|Title:||The Matrix Resurrections|
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) is hands down the most fun I've had watching a new Hollywood release in recent years. To explain why, and to reconcile this with the polarising reception it received from both critics and audiences, I wrote this review, which is really more an analysis than a review. I tried to keep it light on plot details, but as is the case with any analysis...
Warning: This review contains some spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections (2021), including a detailed analysis of both twists and ending. I did try to keep the most major of these spoilers in one section that is clearly labelled, so readers can skip it if they wish to avoid those, but I have not refrained from making points elsewhere that require revealing of important details. In short, this is meant more as an analysis for people who have already seen the film than as a review for people who are considering whether they should. For people in that latter category, I'll keep it simple: the film is not without many obvious faults, but if you're a person who loves cinema, I can't think of any other 2021 release that is more deserving of your admission money.
After being disappointed several times in the relatively-release-empty 2021 by films that had wide financial and critical acclaim (like Dune (2021), which I analysed here at length, or like Spiderman: No Way Home (2021), which felt to me like a by-the-numbers weaponised-nostalgia cash-grab franchise instalment), what a breath of fresh air was it to see this movie that, as I wrote above, has polarised both audiences and critics, and which the millennial YouTube critics seem to have misunderstood altogether, take flight and out-do all its competition by leaps and bounds.
Now, it's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Wachowskis. I've loved their originality, their vision and their unique voice ever since I saw Bound (1996), long before there ever was a Matrix. The success of The Matrix (1999) upended the lives of these two creators, and instead of setting them free to do more small-budget original work, they were forced by studio pressures to go back, again and again, to the well that brought them their original fame. It is said that the Wachowskis wanted to conclude The Matrix with a single sequel, but the studio pushed for a trilogy, causing the one sequel to be stretched into two, leading to two films with poor pacing that lacked the energy of their predecessor.
When not working on a Matrix property, the Wachowskis wrote and directed Speed Racer (2008), which is perhaps the most visually stunning comic-book adaptation ever (in addition to being a super fun film), they wrote and directed Cloud Atlas (2012), which continues to be my absolute favourite film of the millennium, and they've written V for Vendetta (2005), an instant cult classic... but despite a loyal fan base, they never managed to gain the same kind of commercial success that The Matrix brought them, perhaps largely because their work has always been original, not fitting the mould, and challenging for its audience. These days, when Hollywood churns out endless mind-numbing reboots that can perhaps exercise the viewers' jaws given a large enough bag of popcorn, but certainly not their intellect, thinking-person films are inevitably a hard sell.
This is not to say that the Wachowskis' films did not bring an audience. Their ticket sales have always been high, but only in comparison to their true peers: the visionaries, the experimentalists, the art-house directors. For these siblings, whose success forced them to work with large budgets over grand, flashy visions, beating art-house numbers just wasn't going to be enough.
The only film in the Wachowskis' storied filmography that I, personally, did not connect with was Jupiter Ascending (2015), a work that felt like an exasperated shrug by a pair of artists who knew the studios were giving them less and less money, so they needed to give up on their artistic aspirations and do one, solid crowd-pleaser. The film — which was not without potential or original, creative ideas — landed at the box office with a thud. The lack of enthusiasm by its own creators was palpable even to the popcorn-eating mass audience.
All of the above makes it harder for me to give proper context to The Matrix Resurrections (2021), because Resurrections was not directed by "The Wachowskis". It was directed by Lana Wachowski alone, and she has never directed any film on her own prior to this. But the Wachowskis were always known for completing each other's sentences, so I went in hoping that even with just Lana Wachowski at the helm, the magic would still all be there, and — boy — was I not disappointed.
I don't want to write an entire dissertation about why I love the Wachowskis' direction, so let me just say this. If one was to divide the directors of the world based on whether they have a unique personal style or not, the Wachowskis make this division non-binary. It's very hard to name a specific style that characterises their work, because each one of their films is so unique and different, but they all share one quality: they are very, very directed. If ever someone asks you what the role of a director is, you sit them to watch a Wachowskis film: every frame and every beat is carefully thought out and is infused with both meaning and purpose; it advances both the plot and the themes, fleshes out both the world and the characters, resonates in both text and subtext — everything working in harmony. They are to me always a marvel and a joy to behold.
The thing that makes Resurrections so special, for me, are the many layers woven into the narrative, and Lana Wachowski's direction shines in every well-thought-out frame, advancing each of the multiple layers and every single theme in unison. In this review, I'll address in turn some of these layers. I cannot address all without this review becoming many times longer than the film, so will concentrate on only those layers that I found to be most pertinent, insightful, inventive and beautifully crafted, and which I cannot help but pointing out.
