Three years ago in Tehran, I was thrilled when some friends from the literary scene managed to arrange an interview for me with a leading Iranian intellectual, an expert in the conjunction of Iranian esoteric thought and Buddhism. Once the conversation got rolling, I ventured to ask the scholar what he thought of the philosophic dimension of certain Iranian films. With a sly smile, he replied that he was far more intrigued by the philosophic aspects of a recent Western film–The Matrix.

I mention that view not to endorse it, but to indicate the distances and heights it had traversed within months of the film’s 1999 release. Today anyone who supposes that The Matrix is just another huge sci-fi/action franchise, in the line of the Terminator and Alien movies, hasn’t heard the news. Uniquely, the Wachowski Brothers’ pop phenom is seen as enclosing a vast world of mythic, metaphysical, postmodern philosophic thought. Beyond its legions of fans on the Web, it has inspired countless articles, theses and books including two I’ve recently been perusing, The Matrix and Philosophy (William Irwin, editor) and Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix (Glenn Yeffeth, editor).

Now hold that thought while considering this one: News reports indicate that Keanu Reeves could earn upward of $100 million for starring in the movie’s two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (which opens this week) and Matrix Revolutions (which arrives at Christmas). A $100 million would seem an absurd amount to pay any actor for two movies (unless those movies were expected to have a cumulative worldwide take of circa a billion dollars), which seems to be the case here. So the next question: Can the intellectual credentials of the year’s biggest popcorn movie(s) really be taken seriously? Or is this just another case of overdetermined pop ephemera seducing the pointyheads?

My answers to those questions fall on the skeptical side. I was far less impressed with The Matrix than I was fascinated by the responses it generated, the adulation and identification and deep-dish tributes by writers from an array of disciplines. At the very least, the Wachowskis struck a chord in the zeitgeist, a very resonant and far-reaching one. Yet the claims made for the movie often had a telling edge of defensiveness–a roundabout acknowledgement, perhaps, of the disparity between its “fun” and “serious” aspects.

The Matrix was, after all, an odd hybrid: a kick-ass action spectacular laden with weighty cerebral concerns. Appositely, its story focused on a divided hero (Reeves), a mild-mannered computer programmer named Thomas Anderson by day, an infamous computer hacker called Neo by night. As if to exemplify this split identity, the film’s drama kicks off with Neo’s discovery that the 1999 world he and most of humanity inhabit is a computer-generated illusion. Actually, it’s more than a century later and an advanced generation of machines is keeping humans enslaved by generating this simulation of reality–the Matrix. Enlisted into a small group of rebels including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), Neo is seen by some as the long prophesied “One”–a combination hacker Messiah and cyber-Spartacus, as it were.

In just that rough premise, you’ve already got hints of Plato’s Myth of the Cave, core ideas from Christianity, Buddhism and other creeds, and a kinship with scads of noted sci-fi films from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis through Dark City and Strange Days–all of which the Wachowskis filter through influences as diverse as Japanese anime and manga comics, the “cyberpunk” fiction of William Gibson, and the technophobic cultural theories of dotty French philosophe Jean Baudrillard.

And if all of that sounds like more high-flown significance than one Keanu Reeves vehicle can handle cogently–well, it was. As its nonadmirers never tired of pointing out, The Matrix introduced a welter of fascinating concepts, allusions and possibilities, only to coalesce, in its final reels, into a blizzard of formulaic, futuristic Hong Kong-style chopsocky.

The Matrix Reloaded seems sure to continue its predecessor’s huge box-office success and unsteady intellectual rep, since it basically offers bigger portions of the same meal. Story-wise, it finds Neo, his honey Trinity, and Morpheus amid a pulsing horde of rebels in the vast underground fortress of Zion, a milieu that unfortunately combines the vapid grandeur of recent Star Wars films with the grunge of a Nine Inch Nails video. Among the more striking scenes thereafter, our heroes run into a French-spouting baddie named Merovingian (a reference, presumably, to the Jesus conspiracy theory tome Holy Blood, Holy Grail) and his wife, Persephone, characters whose foppish malevolence weirdly seems to anticipate America’s recent bout of Francophobia. And, climactically, Neo encounters a white-suited gent called the Architect, who designed the Matrix and reveals that its current version is merely the latest of six, all doomed by the pesky human race.

None of this resolves anything, however. Like the cliffhangers of yore, The Matrix Reloaded ends in media res, directing our attention toward the trilogy’s conclusion. Still, what matters to most audiences will not be the narrative architecture or the ideas, but the big action set-pieces, and these–including an extended battle on a freeway that was built for the occasion–are as elaborate and state-of-the-art as anyone could wish. Indeed, special effects technology has advanced such that the first Matrix now looks like a modest, hand-crafted art film by comparison.

