Review of The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
December last year, I published my hacker review of The Matrix. It's time to work our way through the sequel!
The Matrix Reloaded was released in 2003 and written and directed by the Wachowskis.
Spoiler Alert: Don't read this if you want to watch The Matrix Reloaded spoiler-free.
Hacker Realism: ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacker Importance for the Plot: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacks: ⭐️ ⭐️
The Matrix Reloaded opens with two key pieces: Neo (Keanu Reeves) wishes he knew what he was supposed to do with his newfound powers, and the last free human city Zion is under imminent attack by 250,000 sentinel machines digging down to the city perimeter deep below the earth's surface.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) says the prophecy with the One will soon be fulfilled. But they need to go to the surface, enter the matrix, consult the Oracle (Gloria Foster), and come back to Zion before the attack.
Digging deep into the earth has fascinated me ever since I was a kid. We used to speculate about digging ourselves to China, which we used to call “China Hong Kong” for some reason. Curious young me checked our desktop globe to see where we’d actually end up if we dug through the center of the earth. We would have emerged around New Zealand.
The deepest that humankind has dug is a fascinating piece of Cold War history, namely the Kola Superdeep Borehole. It took the Soviets almost 20 years to drill it which is still just a third of the way through the crust to the Earth’s mantle. That old Russian hole is welded shut nowadays but Japan is in charge of the modern, even more ambitious M2M-MoHole to Mantle project.
Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) shows up at a door where humans are on guard on the inside. He delivers a gift to Neo, saying Neo set him free. It’s his iconic earpiece from the previous movie.
Three other agents show up to fight Neo but they lose. Neo leaves the scene. Two copies of Agent Smith check the aftermath, apparently content with the outcome.
Commander Lock questions Morpheus’s judgement. Why go back to the matrix when Zion will soon be under attack and why does he keep going on about The Oracle, the prophecy, and Neo being the One? The Council sides with Morpheus and Zion parties to build strength to be able to defend themselves.
Meanwhile in the matrix, two other humans are headed back through a phone line. One of them is caught by Agent Smith who thrusts his open hand into the chest of the human who slowly becomes another copy of Smith.
Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) head out of Zion to see the Oracle. Bane (Ian Bliss) attempts to assassinate Neo as they leave but is disrupted.
Seraph Knows the Way
Neo finds Seraph (Collin Chou) in the matrix and Seraph says he can help him find the Oracle. They fight. The fight turns out to be a test to check that Neo really is the One.
“You do not truly know someone until you fight them,” Seraph says.
They exit to an endless corridor filled with doors.
“These are backdoors, aren’t they?” Neo asks Seraph. “Programmer access.”
“How do they work?”
“A code is hidden in tumblers. One position opens a lock, another position opens one of these doors.”
“Are you a programmer?”
Seraph shakes his head.
“Then what are you?”
“I protect that which matters most.”
Seraph is a central access control mechanism in the matrix. He has keys (credentials) to all the doors (access points) in the corridor (some kind of dispatch system). The fight with Neo was a so called challenge-response ritual, necessary to authenticate Neo.
The Oracle Explains the World
Seraph unlocks and opens a door to a concrete yard between multistory residential houses. The Oracle sits on a bench, feeding crows. Neo sits down beside her.
“You’re not human, are you?” he asks her.
“It’s tough to get any more obvious than that.”
“If I had to guess, I’d say you’re a program from the machine world.” Neo turns to Seraph to patiently waits a few steps behind them. “So is he.”
The Oracle confirms.
“But if that’s true, it could mean you’re part of this system, another kind of control.” Pondering this, he asks “How can I trust you?”
“The bad news is there’s no real way for you to know whether I’m here to help you or not.”
Neo is going to have to accept or reject what the Oracle says. She points to the birds and says they are governed by software too. Then she goes on to explain that all supernatural phenomena in the world, i.e. the matrix, are manifestations of the matrix cleaning up programs that are not doing what they’re supposed to do.
“Programs hacking programs,” Neo comments.