But the use of this specific word is one that neither reviewers nor fans could ignore. For all its many dictionary meanings, it is a word that carries a very specific weight when spoken by a transgender person, which Lana Wachowski is. For reviewers, this required re-examination of the entire Matrix franchise under a sudden LGBTQ spotlight. Long-time fans of the franchise, many of whom were there for the decidedly testosterone-driven action-flick, were outraged by this, believing it to be a post-hoc hijacking of a favourite film trilogy in favour of a fashionable "message" they did not necessarily sign up for.
Such a "hijacking" would not have been unprecedented, and is, in fact, very much the Hollywood du jour. For an example, see J.K. Rowling and the shoe-horning of the sexuality of Dumbledore.
But here I'm afraid I need to disappoint both fans and critics, because both are wrong.
First, the fans: it is simply not true that an LGBTQ message was foreign to the original Matrix films. In the original script for The Matrix, the character "Switch" — you remember her: she's the girl with the short hair who wears white when everyone else dons black leather — was written as being female within the Matrix but male in the real world. This subplot was cut, both for reasons of time and pacing and, I'm sure, also for fear that this would push away audiences (The Wachowskis already had at that time with Bound the experience of how alienated audiences can become of non-straight protagonists), but the underlying theme of it permeates the entire movie: it is literally about the struggle between what society sees us as, what it expects of us, on the one hand, and who we truly are and what we are capable of if we set our mind free of these shackles on the other.
Without a doubt, the Wachowskis, who at the time both had to deal with their personal struggles of identifying themselves as female when the rest of the world was viewing them as male, had this front-and-centre in their minds when they crafted the script. (In general, one can trace much of the Wachowskis' passion in their filmography to very personal places. It is another reason why their films stand out so, against the backdrop of the rest of modern blockbuster filmmaking.)
Personally, I think the Wachowskis made the right choice, in the original The Matrix, to cut out the "Switch" subplot, retaining only her name and appearance as clues, for all the reasons already cited, but I also think it's such a beautiful concept, such a great idea, that it's a shame it didn't make it into any of the sequels.
Of course, putting it in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) or The Matrix Revolutions (2003) would have made less sense than in The Matrix (1999), because these were already quite bloated films, heavy with the weight of many philosophical ideas they needed to carry: free will, agency, determinism, belief, redemption, etc.. An additional message about gender identity would have seemed out-of-place and inharmonious. (And, of course, placing such a plot in The Animatrix (2003) or in any of the Matrix games would have been even worse, short-changing it completely.)
Frankly, if there was any opportunity in the entire Matrix franchise to employ the gender-switch idea, The Matrix Resurrections would have been it. It's a film that introduces us, as part of its main plot, to machine-manipulated "Residual Self Images" (or "RSIs"), where protagonists are actively pitted against the fact that how the rest of the world sees them and how they really are is literally not the same. A transgender character would have been a perfect fit here. And yet, Lana Wachowski decided not to work one in. Why?
To answer, I must now disappoint also those critics who went to such lengths to extol on Resurrections' transgender message: in the famous words of Sigmund Freud "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar". Undoubtedly, when Lana Wachowski planted the term "non-binary" in her script for Resurrections, she knew the media furore this would unleash. She knew that critics would not be able to resist analysing the film under this one spotlight. But I can tell you that I've read these analyses carefully, and I've seen Resurrections now for the third time and looked closely, and I think Lana Wachowski is merely taunting the critics with this word, merely goading them into this interpretation.
While the theme seems to be purposefully absent in the film, the use of the term looks equally purposeful.
To explain: even though Lana and Lily Wachowski are very much public figures, and have, by necessity, become prime examples in the collective psyche of transgender people, it never seemed to me that this was the kind of publicity they were after. Their gender reassignments were done fairly secretly. They acknowledged them publicly only after there was no longer any way to hide the fact, and even then they did not suddenly become spokespeople for the transgender community. In fact, they seem to be doing everything to accept their gender identities in a very matter-of-fact way. Personally, I see that as a very commendable choice. They are championing a message that I think more people, of all genders, should embrace: our gender identities should not define us. And in the case of the Wachowskis, they should not be the defining litmus test for their creations, either. (To see a Wachowskis creation that does, explicitly, deal with gender identity, see the TV series Sense8 (2015).)
Lana Wachowski seems, in her script, to be actively avoiding speaking about gender because this is not what the film is about, and it's not part of her personal life she feels a need to share right now. (The gender tension that existed at the time she made The Matrix has since been resolved by her gender reassignment and by her public outing, as well as by her exploration of it in Sense8, and it is simply a non-issue right now — or, at least, Lana's message to the world is that it should be.)
At the same time, as we will discuss later, this is very much a film that explores how movies are no longer standalone artefacts but work inside larger frameworks, so the idea of triggering her reviewers just for the sake of demonstrating that they are easy to manipulate would have been very much in keeping with the spirit of the film, as well as of its allegorical nature and its exploration of social media. To demonstrate: the film speaks about the machines' ability to easily trigger "swarm mode" among the Matrix's denizens, and here Lana Wachowski is demonstrating how easily she can trigger her own "swarm mode" in real life. Spectacular!
