By Nicole Veneto
Director Lana Wachowski seems less interested in telling a coherent story with fleshed out characters than she is in aggressively commenting on how we’re trapped in a cycle of reboots and remakes with no end in sight.
The Matrix Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski. Now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max through January 31.
I’ll begin my review of The Matrix Resurrections not by talking about the groundbreaking first movie (1999) or its two sequels, but by commenting on some discourse that’s been making its way through social media for the past month. Like many other movies with a late December release, Resurrections had the challenge of opening alongside the latest MCU movie, Spider-Man: No Way Home, which has been selling out theaters across the country. (Depending on where you live, No Way Home might be the only movie screening at your local cineplex.) In my respective online bubble, there’s considerable pushback against the MCU’s monopoly over movie-going audiences. Yet many of the same people criticizing No Way Home as vacuous nostalgia-bait algorithmically churned out by the House of Mouse were also singing their praises about Resurrections as a meta-movie masterpiece not getting its critical due. From one Hollywood franchise to another, the new Matrix movie is now considered an underdog at the box office, and shouldn’t we root for the underdog?
Though they’re both big-budget studio franchise films, if there’s a palpable difference between The Matrix series and Marvel movies it’s that the former can claim a personal relationship with its directors that the latter cannot. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s characters, not preexisting intellectual properties created by someone else. Granted, The Matrix is very much a product of its many influences, owing as much to cyberpunk fiction and kung-fu movies as it does to Jean Baudrillard and Japanese anime. The idea that we’re enslaved by technology and kept sedated within a simulated reality wasn’t even a novel concept in 1999. Still, as storytellers, the Wachowskis have a personal stake in The Matrix and its ever-debated political meaning in popular culture. Lana’s private rationale for finally returning to The Matrix, this time as sole director (Lilly passed to focus on producing Showtime’s Work in Progress), was made clear at Berlin’s International Literature Festival. There, she stated that she found the idea of resurrecting Neo and Trinity “immediately comforting” after her parents and a close friend died within quick succession of each other: “I couldn’t have my mom and dad, yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity [back].”
There’s something quite touching about that; after so many years of being hounded to make another Matrix movie, Lana found a way to return to the series on her own terms. Considering Warner Brothers would have made a fourth Matrix with or without the Wachowskis, it’s fair to say we’re getting a Matrix reboot that’s better than whatever some director-for-hire could have delivered. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like Resurrections, I just didn’t. What Resurrections tries to do is admirable if only because it’s different from what audiences expect — it’s a reboot of the series that attempts to reckon with the franchise’s cultural legacy and the very concept of reboots as cash-in fodder for the insatiably nostalgia-beholden masses. However, it does this in the most obtuse manner possible, bludgeoning audiences over the head with constant call-backs to the original trilogy and dialogue that’s so obnoxiously on the nose it borders on cringe-worthy. Some will argue this oversaturation of the familiar is the point. The problem is that Resurrections doesn’t offer anything new beyond tediously commenting on its very existence.
As I understand it, the basic plot of Resurrections is this: After dying in Revolutions, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, still a babe) are resurrected by the Architect’s successor, the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), an AI that oversees a new version of the Matrix powered by “fear” and “desire,” using Neo and Trinity as a sort of infinite fear/desire-generator to base human experience on (I think?). In this new Matrix, Neo is Tom Anderson, a depressed/suicidal video game designer famous for creating a massively popular game trilogy unconsciously based upon his previous life, titled — you guessed it — The Matrix. Trinity lives a happily married-with-children life as Tiffany, a woman who frequents Tom’s favorite coffee shop and the object of his distant affections. “Morpheus” (Candyman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II dressed in Steve Harvey’s fits) who survived in Revolutions and presumably led a full life in the post-apocalyptic reality, now exists as a video game NPC in Tom’s new game Binary, based on an amalgamation of Neo’s memories of Morpheus and Agent Smith (thus explaining Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving’s absences, though they might as well be credited in this movie considering how much footage from the original trilogy is shown).
Outside the Matrix, 60 years have passed. The war against the machines hasn’t ended, but humanity now has the aid of numerous rogue machines sympathetic to the human cause. The film itself begins with a simulated recreation of The Matrix’s opening scene (where Trinity finally tracks Neo down in the Matrix) being observed by Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a freed human and ship captain whose search for Neo leads her and her crew to extract “Morpheus” from Binary. With the help of “Morpheus,” Bugs is able to eject Tom/Neo from the new Matrix and back into the real world. They all then meander for a while in the new human city of Io before resolving to try and pull Trinity out of her simulated existence, all the while being pursued by “Agent Smith” (Jonathan Groff, one of many punchable faces in this movie). The real plot of Resurrections — to rescue Trinity — isn’t pinned down until nearly two-thirds of the runtime has passed. Before that, far too much time has been spent watching boardroom tools talk about The Matrix as it exists in-universe and subsequently in our own media landscape.
Based on the insufficient and scattered synopsis I provided, you can probably surmise that Resurrections is kind of a mess. Wachowski seems less interested in telling a coherent story populated by fleshed out characters than she is in aggressively commenting on how we’re trapped in a cycle of reboots and remakes with no end in sight. Beyond flagrantly lampshading its own existence, Resurrections doesn’t take The Matrix in any different or meaningful directions. Even the meta-commentary gimmick feels old hat. But the movie’s worst offense is that it keeps cutting back to scenes from the original trilogy over and over again, to the point that I screamed “STOP DOING THAT!” at my television out of pure frustration. Clearly, I didn’t need to watch Reloaded or Revolutions (the better of the sequels in my opinion) in order to understand anything in Resurrections. Even then, I still found the climax incredibly confusing.
I genuinely feel bad that Resurrections didn’t do anything for me. The special effects and fight choreography look better compared to its predecessors, but technical acuity means little when the rest of the movie is a clichéd retread that can’t see past itself. However, there’s still something to be said about The Matrix as an inherently queer piece of filmmaking. In the years since the original trilogy, both Lana and Lilly Wachowski came out as transgender women, and have doubled down on the Matrix’s transgender subtext and allegory for dysphoria. I watched Resurrections on New Year’s Eve with my roommate Fallon (who you’ll remember from my Titane review), and though the two of us found the movie disappointing, I can’t say our queer asses didn’t have fun watching a new Matrix movie together. Lana Wachowski has the honor of being one of the very few openly transgender directors working in Hollywood right now, and that’s something that ought to be celebrated. And who knows, perhaps I’ll revisit Resurrections one day and realize I was completely wrong to feel how I do about it right now. Either way, my journey into The Matrix was a good way to end 2021, even if the reboot didn’t refresh the system properly.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.