“Usually, a program chooses exile when it faces deletion,” she explains. “It can either choose to hide here or return to the source.”
The source is the central computer governing the matrix. That’s where Neo must go. That’s where his path ends.
The Oracle asks if he’s seen the source in his dreams. He has, and in those dreams, something bad happens to Trinity but he cannot see how it ends.
“You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time.”
Seraph interrupts them and tells the Oracle they have to leave. The Oracle says two final things. First, that Neo will have to make a choice between Zion and Trinity. Second, that he will need the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) to reach the source and the Keymaker is being held prisoner by a dangerous program called Merovingian (Lambert Wilson).
This is not an easy scene for movie goers to pay enough attention to. But we can!
First the trust issue. This tells us that Neo has no way to authenticate or validate any of the programs he meets in the matrix. They can be good or bad. But he does know that the Oracle can foretell parts of the future. As said in my review of the first movie, the Oracle may be the main scheduler of tasks and thus have insight into the pipeline of things to be executed soon in the matrix. It could be that the Oracle is neither good or bad. Neo just has occasional access to her by virtue of being the One and can get a glimpse of the future.
Programs hacking programs. Sounds punchy. But modern operating systems have all kinds of checks and controls in place to shut down applications that don’t behave. In addition, stopping an ongoing, automated attack can often involve hacking the malware rather than fixing the vulnerable systems. For example, during the devastating WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017, a security researcher analyzed the malware and found a hidden kill switch they could activate to make the attack shut down itself.
The source could be the kernel of the operating system of the matrix. In hacking terms, compromising the kernel often means full system takeover.
“Looking at the world without time” is interesting. Time in computers is actually rhythm and controlled by an oscillator such as a vibrating crystal. Reasoning about a computer system without time sounds to me like the ability to see the complete state machine and be able to theoretically take steps forward or backward in “time” at will. Think of it as understanding the brains behind two chess players so that you can simulate how they will play before they do so. That would mean you didn’t need to wait (time) to know how the game will progress and end.
The final piece of the scene has Seraph interrupt the Oracle. That’s a little strange to me since the Oracle is the one that can foresee the future. But it could be that Seraph knows that a bad actor has just requested access to where they are (the yard) and that they need to leave quickly.
Side note: I can’t help but think of Gloria Foster dying from diabetes during the filming of The Matrix Reloaded. The movie came out a year and a half after her death and in the third movie there's another actor playing the Oracle. I really like Foster's acting.
Smith With a Pinch of Neo
Smith shows up at in the yard which was probably what caused Seraph to escort the Oracle away. The former agent and Neo have a chat.
“Surprised to see me?” Smith asks. Neo is not. “Then you’re aware of it.”
“Of what?” Neo asks.
“Our connection. I don’t fully understand how it happened. Perhaps some part of you imprinted onto me, something overwritten or copied. It is at this point irrelevant. What matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.”
Smith explains that even though he was shocked when Neo destroyed him, he was intent to follow the rules. But something compelled him to disobey. He is now a “free” program in the matrix.
Several Smith copies show up. The one in front of Neo thrusts his hand into Neo’s chest to try to make him into yet another Smith copy and take back his “purpose.”
Neo barely makes it but manages to maintain his integrity and fight off the multitude of Smiths coming for him.
I mention in my review of The Matrix how processes in operating systems can be repurposed for all kinds of tasks and that agents injecting themselves into humans probably make use of such a mechanism. When Neo kills Smith in the end of The Matrix, he injects himself into the agent. That’s when something imprinted onto Smith, making him want to disobey the rules of matrix – Neo’s desire for choice copied over!
Normally, various pieces of software are not compatible with each other in a way that would enable taking pieces from two programs and melding them. But, there are controlled surfaces within software which are called APIs, application programming interfaces. Such interfaces do allow for pieces to be fit together in new forms. So I view this as a rule-abiding part of Smith being replaced by a rebellious part of Neo and they both implement the same API or call the same APIs, i.e. they fit the same software slot.
Smith making copies of himself is classic virus behavior.
