THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is novel, heartfelt, and polarizing

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is novel, heartfelt, and polarizing

Video review above. Script below.

Introduction

Hello Kings and Kweens. I’ve been riddled with COVID for the past few days, so it’s the perfect time to talk about The Matrix Resurrections. Resurrections is the fourth film in The Matrix franchise. The original Matrix is one of my favorite movies of all time. You can watch my previous video about it if you’d like, link in the description. I’d say I was hesitantly optimistic for this movie. I didn’t have any reason to believe it would be good, but I hoped it would be. After seeing it, I will admit I’m not sure what to think about it. I can say confidently I didn’t hate it. I think it’s better than the sequels, but I don’t know what it is beyond that. So, let’s talk about it.

The main things I want to talk about in this movie are its decision to be a meta-analysis of itself. I want to talk about where it leaves the franchise. Then finally I want to talk about its action filmmaking, which I thought was pretty weak.

Quick note on spoilers. The premise of this movie is a spoiler. It is impossible to say anything meaningful about this movie without explaining that premise. So if this movie interests you, I think you should go watch it. I can’t say if you’ll enjoy it, but if you care enough to be interested I think you will get something out of seeing it. If you’re incredibly skeptical and would like to know more before you invest 2 and half hours of your time, I think you can watch this review. Beyond the initial premise, I think this movie is impossible to spoil. I can tell you what happens but it won’t really mean anything unless you have the full context. I’ve equipped you with a spoiler warning, the choice is yours.

Background

First a bit of background which is more necessary than ever to explain why this movie exists. The Matrix was a tour-de-force film released in 1999 by the Wachowskis. At the time of its release, it was the third-highest grossing rated R film in history just behind Saving Private Ryan and Terminator 2. The Wachowskis were relatively unknown and they made a movie that was as popular as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron doing their best work. It was a pretty big deal. More than its financial success, The Matrix was tremendously influential on popular culture. Special effects like bullet time became common place in video games and movies influenced by The Matrix. Cyberpunk aesthetics were a big part of the original film and that style became a popular subgenre for science fiction. Finally, there were the very many memorable lines that continue to be part of the public lexicon to this day. If you have ever heard of someone being “red pilled” that is a neologism derived from The Matrix. The popularity of the franchise spawned two sequels Reloaded and Revolutions. Reloaded became the highest grossing rated R film of all-time, and stayed in that position for more than a decade. It was eventually dethroned by Deadpool in 2016, and that accolade now belongs to 2019’s Joker. This is all to say the Matrix franchise was incredibly influential, popular, and financially successful but then it disappeared.  

The reason is because the sequels Reloaded and Revolutions were — to put it mildly — not what anyone wanted from a sequel to The Matrix. Those movies turned the story into religious allegories cribbing influence from the story of Jesus Christ and reincarnation stories from eastern religions including the concept of recurrence. Recurrence is a theme that would reappear in the Wachowskis’ other work like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Cloud Atlas by the way is one of my favorite movies, I have a video on that movie in the description as well. Today there seems to be a subset of Matrix fans who are sequel defenders. They claim those movies are actually good instead of the mess of half-baked ideas they are. I don’t want to get into a breakdown of why the sequels were so bad, but I will say this. The people who like those sequels are either philosophy majors, or film majors, and what they share in common with those movies is they have their head way up their own ass. There is a reason the third film Revolutions made half as much money as Reloaded and it’s because they were both bad. They were so bad they effectively killed the franchise. There were some video games made after the fact. The Matrix Online was a massively online multiplayer game released two years after the sequels in 2005. The Wachowskis actually blessed that game as the official continuation of the story. But the game was officially shutdown in 2009 and the series has laid dormant ever since.

So why is it back now? I bet you already know. Disney changed the industry with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and now every studio wants their own cinematic universe. That’s why Fast and Furious has so many sequels and spinoffs. Warner Brothers are the owners of the Matrix property and they’ve been busy whoring out the DC Expanded Universe as well as the Harry Potter Expanded Universe, but neither of those franchises are anywhere close to Marvel. So now the studio has decided to bring back the Matrix. This is to say, the only reason there is a movie called The Matrix Resurrections is because Warner Brothers wants to reboot the franchise into an expanded universe so they can market new movies, video games, and other attractions in perpetuity forever.

