“The Matrix Resurrections” opens with a moment of déjà vu: familiar music cues accompany rows of green code scrolling across the screen, followed by a phone call, and then a confrontation. If these scenes feel overly familiar, it’s because they are almost an exact recreation of the opening of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s visionary 1999 blockbuster “The Matrix.” But, as one character asks, “Why use old code to mirror something new?” While “Resurrections”—Lana’s first solo directorial outing without her sister—begins by reeling you in with the familiar, it just as quickly pulls the nostalgia rug out from under you with its uber-meta commentary on not just the “Matrix” series, but the current state of franchise filmmaking as a whole. It’s the first “Matrix” sequel since “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” were released six months apart in 2003, and it’s a sequel that Wachowski only could have made with those 18 years of hindsight. But while the meta nature of the story that dominates the first half of the film may be what gets most audiences buzzing, there’s a lot more to this movie than that. Wachowski penned the initial story in a moment of grief after experiencing the loss of both her parents and a close friend, and love—specifically the once-in-a-lifetime, meant to be together across all time and space love that is shared between leads Neo and Trinity—is what pulls all the facets of this convoluted, funny, strange, and perfectly imperfect movie all together.
After an opening scene that introduces us to a new character, Bugs (an effortlessly cool Jessica Henwick, who serves as a sort of conduit between the audience and the characters on screen), and a new incarnation of Morpheus—the man who initially freed Neo from the Matrix all those years ago—played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Laurence Fishburne was not approached to participated in the film, but he appears in archival footage throughout the movie). We then meet Neon (Keanu Reeves), living inside the Matrix under the guise of Thomas Anderson as a successful game developer, unwittingly creating additional programming for the Matrix. Despite the blue pills that his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) prescribes him, Thomas is plagued by visions of a reality he may or may not have previously experienced. His hazy state of mind is conveyed through a montage of scenes set to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” (continuing the Alice in Wonderland imagery from the first movie) archival footage from the previous films intruding on his daily existence, where at work, against Thomas’ wishes, his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff, the perfect cold yet charismatic antagonist) is pressuring him to make another Matrix game. This is where the blatant meta-ness of the plot comes through most strongly, beginning with this dialogue from Smith:
“Now what? Things have changed. The market’s tough. I’m sure you can understand why our beloved parent company, Warner Brothers, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy…I know you said the story was over for you, but that’s the thing about stories. They never really end, do they? We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told, just with different names, different faces.”
There’s nothing subtle about it, and while it may seem like Wachowski, through Thomas, is hand-holding the viewer, she certainly isn’t telling them how to think. Every individual watching “Resurrections” is going to come to it with a different frame of reference to the previous films and a different relationship to how they consume media and the kinds of media they enjoy, and their experience will determine their response to that scene with Smith, and the subsequent pitch meetings that see Thomas and his colleagues working on Matrix 4, throwing out a barrage of ideas (“I like my games big, loud, and dumb;” “Mindless action is not on brand”). It may be frustrating and annoying, or clever and funny, or maybe a combination of the two. Regardless, it’s fascinating to see Wachowski essentially using a sequel to her movie to comment on said movie, with the benefit of years of personal and professional changes, and on an industry that once thrived off the uniqueness of the first “Matrix,” but will now choose treading over the same material repeatedly over investing in new visions (honestly, it’s incredible that this movie got made at all).
Through it all, Thomas is drawn to a woman he often sees at the coffee shop, Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), a married mom with an affinity for motorcycles. Reeves and Moss are both terrific performers with an innate physicality that serves them well in the action scenes, but the deeper chemistry that they shared in the original trilogy sparkles right off the bat again here. When they formally meet in the Matrix for what they believe is the first time, they shake hands, and the camera lingers on their clasped hands and the spark that their touch immediately sets off in their expressions (“Have we met?” Tiffany asks Thomas in a voice both puzzled and intrigued). This is of course, Trinity, Neo’s love interest from the previous movies, but like him, her mind and body are entrapped by an anomaly plaguing the Matrix.
“Resurrections” is, for me anyway, the most intriguing in its first hour, unveiling its mysteries, posing more questions, and building up what this world is like 60 human years after we last saw it with a bold sense of humor. That gives way a bit in the second half to a plot that occasionally gets too muddy, and action scenes that lack the impressive fluidity that made the first film iconic. That’s not to say that they aren’t still entertaining, and it’s nice to see “Resurrections” make use of visual callbacks to the previous movies (such as the costuming—dark sunglasses paired with shiny leather coats and jumpsuits) while also looking completely distinct from them, replacing the predominantly cool greens with warm tones that match the hopeful messaging. But while the plot points of the story may focus on individuals freeing themselves from control of the Matrix, it all circles back to—and really only works because of—that initial encounter between Thomas and Tiffany, Neo and Trinity. Despite all the brainwashing, all the layers that their true selves are hidden under, they still manage to find each other, and likely always will. The biggest flaw of “Resurrections” may be that the two don’t spend a ton of time together on screen, but Wachowski draws the most out of every encounter, focusing in particular on their hands and the connection that comes from physical contact.
“The Matrix Resurrections” is the rare sequel to a blockbuster franchise that gives its creator free reign to tell the story she wants to, using the existing IP however she wants to, and the result is possibly Wachowski’s most personal film. It’s beautiful and weird and doesn’t always work, but even when it doesn’t, it’s never not riveting, and the risks it takes are bold and admirable. It’s a film that I wanted to watch again as soon as it ended, and that’s about the highest compliment I can bestow upon a movie nowadays. And it’s optimistic, love-conquers-all message is exactly what I want to see from my big action/sci-fi movies, corny as it may sound. Reboots and sequels are a frequently lucrative venture, but you can’t put a price on the satisfaction that comes with seeing characters you love getting to be happy.
“Let’s paint the sky with rainbows.”
“The Matrix Resurrections” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until January 21. Runtime: 148 minutes. Rated R.