"The Matrix" was one of those unusual movies to become both a big mainstream success and an instant cult classic, earning big profits in its initial run and continuing to tantalize its more obsessive fans over the subsequent four years.
"Matrix" cultists range from video-game freaks who love its high-tech visual wizardry to film intellectuals who brood over its complicated plot, its hazy religious references, and the questions it poses about consciousness, power, and whether humans can ever really know whether their world is real or not.
It's taken the Wachowski Brothers more than four years to stir up a sequel, but these guys make up in generosity what they lack in speed. True to the go-getter spirit displayed by the "Matrix" project from the beginning, they've completed not one but two follow-up films: "The Matrix Reloaded," opening in theaters this week after premièring at the Cannes film festival, and "The Matrix Revolutions," slated for a Nov. 5 debut.
Hollywood studios are often wary about unveiling would-be blockbusters at festivals like Cannes, fearing an "art film" label might discourage mall-and-multiplex moviegoers more interested in straight-out entertainment than cinematic sophistication. The decision by Warner Bros. to open "Reloaded" at Cannes reveals much about how they and the Wachowskis see the picture.
They know that their hefty advertising blitz - coupled with anticipation that's been building since 1999 - will guarantee vast audiences. But they also know that the art-film crowd is important, too. It includes cultists, and they're the ones who can power high DVD sales and impassioned Internet debates that could keep "Matrix" mania alive for years to come.
So let's cut to the chase. Is the second "Matrix" movie worth the wait?
Like its predecessor, it's a hugely ambitious picture, telling a complicated story with nonstop visual energy and enough computer-generated effects to blur the boundaries between the movie you're watching and the virtual-reality Matrix it's about.
But also like its predecessor, it cares far more about action, adventure, and violence than feelings, relationships, and ideas. The characters fall in love; battle for their ideals; and ponder the ways fate, destiny, and providence are shaping their individual lives and the future of humanity as a whole.
In the end, though, the movie's psychological and philosophical sides are little more than window dressing on a spectacle designed to jolt the eye and ear, not stimulate the mind and heart.
I suspect "Reloaded" will be mystifying for moviegoers not versed in "Matrix" lore, so here's a quick summary of the premise. Power-mad machines have taken control of Earth, preserving the human race only as living batteries for bio-power energy. To ensure the docility of humans, the machine tyrants plug their captives' minds into a computerized Matrix that gives them the illusion of free thought and activity in a world just like our own.
A small number of humans remain free, however, plotting revolution and revenge from their hiding place in Zion, an underground city. Their leaders include Neo (Keanu Reeves), a sort-of-supernatural hero with sort-of-Superman powers, and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), his trusty right-hand man.
The nastiest villain is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who menaced our heroes in the first installment and gives them even more trouble this time, multiplying himself into a small army of scary Smith clones.
"Reloaded" follows Neo's quest to understand the nature of his role in the war between humans and machines - with little time to spare, since hordes of machine-controlled Squiddies are burrowing toward Zion so they can wipe it out.
The movie also sketches a romantic rivalry or two, presents reasonably involving scenes with an unlikely oracle and an enigmatic keymaker, and spins lots of vague chatter about fate, destiny, and providence - all before a finale so abrupt and open-ended that only the most sequel-obsessed studio would have dared to pull it off.
Many a cyberpunk, fantasy fan, and sci-fi buff will find this fascinating, and will pass restless nights until the trilogy reaches closure in the fall.
Look at it with some critical distance and you'll realize this movie tells the story of itself. Its franchise has us firmly plugged into a money-driven matrix of popular stars, glitzy style, and computer-generated hallucinations.
And it's every bit as unapologetic as the totalitarian machines about its desire to bamboozle us with a world of illusion designed to perpetuate its own profit.
• Rated R; contains violence and sexuality.