It’s hard to muster up enthusiasm for a conditionally beloved old series which had one really, really good film that made a groundbreaking impression on me in a packed theater, followed by two expensive letdowns. That means the series previously had a 33% success rate with me, a failure in any rational classroom. Sure, the animated follow-up had its fans, but it wasn’t quite the same thing even if one feels compelled to argue that it indeed “counted”. Here we are again in 2021 with a revival that perhaps some were wishing for, the studio execs more so than the public at large, inviting a few familiar faces to train a batch of promising newcomers in the ways of their franchise. The digital effects have been upgraded and more money has clearly been invested than anyone in the 20th century would’ve dreamed might ever be possible or necessary for a single movie. Just the same, the thought of sitting through such a perfunctory revival felt less like a joyous homecoming and more like that childhood dread of being forced to visit distant, smelly relatives — that sense of “Awwww, do I HAVE to go?”
In conclusion, that’s why I skipped Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
So why did I give The Matrix Resurrections a shot? Good question.
For the original Matrix, the cast spent six months in martial arts training prior to filming and benefited from a pair of filmmakers unwilling to settle for the ordinary. The results produced tremendous advances in the realm of stylized science-fiction action and capped off their achievement by clobbering The Phantom Menace for that year’s Best Visual Effects Oscar. Its jaw-dropping wire-work and “bullet-time” fight scenes begat Fox’s X-Men, which paved the way for Spider-Man, and so on into today’s superhero mainstream. Its official website, stuffed with original content, was an early role model for the now-de rigueur concept of transmedia marketing. Its soundtrack was a near-impeccable anthology of crushing industrial-rock singles and big-beat techno jams. Most importantly, it made everyone forget Keanu Reeves’ performance in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.
That was 1999. 22 years later, The Matrix is a geezer among today’s far more moneyed blockbusters that boast five times its budget and ten times the number of effects artists working on computers with processing resources almost godlike compared to Windows 98 and ye olde Macintosh. How could Lana Wachowski and two co-screenwriters (including Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell) think Grandpa Matrix might compete after years away from The Game? For the film’s ingenious first hour, the answer is: they don’t compete. They play a different game.
Previously on The Matrix: Neo died for everyone’s sins, but only after Trinity (Jessica Jones‘ Carrie-Anne Moss) died so he could reach Revolutions‘ finish line and then die. In the aftermath humanity and machines found detente, and they all lived happily ever after. Fast forward a couple of decades or so: Thomas Anderson, no longer bearing the username Neo, is a big-deal video game designer whose crowning achievement is a trilogy called The Matrix. Deus Machina, the company he co-founded with his sometimes contentious business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff from Hamilton and Mindhunter), is now being nudged by their corporate overlords at Warner Brothers to come up with an all-new Matrix sequel so they can print more money. Debates ensue about what The Matrix was really about, what made it special, how pointless a tired do-over can be, and how craven it is to coddle a society that prizes comforts over innovation. One has to wonder how Wachowski sneaked this delightful meta-setup past upper management. I presume “meta” in general and self-deprecating meta in particular score massively with their focus groups. And it’s not as though jokes at WB’s expense will mean less money for WB. Their collective millionaire pride can absorb the hits.
Mr. Anderson is skittish about the sequel idea, and skittish in general. He’s a twitchy wreck who tries to manage his fragile nerves with help from a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) and a hefty supply of blue pills. He’s even less at ease when he endures an awkward coffee-shop meet-cute with another regular, a woman named Tiffany and not Trinity. He can’t stop staring at her, but doesn’t know why. She knows nothing about gaming, but looks him up before their follow-up chat and would love to know why the main female character in his game looks exactly like her. Her husband thinks the resemblance is hilarious, while her two sons have never mentioned it to her, though to be fair it could be they’re not gamers, or they have poor facial-recog skills, and not because they’re pawns in a nefarious artificial cyberpunk world or anything. Lest he concentrate too hard, the soundtrack blasts Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” at him and us, and all is more or less anesthetized in the world.
Cracks inevitably appear in the facades around Mr. Anderson as visitors from elsewhere interrupt his routines. Chief among them is a blue-haired rebel named Bugs (Iron Fist survivor Jessica Henwick) carrying guns, otherworldly tech, and a White Rabbit tattoo. She’s there for rescue purposes, as is a most unusual friend: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, Watchmen) as Morpheus, the avatar from his Matrix games, who may have been inspired by another Morpheus with a somewhat different face. They’re soon on the run from an army of Men in Black, yadda yadda yadda, it’s bullet-time again! It’s like comfort food for the audience, if a bit blander than the original recipe, but it truly comes alive in one of the film’s best moments, when Smith has his own awakening amidst the pandemonium. Groff in general is an A+ asset throughout, but minimized more than I would’ve liked.
Bugs, Morpheus, and their teammates have to do all the heavy lifting because Our Hero is still in denial. Once again it’s time for philosophical speeches about reality, perception, secret captivity, and so forth. This time the key theme is the illusion of choice — familiar territory for Bioshock fans — because sometimes we’re presented with false binaries that pretend we might do one thing or the other, when everyone watching knows we’re going to do the one thing. If all dilemmas led to two equally weighted consequences with equal odds, a lot of superhero films would be much shorter and end more tragically. Everyone watching knows which way we’ll go. Granted, humanity also has the capacity to seek out unpredictable alternatives in such conditions, but that’s out of scope for this story, so let’s pretend everyone maxes out at two branches per fork-in-the-road.
