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The Matrix has us again, and while I do not doubt that The Matrix Reloaded will break all box office records and seize the geek high ground -- starring a trenchcoat mafia we can love, post-Columbine -- in the end, it won't matter.

Neo is now a man out of time. He always was, in the mythology of the movie -- battling evil, thinking machines in a blasted future where the humanity lost the plot (and their calendars) somewhere. Every journalist given even the briefest of sneak peeks into the sequels' production (the third installment arrives in November) has dutifully gushed about the effects team's "virtual cinematography" and a visual aesthetic imported wholesale from 1999. Hell, even the dusters and dominatrix-wear even had a repeat performance on fashion catwalks this spring.

But the cultural matrix that spawned Neo -- the heady days of the new economy boom -- are long gone, and, as disappointed critics have made clear, the new film has jettisoned some of the planned trilogy's philosophical baggage on the way from there to here. There are no red or blue pills this time, it seems, no spoons and no Ciphers ruminating on the metaphysical properties of steak. There is no ambivalence about the nature of the Matrix at all, from I've gathered. Reloaded looks to be just the thinking man's thrill machine, with its directors -- the Wachowski brothers -- having definitely decided what is "the desert of the real" and what is a sensually digitized dream. All that remains for Neo to do is beat the dream with a stick.

This time around, I predict, there will be no cottage industry of self-help books springing up around the film, books like "Taking The Red Pill" and "The Matrix and Philosophy" which dutifully tried to explicate the reasons why so many viewers bought into its multiculti rehash of philosophical thought. (One couple I know came out of the first film earnestly telling people that The Matrix changed their lives.) Reloaded certainly won't do that for anyone, and not just because it's a sequel or because you can only suspend your disbelief in Keanu for so long. It's because the first film was the strongest jolt of a pop philosophical current running through our collective subconscious in the late '90s: the fear that we were sleepwalking our way through the boom and, eventually, we're going to wake up. No … we had to wake up.

Today, The Matrix takes all the credit for this, but it was in fact borrowed, like every other motif in the film (Phillip K. Dick fans felt especially smug). But sci-fi cinephiles might recall there were actually four films released within 18 months back in 1998-99 that all dealt explicitly with this premise: Dark City, The Matrix, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor.

The Matrix was the only hit in the bunch, largely because of the wirework and the effects (its success was assured the moment Keanu announced "I know Kung Fu."). The others failed for various reasons: Dark City was even moodier and more mannerist, casting an alien race as the villain and raiding noir films for its look and feel; eXistenZ was by David Cronenberg, who is always an acquired taste; and The Thirteenth Floor co-starred Gretchen Mol.

Taken together, the four films comprise a Zeitgeist's cry for help. All four are cautionary tales. In two (Dark City and The Matrix) the power is unseen, malevolent and non-man-made; in the latter, their dystopias are the natural outgrowth of AI and virtuality research. eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor might ultimately be the more unsettling films. Their kickers are that the real worlds, the ones the protagonists have been avoiding in favor of their individual matrices, are actually matrices themselves. (Critical theorist Slavoj Zizek has suggested that Zion in the Matrix trilogy will turn out to be the same thing). The end result of our attempts to build worlds that mirror the world exactly (the goal of movie special effects itself) is instant schizophrenia; we will never be able to tell which world is the "real" one again. (Cipher's great contribution to the first film was to call into question whether this really made a difference.)

They all really tell one story (one the Frankfurt School would have loved), albeit with different endings -- that as pop-culture keeps homogenizing time, chopping it into events (like the war) and pseudo-events (like Survivor winners, say), our ability to differentiate between the real and unreal will gradually disappear. This idea has lost resonance here since 9/11, of course, which will most likely not derail this process in the long run but at least remind us there are fringe elements who haven't bought into Globalization (our very own free-trade Matrix) and are waging their own war against it. Keep this in mind the next time you catch Agent Smith muttering on the DVD that Morpheus is "a terrorist" and "quite possibly the most dangerous man alive."

But Reloaded will have none of this frission. I don't doubt for a moment that it will be smart (I was sold on them upon seeing the celebrated reference to Baudrillard in the first film), but the context is missing; the nerves the original struck respond to different stimuli now, and we are all far too familiar with at least one desert of the real.