The Matrix Resurrections and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Lana Wachowski
Making another sequel to the Matrix is simply a bad idea from the word go. Sure, it’s tempting given that the original trilogy grossed over a billion dollars and became a cultural touchstone for a generation, but there’s no way to play of it as anything than a cynical cash grab, and there’s no guarantee that the audience will come back for another one; especially since a lot of them are approaching middle age at this point and this new generation is more enamored with Marvel films than anything else. Even getting one of the original directors to come back isn’t gonna turn many heads since the stagnation of the series occurred under their watch, and they’ve been heavily involved with all the various media made the franchise since the beginning. Now all that said, perhaps this IS the right time for it to be tried again. The themes and messages of the original movie have become all the more relevant since its, and the co-opting of some of its imagery among certain reactionary circles has been one of the more unfortunate developments in the story of The Matrix as a pop-culture staple. With so many people having so many different ideas about what The Matrix should be, is there any way that this can please even a fraction of the original fans and perhaps get new fans in the process, or is this just another soulless cash grab to further cement this as the worst of all possible timelines? Let’s find out!!
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) finds himself in a comfortable life that he built for himself, but not much more. He made his fortune creating a trilogy of video games called The Matrix with his business partner (Jonathan Groff), but each day feels like an endless drudgery as he searches for meaning. His therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) has been helping him through these feelings, especially after he nearly jumped off of a roof a few years back, but nothing seems to get through to him until he starts seeing this woman at the coffee shop. Her name is Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) and there’s something about her that seems familiar but also brings him quite a bit of peace; a peace he will need as the studio is forcing him to make a new Matrix game and it’s just not going very well. That’s when things start to really unravel as he starts seeing things that may not be there and people start talking to him like he’s someone else entirely. How did Mr. Anderson find himself in such a miserable state, and can he trust his own mind to tell him the truth? Who are these people that are showing up to tell him that reality isn’t what it seems, and are they looking out for his best interest or for their own selfish goals? Is it just me, or does this sound less like The Matrix and more like Birdman?
This movie does not capture the magic of the original film and I’m on the fence as to whether it’s the second-best in the series, but I’ll be darned if Lana Wachowski didn’t find a way to turn this terrible idea into something genuinely interesting! She could have approached this project with the toothless reverence that most reboots/revivals approach the source material with, but instead, she uses this bad idea more or less foisted on her by Warner Bros to tell a more important story. It definitely is another Matrix movie if you’re looking for the trappings, the jargon, and even the style of acting, but where the movie shines is in how much Lana puts herself into the movie and makes it just as much about what the Matrix franchise is and how it affected her as much as it is about continuing the story of the original trilogy. Sadly the film stumbles in a lot of places and it feels like she’s regressed as a filmmaker in a lot of ways (or she was just tuned out for everything that wasn’t the deeper explorations of the franchise and its impact) so it does get a bit tedious in the latter half with a focus on action that simply isn’t as engaging as it was in the original, but honestly I’d rather take this wonky and uncomfortably personal journey over a cookie cutter sequel meticulously put together for maximum box office appeal.
The movie starts off doing the two things I really wanted this new Matrix movie to do; focus on new characters, and surprise me in some way. There’s not much point in continuing the story if we aren’t going to expand the world and have something for the returning characters to fight for, and if we’re just retreading old ground then we might as well go back and watch the original. The filmmakers seem to have understood this and so we start things off by breaking some of the rules we assume we know about the original series before jumping headlong into what I can only describe as one big therapeutic exercise for Lana Wachowski who is working through her complicated relationship to the franchise and the making of this film. I couldn’t tell you what was in Lana’s mind as she was making this movie, but there’s definitely a lot of anxiety and sadness in this story which is made all the more compelling by Keanu’s haunting performance as a man completely detached from the world and has stopped trying to look for answers while working on a fourth sequel to the Matrix. Subtle is not the word I’d use to describe it, and to some, it will probably come off as way too self-indulgent and perhaps corny as we are frequently cutting to clips from the original film, but the key is that this indulgence is not to stroke Lana’s ego but to essentially have her voice heard among the endless noise that surrounds her work. With The Matrix having as big of an impact as it did, it’d be impossible not to acknowledge it in some way, especially with the Red Pill becoming such a prominent symbol of right-wing ideology. Putting that meta-narrative front and center at the start of the movie gives this a genuine sense of importance and intrigue that simply doing ANOTHER MATRIX wouldn’t have been able to capture. What’s also interesting about it is that we don’t get any real answers here. Despite Lana having the stage, she doesn’t put words in Thomas Anderson’s mouth to explain herself and her work to the world; rather it’s more about expressing the raw emotional weight of it all. Even if she did feel compelled to set the record straight as to what we should take away from the original films, it’s not something that she has the power to do. The movies are out there and have been out there for a long time, and the movie makes it clear that trying to reclaim it would be a Sisyphean task as Thomas Anderson just listens to the world chatter on while he’s struggling for his own sense of meaning. On top of that, this fascinating insight into the creator’s mind and her feelings on the series also manages the difficult task of making a Matrix movie that feels like the Matrix did back in 1999. When the original film came out, people had no idea what they were walking into and the movie was able to take them on an unexpected journey without any pre-conceived notions as to what it was supposed to be. That was over twenty years ago and we can’t go back to a pre-Matrix world, so the old tricks aren’t going to cut it. Instead, the movie uses this meta-narrative to keep us off-kilter where it knows we are LOOKING for answers and is basically daring us to assume what’s going to happen so it can revel in subverting those expectations which kept me engaged and on edge throughout Thomas’s journey.
