Neo is trapped in the Matrix once again, and as this film tells us, so are we
The Matrix Resurrections seeks to rise above the content bog that’s steadily become the landscape of entertainment this past decade, in ways that challenge both its in-universe mythos and the franchise’s greater place in culture. In doing so, writer and director Lana Wachowski (who returns to the series after helming the original trilogy with her sister Lilly) attempts to reclaim The Matrix back to what it was originally meant to stand for. The result is a mixed but exciting and mind-expanding love story, one that does indeed manage to rise above most other legacy sequels in some ways but failing in others.
What’s obviously different right away with The Matrix Resurrections compared to its predecessors is just how different it looks. Gone is the black and green-tinted color scheme that defined the sleek leather-clad aesthetic of the original three films, replaced with a brighter and more colorful palette more in line with the real world (and other films). The film’s shedding of its former style is a clear storytelling choice in the same way that it replaces the first film’s drab 90s office setting with the more modern day (but equally corporate and soulless) millennial workplace of phony good vibes and lattes.
Following the world-changing events of The Matrix Revolutions, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are both still alive and seemingly plugged back into the all-encompassing simulated world of The Matrix. Neo, now back in his deadname of Thomas Anderson, is a video game designer, and a well established one at that. In the film’s first bit of meta mind bending, we’re shown that The Matrix trilogy was a famous game created by Neo, who has reaped the rewards of making a multi-million dollar property but also has trouble distinguishing reality from the world of his game. He’s kept on a steady diet of blue pills supplied by his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), who tries to reassure Neo that his memories and visions of his previous sci-fi journey down the rabbit hole are nothing more than the delusions of a mentally ill man.
Likewise, Trinity is now a married woman and mother going by the name of Tiffany. She’s maintained a fondness for motorcycles but not much else, and the only time she and Neo come into proximity of one another is when they happen to get a cup of coffee at the same time in the local cafe. But those brief glances and innocuous greetings are enough to get both of their minds moving and set bigger things in motion; it isn’t long before a blue-haired hacker named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and an alternate but no less devoted Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) arrive to bust Neo out of the digital prison and get him back to work saving the world as The One.
Resurrections acts as a sort of mirror, or rather an echo, of the 1999 original, purposefully tracing its steps back through the events of that first film and reassessing them as it goes. A major component throughout the film is the matter of free will and choice, and the film deals with Neo being reluctant to take the red pill once again. For one thing, all of this could just be delusions he’s cooked up himself, as his therapist says. And even if it’s true and Neo really did endure the hardships of saving the world once before, he’s not exactly keen on having to put himself through it all over again. There’s also the matter of Trinity – whether she’d prefer to awaken herself to the real world once again or remain in the comfort of the simulation is entirely up to her in spite of how desperately Neo may want her to join him in his decision.
Early in the film, Neo and his team of fellow game developers are informed by their eerily familiar boss (an excellent as always Jonathan Groff) that they’re to scrap whatever they’ve been working and focus on a fourth entry in the Matrix saga. This comes as a directive from their parent company, Warner Bros. Another major difference between Resurrections and the original trilogy is that the film has a relatively sharp sense of humor as opposed to its near humorless predecessors. A brainstorming session for the new Matrix game acts as a hyper self-aware discourse of the Matrix franchise as a whole, with everyone tossing around terms and ideas that have come to define the series, from its iconic action sequences to its head-trippy premise.
While the original trilogy devolved into a general sense of humans versus machines (with a growing emphasis on giant action sequences), Resurrections finds a precise angle to tackle about how the powers that be keep us complacent by weaponizing our very thoughts and dreams against us. Specifically, Lana Wachowski is talking about stories – like her and her sisters’ – that have done far more than simply entertain (and make a ton of money), but have genuinely changed lives, and how every ounce of meaning from them can be wringed out by their capitalist owners, consumer mentality, and the never-ending content machine.
Landmark films like Jurassic Park or Star Wars have been watered down by their numerous sequels, spin-offs and general pop culture presence to the point that they’ve come to be defined by the media conglomerate they’ve become, their original messages all but lost. The Matrix is a rather potent example of this; a series whose story about rejecting the status quo, awakening yourself to harsh realities, and how the literal power of love will save us, eventually trivialized to where most people only know it for its shootouts and slow-mo stunts. Not to mention the bastardization of the metaphor of the Red Pill by hateful supremacist groups. Wachowski is aware of all of this and seizes the opportunity of the fact that Warner Bros was going to make a new film anyway in order to reclaim her creation and its meaning.
Resurrections is at its best when it’s operating in that meta context, skewering the current age of IP-driven entertainment and franchises that bank on nostalgia for the sake of it and not much else. Wachowski’s film recontextualizes her franchise for the modern day, challenging both itself and its audience along the way, but it’s never able to do so as consistently as one wants. Large portions of the film that deal with the post-apocalyptic real world feel all too much like the dull and predictable content that was just being criticized. Similar to how Luke Skywalker’s journey in The Last Jedi had the former hero grappling with the ramifications of his status as a legend, Resurrections confronts Neo with the aftermath of his own deification. But this is never explored in any meaningful way – Neo’s actions aren’t influenced by these revelations and the film never comes back around to it by the end. And outside of a climactic motorcycle chase through the city streets, the action very much pales in comparison to the original films.
Like most things concerning The Matrix, people seem to be pretty well split on their feelings towards this latest one. But those who have given its three predecessors a recent rewatch may just find that Resurrections, as different as it may be, is still very much in line with the Wachowski’s original vision. This is still a story about how much noise and lies the world can pump into your head, and how awareness of it is only the first step. Choosing to wake yourself to reality is about making the choice to fight it in whatever way you can, and Resurrections, as sincere and optimistic as anything else from the Wachowski’s, tells us that you can’t do it alone, but that you will indeed win.
‘The Matrix Resurrections’ is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.