Sex in the Matrix
A lot of people seem troubled by the amount of sex in "The Matrix Reloaded." This summer's sequel to 2000's science fiction smash hit "The Matrix" is the ultimate cyberaction flick, complete with hackers, exploding trucks, and fight sequences as visceral as the ones in a first-person shooter. But much to the confusion of audiences used to S.F. films full of burly but virginal astronauts, "The Matrix Reloaded" is also punctuated by two graphic, extended sex sequences.
No "kiss and cut away" Star Wars-style moments here -- we get full-blown R-rated smut. One scene is a six-minute rave-orgy, the other a regrettable depiction of a computer code-induced clitoral orgasm. There are other seemingly gratuitous erotic moments, too: hero Neo makes out hungrily with hacker grrrl Trinity in an elevator; evil Persephone helps Neo find the valuable Keymaker in exchange for an intense, tight-close-up-on-the-spit-covered-lips kiss.
So what's the deal with all this sexiness in a movie whose premise is that we can transcend our bodies using computers? After all, most of us went to see it for another taste of the eponymous virtual world where Neo can fly, Trinity can leap across tall buildings in a single bound, and ship captain Morpheus has to battle albino vampire bodyguards who can dematerialize at will.
Adding insult to injury, sex in the matrix is pretty lame. The rave scene, with its sweaty, half-naked bodies and trying-to-be-hip jungle beats, feels hopelessly dated already. And the orgasm sequence -- well, let's just say that combining the "scary grid" special effects from Disney's Black Hole with female genital anatomy wasn't such a great idea. You can tell the Wachowski brothers grew up jacking off to ASCII p0rn. That's nice, but nobody really wants to think of her clitoris as a glowing dot on a graph, OK, boys?
Yet the more I thought about Reloaded, the more I realized that the sex, as cartoony as it might be, is one of the most innovative parts of the movie. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a special-effects blockbuster with hot, sweaty sex in it? Especially multiracial, multipartner, out-of-wedlock sex that didn't spell doom for its practitioners? The heroes in Reloaded are frankly sexual, with no apologies.
None of this would matter outside of the hotel bars at science fiction conventions if it weren't for the extraordinary popularity of the "Matrix" trilogy (the third movie comes out in November). Joel Silver, who produced "Reloaded," told Entertainment Weekly that audience tracking by the National Research Group revealed the movie was the top choice for 43 percent of people polled -- an extremely high number in the industry. Ticket sales have been astronomical too. It grossed $365 million worldwide in its first two weekends.
What those numbers mean is that "Reloaded" has saturated our culture as much as, if not more than, political propaganda coming from the Bush administration. People are watching Neo and Trinity grope each other with more relish than they are Attorney General John Ashcroft's latest salvo on the evils of Internet pornography. It's very possible that the war for human liberation in Reloaded has garnered higher audience awareness than the war for Iraqi freedom.
As if in a kind of corollary to its sexual openness, the "Matrix" movies are self-consciously multicultural. Their human heroes are fighting against machines who have enslaved most of the human race, and it's hard to avoid comparing our heroes' rebellion to that of colonized peoples all over the world. As if to drive this point home, one of the outspoken members of the liberated human city Zion is played by progressive, antiracist intellectual Cornel West. Tellingly, most of our heroes are people of color and racially mixed. The "bad guys" are all white men in suits. More startling still, Zion is a city both pious and sexually liberated: The rave-orgy scene is a public celebration that follows a group prayer.
What does it mean that "Reloaded" has become so mind-bendingly popular during one of the most politically conservative periods in the history of the United States? We've fallen in love with an epic of multicultural rebellion during an era of "homeland security" with more than a few racist overtones. And in a time of hysteria over everything from erotic cartoons on the Web to the ensoulment of stem cells, people are drinking in images of women having remote-controlled clitoral orgasms.
Is "Reloaded" all the liberation we'll get this decade? Or are our preferences for progressive fantasies a hint of political preferences to come?
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who was glad to see that nmap works much faster inside the matrix. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.