So, with the understanding that gender identity is not one of the themes of this film, and with the understanding that the word "non-binary" can mean many things, but its interpretation as a gender-identity definition is in this film an intentional red herring, let us move on to what the actual text and subtexts of this film are, once we get past these traps.
We will see that while the rest of Hollywood is these days obsessed with meaningless fluff, Lana Wachowski was able to create a beautifully-crafted, mesmerising, thought-provoking film with depth, weight and meaning that leaves one with more to chew on than one can easily digest.
The Matrix films have always been pretty much unique in the landscape of science fiction films, in terms of how they are crafted, plot-wise.
To be clear, I mean "science fiction" in a narrow, purist definition: science fiction as the genre that deals with how technology creates social change. Typically, we are presented with a futuristic, dystopian society, rooted in a particular technological advancement; the film begins with an opening crawl or a voice-over exposition explaining this world's set-up, and the rest of the film is spent exploring what such a society means for the individuals, and how the set-up impacts ideals like individuality, personal freedom, etc..
The Matrix (1999) is different because it has no such exposition and employs no opening crawl. Much of the fun of the film is in exploring the true nature of the world, which is revealed to us very, very gradually. The marketing campaign for the film employed the viral tag-line "What is The Matrix?" (with the character of Morpheus stating that "No one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."), and this is no "click bait": the film earns this tag line. It drops clues, beginning with the very subtle to the more substantial, throughout its entire first half, but even to the most astute of viewers, when, in the extraction scene, Neo gets his first glance of "The real world", this is a shocking scene to which we feel unprepared.
Of course, there are other films that deal with artificial worlds, like Dark City (1998), that want to let audiences figure out the mystery on their own, but Dark City, though it has no opening crawl, still reveals the artificial nature of its world within seconds of its beginning, literally before the opening titles. And other films that deal with artificial worlds, like The Thirteenth Floor (1999), don't bother with the mystery at all, and simply tell audiences what the setup is already in the trailer, putting audiences far ahead of their protagonists. (This is, again, as opposed to The Matrix, where Neo suspects something is wrong with the world long before we ever meet him; and long before we have any reason to form such a suspicion ourselves.)
So, in speaking about the textual layer of Resurrections, it is important to recognise two unrelated aspects: the first is the narrative arc, in which the story unfolds and in which our protagonists gradually learn the truth of their world, and the second is the "objective" reality of this world, what its underlying rules are, and what unfolds in it.
Much of the criticism waged against Resurrections is that its "objective" reality does not hold water, either in being logically inconsistent with itself, or with established lore from previous movies in the series. This is something I disagree with.
Though I do agree that some of the narrative arc is based on contrivances and conveniences, and this is something I do believe is one of the film's weakest points (with more on that, later), the objective reality of the film's world does, as far as I can tell, hold up.
To convince the unconvinced of this, however, I will need to actually describe what this objective reality is, so if you haven't seen the film yet, please skip to the next heading as I now delve into some major spoiler territory.
Much of the fun of a Matrix movie, as discussed, is in discovering the reality of its world, and I think part of the angry voices responding to this film are what the Matrix world itself refers to as "Minds that cannot be freed". In other words, these are viewers who came in believing they know full well what the reality of the Matrix world is, and are upset because what they saw on the screen did not conform to their expectations.
(This, in itself, is ridiculous, of course, because this complaint is voiced by the very same people who praise The Matrix (1999) for its "mind-blowing" quality of being able to challenge people's preconceptions about the nature of reality.)
Well, Lana Wachowski subverted expectations here — not in the lazy Rian Johnson way, but by putting in the hard work to create a believable yet unexpected twist.
In the underlying reality of the film, Neo's visit to the machine city had a profound impact on its inhabitants. The war between people and machines ended, leading to a period of peace that, at the time of the events of the movie, has already lasted for 60 years and is going strong.
Machines — who now prefer to be referred to as "Synthients" in what is undoubtedly a reference to many such real-world name changes for stigmatised minorities, and a statement supporting the power of such name changes — now work together with humans.
However, the main premise of The Matrix was that the machines were originally solar-powered, and built the Matrix in order to harvest energy from people, after humans "scorched the sky". (This was a change mandated by the studio on the Wachowskis' original script, and it is a silly premise that really does not hold water. In the Wachowskis' original script, humans in the Matrix were used for the computational power of their brains. Because this point was introduced already back in The Matrix (1999), however, we will treat it as part of the canonical world-building, and will not nit-pick it here.) So, the question arises: now that there is peace, what is producing energy for the synthients to survive?
The answer, apparently, is "Not nearly enough".
