In 1999, a question was posed that would have an unexpected impact on cinema and my life as a cinema-goer for years to come: “What is the Matrix?” It’s little more than tagline, a simple query that also serves as the url for the official website. Sadly, it’s remembered more for the revolutionary technology used to create bullet time and less for the philosophical questions inherent in the text that ask its audience to question the system of control that they find themselves plugged into. All three films of the trilogy — The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) — begged their audiences to analyze their conceptions of fate vs. free will, identity as a social construct, faith as guiding light, and, most importantly, leading with love. To most, the first film is the strongest, the subsequent sequels appearing as action tentpoles masquerading as intellectual arthouse fare as they espouse the various qualities of “The One” and what it means to be free amid sword fights on speeding trucks and fist fights in the rain. 18 years after Revolutions ended with the dual death of Keanu Reeves’s Neo and Carrie-Ann Moss’s Trinity, both return in the Lana Wachowski solo-directed The Matrix Resurrections. The question of how is, as expected from co-writer Wachowski, less important than why and, if one remembers our old friend The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), the why is what matters. If we understand why they’ve returned, then and only then can we understand the choices that have been made. The answer comes in the form of a love story placed on the center stage, given the focus above spectacle and philosophical intellectualism. But no one can really tell you what The Matrix Resurrections is. You have to experience it for yourself.
At the conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions, a peace of sorts was made between humanity and the machines as Neo brokered with the leader of the machines, Deus Ex Machina (voiced by Henry Blasingame), in order to stop the rapidly replicating Agent Smith (Huge Weaving) from taking over the Matrix and all of the machines themselves. Trinity lost her life on the journey to the machine city 01 and Neo himself didn’t survive his battle with Smith, yet both appear alive and well, leading relatively successful lives. And yet, once more, nothing is what it appears. Is this a new life, a reincarnated life, another part of a cycle of birth and rebirth involving the One, another system from the machines, or is this real?
Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation, “To seek new blood in its own death, to renew the cycle through the mirror of crisis, negativity, and antipower: this is the only solution-alibi of every power, of every institution attempting to breath the vicious cycle of its irresponsibility and of its fundamental nonexistence, of its already seen and of its already dead.” Baudrillard speaks of cycles and how the breaking of them often requires following the same steps as those previously walked, creating a new cycle that’s similar to the previous one. In this way, Resurrections very much feels like a story we’ve seen before while being something entirely new, feeding off that sweet nostalgia as if it were nourishing nectar, giving audiences that delicious dopamine fix they crave from familiar IP returning with new content, except it’s not the same. In fact, in several ways, it’s a deconstruction of the previous films, where the action sequences are no longer the highlights, shunted for more conversation among characters. There’s no Smith hunting for Morpheus, no control over the masses, no fight to prevent war. What there is, well, that gets into spoiler territory that will be discussed when the home release drops, however, what can be said is that Resurrections is far more personal, zeroed in on the relationship between Neo and Trinity and what that means for the rest of us. Credit to writing team of Wachowski, David Mitchell (Sense8), and Aleksandar Hemon (Sense8) for taking one of the biggest IP’s in the modern Warner Bros. Pictures collection and being bold enough to flip it upside down in an effort to push its audience in a fresh direction once more. It will seem familiar, it may seem rote, but, as with the original trilogy, there’s more at play than what we first see.
A great example of this is the action within Resurrections. Most of the action is not only uninspired, but it’s uncomfortable to watch. The editing is rapid-fire, the shots are too tight to be able to follow the action, and at least one action sequence seems set up to be able to go, “Hey! It’s XX!” If one were to examine the fight sequences of the previous three films, it’s usually the rubbery look of the CG which gets brought up more than anything, as each sequence is structured and shot to be followed and understood. The first thought that comes to mind is that the original trilogy was choreographed by legendary Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy) and this film is not. The second thought is more of a question: why would the fight sequences, important as they are to the story, feel so absolutely lackluster? Why does so much of the direction from Wachowski feel like the work of an amateur, rather than an auteur?
The whole of Resurrections is little more than “why?” being asked over and over. The answers provided may frustrate many at first, until they take the time to consider the perspective of the film and who’s in control. If one goes back to the first film, something which Resurrections references overtly through brief flashbacks as Neo, living as Thomas again, tries to figure out if he’s having memories or dreams, or subtly through style and structure when you notice the persist green lingering in every frame any time a scene within the Matrix is presented. At the very end of the trilogy, the Matrix is seemingly rebuilt with young program Sati (Tanveer K. Atwal) and The Oracle (Mary Alice), the sun breaking through the clouds, shifting from the gloomy green into a more realistic look. So we wonder why Resurrections looks more natural considering it follows the effects of Revolutions. Not only that, but if we consider that the camera, what we, the audience, see and experience, is another part of the system of control, except Wachowski is at the helm, then why would everything we see in this new Matrix be so uninspired? It’s a tactical means of control, weaponizing that which Sati created to develop a feedback loop to keep us in suspense.
