2021 has been a banner year for blockbuster films proudly pointing out that intellectual property is more valuable than filmmaking ability or originality. That sentiment is usually there, but the triple-dipping of the latest Spider-Man, the nostalgia whack-a-mole of Ghostbusters: Afterlife or the Warner Bros. vault-delving of Space Jam: A New Legacy put pop culture familiarity proudly, unabashedly forward as their sole Funko Poppy purpose. With this track record, even the most devoted Wachowski faithful might be wary of the long-coming sequel The Matrix Resurrections. But as excitingly fresh and ambitious as The Matrix was in its approach to cyberpunk cinema in 1999, The Matrix Resurrections is just as devoted to its bold and disruptive vision in 2021. By returning us to Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the Matrix within a framework keyed into, amused with and ultimately intrigued by remake/reboot culture, Resurrections is a stimulating and often joyous meta narrative—all stuffed into a conventional enough sci-fi suit and tie to pass as Mr. Anderson for those happily horking down blue pills.
This clever commentary comes packaged as the life of ol’ grown-up Thomas Anderson (Reeves), famed programmer living off his revolutionary-yet-fleeting videogame, The Matrix. Wait, what? Table those questions: His terrible boss (Jonathan Groff, deliciously shit-eating) wants a sequel. Reboot. Remake. Something. Something to introduce the kids to the glory days and to remind the company, with dollars, how investing in originality once paid dividends. Anderson trudges through what you have to believe is the terrible corporate soul-sucking side of creative work that loomed large over writer/director Lana Wachowski being asked to add to The Matrix over the years. Anderson’s company is even owned by Warner Bros.
It’s hilarious and uncomfortable, almost like a self-referential Reeves guest spot on Silicon Valley. But we know this is existentially wrong. Not just because we glimpsed a new hacker, Bugs (Jessica Henwick) tussle with a group including an Agent or…a Morpheus…or a…well, a SOMEBODY (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and not just because we paid for a Matrix movie and damn it, we know that’s Neo sitting at that desk. But because Anderson is seeing a therapist for that nagging splinter in his mind—and we get the impression that the hot mom he’s been bashfully eye-banging at his local coffee joint, Tiffany (Moss), might suffer a similar affliction. They need saving, which requires going back down the rabbit hole and confronting their shared past.
To reunite, to find that old magic, to resurrect, they—and the movie—need to jump through some hoops. But, as it does, you begin to see its stance towards itself shifting: What once was an easy joke, a Super Bowl commercial where Neo puts on some VR gear and says “Woah,” villainizes that same crassness to become an optimistic and reclamatory piece of sci-fi playing with new and relevant phenomena (fandom, auteur expectation, canon, the idolization of IP) just as the original trilogy played with the burgeoning cyberpunk and hacker scene. Bugs and her real-world crew are really into The One. How they relate to this new Matrix, how the citizens of Zion live, how the uneasy relationship between machines and humans turned out post-Revolutions (or, to be even more specific, post-The Matrix Online)—we get glimpses of it all, but it’s not servicing fans. It’s in service of itself. It is a shift from corporate pessimism (the very analysis and identification of which and other themes like it are lovingly mocked in that same montage-heavy opening) to a subversive positivity. Returning characters don’t just need to be callbacks. Twisty hallways or underground brawls can be more than reference material. There is value in looking back as long as that experience moves you forward.
It’s easy to see why the latent potential of a “made” text—the revelatory possibilities in something considered set in stone—would be attractive to Wachowski, a filmmaker whose transition was often read into the original Matrix. Resurrections sees her bring this theme a little closer to the conscious surface, colored with lived-in elements from a long and influential creative career: Older heroes reminded of their power and passion, for life and for each other, saved by those they inspired in the first place. At its best, which is mostly when Reeves and Moss share the screen and their red-hot chemistry and intimate warmth are able to embody these abstractions, Resurrections leaps from staggering heights and confidently soars. Sometimes literally.
Achieving these moments takes time and is not a painless process—The Matrix Resurrections re-enacts some of the series’ major moments (notably the opening of the original film) to nearly depressing effect. The filmmaking isn’t as clear or exciting, not as innovative as it once was; too many cuts mired in a darkness that makes digital FX a bit easier to sell, particularly during a third act that wades through too much of the sequels’ visual clone slog. It’s partially a matter of keeping things brief for the movie we’re actually watching, but it’s also a shame. It both highlights changes in what you need to do to be cutting-edge (or what it’s like when you don’t have to be cutting-edge in order to pull off cool sci-fi) and how the saturated impact of the Wachowskis’ own style has changed how we see the real thing. But then, there’s a shift. Interspersing footage from the trilogy stops feeling like a strange and unflattering crutch, and begins genuinely resonating—not just reminding us of what we loved about this franchise, but evoking the core feelings that those incredible moments unlocked: Awe, tenderness, adrenaline-fueled joy.
It works because of the script’s emotional honesty, lurking amid the heady cleverness and gallivanting plot. Moss bears the brunt of this task and reaps the rewards for doing so: She’s excellent. Badass, striking and with an underlying yearning she’s able to nearly beam at you. Nobody in the cast feels wrong (aside from Neil Patrick Harris, whose punchable performance is in the wrong weight class), but Moss and Reeves feel oh-so right. They’re at their prime, carrying the film’s emotion and action—and yes, there’s plenty of motorcycling, ass-kicking, grimy-environment-demolishing action. And yes, they both look incredible doing it.
I was seven when The Matrix came out. I was probably more influenced by Matrix parodies than the actual thing. In a way, there’s something about that I think Resurrections would appreciate. Its attempt to be individually meaningful while intrinsically tied to its origins, to be a critical fractal using its source’s legacy to build something self-similar yet developed, naturally plays with intertextuality. What we think of as The Matrix wouldn’t be the same without hacky movies drowning us in bullet time gags for a decade. Changing a meme once it’s taken root is impossible. Just ask the poor guy who drew Pepe. But changing the course of your art by playing the industry game? That’s just very difficult. Where some of the year’s worst cinematic offenders simply used their ubiquity to turn an easy buck, Resurrections looks its legacy in the eye and reaches for greatness. It doesn’t always work, and it’s a little messy in its attempt, but the ambition to manipulate a cash-grab into something evolutionary—something many legacyquels wish for but almost never attempt so brazenly—makes this Matrix the rare resurrection resulting in more than a sad IP zombie.
Director: Lana Wachowski
Writers: Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Christina Ricci, Telma Hopkins, Eréndira Ibarra, Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt, Brian J. Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith
Release Date: December 22, 2021 (HBO Max)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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