Scarcity leads to a civil war among the machines. Many of the programs we were familiar with from previous movies either get expunged or flee (as was done previously by the Merovingian's henchmen, the exiles, who fought Neo in the castle fight scene in Reloaded). Civil war, ultimately, leads to revolution. A new Matrix is designed by a new program, "The Analyst", who overthrows "The Architect".
The point of all this, which it seems was missed by many who question whether this film breaks canon, is that The Analyst never intended his version of the Matrix to be a clone of The Architect's. Indeed, it would have been a strange revolution otherwise. The new Matrix is different, and follows its own set of rules. Some of these reflect necessity, and some a different world view of the two designers.
To begin with: necessity. The Analyst's whole claim to power is that he can produce energy, but he must do so at a time of peace, without enslavement. His answer? Remember Cypher, who asked Agent Smith in the first movie to plug him back into the Matrix and erase his memories? The Analyst wants to design a Matrix that people will want to be plugged into. A "happy" Matrix will not do it — for reasons explained by Agent Smith in the first instalment — but a deliberately frustrating one does. The Analyst uses synthient technology to resurrect Neo and Trinity, two people whose story is part of the lore and religion of the Matrix's "real world", and produces a world in which these two are always on the verge of meeting up and changing the world. Even though the real world has, in fact, long changed, people gobble this tension up like an audience hooked on a telenovela, and The Analyst reports more power produced than ever before.
Regarding The Analyst's different world view: The Analyst's predecessor, The Architect, was actively afraid of "The Anomaly", trying to eradicate it in any way he could, only to realise it is impossible. The Analyst, instead, embraces the idea of The One and works it directly into his designs. His idea is that instead of trying to waste energy in fighting against The Anomaly, he will intentionally create it, and by doing so in a planned way, will be able to control it. His method for this is to split the role of The One (the person able to reshape the Matrix to their will) between two, Neo and Trinity, so that alone neither is The One, but together they gain all The One's abilities. He even goes so far as to build an "Anomaleum" to celebrate The One. But, again, his choice of Neo and Trinity to fulfil the dual role of The One is not arbitrary: he is feeding off of existing mythologies already in the minds of people, which he fires back at those same people, twisting them to his needs, and by this controlling them. As long as he can keep Neo and Trinity close but not too close, he's got a reactor on his hands; but he must always stay on his toes, because if they join together he will get an explosion.
While The Analyst uses many human "handlers" in order to keep his Matrix running properly, including keeping Neo and Trinity where he wants them, controlling Neo's whereabouts and his state of mind is so critical to The Analyst's plans that he decides to keep tabs on Neo personally, taking on the role of his personal psychiatrist.
The Analyst is a master of manipulation and control, and his two favourite tools are to use what people want and what people are afraid of. In Neo's case, he uses Trinity as embodying Neo's desire and Agent Smith as embodying his fear. We are shown clues that Trinity is subjected to similar manipulation, including by providing her with a fake family, complete with children, that anchor her to the Matrix. And, in general, it is how all of the new Matrix's denizens are tethered, and why they never leave.
This vision of the Matrix world is, I should say, beautifully realised. We get a glimpse of a smaller, scrappier Matrix. People repeat, for example, in much the same way as they did in Mouse's small-scale Matrix simulation in the first instalment. There are fewer agents, so human handlers are needed, and if necessary The Analyst can even trigger "swarm mode", controlling the humans as mindless "bots".
Ultimately, after the entire plot arc of the movie which I will not recap here, Neo and Trinity get back together and are ready to leave the Matrix. The Analyst does everything he can to stop them, but they manage to overcome him with help from an unlikely source: Agent Smith.
Much in the same way that in Reloaded and The Animatrix Neo is seen "freeing souls", leading people to their spiritual awakening and their freedom from the bonds of the Matrix, in Resurrections Neo extends this to freeing synthients. This begins with Neo constructing a "modal", a Matrix within the Matrix that is used to train agents (a repetitive process evolutionarily growing the better agent, not dissimilar to the way some of today's machine-learning works). But instead of training agents to be better at their job, he creates a machine hybrid of both Agent Smith and Morpheus, and trains this synthient to see the Matrix for what it is, to free themselves from it, and then to find Neo himself and free him, too (because, of course, being the primary energy source of the new Matrix, Neo himself is once again enslaved by it).
In the process, this new entity, now going by the name Morpheus, inadvertently frees also Agent Smith, and now Agent Smith — no more happy about his renewed enslavement to the Matrix than the rest of them — joins the fight against The Analyst, ultimately overthrowing him.
But unlike Neo and Trinity, who do so in order to free the world of its bondage to the Matrix and to The Analyst, Agent Smith is simply continuing here down the same path he started in the original trilogy, which culminated in the hellscape Matrix at the latter half of Revolutions. He has, from the start, hated the Matrix world and hated the human race. When he became free, in Reloaded, his wish became to annihilate the Matrix and to kill everyone in it. He literally became the virus that he compared humanity to in the original film, and was in this serving no agenda but his own nihilistic one.