The Wachowskis had already been asked multiple times throughout their career if they would consider returning to The Matrix and the answer has always been no. In fact, one half of the Wackowskis — Lily — no longer works in film at all. Lana Wachowski returned to this movie because she knew they were going to make the movie with or without her. If Warner Brothers was going to start commercializing the work she made with her sibling, then at the very least she’d like to have the last word on what it’s all about. Because otherwise this sequel would just be bullshit. It’d be like The Force Awakens, a film that relies heavily on your nostalgia but is too scared to do anything truly novel. A Matrix sequel made by Warner Brothers alone would undoubtedly set up a lot of vague plot lines and hope someone else would have the guts to do something meaningful with it. In short, the movie would be a farce.

What’s very interesting about The Matrix Resurrections is it in unambiguously a farce. It is a movie that really does not need to exist. But the movie knows that and it is evident through the very beginning of this movie and its premise.

Premise

If you never saw the original Matrix — well, there’s no way you can enjoy this movie — but let me give you a brief overview of the world anyway. In the far flung future, there is a war between machines and humans. The machines need an infinite energy source, so they have enslaved humans and grow them in these pods across many fields on the surface of earth. The machines harvest our natural electrochemistry as a power source, but until the point of harvest we sit in these pods jacked into a simulation called “the matrix.” The matrix, for all intents and purposes, is the modern day. We live our normal lives in a simulation designed to keep us pacified of the truth that this world is not real and we don’t belong here. The original Matrix trilogy followed Thomas Anderson aka Neo as he wakes up from the matrix. He is rescued from his pod in the field and fights back against the machines both in the real world and in the matrix.

The Matrix Resurrections brings us back to the story of Neo although this time he is back in the matrix so he goes by the name Thomas Anderson. The details of Anderson’s life in this version of the matrix should sound very familiar. Anderson is a famous video game programmer. He is the creator of a successful trilogy of games released in 1999 called… The Matrix. Where you play a character named Neo, assisted by Morpheus and Trinity, fighting against a race of machines led by an antagonist named Agent Smith. In this world, everyone knows and loves those games and wants Anderson to make a sequel.

Anderson enjoys the prestige of being an accomplished programmer but he has a problem. He does not want to make a sequel to The Matrix. Despite this, we see early-on in this film Anderson is asked by his boss — his boss who works for a company called Warner Brothers — to make a sequel to The Matrix. This is the essential dilemma for his character, but it gets worse. Anderson is a very stressed out guy. He reportedly has experienced lifelike hallucinations of characters from his video game trying to convince him he is in the Matrix and needs to wake up into the real world. Anderson deals with these hallucinations by seeing a therapist and taking medication in the form of a blue pill.

Meta-Analysis

It goes without saying, this story is incredibly meta. You might be rolling your eyes at this, but I thought it was a really intelligent way to give agency back to the remaining creator of The Matrix — Lana Wachowski. When you examine the backlash to sequels like the Star Wars prequels or revivals like the Gilmore Girls miniseries — the conflict is the same. There is a huge gap between what the creator wants and what the fans want.

Most creators will argue the opinion of fans should not matter. Any creative can make whatever they want and they don’t owe anything to their fanbase. This sounds like a convincing argument, but it devalues the power of narrative stories. I talk more about this idea at length in my review of The Green Knight which is a movie adapting a story that’s 700 years old. In simple terms, we don’t view stories as entertainment we see them as expression of what is true and we see fictional characters as archetypes of reality. So when a continuation of a story does not line up with what we believe is true or if the depiction of those archetypes is off, we react very negatively to that. Especially, if the so-called continuation seeks out to make a mockery or reverse things we like about prior installments in these stories. That’s why the backlash to The Last Jedi was so toxic. Not because people need to go outside, but because people underestimate the depth of our relationship with stories. If you have a new story that makes a mockery of what we believe in, then of course you’re going to piss people off.

This is a bit of a tangent but this is also part of the reason why I think intellectual property laws for fiction are flatly ludicrous. It doesn’t matter who owns the rights to something, because the fans will decide what is canonical within a world of fiction. Whether or not Disney approves of the Expanded Universe prior to 2015 doesn’t change the fact most Star Wars fans accept Knights of the Old Republic as canonical. But again, this is a tangent.

