Even before the house lights come up in the theater, while the final credits for The Matrix Reloaded are still rolling, the arguments begin.
Is the character named Neo the Messiah? Will Zion be destroyed? Is the last face seen on the screen supposed to be Judas? The discussions, some of them heated, continue as viewers file from the multiplex and spill out under the marquee.
As Matrix mania continues to sweep the country, Americans are debating whether the much anticipated sequel is just another science-fiction action movie, or a spiritually significant film rife with profound religious symbolism.
Some believe filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski are using religious symbols to build a cult following around the original Matrix and the sequel, with apparent success. The first film has grossed $460 million, and expectations are equally high for Reloaded.
The second in the trilogy, Reloaded tells the story of a futuristic, messianic character who battles a menacing computer power called the Matrix. Portrayed by Keanu Reeves, Neo is described as "The One" whom prophecy says will save the underground city of Zion and, ultimately, the world. Although many have latched on to Christian references, others have cited similarities to the story of Buddha.
"Any movie that touches on spiritual themes is going to be extremely popular with young people," says the Rev. John Hever of the Orlando-based H2O youth ministry. "A great many young people have been eagerly waiting for this to come out."
Because Reloaded is R-rated, some evangelicals may have to wait until an edited version of the sequel is released on video, DVD or network television. But some Christian critics who have screened the unedited version have been harsh in their reviews.
Reloaded is "a violent story that contains a gratuitous sex scene, nudity, foul language," according to Movie Guide, a Christian magazine and Web site in Southern California.
Despite dialogue about good versus evil, and some "redemptive elements," Movie Guide says, the film "contains cryptic philosophical discussions about choice, fate, control and purpose. No answers are really reached, but the movie seems to be leaning toward a humanistic view of such matters."
Other Christian reviewers agree, although less vehemently.
"From the Christian perspective, I think the filmmakers missed the mark," says Michael Elliot of the Orlando-based Christiancritic.com. "The Christian analogies don't hold up anymore. It's a hodgepodge of spirituality. I'm not angry about it. I'm not offended by it. I think people will be disappointed. It's filled with an aura of self-importance that it doesn't deserve."
The original Matrix spawned at least 100 Web sites dealing with Christian imagery, and three books have been written about religion and spirituality in the films.
Glenn Yeffeth, editor of Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix, says the plot follows classic, pre-Christian myth, the classic tale of "a young man who decides that there is something wrong with the universe, goes off in search of the truth and in the process finds himself and his own power."
The Rev. Chris Seay, a pastor and co-author of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix, has no problem with the mixture of religious symbolism.
"The Christian metaphor is the strongest metaphor, a prominent metaphor, but it is one of many, along with Buddhism and Hinduism," he says. The character of Neo "is Jesus, but he is many other things as well."
Soon, Seay predicts, most of the members of his eclectic, downtown Houston congregation will have seen Reloaded, and clips from the sequel will soon find their way into sermons across the country.
However, "The Matrix is not a Christian film," says editor Yeffeth.
"There are a number of Christian parallels, but this is not a film that will satisfy someone who is looking for a truly Christian film, because it is in love with too many different ideas," Yeffeth says.
Mark I. Pinsky is a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.