‘The Matrix Resurrections’: Film Review

Neo is back in Lana Wachowski’s very self-referential fourth ‘Matrix’ film.

Given the peculiar nature of Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections and the plot’s reliance on details many will consider spoilers, it seems wise to get something out of the way: If you loved The Matrix and hated the sequels (or simply found them unsatisfying), go see this one. Have a blast. (But wear a mask.)

If you’re in the much smaller club that believes the sequels were underappreciated examples of brainy mythmaking, it’s possible Resurrections will break your heart: While it doesn’t pretend the jumbo-sized plots of those two films didn’t happen, it does jettison much of their self-importance, and feels little need to blow viewers’ minds with new ideas or technical inventions.

The Matrix Resurrections

The Bottom Line

After 22 years, doing little more than remaking the original is probably fair play.

Release date: December 22 (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jada Pinkett Smith

Director: Lana Wachowski

Screenwriters: Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon

Rated R,
2 hours 27 minutes

It is, in other words, the kind of sequel Hollywood wants most — practically the same thing as the first, with just enough novelty to justify its existence — albeit one that thinks it can have it both ways, both bowing to and sneering at the industry’s need for constant regurgitation of familiar stories. It’s impossible to explain that sentence without revealing details of the film’s premise, so read on at your own risk.

Whatever exactly happened to Neo when he appeared to sacrifice himself at the end of film three, he’s back in the digital simulation now, living again as a two-decades-older Thomas Anderson. Anderson has become a successful video game designer whose greatest creation was (get this) a trilogy of hit games called The Matrix. Part of Anderson knows these games are a story he actually lived, but he has allowed the squares around him to convince him he’s mentally ill: He regularly sees an unnamed analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) who gives him meds (blue pills, natch) and helps talk him through the violent episodes in which he imagines the whole world is a simulated reality he needs to escape from.

Anderson hasn’t exactly left his fight against the Matrix behind — he’s written bits of code, “modals,” in which AI characters play through variations of scenes he can’t stop thinking about — but professionally, it’s his distant past. Imagine his shock when an associate tells him that “our beloved parent company, Warner Bros.” has decided it’s time to make a Matrix sequel, and is going to do it with or without Anderson’s involvement.

Something like this apparently happened in our own world: Several years ago, there was talk of a Wachowski-free reboot being written by Zak Penn, possibly to star Michael B. Jordan. Two years later plans had changed, with Lana Wachowski, sans original partner Lilly, on board to direct and cowrite.

Whatever the meaning of Lana’s go-it-alone move, or its possible relation to the film’s pairing of sole-creator Thomas with a morally and creatively suspect business partner (Jonathan Groff), there’s no misunderstanding what comes next onscreen. In a long sequence where shallow youngsters brainstorm Anderson’s new game for him, the filmmakers distance themselves from their project. They make fun of moviegoers who found the sequels’ philosophical ambitions pretentious, imagining the audience as lunkheads who just want more bullet time. And once this self-serving interlude is finished, that’s almost exactly what they give them.

In a sequence intentionally reminiscent of its counterpart in the first film, Thomas Anderson gets another chance to follow mysterious strangers out of the simulation his brain lives in. Things are a bit different with this extraction, but not too different: As the film condescendingly notes, “a little nostalgia” goes a long way to soothe anxiety in those transitioning from one reality to another. (Maybe that explains why Wachowski uses so many clips from the earlier films, needlessly illustrating Neo’s memories throughout this adventure.)

Eventually we’re with Neo in the “real” world, where flesh-and-blood survivors have learned to work with some of the machines they once battled. This community, still stuck far below Earth’s surface, has seen ups and downs since Neo left. Without giving anything away (or pointing out the screenplay’s unanswered questions), let’s just say Resurrections has a satisfying explanation for why Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus has been replaced with one played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

Another familiar face or two will appear, but Neo’s most important teammates are newcomers who were inspired by legends of his exploits to make their own escapes from the Matrix. Chief among them is Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who can kick a lot of simulated ass despite wearing sunglasses whose frame swipes straight through the middle of her field of vision. (The movie’s outré wardrobe, designed by Lindsay Pugh, is a lot of fun, but those glasses cross the line.)

Carrie-Anne Moss features prominently on the movie’s poster, but prepare to wait a long time for Trinity. She’s been re-Matrixed too, and the fictional life she was given there has a hold on her. Machine guns, flying robots and pods of goo notwithstanding, some of the picture’s most engaging scenes are those in which Neo/Thomas interacts with Trinity in that world, where she’s a married mother named Tiffany, and tries to coax her into remembering the life they once shared.

Rescuing Trinity becomes the sole point of the film, allowing us to mostly stop keeping track of all the Oracles and Architects and Keymasters and whatever that bogged the sequels down. As that mission develops, we piece together the ways Wachowski (writing with novelists David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon) has reconceived some figures from the original trilogy. These reimaginings mostly make sense, and they open up new interpretative possibilities for fans who feel these action blockbusters merit close analysis. But they tend to work better on paper than on screen, failing to crystalize meaning, sound and image as perfectly as, say, Hugo Weaving did as Agent Smith.

As for the action, it’s thoroughly enjoyable even if you’ve mostly seen it before. Ordinary inhabitants of the Matrix sometimes get transformed into a mindless swarm of attackers — not as chilling as watching Agent Smith possess other people’s bodies, but good for some zombie-apocalypse-style battles (and for a fight on a Japanese Shinkansen that owes something to Train to Busan). Bullet time gets tweaked, not as a tool for cinematic excitement, but as a way to knock the air out of Neo’s sails.

Resurrections leaves plenty of things unexplored. For a movie that so loudly makes reference to the real world, its failure to address the place “red pill” symbolism has found in right-wing propaganda comes as a mild surprise. (The dialogue even contains the word “sheeple,” a favorite of those selling conspiracies online.) And there’s nothing here to inspire hope that, should Warners or whomever insist on more sequels, they’d be worth seeing. But as someone who watched Reloaded and Revolutions more than once, trying unsuccessfully to believe they were good (and who’d happily take a blue pill that erased them from my memory), I actually look forward to seeing this one a second time.

Full credits

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production companies: Village Roadshow Pictures, Venus Castina Productions
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jada Pinkett Smith
Director: Lana Wachowski
Screenwriters: Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon
Producers: James McTeigue, Lana Wachowski, Grant Hill
Executive Producers: Bruce Berman, Jess Ehrman, Garret Grant, Terry Needham, Michael Salven, Karin Wachowski
Directors of photography: Daniele Massaccesi, John Toll
Production designers: Hugh Bateup, Peter Walpole
Costume designer: Lindsay Pugh
Editor: Joseph Jett Sally
Composers: Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 2 hours 27 minutes