In one of its many exhausting moments of metacommentary, The Matrix Resurrections addresses Hollywood’s relentless harvesting of existing intellectual property: “We can’t see it, but we’re all trapped inside these strange, repeating loops.” The line, uttered by a new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; previously Laurence Fishburne) who lives inside a video game version of The Matrix that’s inside the Matrix, is meant to be uncanny. In today’s ecosystem of shareholder-friendly adaptations and reboots, The Matrix and its eccentric fusion of cyberpunk, anime, philosophy, film noir, and Hong Kong cinema would probably never get made. But as a reboot: Why not?
Matrix co-creator Lana Wachowski directs the latest sequel without her sister Lilly, but the Wachowskis have long been critics of Hollywood’s ingrained risk aversion. “We work in an industry of reductionists,” Lilly summarized in 2015. “Right now, it’s all about taking our stories and reducing them to the simplest ideas.” Lana agreed, saying, “When you’re watching an original story, anything can happen. Neo can die…. There’s a tension that comes with original storytelling.” In films like Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis brought this sensibility to life, mutating the Hollywood blockbuster into a baroque canvas on which spaceships pursue a wolf man across the Chicago skyline and anime race cars zip across CGI landscapes. The sisters constantly found ways to blur the line between art house and mainstream, the sublime and the silly.
That iconoclasm devolves into contrarianism in The Matrix Resurrections. Despite posturing as a riposte to Hollywood conservatism, Resurrections spends most of its run time relitigating the series’ cultural footprint and saluting the initial films’ originality. Though it aspires to lambaste assembly-line filmmaking, its cheeky deconstructions and tedious self-references feel more like a copyright renewal than a narrative. Watching Wachowski’s ideas spin in place unveils another truth of the IP epoch: Authors can be just as myopic and unimaginative as corporations.
Set 60 years after the end of the original trilogy, Resurrections explores the peculiar circumstances that have brought characters like Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff; previously Hugo Weaving)—all of whom perished in the third movie—back to life. The main conceit remains unchanged: Most humans live in a virtual simulation called the Matrix that was built by sentient, parasitic machines who use them as a source of energy, and a small group of liberated people resists this extractive system.
The film’s main mode is dissociation. Mirrors—which have replaced phones as the portals in and out of the Matrix—abound, reflecting, warping, and transforming the series’ iconography. Images and their tweaked doubles are constantly overlaid, highlighting contrasts between old and new. Characters get reframed or reskinned or recast. Symbols like Zion—a human city from the previous films—and the Matrix itself take on new meanings. Even the color grade, famously saturated slime green in the original movies, has been traded for soft, warm hues. In an artist’s hands, Wachowski seems to be saying, a story evolves rather than repeats.
Yet instead of change we get navel-gazing. “We know this story,” says Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a hacker modeled on a minor character—the woman with the white rabbit tattoo—from The Matrix. She says this as she watches a re-creation of an opening scene from that film in which Trinity performs a balletic aerial kick that introduces bullet time. But in one of the many déjà vu moments to follow, the woman Bugs sees is not the actual Trinity.
It turns out that Bugs has hacked a private Matrix simulation owned by Thomas Anderson (aka Neo), now a famous video game developer, an echo of his job as a software programmer in The Matrix. Anderson’s signature creation is the Matrix game series, which in Resurrections is the actual Matrix films, scenes from which fill background screens and blip into the movie like hallucinations. Functioning as a kind of hacked fun house mirror, Resurrections delights in the delirium of repetitions.
Snared in these prismatic loops, Anderson struggles to distinguish fiction from reality, a problem heightened by the decision of his employer’s parent company—Warner Bros.—to make a sequel to the Matrix games: a reference to the many rumors that the real Warner Bros. once planned to continue the series without the Wachowskis. Endless sequels—and their outrageous box office grosses—may sustain studios and appease viewers, we are told without nuance, but they silence authors and cheapen their work.
That sentiment might be compelling if Wachowski took bold or surprising creative turns in the new film, but her choices are pedantic and circular. She counters the appropriation of the red pill, which has been taken up by gamers and the right as a license to be misogynistic and reactionary, with rote explanations of what the symbol means—as if the misreading of the symbol were a problem of storytelling rather than ideology. Through various repetitive plot convolutions, she responds to the casual sexism of Matrix fans who have overlooked Trinity, a character already essential to the series, by making her a deity. All the newer and more interesting threads in Resurrections—the experience of programs living outside a computer system, the spectacle of machines going to war with one another, the novelty of machines creating a political identity—get glossed over in the service of empty nostalgia and fussy revisionism.
These strange loops grow dizzying for the viewer and for Wachowski as well. “I’m trying to do things that are, I wouldn’t say nostalgic, but are about the creation of this piece of art from my past again,” she said in a recent interview. “You know, it’s like I’m purposefully doing it again to say something about the way that we do things again and again in our lives and to mark the difference and how the againness is never again.” Although she says “we” and “our,” the new film never engages the viewer. Wachowski wrests her dead creations from Warner Bros., then embalms them with memories. The gesture is inspired, but Wachowski’s contempt for boardroom-appeasing art also disregards her own audience. Are artisan zombies really all that different from corporate ones?
The strangest aspect of Resurrections is how narrowly it understands the legacy of the series. Even if Warner Bros. were to zombify The Matrix the way it has Looney Tunes (whose characters, depressingly, appeared alongside Matrix characters in last year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy), the series would always belong to viewers and other artists, too. So many terms, images, cultural marginalia, and other media lead back to or through those first three films: “a glitch in the Matrix,” rabbit hole, unplugged, “Dodge this,” Inception, Wanted, Equilibrium, white dudes with dreadlocks, Mr. Robot, “MISS-TER ANNNN-DER-SON,” “There is no spoon,” the rappers YUNGMORPHEUS and Erick the Architect, Zack Snyder’s slow-motion panoramas, basic video game mechanics. The red pill is just one glyph in a rich, sprawling text.
Influence and authorial control aren’t equivalent, of course, so Wachowski necessarily has a deeper investment in her series than fans and acolytes do. But Resurrections so heavily couches her connection to the series in terms of ownership and authority that it never articulates the nature of that bond. In miniature and at scale, the original movies are textured and slick, full of perverse physics and intense tactility. Time expands. Space congeals. Concrete shatters. Leather shimmers. Bodies bend, float, fly. Every frame brims with craft and care. Resurrections, by comparison, lacks such purpose. Awash in empty familiarity, stilted action, and half-hearted agitation, this Matrix redux brings to mind a line delivered by the original Morpheus: “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”