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Any sequel to 1999’s The Matrix was always going to come under a great deal of scrutiny. The original film seemingly came out of nowhere, toppling the prequel to the mighty Star Wars trilogy as the must-see film of 1999, and setting new standards in the action and sci-fi genres in the process. After a myriad of production woes the first of the sequels, entitled The Matrix Reloaded, was finally released in May of this year. Now, thanks to Warner Home Video’s DVD release, we have the chance to take another look at the second instalment of this highly imaginative franchise.

Matrix Reloaded, The
Feature
The Matrix Reloaded finds our heroes, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, facing the single greatest threat to the rebel cause yet. The all-powerful machines have dispatched an army to eradicate Zion, and with less than seventy-two hours before a quarter of a million Sentinels arrive the resistance has little time to organise a counter attack. Commander Lock, head of Zion’s defence force, formulates a military solution to the problem, but Morpheus believes that the salvation of the human race rests with the prophecy of the One—with Neo.

Neo, although a virtual god inside the Matrix, is troubled by a lack of understanding of his role as the One. Haunted by disturbing visions he consults the Oracle, who starts him on a journey that will lead to greater understanding of the inner workings of the Matrix, and of reality itself. But, as Neo and the rebels are attempting to end the war and free the human race, a ‘reborn’ Agent Smith reappears with his own sinister agenda…

The first thing that strikes you about this sequel is the complexity of the fight sequences. If you think those in The Matrix were impressive, you’ll be positively beside yourself when you catch a glimpse of what’s on offer here. Early on in the proceedings we’re given an all too brief teaser of things to come, as Neo single-handedly routs a group of ‘upgraded’ Agents. The way in which the One trounces his adversaries is almost casual, and serves as early proof of just how powerful he has become. This scene, although tragically short, is a precursor of what is to follow. As the film progresses we’re treated to three stunning set pieces in the form of the Burly Brawl, the chateau melee and the freeway chase. Suffice to say that these three scenes alone put everything in the first film to shame in terms of scope and spectacle.

The second thing you’ll notice is just how convoluted the film is, which has opened it up for a lot of criticism. A lot of complaints relate to the pacing of the film, and the lengthy expositional scenes full of often-cryptic dialogue. However, it is precisely because of the complexity of what the Wachowski brothers are trying to accomplish with the sequels that all of this is necessary. Reloaded is basically part one of a four hour plus epic, and I’ve no doubt that many of the criticisms about throwaway characters will be nullified when The Matrix Revolutions hits theatres. In addition to this, repeated viewings of the much-maligned Architect scene—the biggest offender when it comes to confusing the hell out of the audience—lead not only to understanding, but to appreciation of the precise language (which makes perfect sense when you remember that you’re dealing with a machine intelligence).

Video
It’s fair to say that many reviewers (myself included) were a little too generous in their praise for the DVD transfer of the original film. Admittedly standards weren’t as high when the disc was released back in 1999, but even taking this into account the transfer is still somewhat lacking in certain areas. The biggest problem I had (and still have) with the transfer was that of excessive grain, which seemed extreme even for a film shot in Super-35, a cinematographic process known to produce images with significantly more grain than the anamorphic scope process. However, The Matrix Reloaded arrives with an altogether superior transfer.

This time around grain is only very slight, certainly nothing out of the ordinary, and it’s not the only area that’s been enhanced. Every aspect of the video transfer is a marked improvement over the original film. In fact, I’d probably go as far to say that this is the finest NTSC presentation I’ve seen in recent months. Normally I’m not the sort to go looking for problems if they’re not immediately apparent, but even after closely scrutinising the transfer I couldn’t spot anything to complain about. Edge enhancement, if there is any, is so minimal as to be undetectable on all but the largest of screens, and the level of detail in the image is extraordinary, allowing you to make out the tiniest elements of the picture with comparative ease.

Matrix Reloaded, The
There were no discernable instances of print damage, and the image is exceptionally clean throughout. Compression artefacts were also notable by their absence. The film features a muted colour palate that is faithfully reproduced on this DVD; be it the cold blues of the desert of the real, the natural, earthy tones of Zion or the green tinted Matrix, everything looks exactly as expected.  Contrast, too, is excellent, with even the darkest areas of the picture retaining just the right amount of shadow detail. All in all the technical aspects of the transfer are just about perfect, but as some of you will be aware we here at DVDActive take more than just the technical merits of a disc into consideration when awarding our marks.

The only thing stopping this disc earning top honours in the video category is the occasional instance where CGI characters take suspension of disbelief a little too far. Now don’t get me wrong, most of the CGI in the film is excellent, and pushes the envelope when it comes to the animation of convincing ‘digital doubles’, but during the Burly Brawl and freeway chase there were one or two moments where I started thinking more about the digital doubles than the action. Obviously this isn’t a good thing, but thankfully it didn’t happen very often. I know many of you will think this is a petty reason to hold off of the ‘perfect ten’, but I consider the visual style of a film to be an important aspect of my overall enjoyment. Perhaps this category should be called visuals, rather than video. Nonetheless, the rest of The Matrix Reloaded looks sublime, with production design that kicks most other films into touch.

