Everyone always says that, no matter your generation, watching “Star Wars” makes you feel like a 10-year-old again. But for the millennial generation, the experience of watching “The Matrix” brings us back to the age of 16 or 17, a fraught time of transition and expectation — and a time when we’re really eager to call out bullshit. The Wachowskis created a franchise that’s all about poking holes in inherited wisdom and celebrates embracing the truth, no matter how painful, over comforting falsehoods. And for a brief moment at the turn of the millennium it seemed like “The Matrix” might be the new “Star Wars.”
Who were we kidding?
Hollywood instead became a factory for sexless, bloodless blockbusters that collectively serve as a monument to our 10-year-old selves, and “The Matrix” franchise was largely forgotten. But even in that moment in 1999 when “The Matrix” outclassed “The Phantom Menace” in critical esteem and awards attention, those with greenlight power got the Wachowskis’ creation all wrong, reducing it to its most superficial aspects. That’s a sore point Lana Wachowski makes an explicit part of “The Matrix Resurrections.” And it’s a pointed cultural commentary, in franchise trappings, that encourages us to take a look at what these films really were — not what the groupthink discourse around them tells us they were.
In this first installment in 18 years, we learn the Machines that control most of the world saved Neo’s life after he brokered peace between them and humanity, but trapped him in the Matrix once again. He believes he’s a videogame designer and that he created the story of the first films as a trilogy of immersive role-playing actioners. But of course, those events are actual memories for Neo that he’s sublimated beyond recognition. His boss, Smith (Jonathan Groff, a shockingly apropos substitute for Hugo Weaving), tells him the gaming company’s parent, Warner Bros., is going to make a fourth “Matrix” game “with them or without them” and so Neo might as well come onboard even if he didn’t initially think there was anything new to say.
The committee of creatives he’s to work with are obsessed with recapturing the feeling people had the first time they experienced “The Matrix.” Christina Ricci even appears simply to deliver a line about how focus groups kept using the keywords “fresh” and “original” to describe it. And they laser in on all the things Hollywood executives were captivated by circa 2000: the feeling of “cool,” the metallic color palette, the trenchcoats, the sunglasses, and of course those two words forever connected to “The Matrix” and its groundbreaking VFX: “bullet time.”
That slow-motion virtual cinematography technique was the stylistic signature of “The Matrix,” and suddenly it was popping up everywhere, from an obvious “Matrix” knockoff like the Jet Li-starrer “The One” (a nod to Neo’s own quasi-Messianic title) to the basic cable kitsch of TNT’s “Witchblade.” And of course, a million commercials. Wachowski’s mockery of “bullet time” in “The Matrix Resurrections” goes deeper than a satire of market saturation, though. The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), the program responsible for designing the latest version of the actual Matrix that keeps most of humanity trapped, deploys bullet time against Neo. Now our hero experiences time so slowed down, he can’t do anything at all. His defining trait becomes a prison.
Maybe this is the fate of anything really “fresh” and “original”: to be stripmined from its original artistic motivations and copied endlessly for commerce, or weaponized by “fans” for their own combative ends.
In a way, “The Matrix Resurrections” offers a more explicit version of the cultural critique David Lynch presented in “Twin Peaks: The Return.” In that show, Lynch turned series lead Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) into an empty shell with nothing left but the trademark tics adored by fans — a fondness for cherry pie and coffee, a catchphrase here and there — all detached from any human motivation, personality, desire, or drive. Film and TV art are rarely so complex that they’re irreducible, and, in a parody of Hollywood’s “shut up and play the hits” mentality toward franchises, Lynch showed that “Twin Peaks” was very reducible. Obviously “The Matrix” was too.
But in focusing on the cool of “The Matrix,” people missed the core of it. All of the “Matrix” films are about fighting apathy on an existential level, though they’re not just about taking action or “saving the world” but facing the truth. And they’re political in a way almost no blockbusters since have been, in suggesting we buy into systems assuming that the people who created them are playing by the same rules they’ve created for us. (They very often aren’t.) Even before Neo understands the truth about the Matrix, the Agents — law enforcement — flaunt their power, deny Neo his phone call, plant a tracker in him, and literally seal his mouth.
Far from just being cool, these are deeply sincere, earnest movies. Like in a fairy tale, Trinity brings Neo back to life by declaring her love. Then in “Reloaded,” Neo has to choose between saving humanity and saving Trinity — he chooses the latter, figuring that humanity is unwittingly locked in a cycle of destruction and rebirth that’s so toxic it’s best to break that cycle even if it means ending the human race once and for all. And that sincerity feels radical — especially in “Reloaded,” when that fairy-tale love is presented as naturally going hand-in-hand with the orgy. Why shouldn’t a romance involve sexual liberation to that degree? (That that scene is as maligned as it is says more about the puritanism of its critics.) It pointed the path to what could have been franchise blockbusters for adults, R-rated spectacles that hadn’t abandoned such a key aspect of the human experience: desire.
The “Matrix” movies aren’t perfect. The Wachowskis’ Stanley Kubrick-derived “shoot more takes” approach on the sequels results in some stilted performances and airless moments. And why, in a franchise about resisting subtle systems of control, did Nokia phones, Ducati motorcycles, and the Cadillac CTS have to get such advertorial love? (No shade on that “Reloaded” freeway chase, maybe the best action scene of the past 20 years.) Jean Baudrillard, whose “Simulacra and Simulation” makes a heavy-handed appearance near the start of the 1999 movie, went so far as to denounce that first film as “a movie the Matrix would make about the Matrix,” and he has a point, one thankfully addressed by the sequels’ insistence on the futility of messianic figures and the near-impossibility of breaking cycles of control.
But at a time when R-rated blockbusters are so few far and between — and when they do happen, like the “Deadpool” movies and “The Suicide Squad,” are often just an excuse to amplify the juvenilia to more gruesome and “outrageous” ends like so much classroom snickering — the “Matrix” movies feel like a glimpse of the Hollywood tentpole culture that could have been. Personal, sexual, political, not willing to sacrifice real emotion in favor of banter scenes that “play.” That appeal to our 17-year-old selves hungry for new experiences, not just our blue pill 10-year-old selves looking for consolation in the familiar. A miracle that you know may not happen again. Except with “Resurrections,” it did.
Follow that white rabbit? Some of us still have a yearning to stay in wonderland and see how deep that rabbit hole goes.