A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2021

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS jjj
 

2021, R, 148 mins.

Keanu Reeves as Thomas A. Anderson / Neo  /  Carrie-Anne Moss as Tiffany / Trinity  /  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Morpheus  /  Jonathan Groff as Smith  /  Jessica Henwick as Bugs  /  Neil Patrick Harris as The Analyst  /  Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe  /  Priyanka Chopra as Sati  /  Christina Ricci as Gwyn de Vere  

Directed by Lana Wachowski  /  Written by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon

 

For the absolutely hypersensitive when it comes to spoiler culture...consider yourself warned...

It's simply impossible to overstate what an incalculable impact that THE MATRIX had on the film industry when it was modestly released back in 1999.  

The Wachowskis' lavishly mounted and thoughtfully scripted sci-fi opus mixed in such divergent elements as Eastern Philosophy, Biblical overtones, cyberpunk culture, dystopian and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Japanese anime, Hong Kong-esque martial arts mayhem, and guns (lots of guns) and uploaded it to the moviegoer zeitgeist.  It was a massively ambitious hybrid that also tapped in the existentialist nature of reality - and our perception of reality - that ended up creating its own pop culture mythology and universe that has been many times imitated, but rarely duplicated.  That, and THE MATRIX's then revolutionary "bullet time" laced action sequences and cutting edge visual effects essentially fostered a new syntax and grammar for the way genre films were made moving forward, thusly making for an ultra rare pioneering effort that was critically and audience adored on top influencing the art form in profound ways. 

Gargantuan box office success and widespread critical acclaim usually spawns sequels, and THE MATRIX - which worked fairly well as a standalone film - ushered in THE MATRIX RELOADED (a much more audaciously innovative sequel than most cinephiles acknowledge) that was then followed up by the decidedly unsatisfactory trilogy closer in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, and by the time of that latter sequel's release it was abundantly apparent that the lightning in a bottle aesthetic freshness of this series was remarkably hard to replicate.  Flashforward nearly twenty years and now we have the once thought of unlikely THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS, which not only is a narrative continuation of what the Wachowskis finished off with in 2003, but it also manages to resurrect multiple key characters from the original trilogy, two of which were left very much dead and buried at the end of REVOLUTIONS.  

It would be easy to label THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS as a piece of unnecessary nostalgia bait...or a redundant reboot/re-imagining...or a pathetic attempt at a corporate cash grab to capitalize on a once dominant IP.  In many respects, this fourth franchise installment is indeed all of those things mentioned, but it most certainly isn't lazily assembled, nor lacking in genuine risk taking.  THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is an insanely out-there sequel, but it's also a respectably ambitious one that also happens to play around with some self-referential meta commentary on the whole idea of Hollywood sequel blockbusters (and this series as a whole) while, at the same time, delivering what fans of these films want...and perhaps what they were not expecting at all.  I have no doubt that this will be a deeply polarizing sequel for most. 

For those living under a proverbial rock (or for those needing a refresher), the original MATRIX trilogy focused on a machine and AI dominated scorched earth of the distant future where human beings are being grown and used as a bioelectric power source for the machines.  In order to keep them subjugated and docile, the machines have plugged in these battery utilized human slaves into an artificial reality dream world known as The Matrix, making them blissfully unaware of their actual fates.  A human resistance faction (cpmprised of those that have unplugged from the Matrix) fights the machines in the real world and the fake, lead by the prophesized "one" in Thomas "Neo" Anderson (Keanu Reeves, as pitch perfectly cast in a role as he ever was), who at the end of the last film gave his life to broker a peace between mankind and the machines.  Oh, and he also lost the love of his life in Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) during the climatic struggle at the end of REVOLUTIONS.   

Of course, since Reeves and Moss are all over the advertising for THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS and have been prominently marketed as returning in their key roles, questions emerge: How in the hell are they back?  Aren't they supposed to be six feet under?  It's in the early stages of THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS that the film certainly has fun and finds a fiendishly clever manner of given us the second coming of Neo, but not in his Christ-like savior hero form.  No, early on we are re-introduced to Mr. Anderson as a video game designer that has just made a large industry splash crafting a trilogy of cherished sci-fi games that have become iconic in his field.  Now, the higher up suits want him and his company to make a fourth game, and they threaten to do so with or without his input. 

