It’s fitting — maybe even fate — that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” should be the biggest and virtually only movie in the world on the week that “The Matrix Resurrections” is released. Both are mega-budget, meta sequels that feed on our collective familiarity with their respective franchises. One is a poison, the other its antidote.
One is a safe plastic monument to the solipsism of today’s studio cinema; an orgiastic celebration of how studio filmmaking has created a feedback loop so powerful that it’s programmed audiences to reject anything that threatens its perfection (and to clap like seals for anything that reaffirms it, even if that means cheering for the “unexpected” return of heroes and villains they were once eager to leave behind). The other is a jagged little red pill of a blockbuster that exhumes its intellectual property with such a pronounced sense of déjà vu that the comforts of its memory start to feel like the bars of a cage, and the perfect circle of its feedback loop blurs into a particle accelerator spinning faster and faster in order to create something new and romantic. One is a crowd-pleasing testament to the idea that even (or especially) the biggest fictions can shrink our imaginations. The other is a fun, ultra-sincere, galaxy brain reminder that we can only break free of the stories that make our lives smaller by seeing through the binaries that hold them in place — us vs. them, real vs. fake, corporate product vs. personal art, reboot vs. rebirth, etc. vs. etc.
If “No Way Home” is the snake eating its tail with such reckless abandon that it fools itself into thinking it’s full, “The Matrix Resurrections” is the rare blockbuster that dares to ask what else might be on the menu. It’s the boldest and most vividly human franchise sequel since “The Last Jedi” (if also messier and more postmodern than Rian Johnson’s miraculous addition to the “Star Wars” canon). It will likely prove the most divisive as well. Doubling down on the “Alice in Wonderland” spirit of its franchise, “The Matrix Resurrections” is a movie that will only appeal to fans interested in seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes; anyone simply looking for more “Matrix” isn’t just shit out of luck, they’re in for an experience that will toy with their expectations for more than two hours without fulfilling a single one of them.
Once upon a time — at the brink of history between one century and another — there was a corporate drone who doubted the true nature of his world and grew obsessed with finding the man who could show him what lay behind the curtain. This time around, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the creative genius who designed that curtain, and he’s doing everything he can to convince himself that nothing is on the other side. Those glitches he sees in the code of reality? There are prescription blue pills for that. What about the nagging suspicions that his face isn’t right? That he somehow knows Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), the badass soccer mom he keeps seeing at the Simulatte coffee shop? That the hit trilogy of video games he created about a war between humans and the machines who kept their minds enslaved in some kind of computer matrix wasn’t a story he came up with, but something he remembered from another life? All fodder for Thomas’ therapy sessions with his Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who has a logical answer ready for every question.
The brilliant conceit of “The Matrix Resurrections” — and this is not a spoiler by any measure — is that it’s about someone who doesn’t want to disbelieve in his life. Not again. Not after his last breakdown almost ended in suicide. And it’s not like Thomas is stuck in some anonymous noir city programmed for the characters of a simulation. On the contrary, he lives in a recognizable San Francisco so bright and poppy that every window of his skyscraper office appears to provide its own Instagram filter. Things may be going too well for them to seem real, as Thomas’ boss and corporate partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) is happy to point out in a very familiar cadence, but he’s earned his success. It’s only when Warner Bros., the parent company that owns his gaming studio, starts pressuring Thomas to reconsider his refusal to make a “Matrix 4” that he begins to reflect on what that success means, and what it may have wrought.
The cheekily self-reflexive “Resurrections” rests closer to something like “The Souvenir Part II” or “Twin Peaks: The Return” than to “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and all of the other recent blockbuster sequels made to consecrate their own mythologies. Lana Wachowski’s reluctant trip back to the signature franchise she invented with her sister kicks off by admitting — in shockingly direct terms — that it only exists because Warner Bros. was going to make another movie with or without her. And so, with the help of co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, she used the opportunity to reflect upon that cultural hunger for more of the same. If the trilogy generated several billion dollars in revenue by telling a paradigm-shifting tale about the limitless power of a free mind, why is Hollywood still stuck in a creative death spiral? What does “The Matrix” tell us about the real world (and vice-versa) in a new millennium where the basic premise of a shared reality no longer seems valid? And what could Neo, the real Thomas Anderson, possibly do about it after he and the love of his life both died in the war against the machines?
