(Previously published at Gunaxin.com on December 26, 2021.)
Lana Wachowski’s got some things she’d like to say about how her and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix film series has been co-opted by people who simply didn’t get it. People who thought they could use the “red pill” and other aspects of the films for their own demented purposes with self-righteous idiocy. Make no mistake: Lana takes her shot with The Matrix Resurrections and she doesn’t miss.
In the 18 years since we last saw Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as hacker duo Neo and Trinity, so much has changed. Our reliance on technology has lulled us into complacency, isolation, and an overentitled sense of instant gratification. We consume media with the quickness of a mouse click. The “Like” button has become our substitute for actual conversation. Video games have become more important than real life. And there are multiple social channels where we air our grievances – or supposed grievances – toward the creators of whatever property or entity that hasn’t given us exactly what our overinflated sense of self-importance says we should have.
The Matrix Resurrections confronts these notions head-on and throws in a bunch more for narrative and commentary purposes. Lower your expectations; this Matrix is an entirely different beast. When you’ve got a movie that’s equal parts sequel, remake, reboot, reimagining, parody, self-referential homage, and reclamation vehicle… yeah, it’s a lot, and it’s worth a watch.
Even the opening credits and initial action sequence go to extremes to let us know the kind of humor this film has about itself. As the green-tinted production logos fly past amid a blast of brass instruments in E-minor, the sudden drop of Matrix code and title announcement brings us right back to the summer of 1999 when we first saw those strange green characters pulsing and swarming down the screen, promising us something new and visceral that we hadn’t seen to that point.
What follows is the entire Matrix film series turned on its head and picked apart, right down to Warner Bros. Pictures themselves getting a jab in the ribs. Writers Lana Wachowski (sister Lilly declined to participate), David Mitchell (who wrote the book Cloud Atlas which was adapted by the Wachowskis), and Alexandar Hemon waste no time in providing new angles on what we thought the original Matrix meant and showed to us, mostly through the eyes of Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a spunky ship’s captain who’s stumbled into possibly proving the existence of Neo/Thomas Anderson.
“What?! I thought he was dead at the end of The Matrix Revolutions!” you might be saying. (Some of you might also be saying, “SPOILERS! Thanks, asshole.” Get over yourselves. You’ve had ample time to catch up – that movie’s old enough to vote.) Yup, this is a reboot, so why not take it literally? This kind of meta-humor reigns in The Matrix Resurrections, being full of wink-and-grin moments for the fans. It’s almost impossible to think anyone could go into this film and have a good time without having seen the first three films – so much rides on prior knowledge and audiences’ love for established characters and lore.
There are scenes, sets, and actions that will seem so out of place to those who haven’t devoured the earlier films. Sure, quick cuts from the original trilogy might be able to orient the casual viewer, but this film seems less interested in gaining new fans than it is in defending its legacy. It dispenses with the double-speak and overdramatics that plagued the self-indulgent first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, and it gives us more of the loose, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants feel that made the original so memorable.
This film isn’t as visually slick as its predecessors – the fights are shot up close instead of from afar to show off the use of physical effects and stunts, and the on-set work feels very small. But in this roughness, we’re taken back to films that didn’t try to look epic, films that reveled in their tight spaces and made the most of them. The Shaw Brothers’ kung fu films readily come to mind, as films like Dirty Ho and The Master held a certain joy about them even though they weren’t made on the biggest budgets. Wachowski applies that feeling here to terrific effect, making us feel the forced intimacy and claustrophobia of the Matrix throughout much of the film.
Again, we have computer whiz Thomas – aptly named for the famed Doubter in the Gospels – who’s seeing and experiencing things that no normal person should be, only to find himself pulled through the looking glass (literally, at one point) into the real world. Almost every line up to this point, especially during Thomas/Neo’s reawakening in the real world, seems to be straight out of or a riff on something from the previous films. Visual and dialogue callbacks – openly referred to as such in one scene – make us wonder: What, exactly, are we watching? To quote June Diane Raphael from How Did This Get Made?, “What’s its mission?” Are we supposed to be smiling along with the movie? Is The Matrix Resurrections one big in-joke for the fans? Are we supposed to take it seriously, even with all these rehashes?
The answer: Yes to all of the above. In a bit of simultaneous derring-do, Lana Wachowski is perpetrating and decrying the lack of originality in Hollywood, making her point plain during a brainstorming session set to a remix of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” This montage – which includes Thomas’ video game development team boorishly going on about “fresh” ideas while he sits there morose, shots of him noticing how detached everyone seems, and a slow digression from taking his doctor-prescribed blue pills which causes him to slide into psychosis (or so we’re told) – is the centerpiece of The Matrix Resurrections, explaining exactly what we’re watching and how we’re to take it.
So much is made of originality and been-there-done-that, one can’t help but think that this movie is a huge backhanded slap aimed at the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the homogenized, by-the-numbers, singularly-aestheticized pantheon which rules the box office year in and year out. In a way, The Matrix Resurrections plays a bit like a Marvel film, with its seemingly impossible leaps of logic, comedy and action beats, and all-too-jokey ending (plus the random post-credits scene which, to be fair, became more of a thing during the mid-‘80s but was brought back into the larger consciousness starting with 2008’s Iron Man). The fact that a lot of the original film is cannibalized and humorously reconstituted speaks largely of the same Marvel plots being used over and over, but there’s mischief – and possibly a middle finger – being thrown in their direction.
Two major characters from the original Matrix trilogy are repurposed and given new meaning and roles, throwing shade at Hollywood’s habit of recasting younger actors in established roles to attract their desired audiences. Everything about Hollywood – the overuse of certain visual effects, maintaining desperate attachments to the familiar, and not being able to break new ground, among other things – is taken to task in The Matrix Resurrections, and these digs range from the subtle to “how the hell did Warner Bros. let them get away with this?”. Wachowski pulls no punches here as she twists one of the most revered franchises into sharp knives and uses them to skewer the entertainment we’ve gorged ourselves on for the past twenty years.
She also takes a moment to specifically address people who have perverted her and Lilly’s art into something exclusionary and exactly the reverse of what was intended. One character directly speaks of the comfort in lies and how easily we’ll swallow them to stay entertained, and it’s a rather stinging indictment of the “post-truth” era in which we’re living. Lana has every right to reclaim the Wachowskis’ intentions, and she does so with a sly fervor that sneaks up on you and smacks you in the face pimp-style. You’re almost wondering if it’s a joke, considering the character delivering this monologue, but Wachowski makes sure to serve the subject with the sarcastic, mocking disdain it so deserves.
The Matrix Resurrections knows exactly what it wants to be, which is a commentary piece on our current society and how difficult it is to be a part of it. We’ve been driven so far out of touch with each other to the point of indifference and solipsism. This film brings it back to a time when contact with those grounding us in the real world mattered, when we would go the distance for those we love and those around us. Lana Wachowski has issued a gleeful deconstruction of pop culture and myth, even going so far as to take the piss out of her own film series and its trappings. You can almost see the cunning smile on her face as she takes signature Matrix moments and remixes them for these times, all at once mollifying our desire for comfortable ground and pushing us past the surface to find wicked delights.