[Ed. note: Minor spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections follow.]
The story: A man named Thomas is told that the world is not what he thought it to be, and despite the passion of the messenger and the void in his own life, he refuses to believe. He wants to see for himself. He wants, as the Gospel of John recounts, to feel the wounded flesh of the resurrected Christ, to feel where the nails were hammered into his hands. In his doubt, he becomes a myth, the first man to doubt the gospel, only to believe there is truth there when he’s standing in front of the gospel’s corporeal form.
Another version of the story: A man named Thomas Anderson lives a respectable life at the end of the 20th century, a gifted programmer at a nondescript software company. Everything is as it should be, and yet there is a void in him. Messengers find him and tell him his suspicion is correct, that this world is an illusion, yet he refuses to believe. Not until he takes a pill and wakes up in a nightmare, where he, along with everyone else he thought he knew, is plugged into a machine from birth until death, living in a simulation he never doubted until he could feel the wounds in his own flesh, where the machines jacked him into a digital world called the Matrix. Over the next 22 years, Mr. Anderson’s story in The Matrix becomes a different, newer myth, disseminated through the burgeoning internet and refracted through various subcultures. Depending on which set of eyes it encountered, the story’s symbolism and themes took on new meanings, some thoughtful and enlightening, others strange and sinister.
The Matrix Resurrections’ third version of this story: Once again, there is Keanu Reeves’ Thomas Anderson, a gifted programmer who suspects his world is wrong, somehow. Once again, he is contacted by people claiming to confirm his suspicions. Once again, he refuses to believe. For a little while, the story seems the same, to the point where it doesn’t seem worth telling. Yet the world it’s being told to — our world, the one where we’ve returned to see a new film called The Matrix for the first time since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions — is very different. In the final days of 2021, Thomas, just like those watching him, has much more to doubt. And Resurrections finds its meaning.
Directed by Lana Wachowski from a script she co-wrote with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, The Matrix Resurrections is about doing the impossible. On a very basic level, it’s about the insurmountable and inherently cynical task of making a follow-up to the Matrix trilogy, one that breaks technical and narrative ground the way the first film did. On a thematic one, it’s an agitprop romance, one of the most effective mass media diagnoses of the current moment that finds countless things to be angry about, and proposes fighting them all with radical, reckless love. On top of all that, it is also a kick-ass work of sci-fi action — propulsive, gorgeous, and yet still intimate — that revisits the familiar to show audiences something very new.
Reloading, but not repeating
The Matrix Resurrections soars by echoing something old. A familiarity with The Matrix and its sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, comes in handy when entering the new film, as the first task Wachowski, Mitchell, and Hemon go about resolving in Resurrections is extricating Thomas Anderson — better known as Neo — from his fate in Revolutions. Slowly, they reveal how Neo, seemingly deceased alongside his love and partner Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), may or may not have survived to once again become Thomas Anderson, a blank slate who has trouble telling what’s real and what is not.
This Thomas Anderson is also a programmer, but now a rockstar of game development, responsible for the most popular video game trilogy ever made: The Matrix. These games are effectively the same as the Matrix film trilogy that exists in our world, a story about a man named Neo who discovers that he is living in a dream world controlled by machines, and that he is The One destined to help humanity defeat them.
Like Lana Wachowski, who co-created the Matrix films with her sibling Lilly decades ago, Thomas is asked to make a sequel to the Matrix trilogy, one that his parent company — also devilishly named Warner Bros. — will make with or without their input. So, as Thomas goes about his task, his reality takes on an M.C. Escher-esque level of circuitousness. Was the Matrix trilogy a series of games of his making? Or did they really happen, and he is once again a prisoner of the Matrix? Why is there a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) in this world with him, one who strongly resembles the deceased Trinity of his fiction? Wachowski layers these questions in disorienting montage with voyeuristic angles, presenting Thomas’ presumed reality with just enough remove to make the viewer uncomfortable, and cause them to doubt, as Thomas does.
Casting the previous films as in-world video games allows The Matrix Resurrections to function as a refreshingly heavy-handed rebuke of the IP-driven reboot culture that produced the film, where the future is increasingly viewed through the franchise lenses of the past, trapping fans in corporate-controlled dream worlds where their fandom is constantly rewarded with new product. That video games are the chosen medium for The Matrix Resurrections’ satire is icing on the cake: an entire medium defined by the illusion of choice, a culture built around the falsehood that megacorporations care about what their customers think when they have the data to show that every outrage du jour will still result in the same record-breaking profits.
As one of Thomas’s colleagues bluntly puts it: “I’m a geek. I was raised by machines.”
Bugs in the system
The opening act of The Matrix Resurrections is wonderfully confounding, a delicious way to recreate the unmooring unreality of the original to an audience that has likely seen, or felt its influence, countless times. Yet as it replicates, it also diverges. This is not, as the hacker Bugs (Jessica Henwick) notes early on, the story we know.
