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"Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia," Morpheus says in The Matrix Resurrections. That's a not-so-subtle dig at the onslaught of reboots and remakes dominating our culture — revisiting characters and stories we already know is, well, safe. Audiences know what to expect, and it's a better bet for risk-averse studios. Of course, Morpheus (now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen) is also commenting on the film he's in.
More than twenty years after The Matrix fundamentally reshaped genre cinema, director Lana Wachowski is finally diving back into the universe that made her and co-director Lilly Wachowski renowned. After all that time, is it really worth going back down the rabbit hole, or is this just another easy franchise cash-grab?
The answer to that question depends on what you want from a Matrix sequel. Like The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions before it, Wachowski (along with co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksander Hemon) isn't interested in merely retreading the past with Resurrections. Instead, it's a film that's keenly aware of its legacy, our relationship with its characters, and the lofty expectations that fans (and studios!) have when rebooting a beloved property.
As someone who adored the original film, and found plenty to respect in the much-maligned sequels, Resurrections feels made just for me. It's intoxicating, thrilling and unabashedly romantic. But judging from the polarizing early critical responses, it's clearly not for everyone.
Minor spoilers ahead.
It's hard to talk about what The Matrix Resurrections is without describing its basic setup, most of which you can gather from the film's trailers. Keanu Reeves returns as Thomas Anderson, a programmer adrift in a world that doesn't quite make sense to him. He meets a woman played by Carrie-Anne Moss, but this time she's not the Agent-whupping bad-ass Trinity, she's just your typical (albeit, strikingly beautiful) mom. The two feel an instant connection. Thomas eventually gets ripped out of the world he's in thanks to a plucky new character named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), he finds the real world, and yadda yadda, you get the picture.
Now, you might be asking yourself, "Didn't Neo and Trinity die in The Matrix Revolutions?" All I can do is point at the title of the movie — what did you expect? This time, Anderson is a renowned game developer known for creating an popular trilogy of games that retell the entire Matrix story. When we first meet him, he's faced with a new challenge: making a fourth entry. He approaches it with the same sense of dread the Wachowskis likely felt about tackling a potential Matrix 4. A series of brainstorming scenes feel as if they're pulled directly from their own hellish meetings with Warner Bros. Anderson's team can only focus on the surface — How do they go beyond bullet time? What if they just focus on more mindless action? — rather than anything truly substantive.
As the film unfolds (and don't worry, I'm not revealing any major surprises), it's impressive how Lana Wachowski elegantly avoids the traps most reboots fall into, as if she were in the Matrix herself, deftly avoiding all of the bullets aimed right at her. Sure, Resurrections brings some new special effects toys to the party, and it has the requisite action scenes you'd expect. But in many ways it's more reminiscent of the Wachowski's recent works, like the time-hopping epic Cloud Atlas, and the unabashedly humanistic Sense8.
The Matrix Resurrections wears its heart on its sleeve. It's far more interested in the transcendental possibilities of love than it is in laying the groundwork for a new trilogy of films. The fact that Wachowski is practically refusing to play by the current rules of Hollywood – set up the sequel by any means necessary! – feels almost revolutionary. She has one story to tell, and it means a lot to her. That’s it.
Strangely enough, the movie Resurrections reminds me of most is Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare, a groundbreaking attempt at wrestling with a hugely popular genre franchise. That film – the seventh A Nightmare on Elm Street entry – brought Freddy Krueger into the real world to reclaim what made him terrifying. Throughout The Matrix Resurrections, it feels as if Wachowski is also ready to break the fourth wall with her sheer contempt for reboots, fan service and watered-down sequels. “The sheeple want control, certainty,” a villain says at one point. (At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the utter failure of The Rise of Skywalker. Yes, the wound is still fresh.)
And this is where I come back to saying this movie isn’t for everyone. But that just makes it a Matrix sequel. Sure, Reloaded and Revolutions were a bit overstuffed and convoluted, but they were also singular visions that took some major swings. (I’m still chasing the high of seeing Reloaded’s sprawling highway chase for the first time.)
Geek cinema has taken over the world, yet aside from Christopher Nolan’s work, it’s rare to see big-budget filmmaking that isn’t beholden to some major corporation’s franchise rules (and at this point, that’s usually just Disney). The Matrix Resurrections says “to hell with the rules!”, and I applaud it.