This post contains major spoilers for ‘The Matrix Resurrections.”
A bit of inside baseball before getting into the post. My original plan had been to kick off Franchise Friday for 2022 with a look at the first four Scream movies. Timing, however, would require me to double up on each in order to have the last coincide with the release of Scream (5) on Jan. 14, and I just didn’t have the time over break to get started. I’m hoping to do a franchise overview on Jan. 14, with a spoiler-filled release of the newest film the Monday or Tuesday after, but we’ll see how timing goes. It was nice to get a break, but I’ll confess it’s been a bit hard to get the creative juices flowing again in 2022.
But I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the latest Matrix film, which came out in the holiday rush, after everyone’s had time to see it. I considered wrapping it into the catch-ups I’ll be doing starting next week, but this one seemed to merit its own discussion. So, I hope you’ll indulge one more dive into the world of The Matrix.
Lana Wachowski could be forgiven for cheating.
It’s no secret that the two Matrix sequels are not universally beloved (although, upon recent revisits, I’ve found both are much better than I’d given them credit for). The saga seems to be shorthand for how to ruin audience goodwill, and I have a hunch Warner Brothers would not have objected if Wachowski had pulled a Halloween and pretended no other Matrix adventures happened after 1999.
And I have to imagine that Warner Brothers would have been thrilled with a simple Matrix reboot that re-told the story of the first film, giving audiences a reminder of what they loved so much and setting the stage for an epic that would finally portray the end of the war between machines and humans.
But Lana Wachowski does not cheat.
The Matrix Resurrections honors the mythology that came before, building on what happened in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. She does so without sacrificing the beating heart and earnestness that fueled those entries; indeed, she leans harder into it. At the same time, she creates a new world for Neo and the other coppertops to play in, with new rules and wrinkles, all while giving our culture’s nostalgia obsession a much-needed rap on the knuckles.
The Matrix Resurrections is messy — it wouldn’t be a Matrix sequel otherwise — but it’s also exciting, funny and fresh. The Wachowskis have a history of refusing to take the expected route, and The Matrix Resurrections doesn't play it safe. It will enrage some and annoy others, but it is its own gloriously original thing.
Re-enter The Matrix
“Our parent company, Warner Brothers, has decided they’re going to make a sequel to the original trilogy. If you don’t do it, they’ll do it without you.”
No one can know for certain, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if these words were spoken to Lana Wachowski. By all indications, she had no plans on returning to the world she and Lilly created in 1999. While they never recaptured the cultural success they did with that first entry, their post-Matrix career gave them a blank check to create earnest, esoteric sci-fi epics. Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and the Netflix series Sense8 may have been commercial disappointments, but they have their ardent fans (however, I have never heard anyone say anything nice about Jupiter Ascending). By all accounts, they were content to leave Neo and his adventures behind.
But The Matrix is such an influential bit of intellectual property that it was absurd to think the studio would leave it dormant for too long. Several years ago, whispers began circulating that another entry was in the works. It was rumored that Michael B. Jordan would play a young Morpheus in a prequel written by Zak Penn. Shortly after, it was instead announced that Lana Wachowski was back as director of a new sequel and that original stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss would also return — an unexpected development, given that Neo and Trinity both died in The Matrix Revolutions.
Was Warner Brothers planning on a Wachowski-less prequel before Lana agreed to come back, or was this the check she had in her back pocket once Jupiter Ascending was a critical and commercial failure? Was Michael B. Jordan rumored for the take on Morpheus that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is in here, and stories just got combined? The full story might not come out for a few years, but the way The Matrix Resurrections unfolds hits at a creator returning to take control of her story rather than see it parceled out as another piece of IP.
The first 45 minutes of The Matrix Resurrections is its boldest and most interesting, told with a wit and looseness that the original trilogy could have used a shot of. An opening that retells the first minutes of The Matrix is revealed instead to be a simulation created by Thomas Anderson (Reeves), a videogame designer who created a massively popular trilogy of games called The Matrix. Everything that happened in the original trilogy appears to just be fodder for a videogame, except that someone appears to have hacked the simulation Thomas has created, recognizing it as a crucial point in an ongoing mythology. And Thomas himself isn’t well; he’s having nightmares about a bizarre computer world, and he currently sees a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) to deal with the fallout of a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt he had years earlier, seemingly the fallout of tension with his design partner, Smith (Johnathan Groff).
