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Rooting for the robot

In the battle between man and machine, which has more soul? Science fiction has disturbing answers.

May 25, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Centuries from now, when some distant descendant of Roger Ebert sits down to write the definitive guide to 21st century cinema, he, she or it may take note of the exact moment when "The Matrix" series ceased to be fun. It occurs in "The Matrix Reloaded" when Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, turns into a robot.

Not literally, of course. If you saw the Wachowski brothers' 1999 sci-fi hit "The Matrix," you already know that Neo is one of a handful of human characters battling an army of evil machines that keep people suspended in pods, seducing their minds with virtual-reality fantasies while their unprotesting bodies are drained to make battery juice. Although Neo retains his humanity in "The Matrix Reloaded," the original's much-anticipated follow-up, viewers still may have trouble telling Homo sapiens from cyborg without a DNA test.

Not so long ago, when men were men and machines had cogs, we imagined robots and other mechanical pseudo-humans as our opposites. Now, wired to our home computers, Prozac and Palm Pilots in hand, Botox and breast implants lending a spooky "perfection" to our features as we ponder shuffling our genes in order to build a better kindergartner, we don't seem as fazed by the idea of reprogramming ourselves into something beyond the merely human. No wonder pop culture is increasingly ambivalent about whether people or androids and their ilk deserve to inherit the earth -- and which group is ultimately more "human."

"The Matrix Reloaded" starts to muddy the old man-versus-machine debate in a sequence in which Neo single-handedly routs a posse of clones descended from the dry-witted, revenge-minded Agent Smith; they swarm on Neo like hysterical schoolgirls chasing the Fab Four in "A Hard Day's Night." The episode should electrify, but it fizzles because the audience quickly realizes that Neo has become just another invulnerable Hollywood stunt-mannequin, able to flick aside enemy assailants like so many gnats while barely ruffling his leather duster.

In the first "Matrix" installment, though Neo could dodge bullets and vault across rooftops, he was still largely bound by his human limitations, vulnerable and sweet in a geeky, kid-brother kind of way. We could identify with his fears of confronting a terrifying hidden reality, his existential dread at the state of the world.

But the "Reloaded" Neo is humorless and preternaturally reserved, and with practically unlimited powers (he can fly; he can intuit the bad guys' presence like a cybernetic Miss Cleo), he's hardly discernible from the unfeeling, brutally efficient machines he's supposed to be fighting for the sake of the human race.

Like his cohorts Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), he seems sleek but soulless, imposing but dull.

In contrast, Neo's nemesis, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), especially in the first film, comes across as Mr. Personality, making wisecracks, bearing old grudges, and even griping humorously about his job because it means he has to hang out with humans. Honestly -- whom would you rather sit next to on a cross-country flight?

The dreams of today's culture

If for past generations being human partly meant learning to make peace with one's physical and mental imperfections, today's culture holds out the dreams of perpetual youth, bigger brain cells, or the ability to look like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston with the shake of a test tube.

In "The Matrix Reloaded," the fantasy is of unlimited consciousness combined with gravity-defying physical ability. "Free your mind," the movie insists, and your body will follow. The filmmakers seem to believe all this is possible without the benefit of character-building confrontations, without having to deal with loss or limitations, sacrifice or death. (In each film, a key character seems destined to die, only to be snatched from the jaws of mortality at the last moment.) Neo can download a computer's hard drive into his brain to get smart, but can he get wise?

Since "The Matrix" was released four years ago, thousands of words have been written citing its philosophical and literary influences, from Plato's analogy of the cave to French bad-boy intellectual Jean Baudrillard. But another book that speaks resonantly to the themes the movie raises is Bill McKibben's just-published "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age" (Times Books).

In it, the author of "The End of Nature" argues that new technologies such as genetic engineering and advanced robotics threaten not only human survival, but also human identity. What will it mean for any person to set an Olympic sprint record or have an IQ of 160 if it's all mapped out in a lab before birth? McKibben asks. What will be distinctive about these achievements if they can be attained by anyone who can afford to purchase the right chromosome sequence?

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