A Merry Compromised Matrix
Early in the The Matrix Resurrections it's established that the contemporary Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the programmer behind the successful Matrix video game trilogy from decades ago. In a meeting with his boss Smith, the updated Agent Smith (played by Jonathan Groff), Warner Brothers, the studio that "owns" the Matrix IP in real life, is called out by name. Smith tells Thom that WB will be making a sequel to the trilogy with or without him. The scene is an obvious recreation of what artists like the Wachowskis face when met with pop-culture success. WB has been hounding them to return to the franchise for years. I imagine a few years ago, WB was about to make Matrix 4 without them until Lana relented. My guess is that Lily bowed out due to some of WB's conditions. Perhaps the sisters made a calculated move to having only one return, as a protest or excuse for the final "product."
At least, Lana seems to be having a lot of fun with the first act of the film, as it roasts the reboot machine of the entertainment business. The satire might have been more successful if The Matrix Resurrections didn't turn out to be yet another one of those remakes the film itself was lambasting. If that was the point, then... well done? Sure, it's a hard ask to want the 20-years-later sequel to change the game like the original, but it feels like WB was too entangled in the process to even let Resurrections try. The scrappy new crew, lead by Jessica Henwick (as Bugs) and largely made up of the cast of Sense8, were a joy to watch. I also loved Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's colorful Morpheus. But these new faces weren't given much room. They were little more than guides to get modern audiences reassimilated into the world of The Matrix. The Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) romance continues to be front and center. And even though Neo negates being "the One," the action still revolves around him while Trinity is confined in the Matrix. By the time Trinity discovers flight (saving Neo) and beats up the misogynist Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) in the final scene, it's too late. The female empowerment message would have landed better if we had seen Trinity's perspective throughout the film.
It all just feels compromised, like WB couldn't do without a focus on the star power of Keanu Reeves. The studio execs just had to appease the cishet teenage boys who grew up on the original films even if that means also appealing to the alt-right who co-opted the original's message. The most disappointing thing about Resurrections is that it seems to ignore its large LGBTQ+ fanbase. Since the Wachowskis came out as trans and confirmed that The Matrix was a trans allegory, trans and queer fans have anticipated of more explicitly inclusive media from the sisters. They delivered with their Netflix series Sense8, but what would truly rock our worlds is to see representation in a mainstream blockbuster like The Matrix. When there was news that Matrix 4 was on its way, I speculated on all the exciting things Lana could do make yet another cultural touchstone. What if Neo comes out as trans in the movie? At the very least, I expected trans and queer characters to be a prominent and visible part of the movie.
What we get is two gay actors, Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, who take on villainous roles. Neither's sexuality is ever acknowledged so audiences unfamiliar with the actors could easily assume they're straight. Unless they've bought into the belief that all bad guys a gay, as we were taught in childhood. Bugs has a cool haircut though. They had a tiny rant about the "binary." Bugs is probably queer, right? Oh and look, Freya put her arm around Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith). Are they a couple? Brian J. Smith's character Berg says of Neo, "The beard, the hair...oh. No, totally works for me." Does Berg have the hots for Neo? All the queer-coding is too vague to count as meaningful representation. If this was a mandate from WB, then it's incredibly sad. Unfortunately, the queerness in Resurrections isn't much more visible than the 1999 original.
Maybe Lana is winking at us through the script, letting us know that her hands were tied. In the film's most revealing scene Neo tells Bugs that what he accomplished in the original trilogy hasn't changed anything: "The Matrix is the same or worst. And I'm back where I stared." That pretty much describes Resurrections when you look at it cynically. Bugs says something that can apply to politics, capitalism, and Hollywood: "[The Matrix] weaponizes every idea. Every dream." Yet she also represents a new hopeful generation. She tells him that his story did inspire some progress. Synthients and humans now work together in Zion's successor underground city Io. This movie ends with both Trinity and Neo in flight together. It's not about the One; it's about the Two? So the film may reject binary choices, but it doesn't go beyond it. Well, maybe it'll go there in the potential sequel.
