In 1999, the Wachowskis revolutionized filmmaking with The Matrix. Slick visual effects and a cyberpunk-infused variation on the classic hero’s journey profoundly impacted the world. Any attempt at a follow-up would be seen as a difficult pill to swallow when trying to measure up with a zeitgeist-capturing modern classic. Nearly two decades later, Lana Wachowski has returned to this world ruled by machines with The Matrix Resurrections. As she has evolved as a filmmaker and a person during that time, should one expect more groundbreaking action sequences to play off what the original film offered? No. Instead, while action makes an appearance now and again, the film doubles down on the philosophical mumbo jumbo explored in those sequels, along with the heavy subtext and various thematic elements addressing a wide variety of topics. This is an ambitious and bizarre sci-fi flick with a big budget and top-tier talent working in tandem to deliver a fitting evolution for The Matrix, as well as a biting look at the idea of rebooting it.
Any attempt to revisit this world with some of the original stars always invited questions. Indeed, many of those questions would revolve around how it would be possible given that Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) both presumably died at the end of 2003’s trilogy-ender, The Matrix Revolutions. In return, one then wonders what motivations there are to do another Matrix all of these years later. Are they purely craven? A response to the familiar IP-driven times of Hollywood blockbusters; searching for any known property to score some box office points? Or, is their deeper meaning, given where Wachowski now is in her life? For better or worse, The Matrix Resurrections comments on one of these and explores the other.
Set in a seemingly modern reality (aka, within the Matrix), Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is living the life of a video game programmer in San Francisco. He’s well known for a hit series of games that resemble all of his actions seen in previous Matrix films. Now, follow along with me, as I must be vague, yet attempt to clarify what’s happening. The movie knows we know Thomas is Neo, yet it wants us to go along with watching him be told about the attempt to make a new Matrix game. Things go sideways when Thomas is discovered by Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and an alternate version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), two free-minded individuals who want to help Neo rediscover who he really is.
The film’s first act revolves around questioning its own existence before getting back to the real world, which is still full of sentinel robots harvesting humans for food, rickety hovercrafts, and other dystopian areas of creativity. What feels clear is that Warner Bros. was going to make a new Matrix movie with or without the involvement of the Wachowskis. So, the choice was made to reboot this world with an original creator. However, her script really aims to push back against the corporate side of things, satirizing the idea of making these sorts of sequels. Additionally, the movie acknowledges its own popularity by going against the segment of the population that had decided to co-op The Matrix in favor of their own nonsense (aka misogynist, hateful, etc.) agendas.
In making this choice, while opening with an action sequence that is both familiar and new, it becomes clear The Matrix Resurrections will be delivering action more sparingly. Now, this should not be too much of a surprise. For one, The Matrix is more lop-sided as far as when the action happens than some may remember. However, we are also following the filmmakers that are much more in line with their recent work, such as Cloud Atlas and Sense8, than the Matrix films they made two decades ago. Yes, there is action featured in this movie (“I still know Kung Fu,” Neo humorously quips at one point), but it’s far less of a highlight this time around. With Wachowski also handling second unit photography, making her more hands-on in these moments, gone are the elegant martial arts sequences shot with a clear understanding of every beat. Instead, fights scenes are more claustrophobic and edited a bit too much for their own good.
Some sequences do stand out. The final section of this film is action-packed. It delivers by way of hordes of opponents in pursuit as Neo and Trinity rely on a motorcycle and special rule-bending abilities to keep themselves out of harm’s way. Some of this comes at the cost of stakes. The film has an overarching plot that is a lot less about the end of the world and more about love conquering all. Still, while hard to once deliver generation-defining action, some wildly creative visuals feel, at times, like Caravaggio paintings coming to life, given the arrangement of multiple bodies and slow motion.
