“The sequel is never as good as the original” is a sentiment that was generally accepted as fact in the days before franchise filmmaking. It’s been decades since the era where Hollywood would market films solely on talent rather than a connection to another story, but you still see that feeling tossed around. How can a sequel possibly top the original film?
That’s exactly the question that The Matrix Resurrections attempts to answer. In a world where basically everyone, young and old, knows about The Matrix and its unique twist, how can you even approach a sequel that would do justice to the first movie? Is it possible to be as groundbreaking in modern times when CG technology has advanced so much that we’ve practically erased the lines between fantasy and reality? Does anyone even want to see another film?
The Matrix Resurrections gets props for raising a ton of thought-provoking questions that most sequels wouldn’t even dare to approach. For that, it’s absolutely worth a watch if you’re a fan of the original trilogy. It’s just a shame that in order to get all meta with its dissection of the cultural impact the first film had, a lot of this latest film coasts along on nostalgia without offering much new.
The Matrix Resurrections
Director: Lana Wachowski
Release Date: December 22, 2021
Due to the nature of what The Matrix Resurrections is, there will be spoilers throughout this review of not only the new film but all three of the originals. It would be impossible to talk about what this film does well and where it stumbles without not only comparisons to the past, but parallels to the lives of its director and the actors involved. This is your warning if you want to go in blind (which I do suggest).
The Matrix Resurrections begins in a fashion similar to the first movie. We hear dialogue from some unknown characters while digital code drips down the screen. From there, we’re in a dark room where a woman in skintight leather is sitting at a desk. Soon, a door is kicked down and a swat team enters with guns pointed at this woman. As this is all happening, the camera cuts to characters not familiar to fans of the original that seem to be superimposed into this eerily similar world.
Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and Sequoia (Toby Onwumere), as they call themselves, start pondering about how that woman doesn’t look like the Trinity they know. The two are in search of Neo as they have reason to believe he has been resurrected in some fashion. Before they can accurately place their thoughts, a repeat of the first film’s introduction starts playing out and this woman is running on the rooftops in an attempt to escape capture. Bugs gives chase, not wishing to waste her chance at finding the target she’s really after.
It’s 100% a recontextualization of the opening we all know and are familiar with, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once Bugs catches up to not-Trinity, she needs to make a daring escape of her own and eventually winds up in the hands of Agent Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a program created to eradicate anything unnatural within The Matrix. She gives him the familiar spiel of taking the Blue Pill or Red Pill and it becomes very clear that this isn’t exactly the same universe that we once knew.
On the flip side of all of this is a man named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a star programmer and designer of a video game called The Matrix. As the architect of one of the most popular and well-respected pieces of entertainment ever, his award-winning game company wants to take a stab at resurrecting the brand with a new installment. All the while, Thomas is taking medication in the form of blue pills because he has psychological delusions that he may be living in a world controlled by machines that program his every movement. I’m sure you can figure out where this eventually goes.
The introduction of Resurrections is maybe a bit overly long, but it proposes a ton of questions that would require a much more thorough and deep-diving piece than offered by a review. How can you bring back a brand that once changed the world? Do fans really want something new, or a retread of the comforts they already know? Can you mesh old and new together to create something different? All of these questions are represented by characters throughout the film, with Thomas eventually reassuming the identity of Neo and Morpheus acting as Neo’s interpretation of events he previously lived but cannot quite remember correctly.
It’s a fascinating reflection from director Lana Wachowski on the legacy that her film has had in entertainment. Many moons ago in the distant past of 1999, no one could have foreseen the impact that The Matrix would have. For all intents and purposes, the marketing leading up to the film hid its massive twist of humanity living in a digitized reality where robots harvested our energy for batteries –an approach mirrored here-. Hell, even that twist doesn’t fully make sense (batteries are terribly inefficient), but the mind-bending questions present were just icing on the cake of what was one of the most groundbreaking action films of its day.
The original Matrix mixed Hong Kong-style close-ups, sweeping cameras, and fisticuffs with John Woo-infused Gun Fu that was topped off with an expertly utilized slow-motion technique -labeled Bullet Time- to create this genre mash-up that would influence countless numbers of movies in its wake. One could completely ignore the plot and still witness a wholly original action film the likes of which were yet to be seen. By 2021, though, nothing in The Matrix remains truly unique to itself.
That’s where The Matrix Resurrections decides to forego the path of its predecessors to ponder if it is even truly possible to one-up The Matrix. Where Reloaded went bigger and badder and Revolutions tried to up the ante in terms of philosophy, Resurrections mixes both of those elements to reflect on how the world exists in the wake of the original.