Audio
The Matrix Reloaded is presented in good old Dolby Digital 5.1 (some sites report EX encoding for those of you with the necessary hardware; alas I’m not quite there yet). While the original Matrix disc featured a solid mix with plenty of discrete surround effects, Reloaded offers a veritable feast of audio goodness. Discrete effects come thick and fast, especially during the astounding combat sequences, with the chateau melee being a personal favourite of mine. However, this is just one of the highlights in a soundtrack choc full of them. Bass is nice and deep, and you really feel the kicks and punches as they land home. Thankfully the mix is not without subtlety, especially during the quieter scenes in Zion, where the surrounds are used to good effect during the tribal gathering in the cave.

As good as the music in the first film was, it’s totally blown away by Reloaded. As before, Don Davis’ score fits the film like a glove, but it is the collaborations with Juno Reactor and material from Rob Dougan that really stand out. The track ‘Burly Brawl’ is as close to perfection as you could ask for, and really helps fuel the accompanying battle between Agents Smith and Neo. ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’—the eleven-minute track that accompanies the startling freeway chase—is a slow burner, but when it peaks it really drives (excuse the pun) the proceedings along! Dougan’s staggering ‘Chateau’ is a graceful slice of electronica, with an almost balletic quality that perfectly mirrors the on-screen action. In fact the quality of these tracks is so high that I’ve all but worn out my car stereo listening to them! All in all it’s fair to say that I’m a huge fan of what’s on offer here.

Matrix Reloaded, The
The soundtrack to the original Matrix was just as important as the score, and it will come as no surprise to hear that there are some strong offerings from artists of all genres this time around. The aforementioned Juno Reactor offer up one or two pumping trance tunes, while Fluke’s ‘Zion’ is a fantastic tribal dance track that accompanies the citizens of Zion as they celebrate their humanity. However, the majority of the tracks featured on the soundtrack album are to be found during the end credits, which is something that always strikes me as a bit odd.

The only negative comment I can make about the mix is that it seems to be recorded at a slightly lower volume than normal, requiring me to crank up the amp a few notches. Presumably this was to allow a little more leeway for dynamic range. With that said, I’d also have liked the presence of the score to be a little more obvious in the mix during key scenes, but this is down to individual taste. All in all though, this is still mind-blowing stuff.
 
Extras
Warner have obviously put a lot of effort into the presentation of this set, with both discs featuring full motion menus and transitions utilising footage and music from the film. I found these to be of a higher quality than the menus found on the original Matrix DVD, with more animation and a wider range of transitions. Unfortunately this is where the improvements end, as this two-disc set isn’t as blessed with extras as Warner would have you believe. Only disc two contains any real supplemental material, and what is on offer is mostly promotional in nature.
 
The first item on disc two is a twenty-two minute behind the scenes featurette entitled ‘Preload’. Featuring interviews with the entire principal cast, as well as special effects supervisor John Geta, producer Joel Silver, and fight choreographer Yen Woo Ping, this is a fairly entertaining piece that covers a broad variety of topics. Sadly it’s all over far too quickly, and fails to divulge any secrets to the viewer. I’d really have liked to see some extended fight training, especially considering the complexity of the hand-to-hand combat in Reloaded. Alas this was not to be, but we do get to witness Keanu Reeves deftly wielding a rather big stick!

‘The Matrix Unfolds’ is a short journey through the history of the Matrix thus far. At only five minutes in length it really is a short journey, and one that covers a lot of familiar ground. Concentrating more on the Animatrix and Enter the Matrix than anything else, I can’t help but feel a little cheated by the lack of insight into Reloaded. The featurette does contain a couple of very short clips from the forthcoming The Matrix Revolutions, but nothing that’s likely to give the game away.

Next we come to what is, without a doubt, the standout extra in the package. This thirty-minute featurette puts the viewer firmly behind the wheel of one of the most action packed sequences in the film: ‘The Freeway Chase’. We’re taken through the entire process, including the construction of the artificial highway where the sequence was filmed, storyboards and animatics for the various gags, driver training school, blue screen work and much more. There are plenty of interviews with cast and crew, including Carrie-Anne Moss, who, as it turns out, is rather handy behind the wheel (or on two wheels for that matter).
 
‘Get Me An Exit‘ runs for a little under ten minutes and features footage from a number of Matrix inspired advertising gimmicks, including Powerade, Samsung mobile phones and Samsung televisions. Although worth running through once, I fail to see how this could prove interesting beyond the initial viewing.