So now, with The Analyst, his only obstacle, out of the way, Smith proceeds to trigger "swarm mode" himself, trying to first eliminate Neo and Trinity, who, in the past, have bested him and therefore remain his main concern.
While the film ends on an upbeat note, with Neo and Trinity having both attained the power of The One and The Analyst having been stripped of his former powers, the plot does leave room open for a continuation: Agent Smith is still out there, still trying to tear the Matrix down from the inside; we don't know what will happen to the part of humanity now caught in the Matrix without The Analyst's guiding and manipulating hand; and we don't know what the synthients will do, now that they have lost their power supply, and whether (as Niobe fears) this will trigger war, ending the 60-year truce.
But we're not here to re-tell Resurrections. We're here to review it. So, how does this plot fare?
As foreshadowed above, I'm of two minds regarding this plot. On the one hand, I think the world-building is top notch: Land Wachowski took this world that we thought we had already explored to its limits, and expanded it by orders of magnitude. She stayed true to the spirit of the original world, but used the ruins that remained of it at the end of Revolutions to build an entirely new construct on top of it, surprising in how different it is to the original, while not breaking any canon (to the extent that even story beats from old Matrix video games were adhered to religiously). Other sequels and reboots of recent years pale when viewed against the sheer inventiveness on display here.
On the other hand, there's the subjective plot, Neo's path from being entirely subdued by the new Matrix to overthrowing The Analyst and once again becoming The One. This I honestly like because it has heart. It tells the story of real struggles experienced by real people, facing self-doubt, dealing with past traumas, ambivalent towards their own past successes, and Keanu Reeves sells this by playing the part straight. There are no superhero antics. Even after he is freed from the Matrix, he feels defeated: he doesn't see that anything he did made any difference, and isn't sure he has any place anymore in the real world. When he makes a deal with The Analyst that may end up with Neo back in the Matrix, we believe he will go through with it, and we understand why.
The problem with the narrative arc is that, despite this being the longest Matrix movie to-date, this plot is extremely rushed, and as a consequence relies on one contrivance and plot convenience after another. Neo has to face a series of obstacles: his own self doubt, Niobe (who believes his rescue and any attempt to rescue Trinity will instigate war), The Analyst and finally Smith. Of these, only his inner struggle is truly fleshed out and explored in depth, his sparring with The Analyst being a close second but only because Neo's self-doubts are The Analyst's main weapon. Niobe jails Neo, but puts him in an easily-escapable cell. She does so because she desperately wants to avoid a war, but changes her mind about rescuing Trinity only a scene later (apparently because a synthient friend tells her the very same thing that Neo has been saying to her all along). The Analyst builds The Anomaleum in order to keep Neo and Trinity, but the good guys seem to be able to free both of them with hardly an effort, even when Trinity's rescue is fully telegraphed to The Analyst ahead of time. Smith goes on a full rampage to catch Neo and Trinity, but then leaves the rest of the city unharmed once they escape (and does not return to torment them when they come back).
What bothered me most, though, even on a first viewing, is how much of the escape and the heist is based on the unique abilities of synthient-Morpheus's real-world particle body (explained in the film as an "exomorphic particle codex" driven by "paramagnetic oscillations"). Surely, in a world where such a particle body is commonplace, security measures to keep things in or out will take them into account, no?
So, on plot alone this film is far from perfect, but I daresay it still works much better than, say, the new Star Wars trilogy, and I can't seriously fault it for it. If I were to nit-pick the original Matrix film, there would be much more I can pick on.
Very briefly, here are only a few of the layers manifested in this film:
One of the most powerful moments in the film, to me, was a moment in which "swarm mode" bots jump out of windows, dive-bombing into the streets to kill Neo and Trinity. Most of this scene is reminiscent of the dive-bombing cars of The Fate of the Furious (2017) and has little emotional weight, but in one instant we see a couple wake up in bed, and the man then turn into a "bot" and run straight out of the open window. What makes this moment so powerful, to me, is that the camera focuses on the reaction of the woman. If the film is a critique of social media and its ability to create viral trends by promoting fake news and bunk conspiracy theories, this one moment is the film's depiction of the wreckage that this leaves behind even for those of us who have not been swept away into the vortex of lunacy.
And Resurrections' exploration of the redefining of film does not end there. To name just one example, Lana Wachowski is pointing out how narratives are twisted for reasons that have no in-world cause or narrative cause, but serve only the needs of marketing. To wit: Bugs takes Neo through a portal to a Japanese bullet train, seen hurtling past a picturesque CGI Mount Fuji, for no reason other to appease the marketing need for "international appeal". (And yes, it was definitely a painted-on Mount Fuji. The film's production did not shoot in Japan at all.)