 

 

Hmmmmm....this sounds familiar. 

Anyhoo', despite Thomas' upper echelon status in the gaming industry, he's dealing with nagging mental health issues, which requires him to frequently see an psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) that prescribes him blue tinted pills to deal with his fractured memories and bouts with hallucinations (hmmmmm....).  Thomas has a deep seeded hunch that something is just not right about his reality, which is really driven home when he has a chance meeting at a local coffee shop with Tiffany (Moss), a woman that he feels an instant connection with, but can't explain why (hmmmmm...).  Thomas decides to abandon taking his meds, and within no time he is visited by Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who tells him - as an older version of himself once did all those years ago in the first MATRIX - that all is not as it seems and by taking a red pill he'll be able to break out of the shackles of the virtual reality prison that he's presumably stuck in.  Aiding Morpheus is Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who makes it her mission to convince Thomas that he is indeed Neo and has been brainwashed back into the Matrix by the machines that seriously welched on their peace time pact decades earlier.  The big problem for Thomas this time is that he has a very hard time accepting what Morpheus is telling him. 

The undeniable meta qualities of this screenplay (penned by series creator Lana Wachowski and series newcomers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon) manages to (a) find a nifty manner of bringing Reeves and Moss back into the thick of things despite their previous collective demise before and (b) infuse this sequel with some frankly unexpected levels of industry satire in the manner that they make Thomas 2.0 a MATRIX game designer that has to answer to the suits at Warner Brothers (it doesn't get anymore on the nose than that).  Thomas has to answer to the demands of his boss, Matt (Jonathan Groff), who manages to elicit in Thomas some eerie and instant flashbacks to the evil machine program Agent Smith (the hmmmmms just keep piling up here).  Part of this subplot that intrigues me the most as one big incendiary in-joke is how Thomas has no desire to make another MATRIX video game, but is forced to by his unscrupulous superiors that care more for profit than creativity.  There's a sly sequence that involves Thomas having to sit through a manic creative brainstorm session with other company creatives to ponder what THE MATRIX should be for a new generation of players.  The fact that the machines have stuck Neo back into the Matrix and have made him a game maker that creates Matrix games (a Matrix within a Matrix) is one hell of a mind screw job by those artificial beings. 

One a thematic level, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS certainly deep dives into many of the franchise's central questions about individuality, freedom of the mind and body, and a call to fight for the latter, but it also manages to be a sequel that ponders the very notion of Hollywood's unstoppably ravenous thirst for reboots and remakes.  This gives Wachowski's film an added layer of dual complexity that some series fans will either appreciate or loathe.  I'm honestly surprised that Warner Brothers would even give Wachoswki a massive budget to explore the seedier ideas that swirl around blockbuster sequels...in this sequel that Warner Brothers obviously wanted after a long period of dormancy.  In many respects, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is both a sequel that baits you in and makes you think that you're just going to get a tired retread of what's transpired in past films only to then pull the rug out from under you to immerse you in something wholly unexpected for this mythology.  It's telling, though, that this film becomes less interesting as it returns to the real world battle of machines versus humans and re-establishes Neo of old (alongside him aligning himself with both new and familiar faces), and there are definitively rough patches along the way.  Still, the universe that Lana (and her sister in Lilly, not returning here) brilliantly conceived and unleashed is preserved and honored here while diving into more of the limitless complexities that this world offers up.  THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is a far more interesting series continuation than, say, what STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS offered up years ago as a beat for beat retread of STAR WARS of old.  Wachoswki cannot be blamed here for simply and sluggishly reheating up old series leftovers; she's got more compelling tricks up her sleeves.  Granted, not all of them stick to landing, but you to admire her tenacity. 

