Resurrecting a 20-year old franchise is no easy feat, especially when it comes to Wachowski’s seminal “Matrix” franchise. Technology has changed, and the visual impact and flare have also been altered with it. The production environment has changed too. Even the players on both sides of the camera have changed. Change, when used for good, can be a good thing. Unchecked change is a bad thing. A wise man once said, “My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow, its energy surrounds us, binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force flow around you.“ Change can unite us if we learn to accept it. Thus, the overriding question is, has Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix Resurrections” survived the change?
Thinking back twenty years to Spring 1999: As a senior in college and ready to be released into the world, The Wachowski’s unleashed “The Matrix” into cinemas. The film revolutionized special visual effects and blew minds the world over. Twenty-two years later, the journey that propelled Lana Wachowski and Carrie-Anne Moss and elevated Keanu Reeves into the stratosphere, return to the virtual world that blew my mind.
Or is it worlds?
Change is on Wachowski’s mind as she challenges us to open our minds to the truth once again. In the world of 1’s and 0’s, you can manipulate a program, have a helper available, but resources are not finite. In resurrecting the world of the Matrix, Wachowski, along with co-screenwriters David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, rewrite the rules.
Familiar elements populate the film in the sense of déjà vu; however, the trio isn’t necessarily pandering to their built-in audience; the future is also on their minds. A reference to Deus Machina exists within the film. It recognizes the reliance on touchstones from the first three films to allow the audience to reorient themselves while layering on context. Watching the original “The Matrix” would be helpful homework, as would “Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” however, enough regarding those three films is included in the movie so that you wouldn’t be lost. “The Matrix Resurrections” is not a ‘best-of’ story; however, it bleeds those lines, sometimes with significant effect and other times to underwhelming results. Striking the right balance in resurrecting a world requires adaptation and unplugging.
Original in concept, “The Matrix Resurrections” uniquely unplugs itself.
Thomas Anderson (Reeves) has been living a life of refuge in San Francisco. The screenwriters saw fit to turn the production aspects of the program in on itself in a cheeky way. We can laugh along with the characters as they realize the prophecies of the real-world elements. Reeves, who has since gone on to many other projects, relishes the opportunity to resurrect this character, the famous game developer going by the film’s namesake. In exemplifying current corporate mergers and acquisitions, Thomas and his business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff), are “asked” to write a new version of the game. At the same time, the rules have already been rewritten inside the Matrix, threatening the status quo. Neo is brought back into its fold by Morpheus, portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and newcomer Bugs played by Jessica Henwick.
Wachowski requires that you follow the proverbial white rabbit, in this case, Henwick’s Bugs (heh, I just got that joke!) down the rabbit hole. In resurrecting a modified world, the rules of what you know or don’t know about the Matrix have changed. Confusion amongst the audience is expected, yet the character-driven story carries us from point A to B and onward. Or, at least it should.
Idealistic, optimistic, defiant, and open to possibilities, Bugs serves as the audience’s guide to this story. In a bit of a lip curler, Henwick’s pivotal scene is marked with clever use of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” an ode to the “Alice in Wonderland” theme prevalent throughout the series. The net effect of her character is that she is ultimately sublimated to Neo, whom she looks to as the intended source, The One. Wachowski once again asks us to trust the vision in front of us, as frantic as it is.
Morpheus is resurrected too. If Bugs is our eyes and ears, Abdul-Mateen II’s Morpheus is our protector. Comparisons to Laurence Fishburne’s performance of yesterday are bound to happen; however, I would caution against that. Remember: the players might seem to operate with familiarity, but the rules have changed, and therefore, as accentuated through the use of flashback footage, we accept this Morpheus.
Resurrecting a villain can be such a chore. Just ask JJ Abrams. For this Matrix, gone is the dry, sneering, apathetic tone of Hugo Weaving’s Smith; the program has evolved beyond the original character in unexpected ways. While the intimidating nature of the surface remains, Groff makes it his own, getting points for his acting ability while losing ground matching wits with Reeves. The changes lack Weaving’s static charisma; this isn’t to say that Groff isn’t charming in his way. The rule-changing nature of resurrections shapes things to come.
Neil Patrick Harris’ The Analyst is the favored, new character. With his blue-rimmed glasses hanging on the bridge of his nose, The Analyst’s motivations are obvious, yet he is as analogous as the story implies. As Reeves’ character is referred to in the real world, he “pays a lot of good money” to get a handle on his reality; “Tom” is still too jacked into the Matrix to know the difference. It takes a leap of faith to recognize this.
Familiar faces are also resurrected. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe also makes a return appearance. War is no longer on the minds of the Matrix’s denizens; a truce and peace with the machines keep them all at bay. This Niobe is a source of strength, yet the crux of the story is that it seems non-committal, concerned with maintaining the status quo, a danger in evolution. Inwardly, Niobe is aware of the need for change; outwardly, she cannot commit to her feelings in the best interest of society, making for an exciting evolution of the character and her import to the story. This same struggle is reflected in all of the characters to one extent or another. Priyanka Chopra Jonas plays Sati, a key to the third act. The role ultimately feels ordained and underwhelming. The struggle to find the balance in a changed system is what keeps programmers up at night.
Our challenge with an unplugged “The Matrix Resurrections” is that the characters lead with obvious mannerisms, foreshadowing events. All these elements feel like a loose “Tron/Tron Legacy.” The critical difference is that there isn’t a Master Control Program in charge. With the rules changed, we are writing our own story, and Strangely, this works in “The Matrix Resurrections” favor, feeding into the story’s anomalous nature. “The Matrix Resurrections” is not as overtly religious as the first film. Gone too are that film’s alliterations, replaced with literal themes of today. The story still challenges notions of authority and transition. To get to these themes, we have to be willing to open our minds. Wachowski takes her attributes and integrates them onto Neo in sentimentality and grief.
Carrie-Anne Moss’s return as Trinity, carrying the film’s love theme between her and Neo, is the apex. The director pays particular attention to Reeves and Moss as another aspect of change. Wachowski’s reflectiveness is inherent in their scenes outside of the Matrix. There is an awkwardness as the two souls reconnect. The story throws it off with laughter; we know better. Neo and Trinity’s relationship is one of unity, their love for one another follows, strengthening our resolve for their story. That’s where “The Matrix Resurrections” works best – the characters make us believe that love will unite us all. Wachowski was quoted as saying, “…’bring these two people back to life, and oh, doesn’t that feel good?’ Yeah, it did! It’s simple and this is what art does and this is what stories do. They comfort us.”
Our eyes are drawn toward the screen, dazzled with the updated look by cinematographers Daniele Massaccesi and John Toll. At the same time, music by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer reminds us of Don Davis’ contribution and rule changes of their own. They are all unplugged from the Matrix. The question is, do you want to follow them down this rabbit hole?
The rules of Lana Wachowski’s world have changed, and “The Matrix Resurrections” changed its own rules. It succeeds in relying on familiar feeling characters while changing enough mythology to keep us on our toes, even as our toes get numb at the 125-minute mark (the film runs 148 minutes with an end credit sequence.)
Yet, my mind isn’t blown. Change is inevitable, I accept this. Wachowski’s direction and the special effects dazzle. “The Matrix Resurrections” runs a bit too long, and a few key characters are unbalanced; however, I am looking forward to where they take these characters next.
The Matrix Resurrections
Directed by Lana Wachowski
Written by Lana Wachowski & David Mitchell & Aleksandar Hemon, Based on Characters Created by Lilly Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Priyanka Chopra Jonas,
R, 148 minutes, Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures