In some ways, it’s amazing that Warner Bros. let The Matrix sit idle for as long as it has. Whether you were around in 1999 or not, chances are you know the film’s cultural impact, not just on action and sci-fi movies, but on video games, philosophy, and even religion. Shit like that doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t just go away, either. The two sequels that followed in 2003 were met with mixed response, and basically the studio kept directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski happy by letting them do whatever they wanted until Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas brought that to rest.
But it was inevitable that we’d be sent back down the rabbit hole. Contrary to the Oracle’s prophetic words, every beginning does not have an ending. The Matrix Resurrections, directed solo for the first time by Lana Wachowski (sister Lilly declined), is acutely self-aware and highly meta, almost annoyingly so. It is fully aware of its place in the cultural zeitgeist and can’t help referencing itself to death. But at the same time, it is also an extremely passionate film and works best when it focuses on the love between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) that defies reality.
In a film that is literally built on the idea that nothing is as it seems, everything about The Matrix Resurrections counts as a spoiler. About 20 years have passed since the events of the previous films, and Neo, back as his civilian Thomas Anderson persona, is now a famous video game designer, having designed an entire trilogy of games based on The Matrix. He’s got an a-hole business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff), a therapist (Neill Patrick Harris) who helps him cope with the weird visions and urges to leap off of tall buildings. Neo also has a desire to meet Tiffany (Moss), a woman he keeps encountering at the nearby coffee shop and feels he knows from another life. But his life, or what he thinks is his life, is turned upside down with the arrival of the blue shock-haired Bugs (Jessica Henwick), joined by a man claiming to be Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but clearly has some identity crisis issues of his own.
Wachowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with her Sense8 collaborators David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, starts to get real meta when it’s revealed to Neo that his parent company is about to make a sequel to his game, with or without his help. It’s clear that Wachowski is grappling with the reality of this film’s existence. From the beginning, as you wade through the muddled, somewhat dull nature of Neo’s mystery, it becomes clear The Matrix Resurrections isn’t necessarily a labor of love, but of requirement. The “overlords” at Warner Bros., as Smith spells out, were going to do this sequel regardless. And for a while, it feels perfunctory as one character references something from the original movie, or an action scene dutifully mirrors another, adding nothing. As various characters argue about the pros and cons of sequels and reboots, and some bro cheers about how this sequel needs a new “Bullet Time”, it becomes a drag and not at all clever. Simply acknowledging that you’re out of new ideas isn’t a cheat around it; I’d rather you just come up with some new ideas.
On the action front, there really aren’t any. The scenes we do get mimick the slo-mo, wall-running, gravity-defying stuff that was so revolutionary a couple of decades ago. There no new conventions here, and in some cases the fights are just mediocre. There is a really good one aboard a moving bullet train, made at least interesting by the fact that Neo is being attacked by schoolgirls.
No, it isn’t some new “cool” camera trick or any new wrinkle in the debate between free will and the illusion of choice that rescues The Matrix Resurrections. It’s love. Pure, simple love; the thing that all of the machines in the world can’t quantify or defeat. Even though they spend much of the movie not recognizing who the other is, Neo and Trinity are bound by destiny and their shared experiences. It’s practically the one thing in this world that isn’t just theoretical or a series of ones and zeroes. When Neo is finally woken up to who he really is, it’s his love for Trinity that grounds him and gives him purpose. But this isn’t just a story where Neo flies. powers up as The One, and comes to his woman’s rescue. This quietly feminist tale is driven by the power within Trinity. And yes, she still looks badass in tight leather blasting through Agents on her motorcycle. That will never change.
The rest of the cast is solid for the most part, with Henwick’s Bugs the beacon of hopefulness that pushes Neo. Abdul-Mateen’s version of Morpheus is a bit odd. He spends too much of the film literally aping his predecessor, right down to the classic kung-fu fight. Then later revelations about him prove considerably less interesting, and he seems somewhat relegated to the background, which is not where a Morpheus should be. Harris and Groff are having a lot of fun in their roles, both showing different, impressive levels of menace.
The Matrix Resurrections is imperfect, leans too hard on nostalgia, and fails to break ground the way we want such an anticipated sequel to do. But Wachowski deserves credit for, eventually, bucking the programming and telling the love story she wanted to tell, because it’s clear that she didn’t trust anybody else to do it justice.
The Matrix Resurrections is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now.