FF2 Guest post by Muffy Koster
In 1999, Lana and Lilly Wachowski released The Matrix. In May 2003, they released The Matrix Reloaded. And then, in November 2003, they released The Matrix Revolutions.
Now it’s 2022 (almost two decades later), and the main characters in the newly released The Matrix: Resurrections — as well as its authors — concede that there is nothing new under the sun. Nevertheless, self-references abound throughout The Matrix: Resurrections’ two-and-a-half-hour runtime in a movie that is more about itself than anything else.
The essential conflict between “Neo” (Keanu Reeves) and “Agent Smith” (Jonathan Groff) is reimagined as a struggle over creative rights between a tortured artist on the one hand and a shill for Warner Brothers on the other. It’s a cynical outlook, and a very rare perspective to see represented in a big-budget film. The reboot of this classic science fiction trilogy transparently admits to having nothing more to say about the franchise, and instead chooses to treat its own lack of originality as a dramatic device.
The Matrix: Resurrections opens with a simulacrum of the very first scene in the original Matrix film from 1999. Green symbols flash and expand towards the screen while an anonymous voice conspiratorially whispers coding jargon. The camera zooms out to reveal a decrepit bedroom in a city apartment occupied by a Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) doppelganger, who is shortly accosted by a cast of other not-quite-right reenactors.
As they perform, word for word, the iconic opening sequence of the original movie, we are introduced to “Bugs” (Jessica Yu Li Henwick) and “Sequoia” (Toby Onwumere), a pair of hackers lurking off to the side of the action. These new characters traverse the scene unfolding before them, trying to unravel its strangeness while evading its threats. The commentary Bugs provides on the Trinity doppelganger and her pursuers ingeniously align the viewers with her: as Bugs puzzles at the minor inaccuracies of a moment in history she’s seen before, we can do nothing but agree. Most of The Matrix: Resurrections audience has seen this scene before too.
Through this clever trick of shared cultural memory, The Matrix: Resurrections plays with the literal and the metaphysical in a way that’s genuinely fun — certainly at the beginning. By looking into its own past and constantly referencing the reaction of its audience, the filmmakers actually extend their hands to the audience in invitation. The Matrix: Resurrections regards its predecessors from the same perspective as we do, and even though we can’t really affect the course of the story moment-to-moment, our reactions to the film seem to be a part of its world.
For example, when Bugs snatches “Morpheus” (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) up and pulls him through a door into Thomas Anderson’s bedroom, the film artfully balances on a stage built from the audience’s memory of that place, the character’s memory of it, and the actual reproduction of the original setting. That moment suggested the possibility of an action movie that uses itself as its own landscape, rather than the vague, locationless set-pieces this genre usually relies on.
If Bugs and the rest of the cast had continued to traverse the Matrix, mapping a new story onto our shared imagination of the old ones, I would have lauded it as a window into the future of filmmaking. Instead, Resurrections takes a sharp turn in another direction.
The reenactment is revealed to be something called a “modal,” a simulation within the simulation that Thomas Anderson is now trapped in, 60 years after the events of the third movie. As we get to know Thomas Anderson and his new virtual life (as Neo), the embrace of the meta shifts from the action of the film to the dialogue, and the movie becomes a sort of wry criticism of itself.
The first act is mercilessly self-aware and boisterously self-referential, going so far as to project an actual scene from the ‘99 Matrix onto a wall in the world of the movie. There are moments that are satisfyingly cerebral – just as I found myself wondering if the worn-out Thomas Anderson, enduring unbearable executives who want to profit off his successful video game (also called The Matrix), might be a self-insert for Lana Wachowski, Trinity asks Thomas Anderson if he based the character in his video game on himself.
At a certain point, you begin to sympathize with Thomas Anderson (aka Neo), who Keanu Reeves portrays as deeply bored by repeatedly being asked what the meaning of The Matrix is.
It’s impressive to watch writer/director Lana Wachowski perform these close-up magic tricks of the mind, but it is difficult to pin down their value, especially as they get repeated again and again. At a certain point, you begin to sympathize with Thomas Anderson, who Reeves portrays as deeply bored by repeatedly being asked what the meaning of The Matrix is.
On the other hand, it is commendable, even brave, to refuse to portray the story of The Matrix as more or different than it is and has been. In doing so, it holds up what the Wachowski siblings did right in the original, and breathes some new life into the questions they’ve been asking their audience about gender, power, and resistance (many of which still remain unanswered). If nothing else, The Matrix: Resurrections knows itself well, maybe to a fault.
As much as the film revives what was good about the original, it renews its own failures with just as much gusto. Laurence Fishburne (whose performance as Morpheus is arguably responsible for much of The Matrix’s initial success and lasting impact), has been replaced by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The in-movie justification is flimsy, and the lack of transparency around why Reeves and Moss were invited back but not Fishburne was not is suspicious, to say the least. Combined with the fact that all the Black men in the film are portrayed as part robot, part human (Sequoia has a cyborg arm, Morpheus has a nanobot body), you’re left with even more dehumanizing clichés than the series started with.
This is doubly disappointing given the time that has elapsed since the missteps of the original. One would have hoped that in the last 20 years filmmaker Lana Wachowski would have learned enough from the criticisms that have been openly levied at her anti-Blackness to offer something of substance for Black science fiction fans. Instead, she delivers the same tired tropes to a community that, while always having deserved better, might have expected more this time.
These preliminary faults turn out to be a foreshadowing for the rest of The Matrix: Resurrections, which degrades in quality the longer it drags on. Wachowski and her team attempt to assimilate the movie into the style of reboots of this generation a la Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but flimsy character development makes it fall flat.
Excessive exposition, uninspired writing by a team of three (which now includes David Mitchell as well novelist Aleksandar Hemon, but no longer includes Lilly), and an indecisiveness about how violent of a movie it ought to make the second half of The Matrix: Resurrections especially grating. By the end of the reboot, The Matrix: Resurrections has devolved into a hollow, less than spectacular spectacle. It reaches its lowest point at its very end, punishing viewers with a tacky pseudo-feminist vengeance scene from Trinity which only serves to highlight how little empowerment her character had been allotted throughout the bulk of the film.
For a movie that so loves to talk about itself, The Matrix: Resurrections has nothing to say once tasked with having a plot. Wachowski seems to know full well that she’s got the what down but not the why; her characters admit it from the very beginning of the film.
Spying on the simulated recreation of the original Matrix’s first scene, Sequoia (aka “Seq”) asks aloud: “Why use old code to mirror something new?” Bugs, channeling both the viewer and the director at this moment, simply responds, “I don’t know.” Sad to say, neither do I.
© Muffy Koster (1/4/22) Special for FF2 Media®
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Photos © Warner Bros. Pictures. (Featured image downloaded via Google & photoshopped by Jan Lisa Huttner.) All Rights Reserved.