Matrix Reloaded, The
‘The Making of Enter the Matrix’ is twenty-seven minute featurette on the ‘groundbreaking’ game of the same name. This segment really is self-promotion at its best/worst, and contains interviews with most of the stars of the video game, including a decidedly annoying Jada Pinkett-Smith. Also interviewed is David Perry, of Shiny Entertainment, the developers responsible for bringing the game to the various formats (and he’s sounding more American by the year). The biggest problem with the whole feature is that, as anyone who’s played Enter the Matrix will tell you, the game is littered with bugs that make playing downright disagreeable on occasion. No honestly, it really is bugged to hell. It doesn’t matter how much Joel Silver and Co. go on about its greatness, or how many scenes of a motioned captured Pinkett-Smith they show, it doesn’t hide the fact that the sole reason for the inclusion of this piece is to try and tempt unsuspecting buyers into parting with their hard-earned in exchange for what is basically a beta product. There, I feel better now.

‘The Animatrix’ trailer is a four and a half minute promo for the DVD of the same name. The piece includes snippets of footage from all nine episodes on the Animatrix DVD, which provides the viewer with ample reason to rush out and buy the disc (which is really rather cool). However, as with the previous feature, this still falls into the category of promotional fluff. Also included in this menu is a web link option, which shows little more than a series of stills from the Matrix website until you insert the disc into a DVD-Rom drive. Once in your drive, and once the blasted InterActual Player has been installed, you have a series of web links that take you to various parts of the matrix website. From the website you can download desktop wallpaper, screensavers, games and trailers, read interviews, comics, the philosophy of the Matrix and much more.

Finally we come to one of the best extras on the disc (which admittedly isn’t a particularly lofty achievement). If any of you own the extended region one edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring then you might be familiar with a rather amusing little MTV Music Awards Easter Egg. This set goes one better by including the full eight-minute plus Reloaded parody sequence from the 2003 awards as a selectable item on disc two. Alongside Sean William Scott and Justin Timberlake, comedic talents such as Will Ferrell deliver a humorous pastiche of Reloaded. Ferrell in particular delights as the Architect, and those who left the theatre wondering what the hell that scene was all about will find his appearance hilarious—ergo, vis-à-vis, concordantly. Other highlights include Timberlake doing the robot with a decidedly fruity Oracle, and William Scott proving that there’s nothing more deadly than an army of Stiffler clones!

So there you have it, a disappointing collection of extras that, with the exception of ‘The Freeway Chase’, are little more than extended advertisements for the various Matrix tie-ins. If only all of the featurettes had followed a similar format to the freeway segment then Warner would have had an excellent package on their hands, but as it is I can’t help feeling that this is a wasted opportunity. I wasn’t expecting a commentary after the, quite frankly, appalling one on the original disc, but an isolated score with comments from Don Davis would have been nice. In fact, where are the meaty behind the scenes featurettes? Unfortunately it seems as if Warner are more concerned with self-promotion than giving the viewers something to get their teeth into, which is a real pity.

Oh before I forget, as with the theatrical release of Reloaded, if you continue to watch after the end credits you’ll get to see the teaser for Revolutions. It’s not really an extra as it was present theatrically, but I thought I’d make you aware of it in case you turn off too quickly!

Matrix Reloaded, The
Overall
The Matrix Reloaded manages to build on the success of its predecessor with an engaging storyline and an astounding array of special effects. While not as ‘neat’ as the first film, it’s worth bearing in mind that Reloaded is really just the first half of one big movie, with many of the loose ends sure to be resolved this November with the release of The Matrix Revolutions. Thankfully this two-disc set provides a more than adequate distraction to tide you over until Revolutions hits the big screen. The superb anamorphic transfer ensures you’ll miss none of the awesome spectacle, be it the staggering Burly Brawl or the breathtaking freeway chase, while the astounding Dolby Digital 5.1 track allows you to hear every bone-jarring punch and kick as clearly as if Neo and co. were in your living room!

Unfortunately the package is marred by a lacklustre collection of bonus material, which seems to have been created for the sole purpose of shifting merchandise. The original film featured some truly original extras, with its innovative ‘White Rabbit’ segments, an isolated score and technical featurettes, but aside from ‘Preload’ and ‘The Freeway Chase’ there’s really nothing here to compare. I get the feeling that the best material is being saved for a rainy day—otherwise known as a trilogy boxed set—but that will come as little comfort to those of you who buy your discs for the bonus material.

However, when all is said and done the most important element of this package, the film itself, is furnished with just about the best audio-visual presentation one could hope for. For this alone I have no hesitation in recommending the set to fans of the film and those looking for a new demo disc to show off their system. Those of you who weren’t as impressed at the cinema might still like to take a chance with Reloaded on DVD, if only so you can rewind that blasted Architect speech time and time again until it makes sense!


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