So the critics are piling on “Matrix Reloaded” (or MR) like Agent Smiths in the Big Brawl. Slate calls it “Neo Con;” most other reviews are equally unkind. And they have a point. But they also miss the point.

First, a lot of the film is more ponderous and overblown than its predecessor: it suffers from a case of middle-of-the-trilogy, lets-get-serious disease. You see this right away with Zion. Adam Gopnik’s bit about the city, I hate to say, is pretty much right on:

Everybody wears earth tones and burlap and silk, and there are craggy perches from which speeches can be made while the courageous citizens hold torches. (The stuccoed, soft-contour interiors of Zion look like the most interesting fusion restaurant in Santa Fe.) [Ed: Isn’t Gopnik a genius? He does the last-line zinger better than anyone else I know. Watch and learn! PS: I think I’ve been to that restaurant!]

The only thing setting Zion apart from the good-guy planets in The Phantom Menace or Star Trek is that it seems to have been redlined at some moment in the mythic past and is heavily populated by people of color. They are all, like Morpheus, grave, orotund, and articulate to the point of prosiness, so that official exchanges in Zion put one in mind of what it must have been like at a meeting at the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard before Larry Summers got to it. (And no sooner has this thought crossed ones mind whenlo! there is Professor Cornel West himself, playing one of the Councillors.) [Ed: Gopnik shoots– HE SCORES! ZING!]

Gopnik is right about the sets, but the Cornel West cameo is a high point of camp– though unfortunately West himself doesn’t seem to realize it– and Zion struck me as more demographically likely than many imagined post-nuclear worlds. But the rave/orgy that follows Morpheus’ oration is just weird: “The Machines are coming to eat us! Let’s all have sex!” It’s at least as strange as the response of 17th century Puritans’ endless improvement projects that they thought would precede the end of the world (according to Charles Webster’s The Great Instauration). It was definitely the low point of the movie.

And yes, quite a bit of the dialogue is terrible, but that’s part of the tradition of science fiction movies: it’s part of what gives the best ones their charm. Who can hear Mark Hamill saying, “You know of the rebellion against the Empire?!” without both wincing in pain, and smiling in nostalgia? [Update 5/19/2003: This video makes the point about the relationship between nostalgia and embarassment better than I ever could!]

So some of MR’s weaknesses are just part of the great tradition of SF movies; others actually are strengths. In particular, there’s some serious misunderstanding surrounding Keanu Reeves. Yes, if you think shooting fish in a barrel is fun, you can criticize Keanu Reeve’s “acting.” But doing so misses the point. The notion of Keanu Reeves trying to solve a great philosophical conundrum– what The Guardian’s reviewer called “skinny-latte philosophising… for the undergraduate section of the Matrix’s fanbase… with Keanu’s brow furrowing over the nature of ‘choice’“– is not to be satirized, but appreciated for the great joke that it is. After all, this is a man who goes to Cannes and declares, “Cinema should be a special place come together to celebrate art and humanity and things–” not exactly a Gopnik-smart line. Granted, resolving great philosophical problems through gunplay isn’t completely new– Martin Heidegger kind of went that route for a few years in the 1930s– but watching Keanu trying to solve the riddle of existence is like watching a dog do physics: he can’t possibly make sense of it, but it’s still entertaining to watch the quizzical look on his face, the ears perking up at random, and the sense of hope that at least there’ll be a (Trinity-shaped) biscuit at the end of it all.

I’ve seen this kind of misunderstanding before, particularly in reviews of “Total Recall.” In that film, Ah-nold plays a character whose mind had been erased, as part of a devious plot to destroy a rebellion on Mars, and obscure the truth about an ancient Martian civilization. It’s not that it was a great film in terms of its special effects, nor was it brilliant because of the directing. What made it brilliant was the ironic notion that Arnold’s brain was worth stealing, and that he’d want it back. Not that such dialectics always work: “Johnny Mnemonic” was a terrible film, despite the fact that it was driven by the premise that Keanu had so much information in his brain that it was going to KILL him unless he got rid of it. That the director couldn’t do more with this made “Menmonic” one of the great lost moments in moviemaking history.

But that’s why MR has the incredible special effects, which are more visually and dramatically gripping than the critics admit, in addition to being technically spectacular. The freeway chase in particular is everything you’ve heard. It lives up to the hype.

But ultimately, what we must understand is that Keanu Reeves and Arnold, and thus the films that they make, cannot be judged in the way that conventional films are. This is because Keanu and Arnold are what you might think of as organic synthespians. Yes, they’re carbon-based life-forms, but they have the kind of humanity that you’d get if humans were grown in a vat. The total lack of affect in Keanu’s acting is not a failure of humanity, but rather a triumph over it. Thus we have the peculiar genius of M and MR (which will carry into MR2): an organic synthespian playing a human who must find the line between humans and machines, atoms and bits, reality and simulation. Who would know more about how hard those lines are to find?