That's what the bulk of Resurrections feels like: a minor episode of a bigger media franchise that may not continue if it doesn't make a big enough profit. The first half feels like it's making fun of itself, while the latter is a rush of bland action to entice you to return for more of the same in few years time. It does offer some fresh ideas. The new Morpheus is an AI made in a program (modal) inside the Matrix. They use mirrors instead of payphones to travel out of the Matrix. Their name is Bugs like the flaws/bugs in software, but they also mentions that it's like Bugs Bunny, another WB property. But forget about the coincidental brand synergy, the cute name is also related to the white-rabbit tattoo on their arm. It's a callback to the original..... Come back for the next one!
You see, anything cool that Resurrections does eventually gets bogged down by the corporate tentacles holding it together. During the brainstorm meeting at the fake video game company a variety of people chime in with what the Matrix is really about: "trans politics, crypto fascism, capitalist exploitation." Lana might be trying to say that art can mean a variety of things to people, but the montage comes across like a joke in the conglomerate WB's favor. To the bosses, the politics in the Matrix are for frivolous internet discussions. As long as the messaging in the films are vague enough or even mind-blowing in the stoner kind of way to appeal to everyone, they're happy. When The Merovingian shows up, I found it funny. He stands in the background mocking everyone during a chaotic brawl. The Merv's meta critique soon turned into the cliche "back in my day" routine. I realize now that he had a point. The originality in Resurrections is sparse and the powers the be don't want you to think too hard about it.
It could be that I'm placing too much blame on WB here. It could be that Lana Wachowski had complete freedom to do what she wanted. Maybe. Whatever the case, the movie feels incomplete and if anything maybe Covid is to blame. They had to pause production in the middle of production during the shutdowns, and the confusion of it all shows, particularly in the action sequences. The best of the movie are the sentimental moments that feel like a window into Lana herself. Reeves delivers a devastating performance of depression early on. The rollercoaster of realities he and Lana take us are felt in the shaking of his hands, the stitled voice, the warping surreal world and soundscape around him. The moment Groff yells, "Mr. Anderson," with gun in hand gave me chills. I believed that Thomas was constantly on the verge of suicide. It works because it feels personal.
Lana decided to proceed with Matrix 4 after her parents died. I didn't know that during my first watch, and yet I teared up at the final scene, as Neo and Trinity flew toward the camera holding hands and smiling at each other with love. Lana brought them back to life as way to process her grief. It's heartwarming. I, too, appreciated that coffee date between Neo and Trinity as nice break before things get messy. If they're the soul of the movie, I wish we could've seen them together more often.
So Resurrections didn't turn out how I wanted. Still, it wasn't awful. As far as entertainment value goes, I actually found a lot of it delightful. I might rank it above Reloaded and Revolutions. But those were full of war, and as Niobe would say: I'm not into that noise. Perhaps the producers are planning an HBO Max serious to flesh out the crew of the Mnemosyne and maybe Trinity and Neo will use their power to build a socialist Matrix in the sequel. That'd be nice. But as a stand-alone movie, Resurrections is lacking. And all though the ending was a lovely image, it wasn't entirely fulfilling. The first Matrix movie ended with Neo overcoming the 'system' and asking the audience to take it from here. It felt like a call-to-action. After four movies, this one feels more like a call for another sequel. It feels like another property weaponized by the system. Remember how the first ended with the song "Wake Up" from leftist band Rage Against the Machine? Well, how about a cover version this time? Morpheus 2.0 had some good lines in this one: "Nothing comforts a little anxiety like a little nostalgia." Is The Matrix Resurrections a, "tragedy or farce?"
[Update: The producers have now said that there are no new Matrix sequels currently in the works. I'm sure the poor box office performance didn't do the franchise any favors. Though we don't know the HBOMax numbers. This doesn't change my thoughts that Resurrections feels like a setup for future stories and thus incomplete. All that said, I'd be surprised if more Matrix media doesn't show up at some point in my lifetime.]