2021 | rated R | starring Keanu Reeves, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Carrie-Ann Moss, Priyanka Chopra Jonas | directed by Lana Wachowski | 2 hrs 28 mins |
Season 5 Finale
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is one of the world’s most successful game designers with a trilogy of games called “The Matrix” under his belt, but he’s tormented by visions of a world run by machines, horrific FBI interrogations and the love of his life dying in a hovercraft. Tapped to make a 4th sequel to the games, he starts to break down, revisits his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris, the MVP of this movie) and pines away for Tiffany (Carrie-Ann Moss) a coffee shop regular he feels a connection with. Meanwhile, a group of renegades lead by the cyberpunk Bats (Jessica Henwick, Love & Monsters) and a rogue agent (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Black Mirror) are searching for Tom to get him to take the red pill and find the truth about his visions.
The final film in the original Matrix trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions is such a miserable and disappointing experience that I would happily welcome a return to this series. Particularly with it’s own, ready-made in-universe logic where a new matrix and multiple Thomas Andersons has been rebooted several times already, it has an existing path back into the story. Still for all it’s joylessness Revolutions did feel like the distinct work of a filmmaker’s vision left alone by a studio drunk on the success of the first film, which is the last thing you can say about The Matrix Resurrections, which feels like a movie that director Lana Wachowski made with a Warner Bros. gun to her head.
Unlike a lot of studio blockbusters, The Matrix had such a vast untapped world that revisiting it with sequels and exploring it’s mythos more is both appropriate and rich with creative opportunities. But how do you get back into The Matrix after nearly 20 years? Wachowski goes with the Force Awakens remake/reboot approach complete with a an agent (not stormtrooper) who resists his programming and turns to the side of the heroes. The film is meta on top of meta. With Neo no longer a lonely hacker with a nagging feeling something is wrong with the world, but a world famous game designer of a game based on the first 3 films, Wachowski writes herself an opportunity not just to create a discombobulating mystery in the first act, but to do what is oh so fashionable and let the film self-referentially deconstruct its own franchise – what made it work, how it became influential (the phrase “bullet-time” is used) and, because it’s 2021, why some of it is problematic (TM) and needs to be fixed.
The first act is positively swimming in nauseating, ironic commentary about The Matrix itself – and if you don’t remember exactly the references and parallels that get drawn, Wachowski drops in actual footage of the movies at almost every turn to remind us. It’s like a clip show. Why let us have the fun of slowly learning that Tom’s boss (Jonathan Groff) is going to be the new Agent Smith when you could unceremoniously pop that bubble the very first time we see him by intercutting an image of Hugo Weaving in the role? Why create a new character to guide Neo through the truth when you can just call the new guy Morpheus and have him study video of Lawrence Fishburne in the role? It’s a constant reminder of how integral Fishburne and Weaving were to the credibility of the first films and how sorely they are missed here. Once we’re done with the nostalgia trip, Wachowski sets about subverting anything that might make an audience cheer. That precise tone and epic staging the first film had, now we’re going to call that phony and theatrical. Instead of Neo and Morpheus meeting in a memorable fashion, they’re going to meet in a men’s room and comment on how lacking in theatricality it is.
Each bizarre decision Wachowski makes takes it further and further from it’s possibilities, boxing it into a typical reboot. Each time it goes for the cheapest, laziest and most convenient way to get from point A to B. It both spends too much time before Neo finally learns what the audience knows and quickly skimming over monumental revelations. We get a lot of new information about Zion and what happened after Neo’s peace deal – and it gets blown past in unexplored snippets. This movie has no idea what it wants to be. As it plods along, it becomes clear that we’re going to side-step the Matrix and the war with the machines entirely in favor of a story where Neo tries to reunite with Trinity. Resurrections is a mirror image, the complete inverse of everything that worked in the first film in favor of it’s weakest elements: the Neo/Trinity love story, the most passionless boring romance in cinema history. Behold the cardboard brother/sister chemistry between Reeves and Moss as they hold hands.
