Beyond a Trilogy
The Matrix Trilogy (1999 -2003) wrapped up almost two decades ago, closing off with a story that pretty much plonked a lid firmly upon the box of toys the Wachowski sisters fashioned for themselves. Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Morpheus’ (Laurence Fishburne’s) stories reached their definitive conclusions. This is perhaps why the announcement of a fourth instalment came as something as a shock following the Wachowski sisters’ efforts to bookend the franchise back in 2003. Neo and Trinity’s fate had been finalised, not to mention the war between man and machine that had come to pass as a result of their sacrifice. Lana Wachowski’s decision to return to the franchise that established her as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th Century was both a surprise and an appealing slice of news. What fresh ideas would she applying the Matrix cannon? Where did she intend to take the series going forward, and how on earth did she intend explain Neo and Trinity’s place in the story considering the pair of them were well and truly dead the last time we saw them?
The decision to transform the Matrix from a standalone into a trilogy about man versus machine was something of an odd move for the Wachowskis to make back in the early 2000s. Aside from the original movie technically not starting life out as a trilogy, the decision to deliver a conclusion to the wider political mechanics function as the debut feature’s backdrop felt a little unnecessary. The wider war between humanity and their mechanical prisoners never felt like a conflict that needed resolving. This was more of a backdrop for an innovative story to be told in. The elements that made The Matrix (1999) so staggeringly brilliant – breaking free from an oppressive system, ascending beyond the limits imposed upon our lead protagonist, all that gorgeous trans allegory, not to mention coming to terms with the illusions our characters were raised to perceive as reality – were far more interesting than the politics kicking off outside the simulation. Though the sequels offered some truly groundbreaking moments in terms of their action set pieces, their attempt to expand the scope of the first movie into that of a political drama felt as though it was obscuring the themes and characteristics that made its debut feature so fascinating. The Matrix always felt more interesting when it was telling isolated stories set within this mind-boggling simulation. This is perhaps for this reason why The Animatrix (2003) was such a blast by comparison to Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003).
During its promotional campaign, The Matrix Resurrections (2021) seemed to hint as though it was returning to that standalone type of story we got prior to the second and third feature films; an attempt to guide the story back into more interesting territory. Neo was back inside his digital prison, his otherworldly cheat codes had been stripped away, and the burning mystery surrounding his implausible resurrection lingered in the air. It felt like a sequel caked in mystery, intrigue and new ideas. It also looked to be set primarily within the digital walls of the Matrix simulation. In addition to a fresh new story separate from the bloated expansion of chapters two and three, the decision for just Lana to return as opposed to both her and her sister also gave this project a hint of detachment. While Lily had no intention of continuing a franchise she had no plans for, Lana’s choice to return two decades on suggested she had a more personal and intimate strand of ideas that she intended to explore. All of this topped off with a completely fresh colour palette established part four as an isolated story adrift from the original trilogy.
In some respects, The Matrix Resurrections lives up to this promise, particularly during the earlier portions of the film. As an audience, we have returned to a place less fixated on fictional politics, and more interested in exploring strange (and occasionally insane) ideas. While there are certainly moments in which the plot risks rehashing its earliest predecessor, the mystery surrounding Neo’s life as a games developer convinced his memories are a work of fiction is genuinely intriguing. Even with all the peculiar self-awareness that feels as though Lana is sticking her middle finger up at Warner Brothers, there’s a weirdness to all of this that feels exciting. We’re being thrust down a new rabbit hole, uncertain as to what is going on or where it is headed.
Gone are the days of squid-shaped machines throttling mech-suited humans with their metallic fists, gone are the tedious philosophical exchanges between heroes & pretentious programs, and gone are the days of rogue agents devouring entire populations. Resurrections opens with a story which feels more focused and less bloated.
At least kind of. It’s actually a little more complicated than that…
A Franchise Sized Tug-of-War
Some have labelled the Matrix Resurrections a mindless cash-grab lacking new ideas, a feature intent on mining elements from past movies which it repackages and recycles. Though there are certain characteristics throughout that feel as though Lana is relying on elements from the series’ past, I’m not so sure this is entirely the case. Like a lot of this director’s body of work, there seems to be something a lot stranger and intriguing going on here.
This film utilises déjà vu as a running occurrence, a glitch within the simulation that bridges the old version of the programme with that of the new. This emphasis on the past and present fusing into one another was something heavily alluded to during the promotional campaign for the film; going so far in one teaser as to having all four movies morph together, thanks to some remarkable editing. It was a trippy and visually impressive way to market the film.