Of course, that’s just the action, which I have already noted is in somewhat short supply. While there’s no iconic freeway chase sequence, The Matrix Resurrections does not come up short on ideas and new story elements to present. At its worst, the film can feel too talky, which is bound to turn off many. There are a lot of scenes where various characters explain things to one another. It’s necessary, but it helps that Wachowski is a very conscious visual filmmaker and knows how to make every shot look interesting.
As far as what these characters are talking about, well, it comes down to what the Matrix now means to these characters, Wachowski, and the audience. It’s no secret that The Matrix trilogy can be seen as a screed on free will, a commentary on social structures, an allegory for gender identity, among many other things. That it also happens to work as a cyberpunk-influenced live-action anime certainly gave it the cool factor needed to play for a mass audience. Now, with Wachowski coming in, not for the sake of going back to the well, but because she wanted to, there’s hardly an effort being made to have subtext. This film directly addresses the fluidity of characters, deconstructionist philosophy, finding meaning in one’s life, and more.
Emphasizing these points also makes this the funniest Matrix film (a series that has always had a sense of humor). It’s not out of place either. If anything, it’s an excellent way to show how in the zone Reeves is as an actor here. Returning to play Neo, this may as well be one of his very best performances. It requires an amount of range from him to play stoic, naïve, insecure, paranoid, all-powerful, and lovesick. Neo is now older yet trying to find his footing once again, and it allows the film to play with all we know about this series, while Reeves has a chance to stretch.
A lesser film wouldn’t know how to balance these ideas and references for those coming in either fresh or with vague memories of the previous movies. Now, granted, this movie will upset many because of what it’s attempting. However, I still think it works as a relatively standalone film. It provides some favors, but it is marching to the beat of its own weird drum.
The “weird” also felt so good to see here. At a certain budget level, filmmakers only have so much room to stretch their talents for the sake of showing off their identity in their projects. Much like the previous Matrix films, however, Wachowski remains seemingly free of any blockbuster mandates (save for, perhaps, the very notion of having action in a movie that doesn’t really require it).
So, instead of being a straightforward sci-fi tale that’s as comfortable as the return to Star Wars through The Force Awakens, this is the sort of movie that brings in Priyanka Chopra Jonas on a robotic manta ray late in the film’s second act. The weirdness extends to actors such as Jonathan Groff filling in as a new version of Agent Smith and Neil Patrick Harris as a therapist burying his smarminess just below the surface. This even extends to Henwick and Abdul-Mateen, based on their appearances and how they try to familiarize the audience with what’s going on.
The film does understand how to be straightforward in some instances. Carrie-Anne Moss has always brought a level of respect and authority to her role as Trinity. Even with this film attempting to toy with that identity, it’s all to serve a more significant point that is realized as it goes on. Similarly, Jada Pinkett Smith returns as Niobe, a freed mind living in the real world. Covered in old-age makeup, pushed into explaining so many things, and yet she still can lend credence to the struggles taking place.
If anything, The Matrix Resurrections may ultimately be more about delivering on mood and even some introspection more than anything. Despite being made on an A-level budget, with huge stars and visionary filmmakers, it’s not trying to be the film with an agreeable enough story that sets up simple stakes, heroes, and villains. Instead, this is a heady movie that is, yes, messy at times but also full of the same drive and ambition that has fueled all Wachowski’s efforts. And, yes, that may not make for the most satisfying experience for all.
With that in mind, despite the initial success of The Matrix Reloaded, it’s not as though audiences were fully prepared for the mind-trip that movie took people on either (and the same can be said for all of their follow-up films). Here, without the immediate cushion of an Oscar-winning classic to ease people back in, The Matrix Resurrections is a film that I no doubt enjoyed, but because of how much it wanted to push against the warmth that an undemanding revisit to this world can provide. At the same time, this is a movie more enthralled with the notion of love than ever. Sure, many will just wish they got to see Neo do more kung-fu. On the other hand, perhaps there are many out there willing to realize the truth – that there is no spoon.