The point is we know this conflict was going to come up and it’s always heartbreaking because no one has a deeper connection with a piece of art then the person who made it. If you’re pissed about the Star Wars prequels, imagine how George Lucas feels. We knew Resurrections was going to have this same conflict. Especially because the fanbase was already divided when the sequels came out and failed to live up to expectations. You already see people dunking on this movie on twitter saying “Resurrections is a movie for fans of the sequels.” This is meant to be a disparaging remark, which I don’t think is fair. The way this movie gets around this debate is by inserting it front and center through the character of Neo aka Thomas Anderson.

Neo is the protagonist of these movies. He is the character we care about. So when the new drama for our favorite character becomes his involvement in a new installment he doesn’t want to make, that delivers the dilemma Lana Wachowski had while making this movie to the audience in a way we are willing to accept. And I have to say the movie is quite convincing about bringing you to Wachowski’s point of view. The early parts of this movie show various producers and creative analysts trying to pitch Anderson on what they think The Matrix is all about. Everything these people say sounds stupid. There’s the guy who thinks it’s all about “bullet time” there’s the person who thinks it’s all about “trans identity.” This movie depicts these suggestions as ridiculous. Because while The Matrix is partly about bullet time, and trans identity, and many other things, to reduce it to a singular element as the bedrock for a new piece feels incredibly soulless. The whole process is asking you “Is this what you want?” You want a room of producers who have no real connection with the thing you care about to make you a new one? Really?

This meta criticism is extended to the actual plot of the movie. For example, the concept of taking the red pill is in this movie and there are a lot of scenes of characters making that choice. The last iteration of this type of scene is on a set that looks identical to the gloomy room from the original Matrix where Neo takes the red pill for the first time. In this new scene, they actually have the original scene playing on a projector in the background. A new character makes the point that people feel more comfortable with a new version of something if it has a hint of nostalgia to it. Because let’s be real, that’s what this movie was going to be if it was made without Lana Wachowski. Just similar enough to appeal to your nostalgia, but different enough to warrant a new film. When that reality is pointed out to you, I think everyone agrees that’s not what anyone actually wants. It’s what we accept from fucking Disney, but it’s not actually what we want.

I thought these early critiques of the movie felt very personal in a way blockbusters never do. I really loved the section where Anderson’s hallucinations are explained as just a video game coming to life, but later a character says the real world tries to get you to devalue truth that speaks to you by saying it comes from something as trivial as a video game. Stories are incredibly powerful no matter where they come from and I loved that this movie made that point. The melancholic feel of this part of the movie is heightened by seeing Neo as a dejected pill-addicted neurotic mope. They really capitalized on Keanu Reeves’ inherent sadness and made him look absolutely devastated that the art he made had been taken from him to be used by others. I thought this was the best part of the movie largely because it felt very genuine. It didn’t feel like Lana Wachowski saying “Screw you” to Warner Brothers and “screw you” to us for watching this movie. It seemed like she was trying to make peace with the reality of this movie. Part of that was having the last word on what The Matrix is supposed to be about.

Where it leaves the franchise

After the initial foray into meta-analysis, Resurrections does try to become a traditional Matrix story and along the way it makes some modifications to the Matrix formula. Some of these things are evident in the introductory sequence of the movie. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but you can imagine the dismal state of Hollywood producers’ perception of what The Matrix is supposed to be. You can imagine they might think “Ok, who’s the new Morpheus going to be?” “Who’s the new Neo?” “What about Cypher, he was a good villain, can we do something like that?” Resurrections makes some changes to old characters and establishes new ones to suggest the Matrix has room to be different from the original trilogy.

I like all the changes they made to these characters. I don’t think any of the changes take away from the original film, it just gives more creative freedom for future stories in the Matrix universe. One change they made that I will mention is the idea that machines are not necessarily bad guys. Watching those original movies, you might come away from it with an anarcho primitivism view that all technology is bad and we should return to monkey. This movie makes sure to close the door to that interpretation. Which also necessarily shows how The Matrix is also not a story about good guys versus bad guys. It’s not meant to be a more cerebral cops and robbers. It’s meant to be more than that. The Matrix was meant to be about how people imprison their own potential through the constructs and partly how we choose to accept lesser versions of ourselves because it’s easier to live that way. The cyberpunk aesthetic of the Matrix wasn’t necessarily rebellion for the sake of it, but rather an expression of how people might choose to look if they weren’t bound by societal rules. All of this is in service to discovering the “true self,” if we’re even capable of understanding what that is. I think this movie leaves things in a way so you understand The Matrix may fit in these simpler reductions, but it is meant to be more than that.

