18 years after the previous installment, director, producer, and co-writer Lana Wachowski returns to a world of choices, hacking, philosophical monologues, and yes, kung fu in The Matrix Resurrections. Writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon help her shape a script that treads a narrow line between a J.J. Abrams-esque remake, or the approach George Miller took in Mad Max Fury Road where he took familiar iconography and characters and used them to explore new themes and turn the set pieces up to eleven. The basic premise of the film is that Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are somehow still alive after the event of The Matrix Revolutions where they still died. However, Thomas Anderson and “Tiffany” are a video game developer and soccer mom who have never even spoken and see the events of the previous trilogy as a video game developed by Anderson. But the appearance of the enigmatic and energetic Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a new take on a couple familiar faces from the original films cast this reality into doubt…
From the opening scene of The Matrix Resurrections, which is a shot by shot recreation of the opening fight sequence in The Matrix until Bugs and the new look Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) shake things up, this is a film that is in deep conversation with its predecessors as well as Hollywood’s propensity for reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels, and expanded universes. Wachowski, Mitchell, and Hemon take potshots at the studio that has been trying to make this film since 2004 with or without the Wachowskis in a pitch perfect parody of focus groups and the committee approach taken to most tentpole films in 2021. However, The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t drown in metafiction and uses these early scenes to set up Reeves’ more forelorn approach to an aging Neo that is tired and haunted as well as Jonathan Groff‘s new-look Smith, who is Anderson’s business partner and is generally doing the most during both his condescending monologues and physicality-filled fight scenes. Honestly, I was fatigued with Neo and Smith’s relationship after the Burly Brawl in The Matrix Reloaded, but Lana Wachowski breathes new life into the rivalry by making it a metaphor for binary thinking versus fluidity, safety versus risks, and nostalgia versus something new.
The theme of humans and machines (Now called “synthients”) working together was explored in The Matrix sequels to mixed reviews with Chingy Nea nailing the contemporary audience reaction by saying “Perhaps audiences [at the time] were more attuned to sequels like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which was just as full of Judeo-Christian imagery but was a more obvious story of fantasy heroes and didn’t tend as much toward existential philosophy and horny latex vignettes.” In The Matrix Resurrections, synthients have made getting in and out of The Matrix and real world much easier with a couple of them playing a key role in Neo’s second unplugging. They also are crucial to the ecosystem of Io, the new human city, that is more garden oasis than warzone. Old age makeup sporting Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) fights to protect the status quo at all costs, and she barely sees the irony of putting Neo in house arrest after his mind was freed from a simulation as her soldiers geek out at a man, who has inspired them so much. After all she’s been through, no one will begrudge Niobe a bit of piece and quiet (The sound mix and score are tamped down during the Io sequences.), but freeing minds has started to play second fiddle to caring for plants, which is why she is in conflict with Bugs and her crew.
Breaking the binary and playing with well-established formulas is always on the margins of The Matrix Resurrections from dialogue about the red and blue pills to a new context for the famous sparring program. Wachowski, Mitchell, and Hemon weave in tons of callbacks and motifs from the original both visually, verbally, and even sonically in Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer‘s score that melds orchestral and electronic music. It can be annoying at times, and I’m not a big fan with the film’s actual ending. However, where it works best isn’t Henwick or Abdul-Mateen mugging at the camera, but when the film puts meat on the bones of an idea or plotline that didn’t land in the first three films like Neil Patrick Harris‘ The Analyst, who replaces the Architect’s math and metaphysics for psychology. And this is where I say the best part of The Matrix Resurrections isn’t its expertly choreographed fight scenes (You can follow Neo’s character arc through the way he fights.), cool chases, or even that it abandoned Christianity for The Invisibles as its spiritual mentor: it’s the romance and relationship between Neo and Trinity.
On paper, Neo and Trinity’s love for each other was the lynchpin of The Matrix trilogy, but their on-screen relationship seemed stiff and clinical (See Trinity’s overlong death monologue in The Matrix Revolutions.) although Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are fine performers. The Matrix Resurrections makes spark fly between them by sneaking in a romantic film under the guise of an action/science fiction one in addition to making Neo and Trinity saving each other the main crux of the plot instead of extra nonsense with the Oracle, Architect, or side characters from a video game. Neo and Trinity get to have full adult conversations about being dissatisfied with their jobs or marriages, and how they deal with these issues through therapy or repairing motorcycles. (Some things never change.) Because they have lived full lives over the past decades, getting out of The Matrix is a much tougher road, and The Matrix Resurrections spends a decent about of time showing the pods where Neo and Trinity are plus the pain to get them unplugged. Finally, there are new dimensions to Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss’ performances of these characters with Reeves getting to be sweet and charming while Moss gets to hide that she’s a total badass for about two hours before cutting loose in what is sure to be several crowd pleasing moments.
The Matrix Resurrections isn’t a pop culture shifting blockbuster and may rely on grace notes from its predecessors a little too heavily. However, it uses action to build tension and shape character relationships, which also extends to the special effects and production design. Let’s just say the old dog of bullet time might have one last trick. Reeves and Moss also explore growth, love, and aging in a tender way through the characters of Neo and Trinity, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen and Jonathan Groff add humor and physical brutality to the iconic characters of Morpheus and Smith respectively. Lana Wachowski has crafted a film that is an engaging work of cultural criticism, a showcase for setpieces and worldbuilding, and also happens to be romantic as hell.
Overall Verdict: 8.0