In the summer of 1999, audiences were introduced to a brand new world by The Matrix, a movie that opens in a dilapidated hotel, introducing us to Trinity for the first time via an ass-kicking introductory action sequence. From there, the law of diminishing returns began to set in, as near back-to-back sequels Reloaded and Revolutions started to creak under their own weight, following up a groundbreaking original with consecutive disappointments.
However, because we currently live in a world where IP is king and name value, nostalgia and brand awareness are the main drivers of ticket sales, the franchise was dusted off after almost 20 years and given an overhaul. Why are we mentioning this? Because this is literally the opening act of The Matrix Resurrections, quite possibly the most meta and self-referential blockbuster you’re ever likely to see.
To reinvent the series, director and co-writer Lana Wachowski has deliberately returned to the well in the most on-the-nose fashion imaginable. Keanu Reeves’ John Anderson is a successful video game developer, who created a trilogy of smash hit games called The Matrix. Even though he feels creatively unfulfilled by the idea, his employers’ parent company Warner Bros. want to make a sequel to the trilogy, which they’re willing to do with or without him.
He has action figures depicting iconography we all recognize from the first three installments littering his desk, there’s an entire montage dedicated to various characters arguing about what they were about on a narrative and thematic level, we’re shown footage from The Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions (which we’re told comes from the in-canon games), people quote Neo’s most famous lines of dialogue back at him, and at first it’s all a bit much.
Things don’t get any easier to digest when the film-within-a-game-within-a-film (if that makes sense, which a lot of it doesn’t) shifts the action to a coffee shop called Simulatte. Here, Mr. Anderson meets married mother-of-two Tiffany, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. She has a husband named Chad, played by John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who also happens to be a former stuntman who doubled for Reeves on The Matrix trilogy.
This is the level of self-awareness, bordering on obnoxiousness, that the first half of the movie revels in. You’ll know by this point whether you’re in or out, and we can guarantee right now that there’s going to be an awful lot of people who hate The Matrix Resurrections with an intense passion.
The actual plot is much more complex, convoluted and occasionally turgidly dull. Jessica Henwick, who probably gets as much screentime as Reeves if not more and does an excellent job with it, is a lifelong fan of Neo and Trinity’s life/love story. She jacks into the Matrix, and convinces a hybrid of two wildly different codes drawn from opposing sources to join the human revolution. This code is Morpheus, and while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is one cool dude that gets to rock an impressive number of garish wardrobe changes throughout, he does tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Reeves said that outside of all the genre trappings, The Matrix Resurrections is a love story first and foremost, which is the easiest part of the narrative to follow. The machines have not only kept Neo and Trinity alive despite their apparent demises in Revolutions, but also kept them apart for the greater good. They both know that something is amiss in their mundane everyday existences, but it takes a second freeing of The One to set it in motion.
The two leads slip seamlessly back into their iconic roles, and they haven’t lost any of the spark that drove the trilogy. The Matrix Resurrections is ambitious to a fault, but it also has an infuriating habit of stopping its own momentum to unleash reams of dour exposition. While these exchanges are admittedly necessary in order to explain what the hell is actually going on, something you’ll be asking at regular intervals, it seriously harms the pace.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Matrix Resurrections is that when it abandons the meta angle, it all becomes rather familiar and mundane, which is a bit of an unexpected oxymoron given a central conceit that’s as wild as you’re likely to find. The cast are almost uniformly excellent across the board, though, so things never gut dull, with Jonathan Groff in particular showcasing a side of his onscreen personality you never would have thought existed.
You might end up rolling your eyes when you hear that Neil Patrick Harris’ Analyst has a black cat named Déjà Vu, and there’s a distinct possibility you’ll shake your head in resignation when the credits kick in with a cover version of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”, but if Wachowski and her creative team wanted to go all in on the madness, then that’s what they should have done.
Instead, we get a plot that moves its central figures from one location to the next, where at least one lengthy monologue will ensue, an action sequence will provide a jolt of excitement, and then it’s off the next walk/talk/shoot scenario. We were hoping that the set pieces would be suitably revolutionary and game-changing, but in the end they’re fine; completely solid but surprisingly unspectacular. Reeves appears to have spent a summer internship at the Benedict Cumberbatch School of Hand-Waving that recently served Spider-Man: No Way Home so well, but for someone with decades of martial arts experience, he doesn’t really get put to the test.
The greatest strength of The Matrix Resurrections is as a love story, without a doubt. You completely buy into the notion that Neo and Trinity would do anything to be together, but the rest of the key elements are a lot choppier. If it had continued down the bonkers smugness that defined the first act, then we could have been talking about something special.
Sadly, formula ultimately sets in and takes its place among the madness before eventually overpowering it, an indictment of the very thing the basic premise of the movie was trying to subvert in the first place. It’s a film of maddening contradictions, missed opportunities and half-taken risks, but it’s destined to be one of the year’s most polarizing and talked-about releases regardless.