Perhaps what’s most unusual about Resurrections, is the ways in which replication of past characters and characteristics are distorted throughout. Familiar elements present themselves, only for the film to then go out of its way to apply new skins and outcomes to those particular people or scenarios. Take the film’s opening as a case in point. As we begin, this scene operates as a direct replication of the Matrix. With exception to a new cast, everything from the lighting (sans green hue), camera angles, pacing, and script play out exactly as they did back in 1999. Before long, however, the scene begins to unravel, transforming itself into a completely dissimilar entity. What begins as a near shot-for-shot remake quickly becomes an entirely different subplot in which a hacker helps a Smith-Morpheus program break free. In many ways, this opening sequence establishes a theme that will recur throughout the entire movie. It’s a tug of war, both trying to be the same as its predecessors, while also transitioning those reflections into something completely different. We have heroes and villains from the past trilogy, only half of them have been recast. There are set pieces that almost look as though they’ve been ported over, only for said sequences to quickly veer off into something entirely different before they come to a close.
I don’t believe any of this is an accident, but an intentional refocusing of the story from remake to original. Early on in the movie, there is a moment in which Neo and a mind-wiped, reskinned agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) are discussing Warner Brother’s decision to make a fourth Matrix game. During this scene, Neo and Smith berate the studio, insisting the story is done. They don’t see a reason to continue a narrative that had a definitive conclusion. The problem is, Warner Brothers are going to make this movie…I mean game whether the creators like it or not. On the surface, this appears as though Lana Wachowski is making a self-referential gag at the Studio for demanding a fourth Matrix movie regardless of her involvement. If we muse over this a little, further, however, I’m of the opinion that something a little more peculiar is going on here.
I don’t think Lana is suggesting she’s been forced to make a movie she has no ideas for, but that the studio has their own ideas for a sequel that she’s unwilling to fully entertain. From a Studio’s point-of-view, they’d want this fourth Matrix instalment to tick all the same boxes that the first three did, essentially remaking all the best moments and characters everyone loved the first three times around. Yet from Lana’s perspective, if she’s going to make this movie, she’s going to want to bring something entirely dissimilar to the table; ideas that will essentially break the franchise away from the imagery that made the fist movie work 20-years prior. If Warner Brothers intended to bring the franchise back with or without Lana’s involvement, it’s safe to say they had their own ideas on how to execute this. Lana has other plans however, and spends a great deal of this movie attempting to communicate those ideas without unsettling the studio bosses. She’s hiding an original story behind an assortment of pop-culture hits. If we entertain this idea, then it could be argued that The Matrix Resurrection tells an original story from within a movie that will keep the producers content. It almost looks like a greatest hits real, except at the same time, it isn’t.
Much like Neo’s reflection shifting from familiar Thomas Anderson to elderly stranger, the Matrix Resurrections feels as though it’s morphing between what the studio wants it to be, and what Lana intends it to be. It’s a surreal technique that forces audience to continuously second guess what it is happening on the screen. Is this a rehash? Or is it an original piece of work? Two versions of storytelling are at war, the Wachowski’s initial vision, verses Lana’s contemporary take on the Matrix universe.
While there is an interesting strangeness to this technique, it’s one that does have a slightly negative impact on the film, particularly the more you mull over it. Upon first viewing, transitioning between the familiar and unfamiliar helps to create a sense of distortion, an uncertainty toward what the story is showing us against what it’s telling us. When you look back on the feature days after having first watched it, however, it does feel like a muddled mess that doesn’t quite fit together.
Creating a cocktail of the old and new just about works the first time around, however it’s a technique that just feels confused and muddled as time moves forward.
Action? What Action?
The Matrix Resurrections is packed with subversions. For every hint or echo at previous iterations of the franchise, a whole heap of additional circumstances line themselves up to distort what we already know about this franchise. This is particularly the case when it comes to the visual execution of the series. Not just in terms of the green-less colour palette applied this time around, but also the wider visual mechanics at play.
The Matrix really pushed the boat out in terms of how audiences understood western action cinema following its release at the end of the 90s. The level of commitment invested in the stunt work, the willingness to withhold editing fight sequences into quick-cut punch ups, and the implementation of bullet time into mainstream movie making set a precedent for future features to follow. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions releases furthered this feet in 2003, heightening the bar in terms of what CGI and large scale stunt work was capable of achieving within Hollywood cinema. When it comes to The Matrix Resurrections, unfortunately, we don’t quite get anything that pushes the envelope in such a spectacular manner.
