemo, and Bruce Almighty, the sequel more than held its own. (In fact, it was the third-highest-grossing film worldwide in 2003, behind only Finding Nemo and the Best Picture-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.)

With all that anticipation, though, came elevated expectations. That led to reviews that were generally positive but also a bit underwhelmed. Summing up this feeling was the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “Yes, the Wachowskis had more money and more complex effects to play around with this time, but on the debit side, what could possibly compensate for the loss of the you’ve-never-seen-this-before excitement the first [film] delivered?”

True, The Matrix Reloaded didn’t have anything as stunning as the bullet-time sequence. And, yes, the Wachowskis got a little self-indulgent, perhaps no more memorably than during the movie’s bizarre, unnecessary rave scene. But there was ample compensation in the fact that the sequel’s extended car chase was absolutely incredible.

Plus, when Neo finally meets the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who drops the film’s Empire Strikes Back­-esque shocker — the machines behind the prophecy of "The One" the whole time — it created a dynamite cliffhanger for Revolutions, which came out that fall. The Wachowskis couldn’t hope to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance of The Matrix, but Reloaded contained enough gonzo fight scenes and cool atmosphere to make it one hell of a ride.

Has it held up? Considering that audiences were less enthused with The Matrix Revolutions, the trilogy’s disappointing finale, it’s fair to say that Reloaded is the last successful film from the Wachowskis. Since then, they’ve continued to show ambition with movies like Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending, but they never again captured the zeitgeist in quite the same way.

Judged now, The Matrix Reloaded is an odd film. The original remains a stone-cold classic, and this sequel has much of the same ingenuity, style, and spirit. (Weaving continues to be a dynamic bad guy, although the increasingly complex rules about the Matrix make Reeves a little less interesting as his character navigates through the dense plotting.) Reloaded remains a solidly entertaining, somewhat flawed blockbuster. The worst you can say about it is that it’s not as amazing as The Matrix. Few blockbusters are.

Still, we remain in thrall to this series. And we’ll be getting more of it soon: Last year, Warner Bros. announced that Lana Wachowski would go solo to direct a fourth Matrix movie, with Reeves and Moss returning as Neo and Trinity. As The Matrix Reloaded discovered, maybe nothing can compare with your first time. But who doesn’t want to go back again?

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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