I heard several people compare The Matrix Resurrections’ first hour to Gremlins 2, and it’s helpful to point out that not only are they right, but that in no way should ever be read as a criticism. Anderson’s reluctance to return to the creation that brought him fame and fortune is peppered by focus groups who nitpick the mythology and story to death, suggest ways to make it cooler, and express their own misguided views about what made the original product tick (it’s no accident that one marketer says that Bullet Time is the only thing people remember from the first game and that, in the end, it’s Bullet Time that is revealed to be a new weapon to use against Neo).
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Thomas, for his part, goes along with creating the new game, but he’s not invested. His reality is breaking down, and he has hallucinations about gunfights breaking out in his office, Smith’s mouth gluing shut, and Morpheus breaking out of the game to rescue him. When things get too chaotic, his therapist is there to reassure him, feed him a blue pill and send him back to reality. But even then, Thomas isn’t content. All he wants to do is go to the coffee shop and find an excuse to talk to Tiffany (Carrie Ann Moss), a married woman who he feels a mysterious kinship to. It could be seen as a proxy for Lana Wachowski returning begrudgingly to the series and just going through the motions.
You can probably guess where it all goes next; this is a Matrix movie, after all. And there are, indeed, deeper layers of reality, foes in disguise, underground human cities and moments of loud, violent action. But while Wachowski may, indeed, be telling the truth about what brought her back to the famous franchise, she doesn’t seem to be going through the motions; she’s energized and has big ideas on her mind. As she’s done throughout her career, she’s going to tell the story she wants to tell, no matter who it might piss off.
All you need is love
There’s a sense that Wachowski is writing this sequel as therapy and to right some of the wrongs that happened in the wake of the cultural juggernaut that The Matrix became. Within weeks of its release, the trench coat-clad heroes were blamed for inspiring the Columbine shooters. The film’s “red pills” icons have been co-opted by the alt right. A science fiction film that was littered with explorations of identity and meaning, with copious doses of philosophical and theological musings, was distilled to just being a rad shoot-’em-up scored to electronica. Everyone talked about “bullet time;” no one seemed to care about the love story between Neo and Trinity. Even I had forgotten how heavily the trilogy leans on their relationship; the first two films hinge on either Trinity professing her love for Neo or Neo risking humanity to save her. The only way Neo can be willing to sacrifice himself at the end of Revolutions is because he’s lost everything; Trinity has died en route to the Machine City.
The writer-director has talked openly about how this film came about as a way to process her grief after the death of her parents and a good friend, and that the idea of resurrecting these characters provided an emotional catharsis. On a recent episode of the Blank Check podcast, Griffin Newman shared a story Wachowski had told in an interview, in which she described a suicidal encounter as an adolescent; certain details of that story are crucial here, not only as Thomas finds himself avoiding his suicidal impulses but also as how the character of Bugs “woke up” from the Matrix by encountering him in an earlier attempt.
The Matrix franchise has been a space for Wachowski to explore big ideas, the biggest of which is love as a force for good, a theme which shows up repeatedly in her subsequent works. In the films’ mythology, the One was created as a system of control; he was someone whose path would ultimately be back to the Source, where he would resubmit himself because of a general love for all people. In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo chooses not to give himself to the Source, driven instead by need to save his love.
This has consequences; in The Matrix Revolutions, we learn that Neo’s actions have rippled into the machines’ worlds. Early on, Neo meets two programs who have had a baby; they’re trying to save her because they feel a love for this program, even though it serves no definable purpose. Programs like the Oracle can’t quite describe why they’re driven to help the humans in their quest against the Machines, but they are. There’s a change coming, powered by love. And it ultimately leads to that trilogy’s ending, in which Neo sacrifices himself, agreeing to re-insert himself in the Source to defeat Smith, but in return he asks for a truce: the Matrix will continue to exist, but every human who wants to be freed will be allowed to do so. Those who prefer to stay asleep will be allowed to do so as well. The programs won’t be decimated. Love wins.
My biggest fear heading into The Matrix Resurrections was that Wachowski would undo this ending, either by ignoring it or finding a new way to reheat the battle between Machines and Humans. And when he awakens in the Real World, Neo has the same fear that his death has been for nothing. But he learns that things have changed. The Machines did free humans, which has led to an energy crisis and ultimately a civil war among the Machines, many of which decided to work alongside the humans, who live peacefully in a community called IO. It’s for this reason that an aged Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) doesn’t want Neo to venture back into the Matrix and wage war; but Neo has no desire to do that. He simply wants to save Trinity.