Perhaps it would be unfair to expect Lana to raise the bar two decades after she’d already help accomplish such a remarkable achievement alongside her sister. Just because the first three Matrix movies wowed audiences upon release doesn’t mean all subsequent sequels have to do that too. Having said this, the fact that the Matrix series is on built upon dazzling set pieces and remarkable martial arts, I think it’s fair to suggest that a precedent has been set that is hard to ignore when those features are absent. Taking the breathtaking action out of this series is like taking the cheese off of pizza. Resurrections shouldn’t need to redefine what action cinema means for Hollywood going forward, but it could at least have put in the effort to give us at least a few bedazzling fight scenes.
I say this, because any action we do get in this film is mediocre at best. I’m not saying we don’t get action, but what action we do get is nothing to write home about. Unlike the first three films, there isn’t a single action sequence in here that I’m looking forward to revisiting. All the stunt work and craftsmanship that made the original trilogy so technically impressive is more or less absent. Even Neo barely gets so much as a fist fight in this one. Instead he spends a sizeable chunk of screen time defending himself by firing “force” blasts and holding off bullets. As for the big chase sequences, they mainly consist of CGI characters quite literally hurling themselves off buildings as our characters dodge them. This is far from the days of the Wachowskis building miles worth of freeway to conduct physic-defying chases upon.
Love Wins, A Lot
The mishmash of ideas filling up The Matrix Resurrection’s screen time is threaded together by the theme of Trinity and Neo’s love, not to mention the power that hides behind such a romantic connection. Perhaps one of the strongest features regarding both the original 1999 movie, and its less interesting 2003 followups, regards the chemistry and relationship held between these two characters. Lana Wachowski is clearly aware of this appeal, opting to shift it front and centre for the four chapter. What’s more is she’s able to add new dimensions to this subplot that manages to build upon it.
Ever wonder why Trinity’s first kiss with Neo is what allows him to shatter the obstacles put before him during The Matrix’s climax and enter God mode? Well, it transpires that the intense feelings of desire generated by these pair’s chemistry sets is enough to power a digital dystopia beyond anything conceived of in the technological world. In the intervening years between The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Resurrections, the machines have cottoned onto a way in which they can harness this power without turning their prisoner into superman. Basically, place the pair at a close distance and have them remain in a constant state of lust for all eternity. That way, the bomb doesn’t quite go off, yet the energy of such an ignition can be fed into the machine’s powerplants for external use in the real world.
This is a profoundly bizarre plot mechanic that works very well within this franchise. Using internal worlds to power external sources is at the heart of this series. Therefore, having Neo and Trinity’s unrequited love serve as a source for the machines to feed off is a narrative decision that ties in quite comfortably with everything going on in this line up of movies. It also gives this film a focus and consistency that otherwise wouldn’t be there if this subplot had been jettisoned. It’s the glue that holds this feature together. To be honest, it’s the glue that holds this entire franchise together.
Though some may roll their eyes at the love conquers all ending, having Neo and Trinity’s embrace serve as the conclusion to this story makes a lot of narrative sense. The entire movie has constructed an argument behind the importance of these two character’s in relation to one another. It’s an argument that pays off during the final moments of the movie. While seeing Neo and Trinity zipping through the sky like two Marvel characters may look a little ridiculous, yet to suggest this final is plucked out of thin air is somewhat unfair.
The Matrix Ressurrections is a film teaming with intriguing ideas. I’m adamant that Lana Wachowski has more story to tell within this universe. The game within a simulation narrative, Neo and Trinity’s unrequeted romance burning brighter than digital furnaces, familiar imagery remorphing itself into unfamiliar shapes, and mechanical civil wars make this a movie bristling with vision. It’s also a feature that’s muddled, messy and lacking, so much so, a lot of people are going to have a hard time sticking with this one.
I adore the ambition of the movie. I also find myself frustrated that such ambition never manages to properly take off at any stage. This is a film that opens strong, weaves between being fascinating and mediocre as its runtime progresses, then fissles out during its climactic moments. This is essentially the cinematic equivalent of someone letting off an untied balloon at a party. It’s up, it’s down, it’s doing summersalts around the fondue mountain. Yet like all deflating balloons, sooner or later it’s destined to end up a lifeless heap upon the buffet table.
It’s brave enough to stand apart from the original trilogy it was born from, yet it fails to capture the same ingenuity of it either. Is this a sequel that stands on its own, or is it one that’s obscured by the colossal shadows cast by its predecessors? For every great idea, a slightly naff one waits around the corner. For every promise of raising the bar to new heights, an uninspiring action sequence reminds us of the game changing showmanship we saw last time around.
In terms of its story, I find this considerably more interesting than the second and third chapters in this series. From a film-making standpoint, it’s lightyears less interesting than any of the other instalments. If we look at this in context to the wider franchise, it’s a disappointing attempt to establish an identity it never quite manages to execute.
A fascinating disappointment that will intrigue some, but will likely frustrate most.