The Matrix was the very first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater. So naturally, it was a hugely formative film in my life to an extent that can hardly be overstated. I saw the film multiple times on DVD and read the screenplay multiple times, and that was all long before I had studied the film even further in my college years (alongside Dark City, a tragically underappreciated movie that dealt with many of the same themes and motifs).
Alas, The Matrix proved to be such a massive game-changer that Hollywood was too quick to bleed it dry back in the early ’00s. Within a couple of short years, the numerous “bullet-time” parodies had long since worn out their welcome. The Matrix Reloaded came out in 2003, we were introduced to the Architect, and we all watched the franchise jump the shark together. To this day, I still haven’t rewatched the second movie, and I’ve never once seen the third.
Incidentally, this is roughly the same time when the Star Wars prequel trilogy was running its course through theaters. In both cases, the respective fandoms were left with a deep sense of disappointment, or even betrayal. How could the original creators have disappeared so far up their own asses? How could the franchises have crashed and burned so hard when they had such a wonderful foundation to build upon? Is this really where we want to leave the franchise?
Still, at least Star Wars fans got The Force Awakens ten years after Episode III. And even after The Rise of Skywalker faceplanted, the Galaxy Far, Far Away continues to get new life on Disney+. Compare that to The Matrix, which hadn’t seen any new material of any kind since “The Matrix Online” MMO got shut down all the way back in 2009.
Cut to 2019, when the Wachowski Siblings lost both of their parents in quick succession. Lilly Wachowski responded by stepping away from the industry for a while, while Lana Wachowski coped by returning to the Matrix for the first time in fifteen freaking years. Though it bears mentioning that this meant putting the kibosh on a reboot announced in 2017, with Zak Penn writing the script. We’ll come back to that.
I deliberately made the choice not to revisit any of the prior Matrix movies before seeing The Matrix Resurrections. It wasn’t really a matter of seeing how the film held up for those who’ve never seen the previous films, it was more a matter of seeing how it held up for those who didn’t understand Reloaded and Revolutions. How deep into the weeds are we really going with regards to the mechanics and history of the Matrix?
Well, the good news is that anyone going into this will only need a cursory knowledge of the first trilogy. It helps that the filmmakers obligingly slip in flashbacks and archival footage to help get the audience up to speed. Also, Neo’s been out of commission for so long that all of the characters are nicely helpful in filling the gaps in his memory. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To put this as short and spoiler-free as I can, a new iteration of the Matrix was built after the events of the third film. In this new iteration, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a massively successful video game designer working for a company under the Warner Bros. Interactive umbrella. Even better, Mr. Anderson got to be a titan of the industry through his massively successful trilogy of “The Matrix” video games that just happen to perfectly resemble the movies. And now WB is pushing to make a fourth game, and if Tom doesn’t finally change his mind and agree to continue the franchise, somebody else will. Cue a montage in which a room full of clueless game designers and corporate suits try to dissect exactly what the Matrix is, why people love it, and how they can hope to recapture that lightning in a bottle.
Folks, we should all know by now not to expect subtlety from a Wachowski picture. As the film unfolds, the plot is repeatedly brought to a hard stop so the characters can talk about the (potentially false) binary nature of the universe, the nature of free will versus fate, and so on. It feels like half the film is comprised of discussions about how repetition, conformity, storytelling, and even all three put together (i.e., telling the same stories over and over again) can provide us with some measure of comfort and security, though they can also be abused to keep the masses somnambulant and compliant.
On the one hand, The Matrix itself was always conceived as a pleasant fiction meant to keep humans dormant and blind to an unpleasant truth, and expanding that to the Matrix franchise itself is boldly clever in a way that I can’t help but respect. On the other hand, even by mainstream blockbuster standards that thrive on nostalgia and meta commentary, this is a whole new level of circular logic the likes of which I’m not entirely sure anyone is fully equipped to properly dissect.
