Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. This isn’t going to be an unbiased review. I’ve had a relationship with the Matrix franchise since I was a teenager, and I saw the original film upwards of ten times in the theatre. I wrote more than one university paper on both the philosophical themes and aesthetic considerations of The Matrix, and definitely annoyed my friends by being able to recite practically every line from the original film from memory. And, horror of horrors, I don’t even thoroughly hate the two sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. That aside, I think that The Matrix: Resurrections, the new instalment from Lana Wachowski (sister and collaborator Lilly Wachowski isn’t involved in this one) is the most daring big-budget tentpole of 2021 and certainly of the franchise as a whole.
In The Matrix: Resurrections, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a wildly-successful game designer who has created an immersive game called, wait for it, The Matrix. Everything we’ve seen in the original trilogy is from that game, and its narrative tendrils creep into The Matrix: Resurrections, in the form of Anderson’s memories conjured by his unravelling mind. To combat this ever-advancing madness, Thomas employs both a steady diet of blue pills as well as a psychoanalyst (Neil Patrick Harris). But those only stave off Thomas’s delusions to a point. He still sees the love of his life, Trinity, in a coffee shop but now she’s Tiffany, is married to Chad, and has two bratty kids. Echoes of his old nemesis, Agent Smith, still come through his affable but adversarial boss at the game company (Jonathan Groff). And he’s still halfway convinced that he can fly.
In terms of performances, this is very much the Keanu and Carrie-Anne show, and both rise to the occasion with all the chemistry that Neo and Trinity always had, even two decades later. We also get to see them explore their characters in wildly different settings and contexts, and – again, biased – this is one of the The Matrix: Resurrections‘ joys. New cast additions in Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Groff, without getting into spoilers, command the screen when they’re on it, and feel cool as hell.
We also need to talk about my favourite addition to The Matrix: Resurrections, the new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). In much the same way that Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal of the character, ever sardonic and smug while maintaining a kind of paternalism, Abdul-Mateen brings a new flavour – and absolutely unmatched suit game – to Morpheus that emphasizes wit and even further subverts expectations by having him quote or even re-enact Fishburne’s scenes from the original film with a glint of suave parody. In this and many other ways, The Matrix: Resurrections, deftly simulates the feeling of deja-vu, something that feels familiar and recognizable but is just a teensy bit ‘off’. My one criticism is that we don’t get enough Morpheus, as his character definitely takes a backseat in the film’s second half.
What Lana Wachowski has done here, and is one of the most daring achievements of The Matrix: Resurrections, is to walk a line between throwing up a huge middle finger to Warner Brothers (called out specifically in the film) for threatening to go ahead with a Matrix sequel – at one point, Free Guy and The Nutty Professor scribe Zak Penn was and still might be on board – without her, and wanting to share more of the rich world she has meticulously crafted. More than anything, The Matrix: Resurrections can be boiled down to a battle between those two instincts, where both sides somehow come out victorious. We are outright told that Lana made this movie because if she didn’t, it would be in the hands of someone less capable or knowledgeable of the world of The Matrix. And by gum, it works so much better than a project borne of coercion or spite ought to.
The visuals, especially once we’re unplugged from the Matrix into the real world, are full of delights, and feel like evolutions of what we saw from these settings in the prior movies. The machines move with a chillingly organic fluidity, and the body horror of the unplugging process itself is still very present, and the cyberpunk aesthetic is still there, though you get the sense that, like many of the dated themes from the original three movies, it’s a wee bit of a self-parody.
I’ve heard numerous criticisms of the action sequences in The Matrix: Resurrections and, to be honest, I don’t disagree with them. The original Matrix was so groundbreaking and visually distinct that even the first two sequels didn’t live up to them. That being said, it feels as though the action is deliberately placed on the back burner in The Matrix: Resurrections. There are still martial arts fights and gun battles that mostly feel as though they’re included out of obligation. What you need to internalize is that this is a story that is so emotionally rich and filled with something so far beyond fan service – in fact it openly derides empty fan service at times – that it can’t help but satisfy on a deeper level, gunplay or not. But if you’re hopping on board The Matrix: Resurrections, in hopes of seeing heaps of action and big set pieces, you may want to consider looking elsewhere, or adjusting your expectations accordingly.
And let me just get this out of the way as well. If you’re mad that The Matrix: Resurrections eschews any sense of subtlety in its messaging and themes (and it definitely does), I would ask you if you’ve seen any of the prior films, or experienced the world at large since they were released. The Matrix was never subtle. It wore its themes on it’s sleeve and held your hand through its metatextuality from the very beginning. Ya boi learned about the writings of Jean Baudrillard because a copy of his Simulacra and Simulation was used to store Neo’s pirated software in the first half hour of the first film. Similarly, the co-opting of the ‘red pill’ by the worst actors on the internet is a prime target of Lana’s derision in The Matrix: Resurrections. Laying bare the trans allegory – not just transgender themes but transhumanism – in so many ways here that it’s impossible to misinterpret, even by the most disingenuous among us.
Because what Wachowski has delivered here, and honestly, what she delivered in the first Matrix, is a subversion of any and all traditional action movie expectations. Whether it’s the gender binary, the idea of masculinity, damsel in distress tropes, and, certainly, the idea that “guns, lots of guns” is the solution to your problems, The Matrix: Resurrections will internalize those ideas and spit them back at you, laughing all the while. But don’t get it twisted, for fans of the original film or the franchise in general like me, The Matrix: Resurrections is the kind of meaty anime-but-it’s-real vibe we’ve come to expect from Lana Wachowski, and gives me hope that the instant gratification of the mass-produced sequels-for-their own-sake that flood our multiplexes and ever-expanding array of streaming services need not be the norm. It drops both expectations and subtlety off a roof, and nothing is guaranteed to make me a fan of a film – any film – than that.
The Matrix: Resurrections is playing everywhere, and is also on HBO Max.