Fans are being asked to plug back into The Matrix franchise, nearly 20 years since the last two installments, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" hit theaters just a few months apart back in 2003. The love story of Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) was at the heart of this ground-breaking film saga that mixed action with high-concept sci-fi and stunning visuals, returning over 1 billion (with a "b") at the box office for the trilogy.
Lana Wachowski returns to the franchise (sans her usual partner, sister Lilly) to give us a fourth chapter, "The Matrix Resurrections," a decidedly uneven but wildly ambitious return to the world of rogue programs, slow-motion bullets, steam-punk aesthetics, unabashed ass-kicking and endless sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. Its high-aiming philosophy works better than its action set pieces, but ultimately this is a mixed-bag reboot whose main themes get buried under a mountain of code.
One of the greatest virtues of the Wachowski Sisters - or just Lana this time around - are their aspirations to make something different. The original "The Matrix" is a tremendous example of this, as is the criminally under-rated "Cloud Atlas" (one of my favorite films of the past decade). But ambition/aspirations doesn't always result in a watchable, coherent film.
This time out, you get a real sense that Lana has something very important to say, and she's pissed off about it...there is a real edginess to "The Matrix Resurrections" that does separate it from other recent franchise "reboots." In fact, this new chapter is so meta, that you won't have to look too deep to sense Lana's frustrations with the entire Hollywood machine (metaphor and pun intended) and its inability to churn out anything other than the same old product, over and over again, even when it's thinly repackaged as something "new."
But its as if Lana is imprisoned in her own version of The Matrix and cannot escape its trappings.
The old is new again, ironically, in "The Matrix Resurrections." A "freed" (meaning alive outside of The Matrix) soldier, Bugs (Jessica Henwick) notices some old "code" repeating itself...fans of the original film will be able to understand what's happening (new fans? Please do yourself a favor and do not start your Matrix journey with this film...it is clearly meant for those who already have some basic understanding of the previous films). Morpheus is back, this time not portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, but by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is a strikingly effective, younger doppleganger.
We discover that Thomas Anderson (Neo's Matrix alter-ego, played by Keanu Reeves) is alive and living a pitiful existence inside The Matrix, and here's where things go heavy into meta and self-awareness: Anderson is a game designer who created a trilogy of massively popular games called "The Matrix." Is he aware of his past life? He sees Trinity (Moss), now called Tiffany, at a local coffee shop and the two seem to have some sort of connection but can't place it. Tom senses that something with his life is not right, and his therapist, a character known as The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) is helping him maintain his in-Matrix sanity.
Tom's boss at the gaming company goes by Smith (Jonathan Groff), which is of course the name of Neo's nemesis played by Hugo Weaving in the original trilogy. Soon Morpheus shows up and Tom/Neo gets sucked back into a now-ancient battle between man and machines, but the "real world" has changed quite a bit since his last trip to Zion.
An early scene paints the picture of why Lana might have chosen to return to the franchise: Smith brings Tom into his office and tells him plainly that Warner Bros. (the company behind The Matrix films as well as, apparently, Tom's The Matrix video games in this film) wants a sequel. That there are basically no other avenues for storytelling these days. It's revealing in that Lana may not have precisely wanted to return, but in order to get a movie made, she had no choice but to use The Matrix movies as her vehicle. She then attempts to deconstruct the whole concept of what audiences expect from blockbuster films and what they represent. This time around, people aren't really wanting to be "free"...they've gotten quite comfy in their little goo-pods and prefer The Matrix to the challenges of "real life." That makes the original hero mission of "freeing people's minds" a sort of fool's journey...the captives don't want to be unchained.
If this sounds twisty and mind-boggling, you're right. It's a fascinating premise. But speaking of audience expectations, no one could anticipate that "The Matrix Resurrections" would be a below-average action flick. This is a big problem...not only is there not enough action, but when we do get action sequences, much of it is shoddily staged and generic. The Matrix franchise is many things, but "stale" is definitely not a word that has been used to describe any part of it...until now. That's the best word that comes to mind.
The movie is in love with the previous movies, but in a sort of defiant way. Lana seems to be saying, "Oh, you liked the previous movies? HERE THEN, HAVE THEM!" She uses multiple flashbacks - like a ton of them - to the previous movies, and even goes so far to stage one gunfight in a room where old The Matrix clips are being projected on a giant wall in the background. In moments like this, Lana seems to have some contempt for the audience as she stands in the middle of the gladiatorial arena shouting, "Are you not ENTERTAINED???" Interestingly however, she manages to treat her central characters - Neo and Trinity - with love, affection and care.
As a piece of entertainment, "The Matrix Resurrections" falls short...it doesn't have enough wow moments and disappointingly does not contain any innovative visuals or new characters. From a conceptual perspective, there are several grandiose ideas that feel ballsy for a studio film to be addressing head-on.
With some clarity, this could have been a monumental revisit of a film series with unlimited potential. Instead, its high hopes are met with high expectations, making "The Matrix Resurrections" feel like a buggy program in need of some fine-tuned troubleshooting. It's hard to generate sparks when for too much of the movie, the things we've come to love about The Matrix feel like they've been left unplugged.
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi.
Run Time: 2 hours 28 minutes.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jonathan Groff, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Ricci, Jada Pinkett Smith, Priyanka Chopra Jones, Toby Onwumere
Co-Written and Directed by Lana Wachowski ("Jupiter Ascending," "Cloud Atlas," "Speed Racer," "The Matrix," "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions").
"The Matrix Resurrections" is in theaters and on HBO Max on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021.
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