Now if it was up to me, I would have just run with this premise through the whole movie; perhaps even keep things completely ambiguous right to the bitter end. Warner Bros isn’t going to pay for over a hundred million dollars for something like that however, so once we get through the interesting and darn near heartbreaking character study in the first act, the façade is dropped and we’re given a proper Matrix movie for the rest of its runtime. As deflated as I felt when it became clear that we were going in that direction, I will concede that it’s well-executed and is satisfying for those who actually did want to know what happened after Revolutions, and it does a decent job of bridging that gap in a way that makes sense. Neo’s sacrifice and the peace created from it are not written out of canon, but instead, a new crisis came about that led to a realignment of the sides, and the way that the machines play into this new status quo is genuinely interesting. It’s not that everything is FINE, but the world is still in a much better place than it was in the original trilogy, and I can easily see them passing the torch to the new generation with what they set up here. It also helps that the scope of this movie is much smaller than in the previous sequels with the stakes involved having more to do with love and happiness than world-shattering discoveries and a fight for humanity. Sure there’s a new villain who is played by a VERY good actor giving a fun and sinister performance, but even they have to admit that the point of this story isn’t the overtaking of humanity and the destruction of all resistance. He’s there to maintain the status quo he built for Neo and Trinity is much better for the machines than it would be for them to live their lives free of the Matrix’s control. Even if the more traditional Matrix film in the second half was done on sufferance, it’s certainly a lot more interesting than I had expected it to be when they started to wheel it out, and they find enough humanity in these characters to not feel completely disconnected from the first half.
The change of status quo for the world at large, the new technology that enhances the humans’ ability to interact with the Matrix, even the new bad guy who doesn’t feel like something we’ve seen before in this series (perhaps only comparable to the Architect, but even that feels like a stretch); all of this shows growth from the original concepts instead of just repeating them. Where the movie genuinely starts to falter though is in the parts where it doesn’t take those chances and tries to recreate the magic of the original films. Some of the callbacks to characters from the previous film, most notably the Merovingian, fall completely flat and it feels like the movie stops in its tracks for these overt cameos and references. Agent Smith is back in this movie and I like the ideas they have for his story, but he never quite works the way that he should. I don’t want to put it all on the new actor who is fine as an antagonistic force in here (and casting Hugo Weaving would have done a lot to undercut the subversions in the VERY strong first act), but it’s really hard to get past the fact that he doesn’t look, sound, or act in any way we would recognize for the Agent Smith character. Worst of all though is the action which is just not up to par for what we’d expect in a Matrix film; not just in terms of choreography but the filmmaking itself which feels cramped and over-edited. There’s thankfully very little shaky-cam which means that the action is still decent and perhaps better than a lot of movies out there, but given the pedigree of this series, it just seems strange that the filmmakers couldn’t meet the quality of a film from twenty years ago despite Warner Bros basically writing them a blank check. Heck, they bothered to give this movie an R-rating, but the action feels so pulled back and “clean” that it would barely qualify as a PG-13. Perhaps Lana just doesn’t have the same eye for action she did back then, or maybe these parts of the movie didn’t interest her. Whatever the reason is, the lackluster action just ends up dragging this movie down for me and only further cemented my conviction that they should have stuck with the more grounded ideas and style of the first act.
The fact that this movie had as many fresh ideas as it did was such a pleasant surprise that the fact the movie couldn’t just be about those makes it more disappointing than it should have been. Perhaps a more straightforward Matrix movie would have gone down better with general audiences and maybe I wouldn’t find so much to complain about, but the fact that it did strive for greatness means that I can have some genuine emotion about it; even if one of those emotions is disappointment. It’s not as good as the original and it’s on par with Reloaded at its best, but I still had a good time with it and am glad that they took the chance to not make it as cookie-cutter as I’m sure the studio wanted it to be. Perhaps if there was a better way to bridge the gap between proficient technical blockbuster and deeply affecting character piece then we could be looking at another classic like the original, but even so, I do recommend seeing it. It’s still on HBO Max and I’d probably recommend it there over seeing it in the theaters, especially with the new variant running rampant all over the place, but it is definitely worth your time if you’ve stuck with the series thus far. Maybe not every fan will agree with that, but the whole series is about opening your mind to new possibilities, and this definitely captured that spirit. Now if only they’d make a sequel to Enter the Matrix…