WARNING: spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections
Wow. That was the smartest blockbuster I’ve seen in years and the most postmodern and meta film I think I’ve ever seen. This is no simple sequel, nor is this a tired remake. This is Lana Wachowski writing a term paper on the Matrix franchise. Here she is breaking down her own films and asking questions about society. Why do you like The Matrix to begin with? Do you put more stock in your imaginary lives than your actual life? Is there real truth or does truth reside in an individual person’s mind? Etc. And she does so with a wacky sense of humor that could only come from a Wachowski.
This film has a TON of philosophical, satirical, and meta tidbits to wrap your mind around. But first, let’s start with the story.
It’s been 60 years since Neo’s sacrifice in The Matrix Revolutions brought about peace between the machines and man. And while that peace lasted quite a while; peace never lasts long enough. The machines are now using both Neo and Trinity to power the newest version of the Matrix. The problem is they keep waking each other up and ruining everything. So, as a failsafe, The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) has trapped Neo in a false narrative: he is Thomas Anderson: video game designer, and suicide survivor. So any time Neo wakes up, or remembers his past, the Matrix is reset and he is told that it is all PTSD from the trauma of his suicide attempt combined with him confusing reality for the video game series he created. It’s an endless cycle that he is unable to break free from. Constantly subtly aware something is wrong, but unable to do anything about it. This is visually shown through actual footage of the original trilogy breaking through during moments that feel similar to Neo.
We then meet Bugs (Get it? Like a computer bug) who follows a series of clues to discover Neo and wake him up. Neo’s awakening destabilizes this new version of the Matrix. So he, Bugs, and a new Morpheus (we’ll get there when we get there) must team up and go back in to save Trinity with a heist that could put the whole of the Matrix in jeopardy.
THE USERS AND THE PROGRAMS
Bugs is a fun new character, and Jessica Henwick brings energy and immediacy to the role. She is here to kick ass and break Neo out of the Matrix like Trinity did in the first film, but that’s where the similarities end. She actually has more in common with Niobe from the previous films in that she is a fantastic pilot and a captain of her own hover ship (the Mnemosyne). Speaking of Niobe, Jada Pinkett Smith does return (under some old woman make up) in a wonderful guest role. We even have good machines that help our main characters through their own free will! I would have also loved to see more of them and explore that side of the equation. If only Jada gave us more information about what happened in the intermediate years.
The big new addition here is Yahya Abul-Mateen II as the new Morpheus. He does a wonderful job in the role made famous by Lawrence Fishburne. And while he may not be quite the same, he also isn’t trying to be. This Morpheus has a sense of humor, and an awareness that the original Morpheus did not have. This Morpheus is a self-aware program Neo created who is then taken out of the Matrix and given his own body made up of millions of nano-bots. It’s an incredibly cool idea and something we’ve never seen before in this franchise. The last time a program left the Matrix, it was Smith taking over Bane’s body; but this is something totally new. Programs now have dimension and physicality in both the Matrix and the real world. And that new ability is used quite effectively. My biggest complaint in The Matrix Revolutions was the fact that Morpheus didn’t do much in that third film. Resurrections addresses that problem and makes Morpheus integral to the story.
Jonathan Groff steps into Hugo Weaving’s shoes as the new Agent Smith. But while Morpheus was always envisioned to be a new actor, that was not the case here. Hugo was asked to come back, and he did want to return. But sadly, scheduling conflicts prevented him from doing so. That being said, Jonathan does a great job of bringing the dry sensibilities and seething anger Smith is known for. He has a slightly younger and fresher energy to him which also helps his Smith feel like he’s been given a second life. And the explanation for the change in appearance does make sense within the context of the story. Smith has a rather interesting role in the film, which I will not spoil here. My only complaint is we didn’t get more of his character. I would have loved to see what he was doing while Neo was regaining his strength.
But the real reason to come to this movie is Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss; both of which have only improved as actors with age. This film probably features their strongest performances as Neo and Trinity. And even thought Carrie Anne goes by “Tiffany" for most of the film (her persona given to her by the new Matrix), once she awakens, she has a fury, and an energy that only Trinity embodies. This film simultaneously brings her character back to life while also giving her death in Revolutions more meaning. Resurrections links Neo and Trinity is a more direct way, creating a bond between the two that is what gives them their power. We realize that Neo was never The One on his own. It was always the bond and the love between the two of them that gave him his abilities. This retroactively makes their kiss at the end of the first film make much more sense. It also helps Trinity’s death feel more connected to Neo. Revolutions was about Neo fulfilling his karma, and if Trinity is part of The One, then that means she needed to fulfill hers as well. In Resurrections, this bond between the two is what keeps the film (and the Matrix itself) going. It’s the heart of the story. Love is what keeps us going; what awakens us. Love breaks the programming.