Meanwhile the action, the visual style and the sheer action-movie excitement that made The Matrix sing is drained out of this film. It looks terrible. Crisp bullet-time, replaced with ugly shuttery slow motion. The original film’s stark, gritty color pallet replaced with a theme-less generic TV movie pop of multi-color. That deliberate, pronounced way most characters talked, flattened out. The big action beats are given to side characters, with Neo sort of amnesiac and rendered impotent for most of the film. From my understanding, what made Neo’s powers so unique in The Matrix seemed to come from an understanding that the world wasn’t real and that those weaknesses could be exploited. In this film they treat Neo as if the powers come from him, like an X-Men, that allow him to telepathically push things around with his mind.
Going back to Revolutions, the sad payoff to the wonderful, galvanizing set-up that was Reloaded, I’ve always been shocked by the lack of imagination given to Neo’s abilities. For a character who is given Christ-like abilities in the first film, for a series that best embodies the trope of The One, Neo’s powers were given a ceiling. You cannot go beyond this point. I would expect as the movies went on that he would get even more God-like toward remaking the simulated world around him, gain even cooler powers and struggle with how to deal with the lost souls in the simulation. I expected that final battle between Neo and Smith in Revolutions to tear apart the fabric of the Matrix itself. All of these are the tip of the iceberg of ideas that could be explored in a 4th film.
Instead, Wachowski resets everything. Everything. With both Neo and Smith neutered and powerless (it’s unclear how and why Smith is back in this film), the action turns over to Trinity, delivering the idea that Trinity is an action hero as if it’s introducing us to something new and not something the first film did effortlessly in it’s first scene. Yet, Resurrections even bungles the feminist agenda, treating Trinity like a McGuffin to be rescued for most of the film. A literal Sleeping Beauty in a pod. Turning the action over to Trinity would be fine if Trinity wasn’t Trinity, a notoriously flat and dull character played by Moss as if she’ll get a shock for showing any emotion beyond dry distain.
Worst of all, film lacks the nasty, powerful, villains for either Neo or Trinity to overcome. It lacks an arc for either to satisfyingly reach by the end of the film. The only reason Neo’s abilities are so fun to watch is because he is put up against villains that overwhelm them in power and force. Villains that he alone is uniquely capable of going up against. These basic structural elements – the strong villain, the hero’s journey, the set-up and payoff, the huge stakes – things that The Matrix did so cleanly and precisely in 1999 now seem all the more valuable because Hollywood just doesn’t make movies like this anymore. They make movies like The Matrix Resurrections instead, movies that only stand to reinforce was originally so good by contrast.
In 2021, when people are enslaved to media and technocracy. When they value safety and feelings over freedom. When they would happily climb in a pod and be a battery for a computer instead of live in a dangerous world, The Matrix has potentially more to say than ever. However, despite referencing this exact thing (again Harris steals this movie), Wachowski’s heart isn’t in it. In a world where media is manipulating all of us, she seemingly has nothing to rebel against. She dismisses a lot of people’s theories about what the Matrix was about, including funnily enough dismissing the now very fashionable idea that it was always a secret a “trans allegory”, but she spends so much time telling us what the movie isn’t without reasserting what it now is.
The Matrix Resurrections is an overly meta, repulsively self-aware sequel with a hard bend toward emasculating it’s hero and undoing it’s own legacy. It’s poorly acted, it looks like garbage and it botches every action scene and opportunity to be relevant, exciting or simply entertain. It amazingly manages to capture every single toxic studio trend going right now in one 2 hour blob: reboots that hit the original film beat for beat, nostalgia porn, ironically subverting expecting on something that was once sincere, the Marvel formula of dropping in 4th wall winking one-liners, a tone that actively distains it’s own fans and gender-swap social agendas. It’s a greatest hits parade of a business that is a dusty wasteland of talent, creatively bankrupt and too lazy and fat with arrogance to put together a simple 3-act story structure. This is a crowd that thinks it’s actively clever not to fire Chekhov’s gun and is so film illiterate it doesn’t understand why these principles exist in the first place.
Early on Wachowski signals her situation to us. Groff’s game developer literally says that “Warner Bros is asking for a 4th Matrix and is going to make it with or without us”. And that’s the saddest of all, this movie wasn’t even a cynical cash grab as much as it was probably a studio mandate to do something with the license or lose it. What do you do if you’re a Wachowski and the studio threatens to destroy your baby? In this case, it seems like the better path was to just step back, do nothing, and let them.