We know Anderson will become Neo once more. Everyone around him knows it. All he needs is a better support system than drugs and Dr. Horrible. He needs true believers like Bugs and differently colored pills with different ingredients and warning labels. And once he figures out what’s going on, everyone knows he’ll need Trinity. Time permitting, he should also probably figure out why he’s alive again. In case anyone’s forgotten as much as Neo has, clips from the original trilogy are spliced into his reality — some as fleeting memory fragments, some literally as set dressing, like they’re walking through the screen. By the time we have to return to Reality, the in-jokes have reached peak saturation, emphasis on the “meta” in “metastasis”.
Alas, the return to Reality is when the film begins repeating past mistakes, by which I mean the part where the dystopic real-world scenes were the dullest parts of Reloaded and Revolutions, but here we go again. We learn of the schism between machine factions, whatever happened to the city of Zion, why the Matrix is back online, why old characters have new faces, and why Wachowski would allow Trinity seemingly to serve as a MacGuffin for her man to fetch. The answer to that last one leads (EVENTUALLY) to a clever inversion that may or may not annoy all the right “red pill” groupies out there. Still more speeches ensue, followed by Resurrections‘ brief and unwelcome transition into, of all things, a heist caper. And its big planning speech is conveyed entirely in high-speed Trek technobabble that’s impossible to understand without subtitles and consequently creates no sense of urgency for the audience, who are left to do little more than nod along with each motion and trust it’s going somewhere.
Of course there are battles at every step, many of them staged in cramped confines that barely leave enough room for the camera, let alone the combatants or their individual moves. Gone are the fluid hand-to-hand melees of old, with luxuriously long seconds between cuts, that put those six months of martial arts training to grand use. This time the editors watched Taken and took too many notes on how to turn every scene into julienne-sliced micro-moments. Stunt doubles step in far more often. Part of me was hoping that at the very least we’d get Space John Wick. Alas, not so much. Keanu tries but has to cede time and space to others, and possibly save his energy for Wick 4. Even Henwick enjoyed far better bloody acrobatics in Iron Fist. Nothing in our universe should ever, EVER lose in a comparison game against Iron Fist.
The frenetic tedium reaches its nadir with the obligatory final battle, in which Our Heroes contend with a faceless, decaffeinated World War Z mob, less madcap and more murky. One (1) startling tactic involving human torpedoes promises a quality change-up, but isn’t enough to compensate for the sort of vehicle chases and all-CG routs that today’s MCU has turned into routine mechanics, sometimes to a fault. A lot of disappointing visual effects houses haven’t figured out that making a scene cluttered and clustered with endless dueling character image files does not make it “cool”.
At the very, very end come a few lovely moments of freedom and reality-warping. Then, just as we think we’re seeing the start of something new, the soundtrack cranks “Wake Up” to 11. It’s the same song that concluded the original Matrix. This time it isn’t Rage Against the Machine playing Neo’s “up, up and away” hero theme music, but a cover band supplanting Tom Morello’s furious riffs with some mildly cranky horns. The song’s solid bone structure is given a nifty new hat, yet otherwise draped in yesterday’s poorly aged fashions, apropos of the film itself.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Two other returning cast members are mild surprises. Lambert Wilson drops in for one scene as that notorious French snob the Merovingian, who’s definitely seen better days. In the real Morpheus’ absence, old teammate Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) has stepped up as leader of the surviving free humans, but has very firm ideas about The Way Things Must Be. One minute she’s loving the found-family reunion; next minute, she’s giving Bugs grouchy police captain lectures about being a Loose Cannon Who’s Not Playing by the Rules.
Niobe also brings along a partner played by Telma Hopkins from TV’s Gimme a Break. Blink and you’ll miss Christina Ricci in one scene, hiding behind a hair-color rainbow as a gaming executive announcing the kickoff of the fourth Matrix game’s production. Priyanka Chopra Jonas (The White Tiger) is another ally who arrives later. Fans of the Wachowski’s Sense8 (which includes my son) may recognize cast members Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt, Brian J. Smith, and Eréndira Ibarra.
Of the film’s two best in-jokes, one is an Easter-egg remix of “Spybreak!” that made me giggle; the other is a small but vital role for John Wick series director Chad Stahelski. Before graduating to directing, for years he was Reeves’ personal stunt double; here, he plays Tiffany’s husband, the man that the Matrix has assigned to replace Neo in Trinity’s life. How I dearly, deeply wish the entire 2½-hour run time had been as astoundingly cheeky as this super-meta casting choice.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, it isn’t much of a spoiler: back at the video game company, Thomas Anderson’s former coworkers continue brainstorming without him, desperate for new and innovative ways to keep capitalizing on that old Matrix magic. Their big new idea: a series of videos called…The Catrix!
That’s it. That’s the scene. Thankfully no actual cat videos ensue, though I’m sure YouTubers have already risen to that challenge, assuming that wasn’t already a thing years ago.
Before the end-credits scene, the film also carries a dedication to the Wachowskis’ parents, who both passed away in 2019, along with a message that resonates with the film’s heartfelt moments: “Love is the genesis of everything.”