Lana Wachowski's directing is just as strong as ever. She keeps the film looking slick and cool. Her camera angles have energy, motion, and style for days. I particularly loved the sideways shot as Bugs pulls Morpheus through a back door near the beginning. Lana fills the screen with interesting visuals, presenting us with fresh ideas, while still remaining truthful to the world we know and love. It's clear she hasn't lost any steam, even if she is directing on her own. And her use of color is wonderful; using it not just to look good, but to represent themes as well. Neil Patrick Harris wears blue glasses and blue outfits, clearing showing his connection to the Blue Pills and their control. Reds are used for the machines in the real world, bathing the futuristic machine cities in an ominous red glow.
The action is intense and contained, having more in common with the choreography in the first film than in films two and three. No, there is nothing as spectacular as the Burly Brawl from Reloaded, or the Super Brawl from the end of Revolutions. But The Matrix films have always been a science fiction conversation disguised as an action franchise. As such, Lana uses her action very smartly here. The evolution of Neo’s Bullet-Time into full blown telekinesis is a wonderful and inventive expansion of his abilities. The fights themselves feel very chaotic and therefore fit with the notion of Neo finding his stride again. And the climactic motorcycle chase through the “swarm” is intense and even brutal at times. So while Resurrections may not be quite as bombastic as Reloaded or Revolutions, it all feels much more personal and cared after.
THIS TIME, IT'S PERSONAL
That is what sets this film apart from most of the films I’ve seen this year. The Matrix Resurrections is an incredibly personal film for Lana Wachowski. The film has been dedicated to her parent who recently passed. She has opened up about this in interviews, revealing she used this film to help her through the grieving process. You can feel that passion on display here. The love we see on display between the characters feels like a love letter to the people who raised her. And the theme of soul mates, love breaking bonds, and setting the mind free have an earnestness that most likely would have been lost if this film had been written and directed by a gun for hire. Resurrecting Neo and Trinity has new meaning when you take this into consideration.
The Matrix Resurrections also address the cultural response to the first three films. Depending on your age, you may or may not remember how absolutely MASSIVE the first three films were. They overtook popular culture in the early 2000’s, influencing everything from story telling, to filmmaking, to music, to fashion, even technology. They were mammoths of media. What Lana does here is analyze our obsession. Wachowski includes a scene that was no doubt ripped straight from a staff meeting she had to suffer through: a focus group that discusses what audiences think of when they hear the word “Matrix”. It crudely breaks the films down into key words you can fit on a button.
“Originality” and “fresh” are the top two.
What follows is what might be my favorite montage sequence of any film to date. We witness Neo suffering through the same day over and over again set to White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. He repeats the same stale conversations, talking about what made the first three so original. “It messed with your head” is repeated about a half a dozen times. “It’s a metaphor” is said, followed by a list of things the original films could represent. Lana absolutely had to sit through one of these mind numbing meetings and she uses the pain of that tedium to great effect. It so perfectly captures the monotony and mundane dullness of everyday life; being trapped in your routine, a prison of your own creation. There’s even a moment with Neo sitting on the toilet, and written on either side of the stall walls is “look right” and “look left”. Because we all even have the same quirks and rituals, including looking around at our surroundings when there’s nothing to do but sit down.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Over the past decade, we as audiences have received a crop of sequels that have based their structure almost solely on a previous film in their franchise. Jurassic World, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters: Afterlife are only a few examples. This year also saw the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is a nostalgia explosion. I don’t mention these films to disparage them. In fact, I enjoy every one of the films listed above. But I cannot deny that most of them do follow the same structure as the film that came before. They change details, but the bare bones is the same story. And while Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t follow the same plot as previous Spider-Man films, it does rely on the audience’s nostalgia for those films. It’s not bad, it’s just a fact. A fact that Lana mocks openly in this sequel with dialogue like
“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.”