Bugs is our window into what’s new in Resurrections, a young and headstrong woman dedicated to finding the Neo that her generation knows only as myth. Her zealotry puts her in hot water with her elders; outside of the Matrix, humanity has eked out a small but thriving post-apocalyptic life, resting on the uneasy treaty between man and machine that Neo brokered at the end of the original trilogy. By constantly hacking into the Matrix to find Neo, Bugs threatens that peace — yet it’s a risk that Bugs and her ragtag crew (which includes a phenomenal Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a role that’s not quite who viewers think he is) feel is worth taking. Because despite the war fought to free humanity from machine enslavement, much of humanity is still choosing to remain in the Matrix. The real world being real is not reason enough for anyone to wake up from the dream world.
But the hope of rescuing Neo is only half of the story. Wachowski makes a dazzling pivot halfway through The Matrix Resurrections, one that underlines a focal shift from individual freedom to human connection: The Resistance learns that it may be possible to free Trinity again as well, although by means never tried before. It’s a mission that isn’t likely to succeed, but in this strange new future, it’s the only one worth living and dying for. In pivoting to a mission to save the theoretical Trinity, Resurrections takes the messaging of the original film a step further. It’s not enough to free your mind; in fact, it’s worthless if you don’t unplug in the interest of connecting and loving those around you.
This back half gear-shifts into something much more straightforward, and frankly, it whips. It’s The Matrix as a heist movie. Because of this genre pivot, Resurrections’ action takes on a different flavor from that of its predecessors. While weighty, satisfying martial arts standoffs are still in play, they’re not the centerpiece, as “Thomas” and “Tiffany” are the heart of the film, played by actors 20 years older and a little more limited in their choreography. Instead, The Matrix Resurrections chooses to dazzle with gorgeous widescreen set-pieces, big brawls, and visual effects that once again astonish while looking spectacularly real. Wachowski and her co-writers split the action as Bugs and her crew — who don’t get enough screen time but all make a terrific impression — race to find where their heroes may be hidden in the real world, and “Thomas” tries to get “Tiffany” to remember the love they once shared. All of the heady philosophy that these movies are known for is put into direct action, as the machines show off the ways they’ve changed the Matrix in an effort to not just keep a Neo from rescuing a Trinity, but to imprison him again.
In this sequence and throughout, The Matrix Resurrections relishes in being a lighter, more self-aware film than its predecessors, a movie about big feelings rendered beautifully. Its score, by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, reprises iconic motifs from original Matrix composer Don Davis’ work while introducing shimmery, recursive sequencing, a sonic echo to go with the visual one. While legendary cinematographer Bill Pope is also among the talent that doesn’t return this time around, the team of Daniele Massaccesi and John Toll bring a more painterly approach to Resurrections. Warm colors invade scenes from both the Matrix and the real world; the latter looks more vibrant than ever without the blue hues that characterized it in the original trilogy, while its digital counterpart has now changed to the point where it’s painfully idyllic, a world of bright colors and sunlight that is difficult to leave.
Embodying those changes is Jonathan Groff as a reawakened Smith, Neo’s dark opposite within the Matrix. Groff, who steps in for a role indelibly portrayed by Hugo Weaving, is the audacity of The Matrix Resurrections personified: He nails a character so iconic that recasting it feels like hubris, yet also finds new shades to bring to an antagonistic role in a world where villains only appear human, when in fact they’re often ideas. And ideas are so hard to wage war against.
Systems of control
If the old Matrix films are about lies we are told, the new Matrix is about lies we choose. In spite of its questions, 1999’s The Matrix hinges on the notion that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that people would want to see it. On the cusp of 2022, objective truth is no longer agreed upon, as pundits, politicians, and tech magnates each present their vision of what’s real, and aggressively market it to the masses. Our current crisis, then, is whatever you choose it to be. You just have to choose a side in the war: one to be us, and another to be them.
“If we don’t know what’s real,” one character asks Neo, “how do we resist?”
In returning to the world she created with her sibling, Lana Wachowski makes a closing argument she may very well not get to have the last word on. The Matrix Resurrections is a bouquet of flowers thrown with the rage of a Molotov cocktail, the will to fight tempered by the choice to extend compassion. Because feelings, as the constructs that oppress humanity in the Matrix note, are much easier to control than facts, and feelings are what sway us. So what if Neo fights back with a better story? A new myth to rise above the culture war?
It doesn’t have to be a bold one. It can even be one you’ve heard before. About a man named Thomas who can’t shake the idea that there’s something wrong with the world around him, that he feels disconnected from others in a way that he was never meant to be. And when others finally tell him that he’s living in an illusion, he doesn’t quite believe them — not until he sees something, someone, for himself that reminds him of what, exactly, he is missing: that he used to be in love.
The Matrix Resurrections hits theaters and HBO Max on Dec. 22.