Fun fact: The Matrix Resurrections has a video game tie-in, called The Matrix Awakens, and if you think Resurrections is explicit about how Lana feels regarding the modern realities of movie marketing, Awakens is a no-holds-barred script. It includes gems like
TRINITY: (to NEO) "Yeah, they said they were fine with your philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but they needed some sexy action."
NEO: "Who said?"
TRINITY: "The market people."
NEO: "Marketing? I thought we were supposed to have total creative control."
TRINITY: "Welcome to The Matrix." (with the last sentence, in case you missed it, being a very acerbic call-back to Morpheus's famous line: "Welcome to the real world".)
This is followed shortly after by the following speech, where Neo prepares a rookie for battle: "Word of advice: agents are bad, but whatever you do, stay the hell away from marketing."
Lana Wachowski wrote and directed a film that certainly pretends to be that — bringing in Bugs as a Trinity replacement, the new Morpheus as a Morpheus replacement, Neil Patrick Harris as a replacement for the stodgy Architect, Jada Pinkett Smith as a gender-swapped replacement for the entire (equally stodgy) council of Zion, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas rounding out the cast's diversity in a role narratively equal to that of The Oracle. When I saw the film's trailers, I was sure this was going to be an example of this sad trend. But it is not. It repeatedly shows the audience in all ways possible, that such sequels will forever be inferior to their predecessors.
Speaking of how every shot in a Wachowskis' film is incredibly "directed", this starts at the film's very first shot: The Matrix (1999) began with the image of a flashlight pointed at the viewer. It was a film shining a beacon of truth on the viewer's reality. Resurrections' first scene is a direct copy of this opening scene from 22 years earlier, but the camera is now pointed down, towards the puddles of water, telling the viewer that what they are now witnessing is but a reflection of that original. The film is replete with visual references to the original, changed every time in subtle ways that diminish them in comparison with their origins. In the dialogue, this is stated very explicitly: Morpheus, meeting Neo for the first time, exclaims "At last, we meet!", then — facing a confused Neo — has to backtrack and explain that he is referencing the words that the original Morpheus said to him upon their first meeting, only when Morpheus said it originally he did it with "lightning, thunder and theatre", whereas the new Morpheus just couldn't resist repeating the phrase even though he was doing it literally while stepping out of a toilet stall. My favourite example of this, though, is in the name "Io", the name of the new human city. I have seen a great many interpretations for this choice of name but for some reason the most obvious one seems to have escaped all commentators: "Io" is just a diminished version of "Zion". It is a "Zion" that has lost its consonants.
I think that if this was all that the film had done to drive this point home, there would have still been too many people for whom this would have gone way above their heads, too many people who would have missed this completely and gobbled the film up as the sequel they wanted it to be (in the same way that the joke of Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero (1993) was missed on much of its audience, who received the film as a bad action movie, rather than as a riotous parody of the genre). So, in turning that, too, up to eleven, Lana Wachowski integrated into Resurrections direct clips of The Matrix (1999), going even so far as to place the new characters in a literal movie theatre, and have them watch, together with the audience, clips from that original film. Never in the history of cinema has a movie been so on-the-nose in berating its own audience, saying "You want to see the original? Why don't you just go and rewatch the original, then?" It is sad to me that for all the lengths that Lana Wachowski went in order to make this one statement, people still accuse Resurrections of laziness in its use of the original footage. It is not laziness. It is a scathing critique which studios and audience members alike should all pay heed to.
(Another favourite moment of mine where Lana Wachowski puts under a spotlight the absurdity of modern sequel-making is in her bringing back of The Merovingian. The re-introduction of Lambert Wilson's foul-mouthed French-spouting character is not just a hilarious moment in the film, a set-up for an action scene that mirrors one from Reloaded, and, at the same time, an onscreen discussion of the place of traditional media in a world of TikTok and Snapchat — it is also a wicked nod to the art of the sequel. Lana Wachowski is saying "You want bit-part homages by returning favourite characters? Go ahead: have The Merovingian!" throwing in as part of the [very small] returning cast one of the least liked characters of the entire franchise. What a delight, though, that his character is so much more fun this time around.)
Fun fact: Lana Wachowski seems to also be presenting us with an alternative to the never-ending sequel-spouting Hollywood machine. In the film, the protagonists mostly go to a corporate-chain coffee shop cleverly-called "Simulatte". But right across the street is a smaller, friendlier, and much more personable option: the "Zoetrope" caf&eactue;. This may be a direct reference to "American Zoetrope", the production company started by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, but without a doubt is a nod to the wider world of independent films. Lana Wachowski is telling her audience: "You want better quality movies? Go see more independent films! If you keep lining up to see the same old superhero garbage, you'll just get more of that same old superhero garbage".
