Lana Wachowski’s return to the Matrix is a refreshing deconstruction. Whereas other long-awaited retreads seem to merely coast on nostalgic twinges and marketable reiterating, here’s a film that dares to question its own influence and the purpose of its return. There’s more than a nostalgia present. In fact, nostalgia is directly criticized and attacked, which is perhaps the most Matrix thing that The Matrix Resurrections does so well.
Such a film would have to be postmodern in itself. Consider how influential The Matrix became after its release. A slew of lesser copycat films followed that believed the secret to success wasn’t in the cake but the frosting. They mistook the style of leather and the visual effects of the bullet-time as the real meat of The Matrix worth repeating. We even saw just how little of that was understood in this year’s Space Jam sequel, featuring a parody of an iconic scene of mid-air kicks and wall running. If Resurrections was to stay true to its title of reviving this franchise, it couldn’t rely on the same old stale tricks.
A disorienting nature makes for a great start to the film. We meet Neo (Keanu Reeves) but he is no longer Neo. He resides within the simulated world as Tom Anderson with no knowledge of his time as being the messiah against the machines. He now works as a game developer for video games that hold the same visuals, storyline, and cultural impact as The Matrix trilogy. This isn’t just some winking nod to the past or a one-off joke. It actually feels like an acknowledgment of how distorted The Matrix has become over time. The video game is due for a sequel and Tom finds himself drifting in and out as other developers argue what The Matrix is supposed to be about. And after the saturation of bullet-time, the appropriation of the pills as truth, and even Lana’s more recent confirmation of The Matrix being the transgender allegory many assumed it was, that’s a topic worth having.
There’s this great anticipation for finding out just how Neo went back to being Tom. We’re never given a full reason but we know he’s not truly losing his mind when he starts having glimpses of another life. He thinks he’s having a mental breakdown, where his psychologist (Neil Patrick Harris) prescribes him pills to hold these visions back. Still, he feels there’s something more to his life when he catches glimpses of Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss). Maybe she isn’t really a married woman with kids but perhaps the kick-butt hero Trinity.
The film doesn’t try to keep this surreal dream questionable. From the first scene, we know that Tom exists within The Matrix as there are still agents and runners engaging in conflict amid a towering city. We the expected running and gunning from the latest human hacker/gunslinger of Bugs (Jessica Henwick). We also get a version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that has been hidden within the simulation’s agent programming. Both of them can feel the presence of Neo lingering, like a flicker of hope that sparks up every now and then. Realizing that such a prolific hero is still alive, a rescue mission is on to both awaken Neo and Trinity, as well as figure out just why the machines wanted them back.
Most of the first act spends its time both bringing the audience up to speed and criticizing the very nature of The Matrix. There’s a lot of snapshot dips back to the past as well as the reappearance of some familiar faces. The return of such characters is not just treated like bland cameos. For instance, we see that Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) is still present but has become wearier as a conflicted warrior with no place to call home. We see that Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) has graduated to General of the human cause but has also become less likely to take risks for her people. We also get one surprise cameo that spends the whole time ranting and raving about cameos and sequels, acting as a relic that has little place in the world. A lesser film would have just presented him as his proper form but this picture has the guts to question what purpose he would even serve in this new film.
And, yes, there’s still a lot of explosive action. There’s thankfully no standard reprisal of bullet-time as this Matrix sequel features its own fantastic sequences. Every fight seems to mount the enemies higher and higher. At first, Bugs and Morpheus are dashing away from a handful of agents. Later, they’ll tackle a whole train of brainwashed machine minions. And by the climactic finale, they’re literally fighting an entire town that swarms them. All of these fights are incredibly exciting with plenty of bullets, punches, explosions, and defying moments of gravity and time. The central villain of the simulation also feels like a bigger threat for assuming more control of his own realm. It’s a truly terrifying sight to watch him freeze your life and take away your consent.
The overall theme of choice never gets lost in this picture. The architects of the simulation operate on a basis that those they’ve manipulated are there by choice. The Mexican standoff of a climax involves relying on one’s own decision in who and what they believe. The battle isn’t just about Tom realizing he’s Neo but choosing to accept his role. He’ll also have to accept the dangers of challenging the Matrix and give Trinity that same choice as well. It makes the greater goal of not being passive amid the status quo all the more triumphant than just having Neo and Trinity kick and punch their way to freedom. Although, yes, they do that and it is pretty stellar.
The Matrix Resurrections is every bit the Matrix sequel we needed, finding new ideas and shaking up old ones. In a movie landscape that is awash with so many marquee-value revivals that rely so heavily on nostalgia, this picture brilliantly subverts all the fan baggage and digs deep into the core of what Matrix is so great. It challenges our world and holds up a poignant mirror of digitized delirium that we all find ourselves grappling. And it does all that while looking damn good in shades and still being a kick-ass cyberpunk action flick!