The Trinity/Neo relationship was the engine that drove the original trilogy, and here it’s the engine that drives the new Matrix. Neo has no desire to fight; in a remarkable and refreshing move, Keanu Reeves never wields a gun in this movie and, aside from some fights with Smith, he only uses his powers to defend himself, not hurt others. His and Trinity’s love is so powerful that the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris’ therapist character revealed) realizes he must keep them apart — but not too far apart, as their yearning is what powers the whole thing; he exploits their desire and discontent for his own means. In the end, it all comes down to Neo and Trinity being together, realizing that there’s no such thing as The One – it’s the Two, the power of love, that will save the world. Where the first film ended with Neo flying away to wage war, this film ends with Neo and Trinity flying away to paint rainbows in the sky. Maybe it’s a bit corny, but it’s of a piece with the bigger story Wachowski has told, and it’s refreshing to see a big-budget blockbuster so unwilling to give into expectations.
A true Matrix sequel
The Matrix Resurrections is at its best when Wachowski is free to explore these and other ideas. The concept of the Analyst using nostalgia and desire to pacify people and gain energy from their frustrations and desires, is a reflection of The Matrix in the internet age. The uneasy alliance between Thomas Anderson and Smith, a corporate exec here, reflects the tenuous bond Wachowski has with the suits over at Warner Brothers. Trinity discovering that her life has been given to her to placate her and hide her true identity is a furthering of the franchise’s discussions of identity and fluidity. Wachowski is not sleepwalking and giving a Matrix’s greatest hits here, so much as recontextualizing the familiar to evolve its ideas.
In the time since The Matrix and its original sequels, Reeves has been embraced as an icon and rightfully recognized as a talented actor. His take on Thomas Anderson/Neo is softer here, more baffled and insecure than the cool killer we get in the original franchise. Moss, absent from the screen for far too long, is fantastic; her final scenes here deliver on the badass nature of the character and undo a lot of the damage done to Trinity in the sequels. While I miss Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving, Abdul-Mateen and Groff are welcome replacements, and I particularly liked the former’s joy at adopting Morpheus’ swagger (Morpheus is not around because his character was killed in the online game that came out post-Revolutions, a bit of continuity that surprised me). Most welcome is Jessica Henwick as Bugs, one of the awakened minds, and her energy and charisma go a long way toward making this more than just The Matrix Reheatings.
Wachowski’s filmmaking style has changed over time, however, and there is a sense in which Resurrections often doesn’t feel like a Matrix story. The green tint is gone from the sections with in the Matrix; while there’s a narrative explanation for that embedded at the end of Revolutions, it also speaks to the director’s looser, brighter and more earnest directorial approach. There’s more comedy here, whether it’s the overt satire of the film’s first hour or a deflation of some of the concepts of the first one (Reeves’ reaction to Neo’s inability to fly is quite funny). There are fun motifs with mirrors and reflections, and the use of a new type of Bullet Time may not have the wow factor of the original, but it works narratively.
What she hasn’t figured out yet is how to gracefully propel a complex narrative and, like most Matrix sequels, the film gets bogged down when it tries to explain its complex mythology. The details around the return of Smith are murky, and the film’s stop in IO is an interesting way to follow up on the events of Revolutions, but it’s also kind of a pointless digression undone when Neo is rescued from prison shortly after he arrives. There’s also the sense that there’s a trilogy’s worth of ideas crammed into the film’s back half, involving not only the events on IO but a heist to get Trinity’s body out of her pod, a brief (and welcome) return of the Merovingian that is basically an extended cameo and an excuse for a fight scene, and a challenge between Neo and the Analyst that feels rushed through to get to an action sequence. The action sequences themselves are sometimes hampered by Wachowski’s newfound love for improvisations; a scene in a garage is a bit cluttered, although a shootout in Neo’s office and a climactic motorcycle chase are both a lot of fun. But it wouldn’t be a Matrix movie without feeling like a mess.
It might just be because I spent a month with this franchise, but I’m just happy to have another Matrix story. I love the world the Wachowskis created, and I’m thrilled that Reeves and Moss got to play in the sandbox one more time. But I totally understand why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea; truth be told, I would hate a Matrix movie that satisfied everyone.