Personally, though I know this technology is key to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and all the other fantasy extravaganzas that Americans now dutifully troop off to at the solstices, I find that it has passed the point of diminishing returns. When dazzling realms can be conjured and destroyed with the stroke of a digital wand, they all begin to feel vaporous and interchangeable. People, too: In Hong Kong action movies, the fighters look like they’re actually performing the stunts and could be hurt. Here, Keanu’s so swathed in f/x sorcery that he never seems to risk bruises, abrasions, or even breaking a sweat.

Technology, though, is essential not only to the Matrix films’ sensory wallop but also to their place in the culture. As such, as generators of (or lightning rods for) meaning in the most conspicuous public sense, I would suggest that the Wachowskis’ trilogy has two primary precedents: 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late ’60s and the Star Wars cycle beginning in 1977. All of these sci-fi films provoked extravagant discussion and devotion upon release, and all were seen as possessing a significance that ranged far beyond their bare-bones plots or entertainment value.

All three, too, not only depended on the cutting-edge movie technology of their day, and variously meditated on technology as an issue (this of course is less true of Star Wars), but also seemed to reflect and embody a technological paradigm. 2001, especially in retrospect, was the very apotheosis of cinema, as brainy as any European art film yet given the sweep and majesty of Hollywood. The kiddie-oriented Star Wars, as I’ve argued elsewhere, marked a fateful incursion by cinema’s arch-nemesis: television. And The Matrix, which arrived the year the dot-com bubble reached its peak, deliriously evoked the world of the computer, including digital cousins the Internet, the Web, virtual reality, cell phones, etc.

It’s been observed that, while the peculiar passivity of TV-viewing induced a “dumbing down” from the eras of print and cinema, the interactive qualities of computer/Web culture have restored a measure of intellectual engagement. Correspondingly, the Matrix films harken back to 2001 in their seriousness, their overt philosophic aims, and their presumption of a post-pubescent audience. Yet the kinship line runs in the other direction too. For, unlike 2001, a singular work created by an artist seemingly given limitless freedom from expectation and constraint, the Matrix movies mimic Star Wars in clinging to mossy genre conventions (heroism, action, romance) in order to assure a lowest-common-denominator constituency for a procession of expensive sequels.

Along with commercial considerations, the multi-part nature of the Lucas and Wachowski cycles mean that they lack the clean allegorical shape of 2001. Indeed, I would argue that in Star Wars and Matrix alike, meaning is contained less in the lumpy, cliche-prone narratives–or in their pastiches of “ideas” and influences–than in look, tone, iconography.

In that sense, what an epochal shift these films seem to mark! With its blond, white-clad Luke Skywalker, Star Wars now seems the veritable culmination of 2000 years of Christian idealism; a funky utopia yet a utopia nonetheless, it plays like the last chapter of When Knighthood Was in Flower. Epitomized by dark haired, sunglasses-wrapped, black-clad Neo (who in the new film trades his Sergio Leone leather trenchcoat for the sheer black cassock of a Dominican monk!), The Matrix by contrast is not just the quintessence of dark, nihilistic dystopianism, but a specific variety thereof: dystopianism suitable for suburban shopping malls.

Yes, kids, insect-like shades and ankle-length trenchcoats are cool. In many ways, The Matrix is no more profound than this: a shallow set of atavistic codes evolved in the past two decades by fashionistas, MTV, entertainment marketers and filmmakers to sell junk to kids and rubes.

Yet that’s not to deny its dark milieu any philosophical import. On the contrary, I would venture that no recent movie comprises a more vivid and compelling emblem of the cul de sac of commodified decadence that Western culture (pop, academic and philosophic) now finds itself in. Reminiscent of the seething nightworlds of Weimar Germany, this milieu invites neither genuine rebellion nor escape but rather the fetishization of dependence and inversion: bad is good, dark is light, ugly is beautiful, etc. Among the many traditional signifiers that get upended in this process, notice in Reloaded how the orgiastic celebrations of Zion’s rebels–our heroes, remember–resemble nothing so much as ancient Rome’s bacchanals or, indeed, the Israelites’ frenzied worship of the Golden Calf.

Is the computer our era’s Golden Calf? Actually, the philosophy The Matrix most recalls is ancient Gnosticism, which despised the real world as the abortive creation of a cruel minor god, a demiurge like the movie’s “Architect.” Although this idea has roots in Judeo-Christian thought and Platonism alike, it was appropriately denounced by both St. Augustine and Plotinus. The latter, in his brilliant “Against the Gnostics,” intuits how the Gnostics took Plato’s Myth of the Cave and, through vanity and arrogance, effectively inverted its meaning, cutting off any chance of philosophic escape/ascent toward the Real.

So it is with the self-contradiction at the heart of The Matrix: The Wachowskis invented/inherited a great symbol of media-reality as a potential intellectual and spiritual prison, yet in allying it with convention and commodification, their creation itself has become part of the Matrix. EndBlock