You Have No Choice — The Matrix Resurrections
The history of the Matrix franchise is a fraught one, with tremendous highs and cavernous lows. In a series that delighted in how much its story could be bathed in biblical overtones, it in itself became a cautionary tale hewing closer to Greek tragedy due to the Wachowski (then) Brothers’ unchecked ambition, trying to cram so much symbolism and special effects into the sequels that the original almost lost everything that made it, well, special, in the first place. In their quest to deify “The One,” they ended up reinforcing why there should have only been “One” movie.
That isn’t to say that the sequels have nothing to offer. After the game-changing success of the original Matrix from 1999, of course there would be calls to continue the story of Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the resistance against the machines. The first film even ended on something of a teaser, so we all knew there was more to see, more to reveal. And for what it was, Matrix Reloaded worked. It expanded the universe, introduced new and interesting characters, and gave us two incredible action set pieces — the highway scene and the lobby scene — that rivaled anything done in the entire series.
But then the rushed finale, Matrix Revolutions, came out a mere six months later, and it was clear that all the effort was put into the middle chapter. There were a couple of intriguing ideas, like a full-on hero worship character (The Kid, played by Clayton Watson) and the impossible pressure that puts on Keanu Reeves’ Neo to live up to his own mythology. But all of that potential nuance and character exploration was quickly abandoned in favor of a CGI barf fest so huge and nonsensical that it just looked like the visual equivalent of noise, all to wrap things up in a Jesus allegory that was so obvious it might as well have just been called New Testament with Robots. It was completely unwatchable.
It was a bad ending, but at least it was an ending. It was closed, definitive. Neo was dead. Trinity was dead. A peace was declared between Zion and the cringeworthy Deus Ex Machina. The Matrix itself was reset, with the understanding that anyone who wanted to wake up would be allowed to. It was far from satisfying, but it was clean.
Now, some 18 years after the story was over and done with, and 22 years since it began, we are told, through The Matrix Resurrections that there is no such thing as an “ending.” No, literally, one of the characters actually says that. What was done can now be undone at the whim of a creator or by their own higher power, in this case Warner Bros. There’s a meta joke early in the film where an antagonistic game company executive (Jonathan Groff of Glee and Frozen) tells Thomas Anderson/Neo (Reeves, returning while looking very John Wick-ish, as if he literally came off the set of one to do the other) that the WB wants another Matrix, and it’s happening, with or without them. To the shock of none, while Lana Wachowski (working solo without Lilly) spins it as a gag that’ll get past the suits, that’s largely what was going to happen no matter what, which is probably why the joke was allowed in the first place.
That tracks with the film’s overall theme about the illusion of choice. Many binary decisions are presented without them being an actual set of options for the person involved, and it might almost be clever if the characters didn’t comment on it all the time. There’s even a crucial retcon presented late in the film, where they reveal that a person inside the Matrix need not even choose the famous red pill to extricate themselves from the program. People in the real world can simply disconnect them if they want. It’s a riskier movie, but apparently it’s always been a possible course of action, rendering the one true bit of lasting profundity in the series — that no matter your destiny, you must choose to embrace it — utterly moot.
And that’s largely the problem with this ill-advised sequel. I will give massive credit to the cast and crew that they at least try to justify the film’s existence (with mixed results, which I’ll get to shortly), but in doing so they end up undermining their own purpose, to the point that the movie itself becomes an exercise in meta futility, telling its own audience that they themselves don’t have a choice when it comes to judging it. You either buy in and embrace this version of The Matrix as the new normal, or you’re just another one of the “sheeple” unwilling to see the “truth.”
This is a flawed film in many ways, mostly because the script seems to intentionally disappear up its own asshole with circular logic in trying to present a reason for it even to be. This happens through two major avenues, neither of which really work all that well. The first is to literally retell the original story, with the film beginning with the very same opening sequence with Agents tracking down Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). The only difference this time is that the events are being observed by the next generation of separatists, in the form of Jessica Henwick as Bugs, and yes, in true corporate synergistic fashion, she specifies that it’s in reference to Bugs Bunny, because she has a “white rabbit” tattoo on her avatar. Kill me.
There’s really no thematic point to this bit of fan service, other than to tell you, the viewer, that you’re going to get a near infinite number of callbacks and archival footage cutaways over the course of the film (the contrast between this movie’s regular color palette and the green sheen over the older films is glaring). Characters in their new forms even repeat old dialogue. It can only be interpreted as a desperate attempt to force the viewer to connect the good stuff they remember to the mediocre stuff that’s being put in front of their faces. From a story perspective, it only serves to show that Bugs can notice small differences without a full-on déjà vu to clue you in to a glitch, and to introduce the new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) through a convoluted chase scene/exposition dump where he’s an amalgam program mixing Laurence Fishburne’s character traits inside an Agent fused with some of the old Smith code. This version of Morpheus does present one of the few interesting ideas of the film, that programs and machines themselves can now take the red pill and exit their own servitude, but it’s never explored fully enough to mean anything, the time that could have been spent on development instead wasted on a lame CGI effect where tiny nanobots form a quasi motion-capture person in the real world while maintaining the full avatar inside the Matrix.
