YOU MAY NOT remember this, but "The Matrix" earned a respectable, yet modest $27 million during its opening weekend way back in 1999. It went on to gross $171 million domestically, an impressive total. (As a rule of thumb, movies typically end up grossing about three times their opening weekend. In many ways this "multiple" is a better indicator of a movie's impact than its opening weekend performance. Films with multiples of five or six or more--"Titanic," "The Sixth Sense," "There's Something About Mary"--tend to be cultural phenomena, while films with monster opening weekends and low multiples--"Godzilla," "Planet of the Apes," "Pearl Harbor"--are often quickly forgotten.)

Still, $171 million isn't what it used to be--"The Waterboy," Disney's "Tarzan," and "Men in Black II" all did about the same amount of business in recent years.

So why is "The Matrix: Reloaded" such a big event? Because "The Matrix" sold some 30 million copies on DVD and VHS--earning about a half-billion dollars for Warner Bros. and more than doubling the size of the installed fan base from the movie's theatrical release.

I've long suspected that the reason for the home-video explosion of "The Matrix" was that the movie's depth rewards repeated viewings. As a product, it is carefully layered with so many details and themes that it is impossible to absorb everything the first time through and, like an episode of "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons," improves with age.

Only on the second or third sitting are you able to catch the sly reference to Baudrillard or the allegory to Christian communion or the hint that Morpheus may have his chronology bollixed up.

Also, it helps that "The Matrix" is a fine, well-crafted film with wonderfully economical writing. Director/writers Larry and Andy Wachowski improved on their solid work from "Bound" and created the rare treat: a smart action movie. (They can't be held responsible for the dreck that followed in their footsteps.)

LIKE THE ORIGINAL, "The Matrix: Reloaded" is densely packed and baroque in its level of detail.

The movie begins six months after "The Matrix" ends. One of the tricks of "The Matrix" was that the Wachowski brothers immersed the audience in a foreign world from the opening frame and forced us to play catch-up for the rest of the movie. They manage to do the same in "Reloaded" by refusing to explain what has happened off-camera and forcing us to piece things together on the fly. (It will help you immensely to revisit the first installment a day or so before you head out to see "Reloaded.")

Without giving anything away, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), et al., arrive in Zion, the last human city, where, after a brief tip of the hat to "Minority Report," they learn that the machines are coming to finish off humanity. The Wachowskis then proceed to throw a pair of curveballs that alter the entire context of the story.

First, we learn that Morpheus is a religious nutjob. In "The Matrix" Morpheus serves as the exposition engine, giving the audience all of its information about the world the characters inhabit: Morpheus has been sent by an oracle to find mankind's savior; we only meet a handful of real people and they all agree with him, leading us to believe that Morpheus represents the conventional wisdom in this world.

In "Reloaded" we see that most people think Morpheus is a bit touched. Many of the citizens of Zion don't buy into the oracle and are concerned with the here-and-now, not zany prophecies about a second coming. This narrative sleight of hand infuses "Reloaded" with all sorts of energy and makes the sequel feel like a Part 1 in its own right.

But then the Wachowskis pull another fast one. Where "The Matrix" was a nearly over-the-top Christian allegory complete with Old Testament names and a character who offhandedly refers to Neo as his "own personal Jesus Christ," "Reloaded" swaps out the religion and becomes a treatise on artificial intelligence and the nature of mathematics.

It's a big gamble and ultimately "Reloaded" will stand or fall on the question of whether or not the Wachowskis have gotten their math right. If they've held to the ground rules they established in "The Matrix," then "Reloaded" is a wonderful, ambitious project. If they're fudging, then it's a ball of especially pretty pretension. But to be honest, I can't tell yet and neither can any other reviewer. Not after one viewing. So it's fair to say that whether or not "Reloaded" is any good, they've done it again.

A FINAL VERDICT on "Reloaded" is probably months away, but there are three cringe-inducing moments in the film. Two are the result of hideous dialogue foisted on a gifted actor (Harold Perrineau, in a thankless role), the other comes from the sudden, meaningless appearance of Cornel West.

Whatever their other merits, the Wachowski brothers have an affinity for junk-academics, which doesn't speak well of them. They hired the omnisexual campus fixture Susie Bright as a consultant for "Bound" and were so taken with her that they gave her a bit part and included her in the commentary track on the DVD. Now they've given West eight or nine seconds of screen time as an excuse to hang out with the rapping professor in Sydney during filming.

For starters, their tastes in faculty worship don't inspire great confidence in the intellectual underpinnings of their work. But on a more general level, while celebrity cameos are fine for "Friends" they can be disastrous in semi-serious movies. Nothing strains an audience's suspension of disbelief like a slap across the face reminding you that behind the story are a bunch of famous people snapping towels.

People like the Wachowski brothers spend a lot of money (about $150 million on "Reloaded") trying to make audiences believe that the impossible worlds they are seeing are real. To squander that goodwill on a celebrity cameo is both selfish and creatively destructive.

Those of us who are rooting for the Wachowskis should hope they don't do it again.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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