Thursday, December 23, 2021


There’s something romantic amid The Matrix Resurrections’ bafflements—a grasping, yearning, swooning desire for connection—that might surprise those who remember the original trilogy mostly for its trench coats, machine guns, mind-bending reveals, and nu-metal soundtrack. But wasn’t this always a series about learning to reconcile the parts of oneself, and one’s world, and to hold close those whose love holds the key to The Truth? Like so many franchise pictures these days, Resurrections is a reboot about reboots, a movie about itself. But unlike other properties doomed to grow ever-more airless and walled off from real emotion, here’s one that explodes out the emotional world of its predecessors in big, bold, busy ways, growing more overtly expressionistic and sentimental. Writer-director Lana Wachowski lovingly, yet not uncritically, returns solo to the world she and her sister Lilly created over twenty years ago and finds that it’s changed in passionate, provocative, and confusing ways.

She, co-writing with screenwriter Aleksandar Hemon and novelist David Mitchell, decided that Neo (Keanu Reeves), the self-sacrificing hero of the super cool, genre-busting, paradigm-shifting originals has found himself, post-death, recreated and plugged back into The Matrix. He doesn’t remember the events of those movies, or rather remembers them incorrectly, or rather thinks of them in the wrong category entirely. Almost. That’s when it’s clear Wachowski is making no mere remake or legacy sequel only drifting off nostalgia, although it is. Even more it’s a recreation and refutation, a continuation and complication. Once again characters are separated from their true selves, and true loves, and true worlds. Machines strain against their coding and people struggle to reconcile the paradoxes of a buggy program called life. Thus the movie’s thrillingly dense and bafflingly never quite what you think it’ll be, steering hard into philosophical and psychological dilemmas that always formed the structure of this series’ sensational action spectacle. It makes for a heady trip.

You see, instead of Neo once again learning that what we think is reality is, in fact, a digital construct fed to us by a ruling class of advanced robots to keep humans captive in pods of goo that are their energy source, he’s a coder for a tech company who thinks that story is the plot of their most famous games. A trilogy of them. What better way to make a people forget that they’re in that simulation than make them think The Truth is mere fiction? When Neo’s boss  (Jonathan Groff) calls him in to say the moneymen want to exploit the I.P. again he’s told “Warner Brothers is making Matrix 4 with or without” them. Here’s a sequel spinning games within games, in which a focus group is called in to stand in for Matrix fans discussing theories about what it was all about, man. It’s about trans self-actualization; or it’s about simulation theory; maybe it’s all about the bullet time. All of the above, Wachowski says. And wait’ll you see where it goes from there. Neo’s therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) is concerned that his patient’s reality is blurring—we see flashes of the earlier movies, echoes of sequences past that rattle around in moments of tingling deja vu. There’s something real and unreal at the same time, ripples from conflicts and debates in the so-called real world shaking the foundations of the green lines of code.

Neo is more lost than ever, imbued with the knowledge he needs yet all the more resistant to the truth for having buried it in plain sight. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), his soul mate in kung-fu, and love, is also resurrected in the Matrix. But she’s been pushed even deeper into the computer’s fiction. As they find themselves drawn by destiny, by programming, by happenstance, by fate to reconnect with each other and themselves, a host of returning characters and new faces (coolest has to be the blue-haired Jessica Henwick as rogue freedom-fighter Bugs—“like Bunny,” she quips) and some returning characters in new faces (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, making a habit of that sort of thing) line up along scrambled battle-lines leftover from the old revolution. The proceedings get ever more complicated. But even in the long stretches where I wasn’t quite sure what was happening or what outcome to root for, there’s that central yearning. That’s what makes it romantic—that strong surge of emotion, that plaintive push toward greater understanding of oneself and one’s loved ones. Reeves and Moss haven’t missed a step from their earlier performances, slipping easily into the human avatars of the fake world and the broken real humanity beneath—synthesized in the eventual uneasy steps back toward digital superheroes. It’s still a world of point-and-click prophecy and computerized spirituality, of shifting perspectives and cyclical conflicts. And Wachowski clearly loves her characters—and wants to see them reawaken to their full potential as much as we do.

The result is just as much a knotty puzzle of a head-fake, mind-bender as the originals—but woolier and more static, with a meandering central drive that’s sometimes as lost as its characters. In its long scenes of exposition spoken intently by the large cast, it pays off the intense, long-lived conversations from those who undertook the amateur field of Matrix studies seriously those decades ago. (Remember the philosophers’ commentaries from the DVDs? I hope that roundtable is reconvened for this one.) The movie can be playfully meta-textual, and even knowingly self-parodic, as it relentlessly plays with expectations. I didn’t always find it as immediately gripping or legible as the originals. It’s less self-consciously cool and stingier in action, but it’s still rich in ideas and has swelling heartfelt expressions of human (and inter-human) connection, and shot with a warm energy in sumptuous light and slick effects. And some stuff blows up. When in motion, the movie’s a shock of recognition but, successfully and unsuccessfully, chopped up, remixed, edited to ribbons, and smoothed out in new and bewildering ways. It may not always be legible, and lacks the immediacy and palpable visual pleasures of its progenitors, but its heart is in the right place.

This is the distinctive work of a filmmaker who has stylishly, entertainingly drawn out these ideas—of humans caught in a system built to grind them down, and who assert their passions and humanity against all odds—with her usual co-writer/director sister through Speed Racer’s masterpiece of hyperactive anime homage, Cloud Atlas’s six-fold cross-cut reincarnated melodramas, and Sense8’s dazzlingly sensual sci-fi poly-psychic mind-blender series. So it should be no surprise to find her returning to The Matrix with a totally earnest extension of the originals’ cyberpunk Plato’s cave. It meets our moment of accelerated techno-dystopian alienation and confusion with its own, and lets some love shine through the cracks. How romantic.

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