The opening scene of The Matrix Resurrections directly addresses this trend by replaying the opening scene of the original film, but from a different point of view, and with many inconsistencies. Wait a minute, it didn’t happen like that! But while The Force Awakens simply recycled plot points as an homage, Resurrections recycles plot points as a statement. As mentioned above, this film is an analysis of pop culture’s obsession with the first three films, but it’s also a giant meta middle finger to internet culture and the Hollywood system’s need to rehash everything until it’s dead in the water.
Neo is suffering living in this life, this cycle. Discussing the same games over and over again into oblivion. This mirrors how the same questions or fan theories are discussed ad infinum on fan forums and Facebook groups. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen someone post “was Hereditary worth watching?” Or how many Star Wars forums are STILL fighting over whether or not Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are canon (they are). It’s ridiculous. Lana straight up mocks those who put so much effort into arguing over these trivial things. She also mocks those who want brainless action with a minor character who says things like “I like my games big, loud and dumb”.
Lana has no interest in making this film the way you want. If she is going to do a rehash of a previous film, you are playing by HER rules.
A such, the satire is strong with this one. Lana constantly parodies nostalgic references that mirror previous moments in the franchise. Morpheus’ reveal in the bathroom is the most obvious. “Now here I am years later coming out of a toilet stall. Tragedy or farce?” It IS farcical. Lana’s jabs at our obsession with revisiting things are both funny and clever. Be sure to wait until after the credits for a hilarious scene that so perfectly encapsulates the internet's obsession with cats.
She also shames modern pop vocabulary like “O-M-G”, “sheeple”, and “triggered”. You’ll notice that every character who uses these terms is a program. Each viewer will take what they will from that, but I personally saw it as her way of attacking our tendency to distill things into smaller, catchier, snappier versions in an attempt to make it feel fresh or original. Remember those two key words?
Another talking point is emotional manipulation. At one point, The Analyst says “You don’t give a shit about fact. You care about fiction. The only world that matters is the one in here. And you people will believe the craziest shit.” That’s calling us out. Everyone, really. How many pages or people have we muted on Facebook because their personal beliefs don’t align with ours? How many News sites do we ignore because their rhetoric doesn’t line up with our political leanings? How many FACTS do we ignore on a daily basis because it goes against what we WANT to believe? We as a society are deeply distrusting, and it all comes down to what we FEEL is right. This addresses the nature of truth. Is there a definitive truth? Or is truth, just what each person perceives in their own mind? Chew on that for a bit.
What does that say about human pursuit and happiness? It seems endless doesn’t it?
Can we ever really be happy? Are you truly living or simply existing? Some walk through life blind folded, only living in little moments and never TRULY breaking out of the monotony of the cycle of work, food, sleep. Think about the internet generation. No one wants to actually work for money anymore. No one puts forth effort because they believe its not worth the struggle. Millions have grown up in a system that gives them just enough so they can sit on a couch and make money by filming themselves. As long as they're happy and content, they can waste away without putting any energy into their lives. That's existing, not living.
This film is about LIVING. Doesn't matter if you’ve broken the cycle before, break it again and again every time to be free. By having the same trap happen to Neo, it makes the fact that we’re all trapped in our lives just a little bit more obvious. I personally thought it was a genius way to look at modern society and our obsession with digging up the past because we’re not confident with the future.
Any critic or audience member who claims this is simply a rehash of the original is clearly missing the point.
I could write paper after paper about this film. It's talking points are numerous and weighty. And while I may have some very minor gripes, like preferring Hugo and wanting to see more of the real world, I cannot deny the power of what was presented to me. As I said before, Lana is not interested in playing by the rules. She refused to give us a straight sequel or reboot, and instead has presented us with a film that is simultaneous a term paper, a satire, a searing indictment of Hollywood and internet culture, a beautiful love letter to those that bring us hope, and a high-concept action film.
All of this makes The Matrix Resurrections the MOST Matrix film in the franchise.
But it also makes this the most divisive of the lot. Because there will always be those who miss the point. Those who "like my games big, loud and dumb”. And for those of you out there, you are shit out of luck. But for those of us who want layers with our action, be prepared to dig in deep with this masterpiece of postmodern filmmaking. I think if you view The Matrix Resurrections with an open mind, and allow Lana to guide you through her wild ride of nostalgia and wry humor, you’ll see that there is so much more here than a simple remake or retread. And I am very thankful for that.
So tell me, are you ready to journey down the rabbit hole?