Moreover, by making this meta hook so central to the plot of the film, introducing Neo’s struggles with “Matrix IV” such a central part of the first freaking act, Lana Wachowski (inadvertently?) sends the message that she’s only making this movie under protest. Not a good look. But then again, judging from all the monologues throughout this picture, it’s clear that Wachowski came at this with something to say, and she means every word. And of course there can be little doubt that after all her experiences as an openly trans woman, Wachowski has found quite a few things to say about authority, binary thinking, and the nature of free will over the past fifteen years.
(Side note: It isn’t lost on me that Space Jam: A New Legacy went painfully far out of its way to include an extended sequence in reference to The Matrix, a woefully outdated and out-of-place R-rated parody in what was ostensibly a kid’s movie. And only six months after that inclusion in such a wretched act of corporate onanism, Wachowski returns the favor by shitting on her corporate overlords in this fashion. Magnificent.)
So what about the action? Well, the hand-to-hand sequences are fantastic. Great choreography all around. Alas, the gunfight sequences were nowhere near as effective — just a bunch of nameless goons shooting infinite bullets at our heroes without actually hitting anything. And Neo doesn’t do any bullet-time shenanigans, he mostly either pulls up force fields or redirects projectiles with telekinesis.
(Side note: The film’s stunt coordinator was Scott Rogers, a stunt performer for Chapter 3 and the upcoming Chapter 4 of the John Wick series. It perhaps bears remembering that Team John Wick was co-founded by Chad Stahelski, who was himself formerly a stunt performer on the previous Matrix films. Stahelski himself was obligingly given a prominent speaking cameo role here.)
For better or worse, the film doesn’t even try to reinvent the wheel or go bigger. I can respect that, especially after an overabundance of ambition sunk Reloaded and Revolutions. Moreover, Wachowski is clearly smart enough to realize that a movie with big statements and new ideas will leave a much bigger and longer-lasting impact than billion-dollar CGI alone. On the other hand, I found myself missing the bullet-time effect of 20 years ago at the sight of a slo-mo effect that looks laughably cheap.
It’s a damn shame, considering how the effects in this movie are otherwise solid. We’ve got some beautiful effects work in the real world — the city of Io looks fantastic and I love the new design work on the robots. I’m especially fond of the new nanoparticle swarm that allows programs to manifest in the real world. Brilliant idea, and it looks wonderful.
I should perhaps mention that only 20 years have passed in the Matrix, yet 60 years have passed in the real world. This is never explained. Though it does make for some neat advances in technology that allow for portals by way of mirrors and reflective surfaces, rather than hunting down one of the last remaining functional pay phones. Additionally, the backdoors of the previous films are now far more widely utilized, and they’re used to dazzling effect in the action sequences.
Moving on, what can I say about the cast? Well, Keanu Reeves is his typical charming self as Neo, and Carrie-Ann Moss gamely reprises Trinity. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is apparently having the time of his life chewing scenery as a new iteration of Morpheus, and no, I’m not going into any further detail on that. Hugo Weaving was unavailable to reprise the role of Smith, though Jonathan Goff makes for a sprightly replacement. And then of course we have Neil Patrick Harris, making sublime use of his inherently smarmy screen presence.
But of course the MVP of the newcomers is Jessica Henwick, playing a Resistance leader known only as “Bugs”. She’s got charisma, she’s got action chops, and I can only hope she returns to the MCU in place of Iron Fist ASAP.
The Matrix Resurrections is all over the place. This is a movie that will go from zero to 80 and back again on a dime, like the filmmakers were trying to speed-run the entire first movie trilogy while also cramming in philosophical monologues wherever they could. And as much as I found the monologues fascinating, there were so many of them about such a wide variety of topics, and considering that so many of them may be unreliable because they came from villainous characters… I’m not 100 percent convinced that it all comes together into something coherent.
Even so, the best thing I can say about this movie is that I’m glad it exists. It wasn’t exactly much of an accomplishment to clear the hurdle left by those last to movies, but god damn, we needed a Matrix movie that could clear that hurdle. I’d be more than happy if this was the note that the franchise ended on, and if it turns out to be a revival that leads to more sequels, I’d be curious to see where they go.