The Matrix Ressurections: A self-aware trip down memory lane for the second-best Matrix film
3 out of 5
Back in 1999, the Wachowskis created an era defining film. From the concept to the direction, from the special effects to the story-telling - we knew we were watching something special. Like Stephen Spielberg's first use of the dolly zoom in Jaws (borrowed from Hitchcock) or the amazing cityscapes of Bladerunner, the original Matrix created a cinematic moment where we could define films as "before Bullet Time" or "After Bullet Time". It had impact. The two (always planned) sequels: Reloaded and Revolutions were unnecessary in my mind. They were over-burdened with pseudo-religious themes and padded scenes. Certainly at the end of Revolutions I thought that was it. Neo had disappeared, Trinity was dead and the war between humans and the machines was over.
Now we are back for The Matrix 4, or The Matrix Resurrections depending on your territory and it is marketed as a love story. I'm okay with that because despite his humanity-saving, peace-ushering responsibilities as The One in the first film, for Neo it was always about Trinity. Her love for him brought him back from the brink of death at the end of The Matrix. Hers is the life he chose over saving the human race in the final scene of Reloaded (2003). She’s the one who gave her life to help him fulfil his destiny and end the war in Revolutions (2003).
The film begins, as the others did with the now-iconic streams of green code trickling down the screen throwing us back into the Matrix, where we meet an older, shakier, more uncertain Thomas Anderson, (Keanu Reeves reprising the role after 19 years). Once again, Thomas goes about his repetitive, empty life, knowing that deep down, something isn’t right about this world he inhabits.
Unlike the Thomas Anderson we were introduced to 23 years ago in The Matrix, this Thomas isn’t a hacker. He’s a world-famous game designer responsible for creating the beloved Matrix Trilogy (here a series of games, not movies). Neo lives (no surprises there) and his mind is once again being held captive by the machines. But to keep him popping blue pills and convinced that this fake reality is real, this version of the Matrix doesn't deny his past, it embraces it. He’s made to believe that all his memories of being The One and Morpheus and Trinity, The Oracle, The Architect, the battle of Zion and Agent Smith, all happened in his imagination and are part of the Game Trilogy he created. Also in Thomas Anderson’s new virtual prison is soccer mom Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), who calls herself Tiffany. She’s drawn to Thomas for reasons unknown, and like him, she also feels like she’s living her life which isn’t her own, kind of.
This insanely meta first Act of director Lana Wachowski’s film (one-half of the Wachowski sisters responsible for the first three movies) is easily the most intriguing and promising. It is also, for me, one of the more intriguing elementd of the film. It is very self-aware and discusses the pros and cons of making a sequel to a trilogy everyone thougth was over. Thomas's business partner Smith (Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff) tells him “Warner Brothers have threatened to make a sequel to the trilogy”, ramping up the self-awareness even more. What follows then is meeting rooms full of people and marketing nerds discussing the appeal of the Matrix series and what direction to take this new sequel in. “The Matrix is mind porn” someone says. Another insists it’s about politics and religion. “This can’t be just another reboot”, while someone else adds “all you need is loud action and more bullet time…something to keep the kids entertained”. I have to confess, I enjoyed all this because it addressed questions I had in my mind when I heard a fourth installment was in the works. Where Resurrections scores highly with me is that it not only consistently pokes fun at the nature of sequels and reboots themselves, but it’s about the orignal trilogy. An ode to the Matrix movies themselves.
Having enjoyed the self-referential first Act, I couldn't figure out where the story was going and, to be honest this is the weakest part of Resurrections. As mentioned it's sold as a love story and not much else. Unlike the original film which challenged our concept of reality, this does little to challenge us or create a different narrative. Indeed, this film remakes portions of the original for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate to newcomers what the Matrix is all about.
As with the original Neo needs to be extracted from his simulated captivity and have his mind freed. Tasked with this free-the-mind heist is Bugs (Jessica Henwick). Bugs and her crew have been searching for Neo for years. Helping him get him out is also a mysterious new Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne's role is re-cast with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). As they go about attempting to extract him, we are reintroduced to a changed world. Writers Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon offer promising ideas on how they expand this world and the evolving equation between man and machine after the events of Revolutions. We learn that some sixty years have passed since teh events of Revolutions including a machine civil war.
While I’m still processing much of Resurrections and what it really adds to the Matrix legacy, what I can't shake off is what is lost. Aside from the wider plot and familiar faces, it seems to strip away all the specificity that made the first film one of the most defining and rightfully celebrated sci-fi films ever made. The original gave us a distinct visual style, exhilarating action, philosophical rabbit holes, a cyberpunk meets goth aesthetic and thoughtful editing. Even the sound design demanded you feel every punch, kick and backflip.
There’s little of that in Resurrections. The frequently choppy and disorienting editing and action scenes are serviceable at best. Grand showdowns, like one where Neo and Smith face-off, barely have the same weight and thrills as the sequences from 20 years ago. There’s not a single memorable action set-piece on offer here that stays with you. In short, there’s a lot more colour, a lot more gunfire, and a lot more genericness to it all. I'm sure I’ll eventually be told by some write-up or troll that this was somehow all intentional, and I’ve entirely missed the plot or the big Matrix-y metaphor staring me in the face. Something about how that’s exactly how it wants me to react, and it’s actually so meta that it’s referencing its own shortcomings…or something. I’ll leave that for more evolved minds to comprehend.
Resurrections also loses potency by shifting its focus from Neo to the Neo-Trinity love story, without offering much in return. A big part of what made these films so compelling is Neo and his internal journey of seeing a man struggling with the burden of a responsibility he doesn’t understand gradually come into his own and learning to believe. And he’s never been less interesting than in Resurrections. Aside from his uncertainty in Act 1 where we yearn to see him freed, we care about him here only because of what came before, not because of anything that unfolds in this film.
Similarly, the new characters just aren't as enticing as those that came before. Other than Jessica Henwick’s Bugs and Yayha's Morpheus, the other characters have little to offer. Priyanka Chopra as Sati and the remainder of Bugs' crew have little to do. But above all, as the original films showed us, even the smartest, most sophisticated action movies are only as good as their villains and here neither Jonathan Groff, the new Smith or Neil Patrick Harris as The Analyst come remotely close to the piercing presence of Hugo Weaving or the calculating cold of Helmut Bakaitis’ The Architect.
In the end Resurrections works better as a meta exploration of the impact of The Matrix movies than a satisfying, and more importantly, necessary, follow-up. One that’s so busy winking at us, that it risks giving us a headache. At its very best it feels like Deja Vu, a glitch in the legacy of the Matrix.