Looking at it another way, in the original mysterious trailer (posted below), we see Thomas speaking with Neil Patrick Harris’s psychotherapist, whom the film refers to as The Analyst. The suggestion in the trailer is that Thomas is having or had a mental break, unable to deduce what’s real and what’s not. His medication? A blue pill. The language of the films implies that the blue pill keeps one connected to the Matrix and it’s an active choice Thomas makes every day. Similarly, The Analyst encourages Thomas to rely on what he can feel to ground him, to tether him to the false reality. It’s no different than techniques used to help people dealing with stimulation overload from external sources. Whereas in our supposed real reality (we’re not digging into Simulation Theory this time, sorry), these techniques allow people regulate their emotions enabling them to regain cognitive control. Within Resurrections, this technique serves as a measure of control going back to what Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo when they go to The Construct for the first time in The Matrix regarding what’s real: “How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” What Thomas experienced before was a prison he shared with the rest of humanity, but what he experiences now, before he can reawaken as Neo, is more precise and targeted, intended to combat Neo’s growing awareness, using his own mind against itself in the quest to learn the truth and break free from external control.
Time and again, the script finds ways to tap into aspects of the original films with a new context. It contextualizes, recontextualizes, and deconstructs the ideas of the original trilogy in a way that may bring you pause and, if you’re one who absorbed these films, The Animatrix, the video games, and other side projects that emanated from the Wachowskis’ minds, Resurrections will not only delight you, it will likely cause you to rethink the previous films in a brand new way. For instance, did you ever wonder why The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) in his design of the Matrix, created the idea of The One? Do you remember how Neo fought against the notion of being the One, seeing it as little more than another method of control over his personhood? Resurrections explores this once more, revealing just how much Neo’s story wasn’t over with his death, and how much Lana Wachowski believes in the reclamation of personhood (if the previous trilogy was too subtle for you).
The singular downside I can muster about Resurrections is its treatment of the new cast. Jessica Henwick’s Bugs is our entryway into the film, the literal incarnation of the metaphorical white rabbit — her character even says that her name is like the animated bunny or the technological listening device. She’s also a freedom fighter, a captain like Morpheus, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Roland (David Roberts) before her, is beyond charming and offers the kind of excited energy that fans of the series have come to maintain over the years. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a more enigmatic character, whose energy can be best described as chaotic, excited to be there, joyous in the opportunities that come with riding with Bugs and the possibility of fighting alongside Neo. The inclusion of his character and what he represents is likely to rile some audiences, but I encourage you to look beyond the loyalty to the characters and consider what Mateen II’s character represents as a bridge between realms and ideas. If Resurrections is a story which encourages remixing of the old to create the new, then binary notions of identity no longer apply. However, outside of these two new characters, even some time with old ones, the bulk of the film focuses on the story of Neo and Trinity. This comes at a cost of caring for anyone else. For instance, in the original Matrix, as Morpheus introduces each member of the team, the camera moves slowly, allowing the audience time to connect name to face. Resurrections does it more as a group, making it harder to distinguish who is whom. While this does convey a sense that few matter in this story outside of Neo, Trinity, Bugs, and other fan-favorites, it also decreases any sense of shared danger. If they’re basically faceless, why should we care what happens to them? It’s an odd loss of humanity from a series of films so determined to make the various shades of humanity the focus.
In conclusion, the best way to consider The Matrix Resurrections is to acknowledge from whence it came: loss. After losing both of her parents within a matter of weeks, Lana felt inspired to explore a new story within The Matrix franchise, one which would allow her to process her emotions in a world of her making via characters she cares for a great deal. Despite the cash-grab nature of reboots or long-gestating sequels, Resurrections maintains its irreverence for such populist acclaim, offering a film that’s as layered and complex as the previous releases, even going so far as throw a middle finger at the very machine which seeks to pump out new IP in the quest for more money, making a mockery of the executives and designers who seek financial gain not the creation of art. Resurrections is art. It may not be the art you wanted or thought you needed, but it’s a declarative statement that what we, the audience want, matters less than what the artist seeks to achieve. In this case, peace of mind and a healed heart. If this makes Neo and Trinity the ones to do it, I’m here for it.
In theaters and on HBO Max on the ad-free tier for 31 days beginning December 22nd, 2021.
For more information, head to Warner Bros. Pictures’s official The Matrix website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.