This review discusses plot points from The Matrix Resurrections because it is a review of The Matrix Resurrections. If you’d rather not know any plot points about The Matrix Resurrections, I must insist you stop reading this review of The Matrix Resurrections immediately.
If I had made a movie that had inspired schizophrenics to go out and commit murders—and, indeed, conjured up the mindset of a schizophrenic, one in which a chosen one has rare knowledge that everyone around him is, in fact, inhuman and without feeling and thus easily killed—I do not know that I would make a sequel to that film in which a psychiatrist trying to convince the hero that his meds are necessary for not only his safety but also the safety of everyone around him is portrayed as a villain attempting to stymie the growth of said hero.
To be clear, I am not hanging any future murders by schizophrenics on The Matrix Resurrections or its director, Lana Wachowski, who cowrote the film with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon; artists cannot be held responsible for how the mentally deranged interpret their work. I mention it merely because the entire film seems to exist as a way to discuss The Matrix, its sequels, and all the conversation surrounding them.
I mean this quite literally. Nearly the full first hour of this two-and-a-half-hour picture involves Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) attempting to craft a sequel to the original trilogy of The Matrix, only very slightly reimagined here as a video game (albeit one whose parent company is still Warner Bros. and the imagery and dialogue of which is identical to the movies we know and love). The whole opening act, following the rescue of a new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) by freed mind Bugs (Jessica Henwick), involves a meta debate about sequels and franchises and the recursive nature of the business of corporatized art.
The meta discussion here about corporations and sequels and franchises is a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that Resurrections is precisely that, a piece of corporate business; as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada’s admonition: “Writing ‘the proverbial’ in front of a cliché does not excuse it. It only worsens the offense by demonstrating the writer’s awareness of it.” Using metatextual tricks to admit that you’re a corporate cash grab does not absolve you from being a corporate cash grab or necessarily elevate you above other corporate cash grabs.
Characters sit around an open-concept workspace and discuss what The Matrix really meant to audiences—trans politics, philosophical mumbo jumbo, etc.—before settling, simply, on “bullet time.” The joke here being that all the questions of identity and choice and philosophy really ended up meaning quite little when paired with a minor camera innovation that made the fights look really cool.
Except, of course, that the joke is true. Consider the fate of Dark City, Alex Proyas’s sci-fi noir that came out the year before The Matrix. That film covered much of the same ground, about a sleeping city awoken to the truth that they are prisoners in a vast, virtual metropolis. It was asking many of the same questions about memory and meaning, and had a similarly dark and stylish set design.
But Dark City failed where The Matrix succeeded because Dark City closed with a terrible fight that aped something out of an action anime along the lines of Dragon Ball Z: characters yelled really loud and threw blasts of energy at one another. The Matrix, on the other hand, gave Western audiences something they’d never seen before, combining bullet time with the wire fights of legendary Hong Kong director and fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping.
All of which is to say that The Matrix Resurrections’s failings on a storytelling level—and it does fail, I think, on relatively basic levels like helping the audience understand how freed hackers like Bugs get into and out of the reconstituted Matrix or why the titular resurrections actually occurred—could be forgiven if it were at least visually exciting, giving us something we’ve never seen before.
And I think the movie basically fails here as well. Say what you will about Reloaded and the endless prattling on about choice in that film (prattling I quite enjoy because it’s put in the mouth of the Merovingian and I find him and his lovely bride delightful to watch and listen to, though that’s neither here nor there), but it is one of the best pure action films of the last 20 years. The whole stretch in the middle that cuts from the chateau fight to the highway chase is genuinely thrilling. I mean, at one point, an agent climbs out of a speeding car and climbs up onto the roof of that car in order to use a neighboring car as a trampoline to get to Morpheus and Trinity’s car in which they are knife-fighting a ghost in the backseat with the aid of a severed seat belt that’s being used as a whip and you’re like “Jesus, what next?”
And then a minute later Trinity is driving a Ducati against traffic on a highway.
On top of the sequence’s pure kinetic energy, it’s beautifully shot and framed, every image a painting, every moment coherent and connected to the one before and after it. Resurrections, on the other hand, is often muddy and confused. There’s a moment in the new film that is meant to echo the chateau fight and it’s genuinely disheartening to watch because it’s so, so much worse. So much less care is given to the actual composition of the scene that it feels like it was done by a second unit somewhere. There’s nothing nearly as elegant as Neo, surrounded by classical art, cartwheeling in midair from one staircase to another as a trio of villains bear down on him in slow motion; it’s just a bunch of people punching each other in a decrepit warehouse.
This review is a tad more negative than I’d intended; there are elements of Resurrections that I genuinely enjoyed, like the goofy energy Abdul-Mateen II gives off as Morpheus or the substitution of Zion for a new human home that doesn’t bore audiences to tears. And there is one interesting visual idea in The Matrix Resurrections involving a key innovation by the new architect of the Matrix: bots, thousands of bots, living with everyone else, keyed at a moment’s notice to go into “swarm mode.” When activated, their eyes pulse with green code and they go mad, trying to kill whomever the boss deems needs to go.
First employed on a bullet train, the resulting fight calls to mind the action in Train to Busan; later, these bots literally hurl themselves off of high rises to turn themselves into human bombs, raining down from the sky to disrupt an escape attempt. Again, kind of a neat idea. But one that only heightens the essentially schizophrenic idea at the core of the film, the paranoid delusion that everyone is out to get you, that you’re the holder of some secret truth, that you’ve awoken and are aware and surrounded by dangerous people trying to control, maybe even kill, you.
There are folks who desperately need those blue pills prescribed by their analysts, and I desperately hope they don’t watch this as obsessively as some of their predecessors watched the original.