In these strange, uncertain times, particularly for cinema, the reliance on the blockbuster to draw in crowds is perhaps more significant than ever. That very notion would unsettle me in a ‘normal’ year; however, as we need the cinema to live on, we look to big blockbusters for physical audiences, spectacles, and flashes of inspiration amidst the sea of rehashes and reboots. The Matrix Resurrections, an inconceivable reboot after the faltering sequels to the brilliant, original Matrix, was perhaps not expected to be the film it is. This big-budget, meta-return to a world long left behind is unexpectedly welcome, self-aware, self-assured, and plenty of fun.
Lana Wachowski, alone for this instalment, acknowledges the 18-year gap between Resurrections and Revolutions; she reclaims the prescient narrative, adjusting to the present and contemporary. The Matrix lives on, the world within the world; the machines rule the real; we think we rule the digital. The machines, projected as a natural advancement of technology, harvest humans for electricity, keeping the species in pods wired into a digital substitute of what we once called life. Reprising his role(s) as Thomas Anderson and Neo, Keanu Reeves rolls back the years and is resurrected as humanity’s saviour in both digital and real. The exhuming of intellectual property such as The Matrix and the never-ending cycle of superhero callbacks can often feel cheap, overcooked, and unwarranted. The least we can hope for is the inclusion of the original cast. For the most part, Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) and Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) aside, Resurrections manages to blend new with original fittingly.
The efficiency of the constant self-referencing can ultimately depend on the overarching narrative it serves. A purposeful trip down memory lane can readjust audiences to the new experiences and messages the director wants them to engage with. Wachowski acknowledges the overabundance of big-budget reboots and extensions to existing and established intellectual property. By playfully reconstructing her vision in Resurrections, Wachowski establishes a well-stated aesthetic and thematic use for the many flashbacks and meta dialogue addressing the film’s existence. While the plot has its fair share of self-indulgent posturing, a key concept presented to audiences is that fiction is ultimately more important than fact. The Matrix becomes a meta entity within itself.
An entire narrative built on satirizing, addressing, learning from, and breaking free from the binary cycles that blockbusters are borne from and trapped in, the self-awareness within the 4th Matrix film, is, for better or worse, overwhelming. Placing protagonist Thomas Anderson firmly back in digital bondage, he now makes video games; in fact, he created The Matrix, a successful trilogy of games. He is wealthy and confused. As a software engineer of sorts, Anderson plays around with the source code as if altering his perceived reality. In Revolutions, we see Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) effectively dead, their bodies handed over to the machines to end the war between the latter and the humans outside of The Matrix. In Resurrections, Neo and Trinity are alive, their bodies repaired by the machines and used to harvest exponential energy. Through the use of footage from the previous films, Wachowski reminds us why we are here and where we can go. The acknowledgement of the trilogy is reflected through Jonathan Groff’s Smith, initially serving as his boss and later revealed as a rendition of Agent Smith, cites Warner Brothers as a force pushing Anderson for a new instalment of The Matrix videogames.
In Neo and Trinity, a well-versed love story is set up from film one to three. Resurrections explores their romantic connection; Anderson often encounters Trinity, now Tiff, at a local coffee shop, both vaguely aware of each other. The film explicitly states choice as the crucial factor in leaving one reality for another, embracing change, or awakening. Neo and new friends, led by the effervescent Jessica Henwick as Bugs, traverse a realm of machine and human cooperation. Morpheus, reborn as a machine in the real and refreshed in the digital as a blend of his predecessor and agent, also plays a pivotal role in a much more digestible mission. While Abdul-Mateen II, Groff, and Neil Patrick Harris (The Analyst) bring fresh energy to exciting takes on classic and new characters, Henwick steals the show as Neo’s most prominent disciple. And to some extent, the tried and tested plot of ‘man saves the woman he loves – happy ending’ simplifies such a large universe of characters and concepts, but against the already exhausted male-saviour themes, this cliche is revitalized. In reverting to one aforementioned trope, the latter is rejected; we are no longer freeing all of humanity, a task so big and daunting it was never achieved in the trilogy.
Beyond the self-referencing visuals and plot, another critical element of this film’s balancing act of self-awareness is the rejection of societal binaries. The rejection of binary is palpable, touched on brilliantly by Lana Wachowski; metaphors for freedom of choice and expression are profound and awe-inspiring. In the socio-political climate we exist in, The Matrix Resurrections is a beautifully woven allegory of the limitations binary thinking can place upon people. Within Resurrections exists a needed reminder that evolution can be societal. Wachowski brings her experiences to the film that breathes new life into the tired blockbuster formula; the personal care and input are evident and heartbreakingly rewarding. The filmmaking is strictly less formalist, moving on from noir influences of the past. Now, a visual palette embraces the disintegrating consumption of contemporary cinema.
There is a definite sense of growth in the plot that the connection between the protagonists feels genuinely deeper without losing track of non-consequential figureheads. he placement of adequate fan service through old footage brings old fans enough context, and provides new fans with an underpinned plot that allows Resurrections to flourish. Reeves and Moss rekindle their bond as if a decade and more hadn’t passed, the former enjoying somewhat of a career renaissance. The latter exhibits the icy punk edge that would be welcome in more roles. The Matrix Resurrections willfully blends the older cyberpunk influences with fresh visuals that are sharp and crisp. There is a return to dodgy CGI flying from the lead pair in the final sequence, and there is the occasional and infrequently unevenly choreographed fight scene.
Not without fault, The Matrix Resurrections is entertaining while subverting grandiose expectations. In a final scene that does not necessarily suggest further instalments could narratively function, the sour taste that all the self-referencing and self-awareness was for nought is a minor disappointment. Still, for the most part, Resurrections strikes up a powerful centralizing of female and non-binary characters next to the older and wiser Neo.