Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix Resurrections” is proof that two Wachowskis are better than one.
I can’t blame the disappointment of the fourth “Matrix” entirely on the absence of Lana’s sister and frequent collaborator/ co-director Lily Wachowski. Nor are the film’s many shortcomings entirely that of Lana Wachowski, as the first “Matrix” film since 2003 is rich with ideas, visual beauty and potential, at least initially.
Keanu Reeves returns but not as Neo, but John Anderson, the hacker character we first met at the beginning of “The Matrix” (1999). The spoilers will be mild, but the general idea is this – is Anderson really Neo, trapped in the persona of a video game creator, or is Anderson’s belief in The Matrix actually a form of madness setting in?
Anderson discusses his deteriorating mental state with his psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris), who makes a persuasive case that the events of the prior three films are all a delusion that Anderson used to create games.
It’s a great set up, though its highly advised that you see all three of the previous installments first, as there are multiple flashbacks, character reprises and plot strands that come up and require franchise familiarity.
On the other hand, the opening scene, which I won’t describe, features this unfortunate line: “So déjà vu, yet it’s obviously all wrong.” Oh no, the screenwriters are writing my review for me? Whoa.
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The first act of “The Matrix Resurrections” is overloaded with reflexive self-commentary, with scenes of numbskulls in suits sitting around, discussing the impact of “The Matrix” as a video game phenomenon.
These scenes feel uncomfortably like the boardroom scenes in this year’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” There’s an intriguing montage, set fittingly to Jefferson Starship’s “White Rabbit” (the first of many Lewis Carroll references made here), showing how Anderson must endure dozens of dumb but enthusiastic young people blathering endlessly about “The Matrix.”
This sequence is probably about what it was like to be a Wachowski in 1999 and every day since. The meta quality of these scenes is too on the nose, as is the dialog (someone says later that “nothing conquers anxiety like a little nostalgia.” Is the movie talking directly to me?).
A logic problem that pops up around this time – the movie is telling us that scenes from the first movie are displayed here as examples of “The Matrix” videogame that Anderson became acclaimed for creating in 1999. Fine, except no video game in ’99 looked as good as any scene from that movie.
Once Anderson finally goes down the rabbit hole, the “little nostalgia” hit we’re promised doesn’t really arrive. The fight scenes have that herky-jerky editing we’re used to from bad action movies, like “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.”
There’s lots of awkward, old-school uses of slow-motion and rippling fades that have no place in a “Matrix” film. The fight scenes here are not on the level with the earlier films. At one point, Reeves delivers multiple drive-by punching from a motorcycle, which is not the same as the astonishing motorcycle sword fight from the third “John Wick.”
There are also lesser recreations of classic scenes and repeated lines from the first movie (yep, Keanu says “Whoa” again. Are you excited yet?).
Of the philosophical ideas this circles around, I liked this question: “are memories turned into fiction less real?”
Regarding the new supporting characters, I liked Bugs (Jessica Henwick) but I often looked at the new crew and wondered, who are these people? As in the prior sequels, characters reappear but are embodied by new actors (the “Bane” angle in the third film was an especially infuriating example of this).
Here, we have a “new” Morpheus, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, an actor I love but is absolutely no substitute in any way for a sorely missed Laurence Fishburne. Lambert Wilson’s cameo as The Merovingian is a real embarrassment.
Harris is very good in this and Jada Pinkett Smith, returning as Niobe, brings a real gravity to her scenes (nearly as unrecognizable as Smith is Christina Ricci in a quick cameo).
There are some beautiful moments and it’s not an all-out disaster like “Jupiter Ascending” but there’s no performance, action sequence or even a main concept to center it. It’s all over the place, as the self-aware commentary of the first hour is abandoned by the second act and the story is something of a muddle.
This feels much smaller than the other “Matrix” films and emerges an oddball sequel that, at best, is quite different from its predecessors.
We interviewed Carrie-Anne Moss, who played Trinity in “The Matrix,” about returning to the role years later for the new sequel: “It was important to me that I let go of any construct in my mind that I needed to look like I did when I was 30.” https://t.co/ysMTZKSa73
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 22, 2021
The comparison of the old and new hurts, as the 1999 original, the second film from the Wachowskis (their first was the brilliant “Bound” from 1996), remains essentially perfect and unmatched. The first “Matrix” isn’t just a great movie but has barely a moment that doesn’t feel iconic.
The visual effects are still astonishing but so are the fight scenes. “The Matrix” is still one of the all-time best American martial arts films. Whether we’re talking about the Don Davis score, the song cuts from the soundtrack or the integration of both, even the music is major asset.
It plays more as a meditation on religion and the mindset of becoming part of a religious movement (or cult) than I remembered. The faith of Fishburne’s Morpheus and his dangerous belief in Neo as “The One” provided a satisfying hook.
Even the scenes of heavy exposition and world building feel right – this is everything a modern day Marvel movie is, except it has the edge of an R-rating, creative freedom and a willingness to take its premise as far as it could go.
The wildly ambitious “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003) got off to a wobbly start and never course corrected itself. Of all things, the movie is crazy horny, from the infamous Zion rave to the irredeemable moment, in which a woman in a restaurant gets, let’s just say, “excited” and the CGI actually visualizes it.
There’s dialog between Neo and the Oracle that is a thoughtful picking apart of the concept of free will versus predestination. It’s the lone philosophical angle here that clicks.
Otherwise, the “Burly Brawl” goes on far too long and so does the impressive but numbing car chase. Wilson first played The Merovingian in “The Matrix Reloaded,” perhaps the most stereotypical Frenchman in American cinema. The bit with Monica Bellucci, in which her femme fatale comes on to Neo in a restroom (!) is, likewise, incredibly awkward and stalls a movie that badly needed to jumpstart itself back to life.
Even the music is off, with the techno beats sounding generic, unlike the thrilling blast of the original soundtrack.
Then, very late in the film, comes the Architect scene – has there ever been a pivotal sequence in a lavish, major motion picture that has bombed harder than this? The character should have been a young punk kid or even Thomas Anderson himself (whoa!). Instead, the actor and character never connect and the sheer pomposity is off the charts.
The third “The Matrix Revolutions” (which opened at the end of 2003) is mostly more of the same but actually picks up substantially when Smith unexpectedly takes center stage, and a giant robot battle successfully builds excitement and even pulls the neat trick of making us forget about Neo and Trinity for about 10-minutes.
The middle of “The Matrix Revolutions” is rousing, as is the decision to make Neo vulnerable (after the second film had him impenetrable, indifferent, and mostly flying around). Still, the jarringly anticlimactic finish felt like a slap in the face.
It seemed like the Wachowskis wanted to keep their concepts and the philosophical depths of their world a closely guarded secret, as some of the bigger moments and characters remained vague.
Now, with “The Matrix Resurrections,” the combo of wonder and frustration of the second and third film are back. What isn’t is how the original connected with the zeitgeist (this is movie about its creators looking back on what made their first installment so good).
The high standards of the three films, even with the painfully uneven sequels, provided still-impressive fight scenes with seemingly pain staking choreography, dreamlike visual effects and an exploration on how the world we live in is, on some level, a sham. “The Matrix” connected to its audience’s paranoia and craving fresh sci-fi profoundly, whereas the sequels and now “The Matrix Resurrections” are too happy to hand us the blue pill of comfort, whereas we long for and still deserve the red pill of a radical awakening.