Merovingian Plays Dirty
Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity pay a visit to Merovingian who sits in an exquisite restaurant. They are looking for the Keymaker.
Merovingian says he’s a “trafficker of information” and so he naturally already knows why the team has come to see him. He tells Neo that they’ve only come here to obey orders from the Oracle. He says they are simply as an effect of a cause they do not control. Morpheus challenges him and says choice is the base of all actions.
Merovingian wants to prove to his guests that he has the power to control others and sends a “very special dessert” to a beautiful woman in the restaurant. He says he wrote it himself (it’s a program) and it makes the woman super horny and she leaves for the ladies’ room where he intends to follow her.
He compares Neo and the others to the woman and claims that they are powerless. He sees the Oracle as the will behind their visit and tells them to go back to her and say her time is almost up.
Merovingian’s wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci) secretly helps Morpheus’s team to find the Keymaker to get back on her husband for his exploitative cheating. Once Merovingian finds out, Neo has to fight his henchmen while Trinity and Morpheus flee with the Keymaker.
Merovingian knows what has happened but doesn’t know what will happen. As a trafficker in information, he seems to be part of the matrix memory or storage. This could explain how he has control over the Keymaker: the Keymaker is in encrypted/locked storage, a privileged piece of software stored on disk.
It may be that Merovingian's ability to intercept or control information is the basis for his hacks such as the special dessert. Malicious input is the start of almost every attack on software.
The Keymaker Explains the Plan
The team escapes both Merovingian’s “Twins” (Adrian and Neil Rayment) and agents, and eventually sit down with the Keymaker who explains the final task to them.
“There is a building. Inside this building there is a level where no elevator can go and no stair can reach. This level is filled with doors. These doors lead to many places. Hidden places. But one door is special. One door leads to the source. This building is protected by a very secure system. Every alarm triggers the bomb.”
The team doesn’t like to hear that.
“But like all systems it has a weakness. The system is based on the rules of a building. One system built on another.”
“Electricity,” Morpheus says.
“If one fails, so must the other,” the Keymaker adds.
They have to kill electricity for 27 blocks to deprive the building with the source of power. This means they have to take out a power station and the backup emergency system. Neo will be tied up accessing the source so the rest of the team needs to take on the power situation. The time window they need to execute within is 314 seconds.
The movie takes on a Mission Impossible flavor here but we have to remember this is all a manifestation of a computer system. What this could be is Morpheus’s team members, in the form of programs, overloading the processing units of the matrix in order to overheat it and make it reduce speed or shut off processor cores. The 314 seconds (just over five minutes) would then be the time for the system to cool off.
Or it could be a direct hack against software or firmware that controls power for the system. In such a case it could be that the 314 seconds are what it takes to recover through a reboot of a subsystem. That typically happens through something called a watchdog process which asks important subsystems if they are alive and healthy. If a subsystem stops responding to the watchdog’s calls, the watchdog reboots it. That’s how many robust systems work such as cellphone base stations.
Trinity Takes One For the Team
Neo convinces Trinity to stay behind since he knows the Oracle has foreseen he’ll have to make choice between her or Zion and he doesn’t think he is capable of doing that.
The team starts executing their plan and take out power. But power is quickly restored which means the alarm and its bomb will be triggered when Neo tries to access the source. Trinity decides to enter the matrix to save Neo.
Neo and Morpheus enter the building with the Keymaker and rush through corridors only to be faced with Agent Smith. When Morpheus threatens to shoot him, he calls for his copies.
Trinity kills the power again and the Keymaker opens the special door as Neo and Morpheus hold off the Smiths with their fists and feet. Neo and Morpheus jump through the special door, the Smith copies draw their guns, and the Keymaker is mortally wounded before the door closes. But they are inside and Neo will now be able to enter the door to the source.
Being killed like the Keymaker software is, could be the result of a bad program step. Only when the step is discovered to be bad will its process be killed by the system.
“I’m the architect. I created the matrix. I’ve been waiting for you.”
That’s what the white-haired man in the office chair says to Neo once he’s on the inside.
