The Matrix Resurrections, 2021, directed by Lana Wachowski — 3.5/5 Stars
The Matrix, as a franchise, has reached a level of cultural ubiquity that few intellectual properties ever see. The visual style of the original 1999 film has become a genre unto itself, and the way directors Lana and Lily Wachowski shot and staged their action sequences forever changed blockbuster filmmaking. There has also been a much uglier, more frustrating side of The Matrix’s popularity; the social and political messaging of the original film has been twisted and warped by conservatism, with online communities interpreting the iconic “red pill” as a gateway to bigoted, regressive views of the world.
Upon the announcement of a new Matrix film, many were skeptical of the necessity of such a sequel, and rightly so. Even with the involvement of Lana Wachowski, one of the original two directors, it seemed likely that The Matrix Resurrections was set to be a lazy, rehashed nostalgia trip to appease fans. While Resurrections isn’t always innocent in that regard, it takes far more risks than it could have, and it does something many reboots and sequels are afraid to do: actively deconstruct and confront its own impact. Spoilers follow.
Resurrections starts similarly to its predecessor. Keanu Reeves begins as Thomas Anderson, a dejected, bored desk jockey with a knack for computers. Little does he know, of course, that the world he exists in is nothing but a digital prison designed to confine and limit him. What sets this introductory section apart from the first installments, though, is that the audience is already familiar with the film’s premise, and the film knows it. To reckon with this, the concept of “the matrix” is present in the world of the film, in the form of a trilogy of video games made by Thomas Anderson himself. The games have reached a similar status as the movies in the real world, and in tandem have developed fans that misinterpret the storytelling and have a thirst for more Matrix content. Soon enough, Anderson, or Neo, as he is later called, is asked to make a new Matrix game, a sequel to his original trilogy. He’s also told that if he doesn’t make it, the studio will make it without him. Not only does this bear obvious parallels to Lana Wachowski’s real-life situation, right down to the threat of production without her consent, but movie distributor Warner Brothers is actually mentioned by name, shoehorned in as the game development team studio’s parent company. The game enters early stages of production, and the development discusses The Matrix as a social concept, asking questions like “What makes The Matrix great?” and “What do people want in a Matrix sequel?” Some of the characters’ input seems poignant and relevant, making note of the political themes of the franchise and trying to expand on those ideas. Others are clear jabs at those who engage with the films only on a surface level, with boisterous, goofy characters making demands for more explosions and rehashes of set pieces from the original. It’s truly a hilarious, ambitious, overly meta first act for a movie on this scale. Not every in-joke lands, and the script’s tone comes off as condescending at times, but it’s an oddly refreshing take on a sequel 20-odd years later.
As the story progresses, though, the film begins to encounter some of the same pitfalls it seems to disdain. While the characters of Agent Smith and Morpheus are still present, they have been recast, a choice that feels jarring and unnecessary, especially when it becomes clear that they could have been left out of the story entirely. The action sequences, despite being bright and colorful, hardly hold a candle to the thrilling, dynamic combat from the first film. Choppy, disorienting editing and over-reliance on visual effects hold the exciting moments back from being even close to as engaging. Wachowski also makes an interesting choice to splice in footage from the original trilogy throughout Resurrections, which, despite being well-intentioned, cheapens and detracts from the anti-nostalgia bait rhetoric the film aims for.
It stumbles at times, but The Matrix Resurrections is so stunningly unsubtle, so jaw-droppingly and head-spinningly meta, so angry and silly and zealous, that it’s hard not to applaud what it attempts. In a time where nearly every reboot and sequel in recent memory has been so reliant and inferior to its precursors, seeing a director challenge the trend is incredibly fun. Resurrections knows that it will never be 1999’s Matrix, and so it doesn’t even try. And that’s what makes it work.