Film Review – The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections
When The Matrix (1999) was released, it was a gamechanger. It altered the way action blockbusters were made, melding sleek sci-fi within a cyber-punk framework. Heady philosophical ideas of identity and control were at the forefront of a story where humans fought against their machine oppressors. What is reality? Are we simply cogs in a conformed world where our only purpose is to serve the establishment? The film was entertaining and intelligent, leaving a lasting footprint within pop culture. It was such a revelation, in fact, that its direct sequels – The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) – struggled to live up to its standard.
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) suffers from this same dilemma, but now carries the burden of time and nostalgia. Lana Wachowski – returning as solo director – juggles between satirizing and celebrating the franchise she helped create over two decades ago. The writing (Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon) oscillates between cynical and sincere, inserting numerous call backs and cameos, all while running around in circles trying to justify why we’re back here. The result is uneven at best. As boundary pushing as the first film was, this installment feels aimless. The most revealing detail is when a character says out loud that Warner Brothers wants to make a new Matrix movie. Is this Wachowski being tongue in cheek, or is this her way of blaming the studio for this latest entry?
The narrative folds upon itself, creating a self-awareness that isn’t too unlike characters plugging out of the Matrix. Keanu Reeves is back as Thomas Anderson, a successful video game designer. When we meet him, Thomas is battling mental health issues just as the higher ups demand a new sequel to his game, “The Matrix.” He sees a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes him a regime of blue pills (wink) to help control what is real and what is imaginary. But none of that is true, is it? Thomas is actually Neo, aka “The One,” whose god-like powers helped humanity battle against mechanical enemies in a dystopian future. The story takes an exorbitant amount of time explaining how Neo got plugged back into the Matrix, revisiting many of the same beats and story arcs of the original trilogy.
Wachowski’s biggest skillset is her ability to swing for the fences. Although her work (along with sister Lilly) runs hot and cold with me, there is no denying that she injects a level of ambition in just about everything she’s involved in. That sentiment is put to the test here, where she tries to deconstruct the very nature of blockbusters, sequels, and remakes. The problem is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. Yes, characters openly talk about The Matrix, “Bullet Time,” and the evils of franchise filmmaking, but they’re hammered so constantly that it becomes aggravating. We get references to classic moments from the previous films, but what purpose do they serve other than to remind us how awesome they were? The editing (Joseph Jett Sally) places shot after shot of past moments like a clip show. At one point, Neo stands in the middle of a theater watching his younger self going through the exact motions that he is repeating in the present. How clever!
Just because Resurrections is aware that it is a sequel does not excuse it from telling a lackluster story. Just because the updated versions of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) are aware they are not the “originals,” does not excuse them from being underwritten. Returning characters, such as Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) feel inconsequential, pushed to the sidelines as mere spectators. Even Trinity, perhaps the second most popular character of the series, is underused. Carrie-Anne Moss steps back into Trinity’s shoes with ease, and the chemistry she shares with Reeves has not dissipated in the years since their last pairing. But the character’s arc is half-baked. As much as we’re sold the idea of Trinity gaining more power and agency, she never gains full flight until the very late stages. When boiled down, it could be argued that this is simply a rescue mission, with Trinity waiting for her knight in shining armor to arrive.
In 2012, Lana Wachowski came out as transgender, going by the pronouns “she/her.” This aspect plays a part in Resurrections, particularly with the new character of Bugs (Jessica Henwick). Bugs was once trapped in the Matrix herself, but after an encounter with Neo discovered who she really is, was able to break free and become part of the human resistance. The franchise has always been about fighting for freedom, but now one can see the links to the LGTBQ+ community. Individuals are often compelled to hide their true selves away from sections of society that still scorns them, but here there is an allegory of acceptance and empathy. It’s one of the genuinely interesting and thought-provoking aspects we get. It’s too bad everything else doesn’t operate at that same level.
The action is stylized and well shot but watered down. There are plenty of instances where Wachowski plays with slow motion and editing, mixing practical hand to hand combat with CGI effects to create a visceral, propulsive momentum. But there is never a key image or sequence that leaves us awestruck. Like the bullet dodging of the original, the highway chase of Reloaded, or the “Battle for Zion” in Revolutions – there is nothing of similar scale or creativity in Resurrections. One scene offers some well-designed choreography, involving Neo and Trinity weaving their way through hordes of baddies on motorcycle, but it sure takes a long time to get there. The series has always been hampered with heavy, expositional dialogue, but the action was always strong enough to offset that. Here, that may not be the case.
While The Matrix Resurrections does have its merits, it gets bogged down with having to satisfy fans, appease its parent studio, and continue a story that probably should’ve ended three films ago. It gets stretched in too many directions, ultimately ending on an empty note. What once felt new and fresh is now old and recycled. What was once bold, creative artistry is now intellectual property used to sell a brand. As much as one hates to admit it, The Matrix has become part of the machine.