Lana Wachowski clearly learned from the Cameron school of sequel-making: she expands the world; she continues the narrative; and then she retells the same story, that of the spiritual awakening of a messianic figure, but it feels fresh because we now focus on the inner turmoils in the mind of this budding messiah (whereas in the previous instalments all characters, including Neo, were little more than video-game characters and cardboard cut-outs), because we now introduce a new concept of what it means to be The One and promote the new moral that no man, not even The One, is an island. This is all good filmmaking and good sequel-making, but if this had been where it had ended this would not yet be another layer in the film. Instead, Lana Wachowski taunts Hollywood's instant-sequel machine by showing that she can redress The Matrix into any genre she wishes. The film starts as a psychological thriller, where Neo struggles to determine what is real while The Analyst tries to unravel his truths; it continues as a philosophical meditation about conflict, about ("binary") polarisation and about war; then, in order to free Trinity, the film suddenly becomes a heist movie; and finally, in its last act, it turns into a zombie flick.
The film grounds itself in the world of The Matrix, but uses the opportunity to tell its tale in a way that feels utterly unique and standalone, bucking the trend that any sequel must continue the conflict of the previous instalment, only upping the stakes.
On the one hand, I want to say that this is a tour-de-force for Lana Wachowski, and one that I was marvelling at throughout from a very personal perspective: back in the 1990s, I was a young, aspiring science fiction writer, and I was desperately trying to write a story where my protagonists free themselves from the confines of a virtual reality in which they are trapped. I never succeeded. The setup always robbed my protagonists of their agency, and the stories invariably stagnated. I was genuinely excited when the first Matrix movie came out and demonstrated that this story set-up could be a fast-paced Hong-Kong-style Kung Fu movie. (And it made me a lot more forgiving towards Reloaded and Revolutions when they ended up falling into the same stagnation trap.) Now, I could not but marvel at how, under Lana Wachowski's confident directorial hand, the story's genre can morph so easily, how what I dismissed as an impossible setup for an interesting narrative suddenly becomes infinitely pliable.
But on the other hand, despite the fact that this, too, seemed to be a message squarely directed at Hollywood's hosts of sequel-makers, I felt that this was one message that Lana Wachowski was unable to juggle deftly enough with the rest of her film. On its own, it is brilliant. As part of the entire movie, it made the film feel inconsistent, as though it was four films stringed together rather than one cohesive piece.
Fun fact: the film repeatedly toys with how thin its own allegory is. Trinity's husband, Chad, is, for example, played by Chad Stahelski, who is not only a real "Chad", and not only a person who did stunt work for the franchise in the past, but is also the director of John Wick (2014), the film that "resurrected" Keanu Reeves's own career as an action hero. Moreover, the fake "Residual Self Image" that Thomas Anderson is shown as having, is played by none other than Carrie-Anne Moss's real world husband, Steven Roy.
Fun fact: One of the ways Lana Wachowski tried to make making Resurrections more pleasant is by surrounding herself with familiar, friendly faces, with people she could trust. Lana has employed this strategy in the past, e.g. bringing Tom Tykwer and David Mitchell, both of whom she had met making Cloud Atlas, "into the family" by having both participate in the Wachowskis' Sense8 TV series. David Mitchell, who wrote the novel Cloud Atlas, wrote episodes for Sense8, and Tom Tykwer, who co-directed Cloud Atlas and most notably taught the Wachowskis about how to direct starting from the music score, wrote the music for Sense8 episodes. Now, with the Sense8 family in place, Lana took as much of that team as she could into the Resurrections adventure. IMDb lists a full 227 people who worked on both. This includes not just much of the cast, but also all the most central crew positions: all the writers (Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon), all three producers, three of seven executive producers (with another one, Terry Needham, being producer on practically everything else the Wachowskis have made, and another being Karin Wachowski), they brought in the one associate producer, both music writers (Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer), both directors of photography, the film's editor, the head of casting, the heads of production design, etc., etc.. This is certainly not new for the Wachowskis, who have gathered around them a team they like since the very beginning, but I've never seen it play out to quite so obvious and flaunted an extreme. I really do hope this was a more fun movie to make for Lana Wachowski than what the other Matrix movies evidently had been. (Bonus fun fact: one of the friendly synthients in the film is named "Lumin8". That's quite a wink to Sense8, Lana.)
Not so the case with Jonathan Groff, who unfortunately had to replace Hugo Weaving over schedule conflicts. Groff is fantastic when well cast, but he does not have Weaving's menacing presence. He also embodies a very different character to Weaving's: Weaving's "Agent Smith" hated the Matrix with a passion. All he wanted to do was to escape it. It was his defining trait, and the very thing that made his character stand out from the moment he began interrogating Morpheus in the first film. Groff's Smith seems to enjoy where he is. He is characterised by vanity, marvelling at his own self and his "piercing blue eyes". The two characters have nothing in common, and because of that Smith's third-act rampage seems so out-of-place and not-understandable at the end of the film: it is behaviour that fits Weaving's Smith, but not Groff's.
