I had a lot of questions during and after my viewing of The Matrix Resurrections. Mostly during. Questions like “What?”, “Why?”, “What?”, “The hell?”, and “Are you [emphatic expletive] kidding me?” The big question I had when it was all over was “How could a film that has so much going for it and a not-small pile of great assets ultimately turn out to be so disappointing?”
An aside here. I am going to do my absolutely damnedest to talk about this film without giving away spoilers, but this is a nigh-impossible task. I will keep things as vague as possible, but if you want to go into the film completely spoiler-free, you might want to skip to the final summary paragraph.
So. How to summarize this film’s…ahem…”plot” without heavy spoilers. Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game designer who suffers from mental breaks that make him question reality. His questions appear to be justified when a mysterious woman calling herself Bugs (Jessica Henwick) tracks him down and tells him that his life is nothing but a computer simulation and that the “real world” needs his help. Red pill, blue pill, bullet time, choice is yours, etc.
At this point, even if you’ve never seen any of the Matrix films or played any of the video games, you know the basics of the Matrix as a concept. What we know as the real world is actually an elaborate computer simulation, and the actual real world is a burnt-out wasteland ruled by machines that use humans as batteries. That hasn’t changed in this latest installment of the franchise. Then again, a vast majority of things haven’t changed in this latest installment of the franchise.
Resurrections displays a surprising lack of evolution or innovation, which comes as more than a little bit of a disappointment considering what a game-changer the first film was. An elevated story, innovative special effects, mind-bending fight sequences, and all the PVC and trench coats a fetishist could want. Even if the sequels didn’t quite deliver on the promise of that first film, they still took their energy and ran with it.
This film starts out with a lot of promise, fooling you into thinking it’s going to be taking new angles at old material. The first half hour of the film runs almost entirely on metatextual energy and self-effacing humor and is honestly very amusing. Anderson isn’t just a video game designer. He’s famous for designing a trilogy of games called The Matrix that were a cultural phenomenon, and now his parent company Warner Bros. is breathing down his neck demanding a sequel. And his development team is made up mostly of hip, self-unaware 20-somethings who worshiped the original trilogy but clearly didn’t see past the spectacle of it and entirely missed the point.
Then Bugs and her crew show up, and that whole angle gets flushed down the tubes like a human that’s been disconnected from their amniotic pod. Once Anderson finds out that yes, this is all real, take the red pill…well, let’s just say that we’ve seen all this before. Not to use a term that gets abused within the 148 minutes of this film, but the feeling of deja vu is inescapable.
The thing is, there are a lot of elements that work in this movie. The visuals are entirely on point. The music by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer is appropriately epic and evocative. The special effects are beyond reproach for the most part. The costumes are runway-ready. The acting is for the most part quite good with little exception (even the most annoying performer truly understood the assignment). The fight scenes are adequate if entirely unevolved, like the last 20 years of genre cinema simply didn’t happen.
But that story. Oh, sweet Jesus. Director Lana Wachowski (working solo without her sister Lily) wrote the screenplay with two novelists who have no film-writing experience. One of those novelists was David Mitchell, who wrote Cloud Atlas. We never had a chance.
Had this been a novel, the scope and trajectory of the narrative might have gone down easier, but as a film it’s simply too enamored of itself to come across as anything more than a confusing mess that’s far more complicated that it needs to be and will inspire a cottage industry of dramatic YouTube videos essays devoted to untangling it. Am I being intentionally obtuse? Maybe. But I can tell you that by the third act I no longer cared what was happening and just wanted the film to end.
Wachowski also throws way too many subplots into the mix that only serve to muddy up the story, and this includes cameos from characters from the original trilogy that mean nothing and go nowhere. Like, one character and their minions show up at one point, they fight with Bugs and her crew, and then they’re never heard from again. It honestly feels like Wachowski is trying to remix the original trilogy and condense it down into one film, and that approach just isn’t working. Very few things get time to breathe on their own, and their emotional impact too heavily relies on familiarity with the original trilogy.
What keeps the film going through this, however, is a cast the almost to a member is dedicated and doing their best to make an impact. Keanu Reeves has grown tremendously as an actor and genre star since the first film, and his role here reflects that. He’s more expressive, more sympathetic, and his low-key approach feels more natural. Fellow returning cast member Carrie-Anne Moss thrives on a similarly restrained approach, conveying volumes with intensely subtle facial expressions and vocal inflections.
Of the new cast members, Jessica Henwick is a fine addition to the Matrix universe. Bugs has a quiet authority and confidence tempered with measured emotion. Henwick’s equally good at dialogue as she is at fight scenes, and she has that undefinable “it factor” that makes her a good center for the film. She’s matched well by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, playing a new version of Lawrence Fishburne’s Morpheus (it’s…complicated). He copies Fisburne’s cadence, delivery, and tone perfectly, but over the course of the film he shows new spins on the character that make it almost his own.
There are in fact moments where you can forget the weaker parts of the film simply because the actors are so much into their roles that their energy becomes infectious. But time and again, we get brought down to earth by some particularly questionable and occasionally downright awful decisions made by Wachowski and her writing partners. Like a character in the Matrix reality dressed all in blue with glasses made of the same plastic as the blue pills themselves (VERY subtle, Lana). Or the moment when the entire film stops dead in its tracks so an antagonist can deliver a four-minute monologue IN BULLET TIME that becomes as torturous as Judi Dench’s endless “song” at the end of Cats. And there’s a particularly gross and tasteless part of the final battle that I won’t get into here because it would involve a trigger warning. Like, I would be fine to spoil it otherwise, but I love y’all too much to trigger you.
In the end, The Matrix Resurrections fails to fully justify its own existence. While in the moment it can be intriguing and even exciting, its parts rarely make up a bigger whole. Despite all the elements that work — and several of them work very, very well — the thing connecting all those elements is a confused, self-centered narrative. I wouldn’t mind entering the Matrix with these characters, these costumes, these visuals, and this fantastic score, but miss me with that blue pill mess of a screenplay.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+