“The Matrix Resurrections” answers all of those questions to one extent or another, but the real beauty and synaptic thrill of Wachowski’s film lie in how it forces audiences to ask those questions themselves. It’s not enough to suspect that you’re dreaming; you have to want to wake up. The fact that Thomas Anderson is uncharacteristically reluctant to do so makes him a more compelling avatar for us than ever before, even as we find ourselves rooting for the new faces there to prod him along.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Some of those new faces are attached to new names. Jessica Henwick’s Bugs is the single most electric addition to the franchise since the original, even if her earnestly punkish gunslinger spends large chunks of this movie re-watching the events of “The Matrix” from behind the walls (think of the Avengers revisiting the Battle of New York in “Endgame,” except here everything is curiously just a little bit different). The other key character is someone we know, but don’t quite recognize. His name is Morpheus, but here he’s played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II instead of Laurence Fishburne. The role hasn’t been recast so much as reprogrammed, and Morpheus 2.0 is learning how to become his namesake in real-time, as if he, Bugs, and the rest of their team were trying to “Shutter Island” Thomas into remembering that he’s really Neo. It’s a process that makes for this film’s most ecstatic moments, as Wachowski races through a glossy speed-run of the original movie’s greatest hits in a way that might seem like cheap nostalgia if not for the dizzying vertigo of its déjà vu.
It goes without saying that Thomas eventually rediscovers his inner Neo and becomes determined to dive back into whatever Matrix he came from and rescue Trinity (or is that Tiffany?) from her Chad of a husband, but “Resurrections” is such a remarkable head trip because the rest of the movie continues the first act’s fixation on disentangling people from their most comforting fictions. Maybe Tiffany doesn’t want to leave her family and her foam lattes behind and go back to a subterranean hell future where she’ll be mired in a war against squid robots. Maybe some people loved “The Matrix,” understood its bold-faced message about the illusion of choice, and still decided that they preferred a five-figure salary and the occasional steak over volunteering on the Nebuchadnezzar for gruel. Others might have mistaken one pill for another, and unwittingly aligned themselves with the same forces choking off their freedom. “If we don’t know what’s real,” Abdul-Mateen’s Morpheus-que character says, “we can’t resist.”
So no, this isn’t simply a continuation of where “The Matrix Revolutions” left off, but rather a vision of the future shaped by the last two decades of our collective past. And Wachowski hammers that point home from start to finish, as “Resurrections” bears little resemblance to the franchise’s previous installments. Gone are the hyper-rigid compositions that helped make “The Matrix” so iconic, its shots arranged with the airless precision of the cyberpunk anime cels that inspired them. Gone too is the Oz-like emerald and black color scheme that defined the computer world, and the impossible action scenes that turned it into a digital playground for choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Instead, Wachowski’s latest film retains the vibrant look of “Cloud Atlas” and “Sense8,” that aesthetic enriched by a looseness that allowed the director to keep her camera rolling for 30 minutes at a time and find each scene in post.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
The paradox of “The Matrix” has always been that the real world in these movies looks fake, while the computer simulation more resembles our reality. “Resurrections” is able to stretch that feeling to new heights by populating “the real world” full of more unbelievable effects (include a manta ray robot destined to become your new best friend) and an almost documentary-like sense of verisimilitude made uncanny by the fact that every polygon is just a little too shiny. Something about Thomas’ San Francisco sticks in your teeth in a way that neither he nor we can ignore.
That approach doesn’t do the fight sequences any favors, but the good news is there aren’t that many of them. This won’t sound like an endorsement, but it helps to know going in: “The Matrix Resurrections” isn’t cool. At all. Not that anyone who’s followed the Wachowskis’ recent work will be surprised that this movie only uses spectacle as an on-ramp for unalloyed “love will save the world” sentiment. The action here is seriously unexciting compared to even the trilogy’s wonkiest setpieces.
If most of the combat is forgettable, with the 57-year-old Reeves appearing to save what’s left of his body for “John Wick 4,” that’s only a major problem during the small handful of action scenes that aren’t in service to bigger ideas. A climactic motorcycle chase through downtown San Francisco is riveting (and eerie) because of how literally it illustrates the dangerous hold that fiction can have over waking life. The rooftop helicopter battle that follows might have been unsatisfying if not for how poetically it locates the essence of human freedom amid the acceptance of a fait accompli.
This whole movie is like that final leap of faith: an IMAX-sized dance between desire and fear that Wachowski stages with someone else’s money and a loving smile on her face. Not everything adds up on first watch: Some of the fan-servicey bits are clunky as hell (Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ part is one long monologue of future heist gobbledygook, like a cross between “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Jabberwocky”), and even diehard fans may not appreciate that “Resurrections” maintains franchise tradition of making all the real-world scenes faintly insufferable.
Then again, this is a movie that strives to bridge the divide between real and fake, past and future, choice and illusion. It’s a movie that knows people will always yearn for what they can’t have as they dread to lose what they already do, and fall prey to certain fictions regardless of how many times someone tells them to seize control of their minds. Best of all, its emphasis on the romance between Neo and Trinity allows “Resurrections” to become a devastatingly sincere movie about how love is the best weapon we have to make sense of a world that fills our heads with the white noise of war and conflict on a forever loop. All of us are stuck in our reboots. But at a time when mega-budget franchise movies can only be about themselves, Lana Wachowski has made one that pushes beyond the dopamine hit of cheap nostalgia and dares to dream up a future where mainstream films might inspire us to re-imagine what’s possible instead of just asking us to clap at the sight of history repeating itself.
“The Matrix Resurrections” opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Wednesday, December 22.