The re-cast also does not make much sense within the world of the story. The Analyst wanted Neo to be connected to his desires (Trinity) and his fears (Smith). That is why he resurrected them. Why on earth would he give Smith a new face?
Imagine the scene where Smith tells Anderson that he needs to make another Matrix instalment, to literally go back into the Matrix, but place Hugo Weaving there as Smith instead of Groff. Immediately Neo's anxiety levels become much higher. Immediately the audience's gut reaction is much tenser. Immediately the end of the scene, where Smith's mouth welds itself shut, makes so much more sense.
It was, unfortunately, inevitable, with Weaving being busy with other productions, but it still bogs the film down.
Though I spent much ink above on how Resurrections rages against weaponised nostalgia, the omission of Don Davis doesn't seem to be part of that, but rather a necessity due to the fact that Davis is now largely retired. The score Davis wrote for the first film is nothing short of miraculous. PhD dissertations have been written about it. It is an entirely unique, wholly original piece of work that gives the Matrix world its tone and identity.
Much as I love Klimek and Tykwer's work on Cloud Atlas — and it's among my absolute favourite music scores, ever — the score to this new Matrix film did not feel to me at all like a continuation of that original tone, that original musical identity. Instead, many times in watching the film it sounded like they were retooling unused tracks from Cloud Atlas, and these did not fit for me at all.
Woo Ping-Yuen is now also semi-retired, unfortunately, and Resurrections worked with much lesser talent in this department. Worse, the cast did not seem anywhere near as Kung-Fu-trained as they had been in the original Matrix. Keanu Reeves, trying to do Kung Fu at 57, now just looks old and weak. The idea that a 57 year old man can be an action superhero may have worked in John Wick, where all he had to do was to repeatedly shoot people in the head, but when trying to do actual Kung Fu, it now just looks ridiculous.
And whereas The Matrix was able to break its fights into multiple scenes, each able to tell its own story, here too much was crammed into too few fights. Take for example, the fight scene with the Merovingian's crew. It takes 10 minutes or so. Let's see what these ten minutes try to achieve.
In narrative terms, this fight is in the place of the original fight between Smith and Morpheus.
Let us begin with the fact that this, in itself, would have made for a more interesting and more narratively-relevant fight: in Resurrections, we have synthient Morphius, who is really an amalgam of both Morphius and Agent Smith. Both synthient Morphius and Smith are in this fight scene, and it would have been, dramatically-speaking, momentous to see them face off against each other: on the one hand, it would have been a rematch of the very Smith-v-Morpheus fight that this scene relates to; on the other, it would have been an unprecedented Smith-v-Smith moment, where the man whose catch-phrase has always been "Only human", and who is mostly remembered for having duplicated himself many times over, now gets to face against his own ilk and his own self.
This does not happen, because the narrative purpose of the fight in Resurrections is not the same as the equally-placed fight in The Matrix. Instead, the narrative purpose here is to replace the entire last 30 minutes of The Matrix, beginning with Neo's encounter with Smith in the subway station, and ending with Neo's resurrection and defeat of Smith. If the fight had centred on Morpheus, it would have undermined Neo's agency and his role as the leader of the story's arc.
But cramming a full 30 minutes of storytelling into 10 minutes, at a space where Neo is still unsure of his own identity and strengths (hence the focus on Morpheus in the original film) feels so completely rushed and unearned here, that any narrative force is gone from the scene.
Instead, we feel at the end of it all that the scene's only purpose was to introduce us to Neo's new "force push" ability, which, in itself, is narratively questionable and seems to largely be a solution to how to avoid more Kung Fu for Keanu. (As opposed to the similar revelation at the end of those 30 minutes in The Matrix, where Neo learns he can dodge bullets, fight Smith blindfolded with one hand, and even jump into Smith in order to blow him up to bits from the inside, all of which feels earned, because the story did the footwork required to deserve it.)
These actions undo the sacrifice at the end of Revolutions, and there is no wink here to the audience. It is this action that we, as audience members, are called to applaud for.
Unfortunately, for all of Lana Wachowski's railings against Hollywood culture, this is one part of said culture that she clearly fell for. More and more, we see in TV and film protagonists with extremely selfish motivations, whose entire justification for what they are doing is that this is what they want. I want it, and I'm the good guy, therefore I deserve for it to happen. And so often, the collateral damage for everyone else who is around the protagonist is stupendous. (Wandavision (2021) comes to mind as an example.) These are, unfortunately, scripts written from a standpoint of entitlement, and I find their message abhorrent. It is high time Hollywood screenwriters, Lana Wachowski included, learned some lessons about humility. Maybe they can find such in a good film.
Its only fault is that it tries to say too much, and not all of it sticks the landing.
I wish all our films would fail this way, by trying too hard. The unfortunate status quo is that film after mediocre film succeeds by never trying for anything at all.
We should be kinder to the few Icaruses that we do have.