There is never going to be a great sequel to The Matrix. The Wachowskis tried twice already and failed twice. The original film is perfect, complete, and impossible to follow up in a reasonably cathartic or emotionally resonant way. More to the point, the Wachowskis never wanted to make a sequel to The Matrix. The original sequels were all but demanded by the studio who didn’t want to give up a potential cash cow.
That reality is something that The Matrix Resurrections tackles head-on very early in the story. From the outset, we’re introduced to a somehow living Neo still living in the Matrix and surviving off of a steady diet of blue pills. Last we saw him, he had sacrificed himself to stop the epidemic of multiplying Agent Smiths, thus allowing him the opportunity to briefly stop the war between the Machines and Mankind and creating a temporary peace.
As we come to find out, The Matrix Resurrections takes place generations after the original trilogy, and Neo has somehow been brought back to life for an unclear reason and kept alive in the Matrix. He’s actually a game designer working for Warner Brothers interactive who once created a brilliant trilogy called “The Matrix Trilogy” and is now being forced to develop the fourth game against his will or face the possibility of being replaced by someone else willing to do it.
This is a VERY on-the-nose and meta way for Lana Wachowski (Lily Wachowski isn’t involved in the project) to put a lampshade on the cynical realities of the film’s origins. It’s not a film she wanted to make and it’s not one she expected to make but she’s here now and she’s got no choice but to dive back into the world she created and to find a way to backward engineer a soft reboot capable of giving the franchise new legs while honoring all of the themes that she pioneered.
Against my better judgment, I kinda liked The Matrix Resurrections. It’s easily the most coherent sequel we’ve gotten to the original film and somehow it manages to chisel out a meager story that feels organically connected to the better story ideas of the sequels while still being rooted in the core love story of Neo and Trinity and their war against the Machines. It’s a messy, unambitious work with some weird performances and wonky creative decisions. The action scenes are weak and the stakes are somewhat minimal. It’s a film that doesn’t need to exist and seems to mostly exist for the sake of Warner Brother’s bottom line.
That said, I enjoyed it. That sets me somewhat at a distance from other conservative critics (See: Hollywood in Toto, Sonny Bunch). This movie earned ALOT of acrimony despite a relative agreement between fans and critics that it’s merely okay and not great. Part of that had to do with the film’s crew openly chastizing ring-wingers who had appropriated “the Red Pill” as a metaphor for their political movement and who wanted to try to use this film to thematically undermine their political opponents.
As Slate writes:
“One line the script does go out of its way to hold, however, is the distinction between what “taking the red pill” means within the Matrix universe (liberation, full engagement in the social and political world, “waking up”) and what the phrase has come to mean after its co-optation by rightwing trolls (handing over one’s critical-thinking skills to social-media-borne lies, fulminating against “wokeness”). Matrix Resurrections’ pointed barbs about the way the series’ mythology has been appropriated by some of the most dangerous actors in contemporary political culture demonstrate that, however familiar some of its visual iconography may have become, this is a franchise that has always kept its eyes wide awake and trained on the present day.”
There’s certainly a bitterness to The Matrix Resurrections. The Wachowskis have always been among the most outwardly progressive voices in modern Hollywood and their vision as storytellers is present front and center here in their newest film as it laments the fact that the hard work of the characters in the previous films ultimately was undone by the new multifarious machinations of the machines.
Neil Patrick Harris’s villain character, in particular, seems to embody most of the film’s bitterness as he monologues about determinism and the ways that machines can manipulate human irrationality through stories. One can almost see the “Facts don’t care about your feelings” vibe radiate off the character (as though Ben Shapiro had singlehandedly set back the entire progressive movement by himself).
And certainly, most of the critics of the film aren’t wrong. The film does have a lot of lazy action and repetitive ideas. It’s structured as a remake of the original film from its early scenes of radicalization to its transition point on the hovercraft and a heist scene finale. Characters from the sequels show up for no reason or in new bodies and it’s confusing what role they play exactly in the film other than fan service.
Regardless, most of this is just subtext. There are enough interesting ideas and worldbuilding conceits to the film that I felt like it had something new to offer to this deeply abused cinematic mythos. I like the idea of turncoat machines working with humanity and that the higher-up machines themselves are too busy fighting with each other now to properly oppress humanity. I enjoyed how weird the new Morpheus character ends up being as a turncoat Agent brought to life in the real world. I enjoyed the philosophical debates over which Matrix version is the most effective at negating human folly. I also enjoyed that the movie centers on love as its core conceit and gives late period Keanu another chance at realizing the core motivation of its most famous film role.
Maybe I’d feel differently about the film if I hadn’t watched it comfortably at home on HBO Max and shelled out cash to see it in a theater but there’s enough going for the movie that I was willing to say it’s good but not great.