I thought the most exciting creative decision was the fact this movie is so self-eviscerating on what The Matrix is supposed to be about. It leaves the franchise in a very open-ended space so anyone who likes anything about it can choose to continue the story however they like. I’m personally excited to see more things like the Animatrix which is a very underappreciated collection of short films set in the Matrix universe. The fact this movie is meant to be the foundation for a future franchise and while it is so deconstructionist of itself provides so much creative freedom it’s actually kind of exciting. You could say The Matrix is basically postmodernism — the franchise. I think that’s really cool, but that will mostly depend on what comes next for this series.

Action set pieces

Now you’re probably thinking you’ve been going through this review and it’s still not clear if you’ll like the movie or not. That’s largely because this movie is more like a film essay about itself rather than a traditional film. So I’ve spent a lot of time talking about it’s ideas, and if any of them sound interesting then I think you might like it. However, if you’re looking for a tradition action film, I think it’s safe to say you’ll be disappointed.

The middle part of this movie tries to synthesize the meta-analysis with a conventional sequel, and I don’t think its very successful. Partly because the meta-analysis stuff is front and center, then seemingly disappears. Like we’re asked to think the movie is bullshit but then also care what happens. The bigger problem is the conventional filmmaking just isn’t very good. There are action set pieces throughout this movie but it’s very difficult to make a fight sequence matter when you’re not invested in the fate of these characters. Too much of the analysis of this movie got in the way of actually connecting with the people in it. So when there’s a fight scene and someone says very dramatically “they’re killing him!” You don’t really care. You don’t see that conflict affecting a person you care about, you see some abstract idea serving some other point beyond our connection with their character.

Some of the earlier action sequences try to get around this by moving the point of conflict off of whether or not the character survives. Movies with invincible main characters tend to do this, something like James Bond or a Marvel movie. We tend to assume the protagonist is going to live, but maybe there’s some issue they care about that’s at risk and that’s what we care about instead. This movie does that a little bit, but it can’t stretch it out for the whole movie so a lot of the action falls flat. I say this all the time, but without any stakes there’s no tension and this movie has neither.

This is made worse because a lot of the action set pieces feel very contrived. The Matrix is known for contrived action set pieces, but it is especially bad in this movie. There is one antagonist in this movie who I would describe as a “frenemy.” There is a moment in this movie where Neo and co jack into the matrix and this frenemy is there immediately. They have a fight — which honestly I didn’t understand the purpose of this fight at all — and once it’s over they jack out of the matrix. I have no idea what the point of that sequence was other than to insert a fight scene in the middle of vast periods of meta-analysis. But then again, this movie kind of needed those inserted detours otherwise it would rely way too much on cerebral musings rather than any more down-to-earth action movie stuff.  

This is one way that Resurrections is actually weaker than Reloaded or Revolutions. Say what you will about those sequels, they still had very competent action set pieces. Reloaded especially has a fantastic climax sequence. Those sequels managed to walk a fine line between their highfalutin metaphors and straight-up action, but this movie does not have the same success. I think the meta-analysis stuff is far more approachable and appropriate than the religious stuff in the sequels, but undoubtedly the action is worse in this movie.

Closing Thoughts

I’m not sure how useful this review will be for people who haven’t seen the movie, but I think it got me closer to feeling ok saying I liked The Matrix Resurrections. I think I’d give a 4 out of 5. As an action film, it’s easily the weakest of the franchise. I wasn’t super impressed with any of the traditional action filmmaking in this movie which I know will be a huge disappointment for many people. The movie gets weaker in the second half. I was disappointed the characters didn’t get much development because the movie is so focused on that meta-analysis. But that meta-analysis is so intriguing and really novel. I think it is uncontroversial to say there has never been a movie like this before and there likely will never be a blockbuster made in this way ever again. This movie was an attempt from a creator to retain their creative integrity in the face of their work becoming commercialized. This movie makes you feel for the creator’s dilemma, but also makes you ok with the future of this franchise. I think that’s a rare accomplishment and this movie got there in an unconventional way.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of weak elements in this movie, but it has some interesting ideas and it’s definitely worth checking out. At the same time, I’d say this is a movie you can watch exactly once and never again. It’s not something that provides a lot of value on its own. I’m also almost certainly going to change my opinion on this movie if/when I see it again as time goes on, but for now I feel pretty ok about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: