It’s been 18 years since the Wachowskis ended the blockbuster motion picture trilogy “The Matrix” with an epic finale in which Keanu Reeves’ hero Neo broke an endless cycle of death and rebirth, war and subjugation, fiction and reality, through what the series argued was humanity’s greatest power — free will.
So it’s pretty darned ironic that the long-awaited follow-up, “The Matrix Resurrections,” feels like it was something Lana Wachowski has been forced to do, whether she liked it or not. And if that sounds like projecting, consider this: It’s the biggest plot point in the whole film.
“The Matrix Resurrections” stars Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson, who created an enormously successful video game called “The Matrix” 20 years ago, revolutionizing the industry and shooting him to superstardom. Now he’s hard at work on a brand new project called “Binary” when his business partner, played by Jonathan Groff, announces that their parent company Warner Bros. isn’t interested in new intellectual properties. They just want to make another “Matrix,” and they’ll do it without the original creator if they have to.
So Anderson gets to work on a brand-new “Matrix” with a team of young designers and marketing experts, who can’t seem to agree on what made “The Matrix” work in the first place. And it starts eating away at Anderson’s sanity. He starts experiencing panic attacks, and his analyst, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is starting to worry that Anderson is losing his ability to distinguish between reality and fiction.
For a while it seems as though “Resurrections” is a gigantic blockbuster amalgam of “8 1/2,” “Total Recall” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” And if that’s not a selling point, then what the hell is? But eventually, Lana Wachowski, reunited with her “Sense8” finale co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, settles in for a proper “Matrix” story that introduces new characters, like the instantly iconic new hero Bugs, played by Jessica Henwick (“Love and Monsters”), and a rebooted version of Morpheus played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Candyman”). It also revisits old storylines and characters and sets the stage for future adventures in this dystopian sci-fi wonderland. If that’s what people really want.
There are brand new concepts floating around in “The Matrix Resurrections” about how machines interact with humans in the fallout of the original series, what became of the city of Zion, and why the Matrix itself is still up and running after all these years. Many of these ideas are genuinely fascinating but few, if any, are explored or even explained particularly well. A good chunk of the latest “Matrix” plays like a sightseeing tour with a guide whose shift is just about to end, who simply wants to wave at points of interest and get the heck out of there.
“Resurrections” never entirely abandons the self-aware commentary on its own existence — there’s one character who mostly screams profanity, and they end up using words like “sequel” and “reboot” in place of f-bombs — but the film’s second half basically throws up its hands and drops all questions of whether this is really happening or if poor Thomas Anderson has merely lost touch with reality. At that point, you’re either enjoying the nostalgia trip or, if you’re dissatisfied, you can at least take some solace in knowing that the movie itself also thinks that going back to “The Matrix” was a bad idea.
Setting aside the film’s ambitions or excuses, “The Matrix Resurrections” is one of the most sumptuously photographed major productions in recent memory, with eye-popping color palettes and an impeccable sense of style. Directors of photography John Toll and Daniele Massaccesi (both frequent Wachowski collaborators) paint a world against which all these broadly drawn characters can pop, and the unbelievably fabulous costumes by Lindsay Pugh (“Juliet, Naked”) add a modern flair to the iconic 1990s styles of the originals.
Frustratingly, it’s the film’s editing that’s often its undoing. After the “Matrix” franchise raised the bar for big-budget action sequences, even in the less popular sequels, “Resurrections” too often falls prey to choppy and indistinct fight choreography and shootouts. Conceptually, everything that’s happening is — if you’ll forgive the technical term — “badass,” but the sequential clarity that elevated the freeway chase in “The Matrix Reloaded,” or any of the original trilogy’s unforgettable martial-arts fights, is missing in 2021.
But there’s one thing “The Matrix Resurrections” has that none of the original films can boast, and that’s a genuinely believable relationship between Neo/Thomas Anderson and Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. The new film’s off-kilter storytelling style gives Reeves and Moss something they never had before: a chance to talk for a few minutes, and to establish a meaningful connection. Neo and Trinity’s love in the first film was little more than a plot point, and never an entirely convincing one, and in “Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” the story moved so quickly that all the Wachowskis had time to do was to marvel at their heroes’ sex life. And, apparently, it was really, really great, but that’s not the same as building a relationship based on interpersonal chemistry.
If “The Matrix Resurrections” does nothing else, it gives Neo and Trinity’s love story more depth and power than ever before, retroactively improving the original films by solidifying, once and for all, that their bond was more than just physical. The rest of the film’s sci-fi plot seems largely incidental and, frankly, a little forced. This story was resolved in “The Matrix Revolutions.” It took a lot of time and effort that, perhaps, as the film itself argues, would have been better spent elsewhere.
But if we absolutely must have another “Matrix” movie, if we can’t just let it be, then let it be this weird one. Let it be a film with an existential crisis. Let it be a film that’s half a nostalgia cash-in and half a biopic about a filmmaker who’s forced to make a nostalgia cash-in. Let “The Matrix Resurrections” leave fans half-satisfied and wondering if maybe the fan-service system in which Hollywood has invested for so many decades is itself just another Matrix — keeping the throngs content with low-risk throwbacks and preventing audiences from getting brand-new and truly ambitious stories that push the medium and the culture forward.
You know, movies like “The Matrix.”
“The Matrix Resurrections” opens in US theaters and on HBO Max Dec. 22.