The second is to present a new Matrix where Thomas Anderson and Trinity/Tiffany are alive again (or never died in the first place, if you believe early dialogue, which you shouldn’t, because doing so only plays into the script’s hands when it “shockingly” reveals what really happened), and somewhat intrigued with each other through a series of near-misses and vague dreams. In this reality, Neo is a designer who created a trilogy of video games called The Matrix based on his own nightmares in the late 90s and who eventually got too into the illusion and had a mental breakdown, requiring him to attend regular therapy sessions with a psychoanalyst played by Neil Patrick Harris. The announcement of this new sequel, while he’s working on a module update for the old games (which allows for the upgraded Morpheus), leads to a series of paranoid flashbacks and repeats of past events until he once again opts for the red pill and returns to the real world, reuniting with now General Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and dead set on rescuing Trinity.
Now, this concept might have worked if it didn’t waste so much time chasing its own tail to try to confuse the audience into acquiescence. A pitch meeting from a painfully over-the-top WB suit (Christina Ricci, who got above-the-line billing despite having two lines of dialogue in one scene; I honestly had to look up who she played after seeing her name in the credits) is little more than an exercise in spouting off neutered fan theories about what the original trilogy was all about and what the implications of it should be as a means to pick a direction for the new game. It’s meant to be a commentary on the market research sequels by committee that plague the Hollywood system, but in engaging in the process, even in a way that’s supposed to be ironic, the only thing the film is subverting is its own point and credibility. It spouts off all these shallow elements as a way to slyly dismiss the previous films and assert itself as something more meaningful, but ends up accomplishing the opposite goal, leaving viewers with their own sense of logic tied up in knots, the only hope of the film’s success now resting on those very same viewers opting to not think and just go with whatever they throw at us. It’s beyond frustrating, intellectually insulting, and it means we have to go a full 50 minutes before the first meaningful action sequence.
Because of that, by the time we get to the meat of the film, we’re really just begging it to get itself over with. The set pieces are largely jump-cut-a-thons straight out of the worst examples of fight choreography from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The CGI somehow looks faker than the effects from more than two decades ago. The timeline has shifted forward 60 years instead of 20 for reasons known but to the literal God Machine. Somehow Priyanka Chopra is in this. It all just feels like a mess, hitting all the same beats (right down to ending the film with the same Rage Against the Machine song, only this time a vastly inferior cover version, which may itself be a meta gag). Having Neo say a line like, “I still know kung fu” is good for a brief chuckle, but it only reminds us that this is a pale imitation of what we once loved, and in doing so, it overshadows all the actual good elements at play for the sake of a one-liner in hopes of audience applause that will never come.
And yes, there are some good ideas here. The use of mirrors to transport between worlds is a good “Alice in Wonderland” reference as well as a clever means to dispose of the need for landline telephones, which are now largely obsolete. The villains’ expository monologues are scenery-chewing, mustache-twirling cheesiness at the highest level, and there’s even a slight bit of innovation in the idea of using one of Neo’s biggest strengths — the so-called “bullet time” effect — against him. There’s an actual discussion about the demoralizing effect of faith not being rewarded. The new Zion (called Io, after Jupiter’s moon and the Greek mythology figure who was turned into a cow after an affair with Zeus, giving us a nurturing mother metaphor) can actually grow fresh fruit, giving us a scene where Neo eats a strawberry, the first pleasant red thing he’s likely ever swallowed.
These are some very valid concepts, but they only scratch the surface of anything profound, mostly because the film is far too focused on figuring out a reason to exist and shoving it down your throat. Because of that, the film loses almost all meaning and reinforces why it very likely shouldn’t be. The very fact that this movie was made is in itself a lesson as to why some things should be left well enough alone. But even when you get past that, this could have been a massive success if Wachowski had trusted in her audience enough to leave the pontification out of it and just let the subtle moments breathe new life into the franchise, rather than constantly trying to force the issue in a way that’s ultimately, and predictably, counterproductive. Just like the original film, this one does end on a note where we could end up jump-starting the series again for another full trilogy, and if so, that makes me sad. Because now that I’ve seen The Matrix Resurrections foul up its own legacy, I have little hope for a correction in the form of The Matrix Redeemed.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you developing franchise fatigue? What would be your Matrix cyberpunk handle? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 29, 2021.