8/10 Fans of The Matrix in 2003 weren’t expecting a two-part Advanced Philosophy nightmare that turned into a cartoon whenever it wanted, and in 2021, we weren’t expecting a feel-good story about true love conquering all. But it’s been a really weird couple of years, and somehow, this feels right.
In The Matrix Resurrections, everything is happening not quite exactly as it did before. World-famous game designer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who designed the “Matrix” games, experiences frequent psychotic episodes around the idea that the games are real and he was their lead character, Neo, with fear of these episodes causing him severe anxiety, depression and suicidality. Just about the only emotion he can muster is longing for Tiff (Carrie-Anne Moss), a woman who frequents the same coffee shop he does, Simulatte. Fed up after being forced to design a fourth “Matrix” game 20 years later, Anderson discontinues his medication and completely loses his grip on reality.
The Matrix Resurrections is such a dramatically different film than prior Matrix movies that it feels like it doesn’t belong in the same series. This is a completely different story in what feels like a completely different world. It’s unabashedly up the series’ own ass, and anyone who hasn’t brushed up on all three preceding films recently will be completely lost, but is at the same time unafraid to go deep into left field. Almost every design element has had a facelift, and the things that haven’t, like sentinels and pods, feel as though they haven’t been upgraded because of their effectiveness within the story world, not because of viewer recognition. Even an element as iconic as the agent programs have mostly been thrown out.
Something that often gets missed in the broad variety of praise and criticism doled onto the first three Matrix movies is their tone. The Matrix, and this is where it really stands above the sequels, is a tonal masterpiece – and that tone is really scary. Time is always against our heroes. There’s always a sense that the other shoe might drop at any second, and death, which is sudden and horrifying in this series, is just around the corner. Through the slight overexposure of the Matrix and underexposure of the real world, along with the famous sickly greens and blues, the very 35mm footage screams to viewers that something is wrong.
The Matrix Resurrections, on the other hand, is a happy movie. It’s silly! Performances transitioned from urgent and desperate in the original to pointedly wooden in the sequels, and Resurrections’ new tone is best expressed by performances as well, especially the new cutthroat business-casual executive Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) and the way-too-relaxed reincarnation of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The Redcode RAW footage has been graded for cheer and vibrance in every color, which is necessary to bring out both the red and blue pills and Morpheus’ flamboyant suits.
There aren’t exactly a lot of jokes, but the combination of old iconography in new contexts and casual meta callouts create a playful gaslighting effect. You’re never sure if the movie is being serious.
Even as we experience his attacks in the first person, the walls never seem to be closing in on Neo. There’s a sense of being out of control, but never that same Lovecraftian sense of being watched by something that is pretending to be human. Reeves’ performance is also foreign – we know from the John Wick franchise that he still moves like lightning, making his physical performance in Resurrections as a lost old man some of the best acting work he’s ever done. Even as he regains his powers, Neo is physically unconfident and reluctant to fight, instead emphasizing his telekinetic powers within the Matrix.
Daniele Massaccesi’s and John Toll’s off-center, conversational cinematography is jarring and completely new in the context of The Matrix, which had been all about centeredness and just-strange-enough symmetry. Resurrections’ opening scene, which recreates the first film’s opening scene from much more distant third-person angles, is a bold announcement of how far away this reboot is looking at the prior material from. Editor Joseph Jett Sally does spectacular work in multiple sequences pulling Neo back from his attacks, and the “White Rabbit” sequence at the 24 minute mark is one of the most pointed and precise montages in years.
Memory and its power over personal narrative and identity have replaced dreams as the primary mental phenomenon of The Matrix Resurrections, to the point of even introducing Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, where the prior movies held on Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. In the same moments The Matrix sees Neo moving in and out of dreams he can’t verify, Resurrections sees him moving in and out of memories he’s told aren’t real. Sally splices in footage from the prior films frequently and at perfect moments, creating a Proustian involuntary memory effect that haunts Neo even more than his attacks.
I remember Star Wars: The Force Awakens creatives trying to describe how narrow they perceived their task to be – I can’t find the quote now, but it was something along the lines of “A little to the right or left, and it doesn’t feel like Star Wars anymore.” They said this while they were making a scene-for-scene remake, of course. A new Matrix movie in this era of bland reboots begs similar questions – who decides what The Matrix feels like? It’s already changed dramatically from original to sequels, and because of the way anticipation and audience response shaped it, much of the series iconography decades later is actually from those much less-liked sequels.
The answer is the Wachowski sisters – or just Lana, in this case, returning to her writer/director/producer role while Lilly did TV work. The is the only reboot/remake/rewhatever I can think of that actually brought in the original director. George Lucas was long done with Star Wars by the time Disney took over. I suppose Peter Jackson returned to Middle-Earth, but the less said of that the better.
Most of the time, when corporations want to dust off old properties, they hire corporate stooges to do it, and that’s exactly what almost happened with The Matrix – Zak Penn, a scribe for hire with a weak track record, was reported as working on the reboot in 2017 after the Wachowskis had repeatedly refused to return to their series. The early scene between Neo and Smith in which Smith explains that Warner Bros. will make a fourth Matrix game with or without their help is pretty much what happened.
Instead of letting the corporate world claim her and her sister’s anti-corporate movies’ legacy, Lana Wachowski is back to reclaim her anti-fascist movies from fascists. The Matrix Resurrections, remains art primarily because the artist, one of them at least, is still here, telling a new story in a way that understands the old ones how only she could.
Going over key details of The Matrix Resurrections on the streaming service, I wonder how The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions would have been received releasing in this format, when viewers could turn on subtitles during their first watch and actually have their philosophy textbooks out and handy. There’s been an effort since their release, which has increased as many revisit them for the new movie, to reframe them as misunderstood masterpieces. If they’d released into 2021, would that effort have taken months instead of years? Or would it have looked something like the bitter splits we see in the Ghostbusters fan base, and the conversation would be entirely divorced from whether or not the movies are actually any good?
The most important thing is, as I try to watch for notes, how frequently I catch myself simply rewatching this intriguing, engrossing, pleasant film. Other people can dissect all the philosophy and references over the next 20 years, and maybe I will too, but for now, the bottom line is The Matrix Resurrections is a good movie, and I enjoy watching it.