The answer, it turns out, is that some people would rather live in a fantasy than face reality…which is all too real for our current socio-political climate. Relations between mankind and the machines have come to a standstill since the end of the third film. While some machines are willing to cooperate with humanity to advance civilization in the real world, others want things to go back to how they were. Yes, I am writing about The Matrix Resurrections and not last year’s election.
One of the more interesting retcons that Resurrections presents is the prophecy of “The One.” At this point, I don’t need to go over how Neo’s name is an anagram or how the Christ imagery was about as subtle as a sledgehammer in the original trilogy. Needless to say, this latest film doesn’t believe that it got the story right the first time through. Why is Neo, a brazenly average white man, the one to save humanity? Do all of the most important pieces of fiction rely on the decisions of men? Spoiling the outcome will kind of ruin the surprise, but it’s intriguing to contemplate how this new take on legacy fits in with the life of its director.
That isn’t to say there aren’t missteps with the narrative here. For all of the unique questions that the movie raises, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in its audience to put the dots together. In possibly what can be described as too zealous of a course correction from the abstract philosophy lessons in The Matrix Revolutions, Resurrections eventually has the main villain explain almost everything that has occurred to Neo. If you were a bit lost on why Neo and Trinity are the same actors while Morpheus and Smith are new, there’s an answer for that. Did you actually care about the real world and its outcome after Revolutions? You’ll also get an answer for that, too.
I’m not saying a film shouldn’t explain what is happening or how certain elements fit into each other, but the beginning of Resurrections suggests a deep dissection of not only The Matrix, but the entertainment industry as a whole only to give way to overly expository scenes where all of the mystery is destroyed in front of you. A few questions remain by the end, but a lot of them are given thorough explanations, and it kind of ruins the fun.
I can’t believe I’d made it this far into the review without mentioning action, but this is perhaps the weakest overall element to Resurrections. Again, how the hell could a new Matrix top the original, but nothing here even really attempts to. You won’t have callbacks to the bank heist or gratuitous usage of slow-motion or even a massive battle against a crowd of agents. All of the sequences here are unique from The Matrix, but also kind of perfunctory.
For certain, these scenes have all of the tension and narrative framings that great action movies use to get audiences to care about the people hitting each other. Where it falls apart is that the direction is just middle of the road. None of the choreography elevates the stakes from moment to moment and older actors like Reeves and Moss are too stiff to really sell things. The new crew feels better equipped to deal with the wirework, but even they don’t quite sell themselves as all-knowing martial arts experts.
The best analogy I can give is to another Reeves helmed series that has defined modern action cinema: John Wick. Reeves absolutely knows Kung Fu and would likely whoop my ass if I challenged him to a duel, but he’s never been super agile or flexible. What he can do is sell himself as a precise, deadly assassin that resorts to the deadliest of moves when forced into close quarters. John Wick plays to the strengths that Reeves has whereas The Matrix Resurrections wants him to be someone else.
It’s really only in the final action sequence that this movie introduces a concept that I haven’t quite seen before. Bodies begin falling from the sky in an effort to dive-bomb Neo and Trinity and it’s quite the spectacle. Everything else either feels mediocre or relies too heavily on past imagery to remain all that exciting. It works but plays second fiddle to a story that is more concerned with being meta than anything else.
With that concerted effort to be subversive, we also have a secondary cast that never quite feels fleshed out. Bugs is the only character I really remember and I’m not sure if it is down to writing or the fact that I really like Jessica Henwick. For a film nearly two and a half hours long, Resurrections completely rushes through introducing its new players to get back to Neo and Trinity. I understand the why, but it does result in moments where you simply have no idea who is on screen because they aren’t all that important.
That’s all to say that my final thoughts on the movie are kind of conflicted. I enjoyed it a lot, but where I was utterly captivated by the first hour of the movie, it eventually gave way to me feeling burnt out by the end. I’m happy Lana Wachowski swung for the fences and gave us what is probably her most sincere film to date, but I can’t help but wonder if some tightening up of loose elements wouldn’t have resulted in a film that could stand toe to toe with its legacy instead of simply living in the shadow of it.
Much like how Reloaded and Revolutions eventually got a second chance on life, though, I have a feeling that The Matrix Resurrections will one day have its time in the spotlight. It is incredibly bold to follow up The Matrix with a sequel that asks us, “Do you like how we all fucked up our own world?” I don’t feel happy at all, but I can’t help but also feel responsible for how shitty things have turned out.