“Why am I here?” Neo asks.
“Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision.”
Neo learns that there have been five Neos before him and all obviously failed at their mission since the matrix is still here.
“The anomaly is systemic,” the architect continues, “creating fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations.”
“Choice. The problem is choice,” Neo concludes.
The architect explains how he started out with a perfect version of the matrix, which failed miserably. He tried to add flaws based on human history but it failed again.
“The answer was stumbled upon by another, an intuitive program initially created to investigate certain aspects of the human psyche.”
“She stumbled upon a solution whereby 99% of all test subjects accepted the program as long as they were given a choice.”
The result was a matrix accepted as-is by 99% but challenged by 1% and those 1% made choices which risked the whole thing. Zion is the 1%, and this will be the sixth time Zion is destroyed.
“The function of the One is now to return to the source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry reinserting the prime program, after which you will be required to select from the matrix 23 individuals, sixteen female, seven male, to rebuild Zion.”
If Neo doesn’t comply, all humans connected to the matrix die. That plus destruction of Zion means extinction of the human race.
The architect reveals that Trinity has already entered the matrix to save Neo.
Neo has two doors to chose from. Right door leads to the source and the salvation of Zion. Left door leads back to the matrix, to Trinity, and to the end of humankind.
“The sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation” sounds like gibberish to me. There is nothing to sum up if it’s a single remainder. Unbalanced equation is strange too since it’s not an equation if it’s not balanced.
However, a leading theory on the sci-fi Stack Exchange (see most upvoted answer) is that the architect is in fact talking about a cumulative error – a minute error that if repeated enough times builds up to something big and destabilizing. The One and the showdown at the source is supposed to lop that error off and stabilize things for another iteration. Similar to how you may adjust a clock only after it has drifted a full two minutes rather than adjusting it one second every day. You let the small errors accumulate before you take the time to correct them.
This time over, love is added to the mix, or should I say equation.
Neo picks the right door, for love. The architect snorts.
Trinity is fighting a losing battle against two agents after pulling off her power grid takedown. She jumps out of a window in a last attempt to flee but is shot in the heart mid-air.
Neo flies in to save her before she hits the ground. Up on the top of a skyscraper, he first removes the bullet from her body and then revives or even mends her heart.
Live patching software, i.e. fixing bugs while the software is running, is well-known to be super hard. That’s why you are instead asked to restart whatever application or operating system you are updating. So this is Neo showing his super powers.
The Lie Revealed
Back on the Nebuchadnezzar, Neo tells Morpheus the prophecy was a lie; the One was never supposed to end the war.
Sentinels arrive at the ship with a bomb. The team leaves on foot and watches the Nebuchadnezzar explode and burn.
As the sentinels pick up their trace, Neo says he can feel them. Neo uses some newfound force to destroy the sentinels, only to then collapse himself. Another ship – the Hammer – picks them up. Neo is in a coma.
The last we see is that Bane lies on a bed next to Neo, also in a coma. He somehow survived a deadly attack by the sentinels. “To be concluded” the movie ends.
I like that this movie is mostly spent in the matrix. The politics and partying at Zion don’t do much for me.
It’s great that it takes the time to explain enough of what’s going on to make it all fit the earlier movie. However, at this point, Neo is just assumed to have extra powers and there’s not much development of his hacker skills.
I was put off when we learned that there had been five Neos before this one and that Zion had been destroyed five times before too. It makes the original story less special. Sure, this version of Neo turns out to be the ultra special One, but still. It’s a little bit like “it was all a dream” which is never good.
All the new important characters are men: Seraph, The Keymaker, Merovingian, the Twins, and the Architect. The exception is Merovingian’s estranged wife who plays a pretty classic femme fatale. You could say Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) plays an important part but it isn't much. The lack of women is sad given that the previous movie gave us Trinity, Switch, and the Oracle.
All in all, a worthy sequel but not as good as The Matrix.
This text was originally published in the December 2021 issue of the Hacker Chronicles newsletter. Subscribe below!
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