Friday, May 23, 2003

Surviving `Matrix Reloaded' -- a movie guide for parents
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune

May 23, 2003

Face it. Your teenagers are going to see "The Matrix Reloaded" (rated R for prolonged, intense violence, some bad language and a brief, sensual sex scene). In fact, if the response to the first one is any guide, it is likely that they will see "Matrix," part two, many, many times. So you might as well spend a few minutes understanding why it is so important to them. Instead of rolling your eyes and telling them they are wasting their time, take a moment to understand it -- and them -- a little better.

The "Matrix" series taps into some of the most enduring themes of myth and epic, themes with special appeal for children and teenagers. The first is the chosen one with a hidden source of power. Characters from Pokemon to Harry Potter, Dorothy in Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Clark Kent/Superman allow kids, who often feel powerless in a world of adults, to enjoy the fantasy of strength and control. Superpowers as a metaphor for adolescence are even more explicitly portrayed in 2002's mega-hit "Spider-Man" and in the "X-Men" movies.

Characters from Moses to Hamlet to Luke Skywalker to King Arthur and Rick in Casablanca exemplify another aspect of the hidden source of power -- the reluctant hero who, confronted with dire circumstances, is able to call upon his capacity for greatness. This theme is immensely reassuring to teens, who can think of themselves as hopeless losers or as unappreciated superstars (or both) at any given moment. Imagining themselves in this position is more than a fantasy; it is a dress rehearsal for adulthood.

When movies like these become cultural phenomena, they also act as training wheels for the emerging social interaction of teenagers who are beginning to relate to each other in new ways. Movies are always a good way to get things started for kids at this stage, because they take up a large part of the evening with an important shared experience that requires no accompanying conversation. And then, when it is over, the movie gives them a lot to talk about and a shared language in which to do it. A movie like "Matrix Reloaded" has enough to fuel several evenings of discussion.

Period of enchantment

Anyone who has ever lived with a 9-year-old knows that it takes him two hours to see the movie and then it takes him two hours to tell you about the movie. They can remember every detail of what they saw, but it's still all about the trees of plot. It isn't until they get to about high school age that they begin to be able to understand the forest of meaning, to appreciate metaphor and multiple layers of interpretation. But they are still close enough to that 9-year-old self to be enchanted rather than overwhelmed by a fully realized world with endless detail to be absorbed and memorized (other examples that inspire passions in this age group are the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and "Star Trek").

This movie was made for just that developmental moment. "Matrix" screenwriter/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have provided a wonderfully rich hodgepodge of references from classical mythology and philosophy to the New Testament, Alice in Wonderland, Karl Jung and comic books. One of the best things about this movie is that it will lead teenagers to want to learn more about how the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave inspired some of the themes of illusion and reality and about the sources for names in the movie like Morpheus, Trinity, Niobe, Persephone, Nebuchadnezzar and Merovingian.

The "Matrix" movies also address key issues for this age group. Erik Erikson brilliantly described the search for identity that is the central experience of adolescents. Each one must separate from the assumptions they have never previously challenged, including just about everything their parents ever taught them. They usually begin by becoming contrarians, reflexively rejecting everything they once accepted, to give themselves some breathing room while they begin to apply their developing analytical skills to come to a more thoughtful understanding.

Equipped for the journey

The "Matrix" films present teenagers with an ideal story for this journey -- along with some very cool fight scenes, special effects and sunglasses. In the original, a man named Tom Anderson finds out that the ordinary life he thought he led, with an apartment and a job and interaction with other people, was just an illusion. In reality, machines have taken over. They use humans as their source of power, and to keep them quiescent, the machines pipe the illusion of "normal" daily interaction into their minds. Given the (literally) new name of Neo, Anderson considers whether he is indeed "the one" who can make it possible for all humans to understand reality.

In "Matrix Reloaded," Neo takes the battle forward. We'll see how it all comes out in November with "The Matrix Revolutions," the third chapter.

The issues the "Matrix" movies raise of destiny and choice, consciousness, authenticity, freedom and identity are thrilling to explore, especially for the first time. Parents may think that "Matrix Reloaded" is just another silly summer explosion movie (not that there's anything wrong with that), but they should treat it -- and their kids' passion for it -- with sincere respect.

I am all in favor of holding the line on exposing kids to inappropriate material, but I think that this is a movie many parents may find worthwhile for mature teens ages 14 and up. If your kids see the movie, invite them to talk with you about what they find compelling in it. You might even ask them to bring you to the theater with them so you can learn more about what they are thinking. Just be careful not to enjoy it so much that you unleash the one force even greater than the "Matrix" -- the de-coolifying power of parental enthusiasm!

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