It’s hard to believe it’s been over twenty-two years since the Wachowskis (then brothers Larry and Andy; now sisters Lana and Lilly—long story) introduced the world to Neo (Keanu Reeves), a hapless hacker who discovers he and most of the rest of humanity are really living in the Matrix, a virtual reality created by Machines that have enslaved their human creators. Neo is sprung from the Matrix by true-believer Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and true-love comrade-in-arms Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), warriors for the free humans who are looking for “The One,” the prophesied human who can transcend the coded bonds of the Matrix and somehow bring an end to the reign of the Machines.
In the subsequent sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions), the Machines nearly destroy Zion, the last city of free humans hidden deep underground, but cut a deal at the last minute with Neo: if he can rid the Matrix of Smith (Hugo Weaving), a former Agent of the Machines who has accidentally evolved into a virus-like entity threating to overrun the Matrix and infect the Machines themselves, the Machines will make peace with the free humans and let go those who wish to be released from the Matrix.
I know, it’s a lot.
While The Matrix was unlike any live-action film audiences had seen before, it was, in many ways, both the culmination and the exemplar of cyberpunk (the subgenre of sci-fi characterized by “high tech, low life”; i.e., noir-like stories in which society is helpless against rapidly advancing technological development, while organized crime and ultra-powerful transnational interests operate with near-impunity, running roughshod over the law and the little guy). The Matrix was cinematically unique, combining highbrow philosophical ideas, ultra-cool Goth and BDSM fashion, “wire-fu” martial arts choreography pioneered by Asian filmmakers, and cutting-edge computer special effects. The end result was visually stunning and intellectually stimulating.
Arguably, the two sequels (both released in 2003), while still offering a fun ride, failed to live up to the promise of the original, opting for too much shooty-shooty-punchy-punchy and not enough exploration of the fascinating philosophical conundrums that arose from issues of virtual reality, free will, the nature of identity, etc. They also neglected to clarify the ultimate fates of Neo (maybe dead?), Trinity (presumably dead), and Morpheus.
Here there be spoilers.
Now, after nearly twenty years, Lana Wachowski has decided to continue the story on her own with The Matrix Resurrections. (The details of why sister Lilly opted out have been explained elsewhere. Suffice to say the siblings don’t appear to be on the outs.) The result is an interesting but frustrating artifact, a clever mish-mash of meta-commentary that also tries to be a more-or-less traditional sequel.
Our story beings, in a moment of déjà vu, at the dark and dilapidated Heart O’ The City Hotel, where a SWAT team is getting its collective ass handed to it by Trinity, a black-haired, scorpion-kicking Goth princess with preternatural speed and combat skill to spare. But… she’s not our Trinity; the SWAT team aren’t quite the cops we remember; the Agent Smith (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is not our Agent Smith. While the rooftop scenario plays out roughly the way we remember, it’s not identical. The outline is the same, but the details are different.
Watching this scenario play out are Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and Seq (Toby Onwumere), two humans who realize they’re tapping into a “modal,” a self-contained coding loop that enables computer programs to evolve over many repetitions. Somewhere within the umpteen cycles, the modal’s Agent Smith has not only become aware of his synthetic existence, but has also come to believe that he is no other than Morpheus in another guise.
Meanwhile (and/or elsewhere) Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a middle-aged programmer, famous for designing, twenty years ago, a massively successful trilogy of video games called The Matrix, starring the characters Neo and Trinity. Thomas is now part of a team (mostly obnoxious, cocky Millennial types who are in awe of Thomas, and who think their fortune-cookie platitudes represent deep philosophical insights) tasked with creating a sequel to his earlier masterwork. Struggling against anxiety, depression, and intermittent hallucinations, Thomas is required to see an analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) and keep up on his meds (delivered, appropriately enough, in the form of blue pills). At a local coffee shop, Thomas occasionally bumps into Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), an attractive 50-something wife and mother of two who has a little more adventure in her than she dares to let on. Much as Thomas is the physical model for Neo, Tiffany (curious about this popular video game) has noticed that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Trinity. Each has a sense that they’ve met before; each also has a niggling, subliminal identity crisis, getting glimpses of not-quite-Thomas or not-quite-Tiffany in the reflections of mirrors and other shiny surfaces.
It should come as no surprise that Thomas and Tiffany eventually discover that they are still Neo and Trinity, still trapped in a version of the Matrix due to the nefarious bad faith of the Machines. And with that, they’re off to the races, facing greater and greater odds as the Machine overlords throw everything but the kitchen sink at them in an effort to maintain control.
While the action scenes are well-executed, they are far more traditional than the wire-fu spectaculars the Wachowskis introduced in the original trilogy. This, combined with the recasting of familiar characters, sometimes gives Resurrections the feel of an elaborate cosplay. (I can’t help but think Lana Wachowski missed a meta-opportunity in this recasting. If Smith can have a different face, if Morpheus can be a human being or an Agent or a nanotechnological projection of an A.I. into the “real world,” why can’t they now be expressed as different races, or genders, or gender identities? It would seem the Matrix would be the perfect venue to explore such things. I digress.)
The Matrix has always been understood as a metaphor for the powerlessness of the individual in the face of institutional power and the pressures of conformity. In the original film, Morpheus intones about the ubiquity of this underlying control: “You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes…” If nothing else, the Matrix has become even more relevant in that regard. We now live in a world not just of vast corporate interests and a public obsessed by celebrity distractions, but also of uncontrolled conspiracy theories and the wholesale rejection of plain fact. Lana Wachowski and her co-writers have obviously been observant in this regard. Late in Resurrections, Neil Patrick Harris’s Analyst monologues about how he’s found the secret sauce to fine-tuning the Matrix: “[People] don’t give a shit about facts. It’s all about fiction. The only world that matters is the one in here [points to brain]. And you people believe the craziest shit. Why? What validates and makes your fictions real? Feelings… Here’s the thing about feelings. They’re so much easier to control than facts.”
In the end, The Matrix Resurrections offers its satisfactions, but suffers the same defects as its predecessors: a second half tarnished by too much chaotic action, extravagant (and shockingly inept) gunfire, and a refusal to address the fate of the hoi polloi (both those still entranced in the Matrix, as well as those living in the subterranean free world). What could have been an ingenious self-examination of a franchise that revels in tweaking perceptions, ends up coming across as (if not a naked money-grab) a near-miss by at least one Wachowski to regain cultural influence.