There are also some appealing new series newcomers brought in for round four, especially with the fetching and spunky Henwick as her human resistance leading rebel that continues this franchise's underrated streak of female empowered heroes.  Neil Patrick Harris has a tricky role as Thomas' analyst that, you may have guessed, goes on to figure in more heavily into Thomas' multi-tiered reality fight against those dastardly machines.  The there's Jonathan Groff, who has to navigate - without spoiling too much - the convoluted waters of being a fresh faced villain here that has an obvious link to one played by the immortal and irreplaceable Hugo Weaving.  Ditto for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who gives us a new fangled Morpheus that's several layers removed from what Laurence Fishburne gave us all those years ago in a career defining role.  One area of obvious and distracting weakness in THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is that these two latter roles would have perhaps worked better as new characters altogether as opposed to trying to re-conceptualize old roles from before...and casting different actors to fill the sizeable shoes of other larger than life actors before them. 

But, whoa, who are we kidding, we're really here to see the climatic return of Neo and Trinity, the legendary iconic duo that made them one of cinema's most dynamic kick ass power couples.  You can critique whether the reasons for their appearance here - in multiple planes of reality - is either woefully contrived or kind of cool (I subscribe more to the kind of cool camp), but there's no denying that when they share the screen for the first time here after a such a long time apart that THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS kicks it up many notches in terms of sheer whoa factor.  The best thing going for this film is that both Reeves and Moss (both astoundingly ageless) perhaps have better natural chemistry in their quieter early moments than they did in the entire last trilogy.  That may have something to do with Reeves and Moss maturing as performers, and they both seem equally committed to the task of fully grounding themselves back into their most famous roles and the love story contained within here.  I especially liked how deeply troubled Thomas is this time as a reluctant hero.  In the first MATRIX he gladly took the red pill and leaped right into the nightmarish rabbit hole, but here he needs an awful lot more coaxing.  Watching Reeves have fun with mocking his career image (and recent career renaissance) as gritty action hero royalty provides for some of this sequel's best laughs. 

But hey, don't worry, we absolutely get to see Neo in near-full messiah mode again, albeit with a lot more mileage on the gauge (flying for him is a near impossibility now).  He hurtles himself at multiple enemies using kung fu derring do (at least as much as his advancing years allows) and watching him block waves of bullets and deflect rockets with his mind and hands never, ever gets old.  Wachowski is not trying here, I think, to one up the watershed fight choreography and stylistic trappings of what made THE MATRIX the action genre's long standing killer app, but rather stages things with a poise and confidence while trying to find new ways to make her gravity defying heroes and villains work within the frame.  I admired a re-tooled dojo sequences pitting the re-learning the ropes Thomas duking it out with the equally re-tooled Morpheus, as well as a robustly fantastic battle set inside a speeding train in the country.  And the manner that Wachowski builds everything up to a reasonably gripping finale (that takes great glee in putting Trinity back on a motorcycle with Neo in tow to crash through waves upon waves of new machine hacked humans) is unquestionably an awesome thrill.  Nothing will top the novelty of those masterfully envisioned set pieces that put THE MATRIX on the map, but THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS shows that Wachoswki has still got it and has not lost much of her past mojo. 

Lastly and in closing, you can sense her joy in returning to this world and characters (especially after the colossal and embarrassing misfire of JUPITER ASCENDING), and she should be commended for not just lethargically offering up a franchise greatest hits package here.  And in pure MATRIX fashion, this sequel poses more mind bending conundrums at viewers that may require multiple viewings to process and answer.  Yet, for as much as this film gives us in terms of wink-wink commentary on the genre, sequel fatigue dominating pop culture, and the corporate desire to keep money trains going, there's an easy argument to be made that we really didn't need a MATRIX 4.  For all of the problems that I had with REVOLUTIONS, it did at least provide some semblance of closure for character arcs while hinting at future adventures to come.  And maybe - just maybe - THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is a decade too late for its own good, but it does display more daring ingenuity than most other committee led, cash grabbing legacy sequels out there, which helps it stand firmly on its own two feet as a sequel mostly worth jacking into. 

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