This piece will contain spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections
“It’s all about fiction. The only world that matters is the one In here (gesturing at Neo’s head)” – The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris)
This will not be a review of The Matrix Resurrections. Headstuff already has one of those. Suffice to say however, I love the film. I love it as a purely enjoyable viewing experience. I have seen it twice on the big screen and I’m sure it will enter my regular home viewing rotation like the first film and to a lesser degree Reloaded and Revolutions did. I think it is one of the most audacious entries in a blockbuster franchise I have seen. As I will discuss later, it both interrogates nostalgia and indulges in it.
If you don’t understand the tone of the film, contrast the closing of the original film and Resurrections. The Matrix ends with Neo, having rejected his identity as Thomas Anderson and embraced his status as “The One”, flying into the sky to the incendiary strains of Wake Up by Rage Against The Machine. The ending of Resurrections is a deliberate mirror, with Neo and Trinity flying away to a brass cover of Wake Up by Brass Against (yes that Brass Against). The cover is playful and – like most “novelty” covers- could be construed as gimmicky if it didn’t undeniably slap. The use of the cover seems a deliberate wink, as if to say “this is sincere but I’m not taking it too seriously”.
This piece will not be a rebuttal to any particular negative reviews of the film. I understand many of the reasons why those reviewers dislike or are frustrated by Resurrections. Many of these reasons are aspects of this film I love (for example the “unsubtle” writing like Lana naming a coffee shop in the Matrix “Simulatte”.) What I fundamentally reject, however, is any suggestions the film is a cynical cash grab. You see, The Matrix Resurrections was borne out of grief.
“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia”- Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)
By all accounts the Wachowski sisters had been consistently approached by Warner Bros with offers to make more films since soon after Revolutions. They refused every time, because they felt the story had been told. Writer Zak Penn had even pitched a new film in the universe. What changed Lana’s mind (this film is the first solo Lana Wachowski joint) was tragedy in her own life. The sisters lost both parents within a short period of time and Lana lost a close friend too. Lana was confronted with the feeling that the people she would want to talk to about this loss, were the ones who were gone. Lana said “My brain has always reached into my imagination. And one night, I was just crying and couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, my brain exploded this whole story and I couldn’t have my mom and dad. I couldn’t talk to my mom and yet, suddenly, I had Neo and Trinity — arguably the two most important characters in my life — and it was immediately comforting to have these two characters alive again”.
The depression associated with grief is palatable in the bravura “white rabbit sequence”. This is a montage (set to the Jefferson Airplane song) of Thomas Anderson sleepwalking through his life, dealing with employees of the game company he works at constantly repeating themselves. The feeling of dissociation is well captured.
Whilst The Matrix Resurrections was announced and began filming before we had any conception of the effect the Corona Virus would have, I can’t help but feel it’s given the film an added relevance. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are, as a society, dealing with collective trauma. At times during lockdown we all felt like Thomas Anderson repeating the same day over and over. My Headstuff colleague wondered who wanted this film but I feel I have demonstrated that many did, myself included (to say nothing of the feverish anticipation amongst the transgender cineaste community.) The Matrix films took on an added relevance for me in the last few years, and as we entered the end of the second year of the pandemic I, like Lana, yearned for the comfort of seeing my old friends from The Matrix. They say you can’t go home again, but art allows us to do that.
So what separates The Matrix Resurrections from, say, something like Ghostbusters Afterlife which I found to be a shallow exercise in nostalgia? Well, firstly I honestly care about The Matrix world far more than that of Ghostbusters. That’s a personal bias I’m happy to admit. More significantly though, Resurrections is also a meditation on the “legacy sequel”, and more generally the space we are at culturally.
In the film we begin with Neo back in the Matrix, once again living his life as Thomas Anderson. This time however he is the creator of a cult trilogy of video games called The Matrix. Footage from the original Matrix is used constantly throughout the opening section of the film as if it is footage of the games, even projected in a sequence mirroring Neo’s initial meeting with Morpheus. Neo is working on a new game called Binary.
Agent Smith has been placed in this new Matrix in the body of Jonathan Groff’s “Smith”, Neo’s business partner in the game company. In a moment so metatextual it still makes me laugh, Groff informs Neo that their parent company – Warner Bros – is demanding another Matrix game. Neo is disheartened but he is informed the company can make the game with or without them and their contract will be killed if they don’t collaborate. This is the moment where many people check out of the film.
“I know you said the story was over for you, but that’s the thing about stories… they never really end do they? We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told, just with different names… faces” – Smith (Jonathan Groff)
The “white rabbit” sequence features repetitive scenes of brainstorming sessions where company employees repeatedly discuss market research, what people want from a new Matrix game and what was special about the original. The decor of the corporate spaces they take place in – the IKEA showroom aesthetic, the foosball table – perfectly capture the kind of artificial joviality modern tech companies aim to project. It contrasts with the dim office space Neo occupies at the start of the original film, the signature MS DOS green tint of the original trilogy is absent in lieu of a sleeker “web 2.0” aesthetic.
This sequence can be seen as both a comment on reboot culture, on the need to justify returning to stories like The Matrix, and on the frustration Lana felt having her own heartfelt work so wildly and frequently misunderstood. Since the first film’s release it has been blamed for the Columbine massacre, and appropriated by the alt right and Incel communities, bastardising the message of unity I see across the original trilogy (for balance, greater minds than I have written at length about the film’s reevaluation as a trans text.) In essence, Neo is having his work taken away from him by having others postulate on what his creation is about, which is clearly an experience Lana has had.
It’s revealed that The Analyst (Neil Patrick) is the creator of this new iteration of The Matrix and has been posing as Neo’s therapist. He orchestrated the machines resurrecting Neo and Trinity after their deaths in Revolutions, and placed them back in the pods. There is one particularly gnarly sequence where we see the machines physically recreating Neo and Trinity (leaning into the body horror arena the series has occasionally played in). The strain of characters and franchises being continually resurrected to satisfy public demand, or need of the market is here literally represented in a gruesome physical form. We are forced to imagine the existential nightmare the constant reboot cycle would cause, were the characters real. I’ve never seen a sequel explore its reasons for existing like this.
This makes the film sound like it’s guilty of the cynicism I have passionately denied is in its DNA. The film is, however, beautifully heartfelt. The Wachowskis’ post-Matrix films are radically sincere, something which is certainly unfashionable. Critics sometimes seem to regard it as unsophisticated to have your metaphors and message so easily read. This may be because the sisters (and now Lana) didn’t want their work to be so awfully misinterpreted again.
A common theme across their work, be it The Matrix , Sense8 or Cloud Atlas is a desire to represent the human race as one, that we are all connected. This is reflected in the casting of The Matrix, which was diverse for the time (and yes, the racial representation in Cloud Atlas is problematic but that’s another discussion.) In this film it is the love between Neo and Trinity that is essential to keeping the Matrix running. What can be more sincere than that?
One of the powers of fiction is that it allows us to imagine the world the way we wished it could be, letting us see our loved ones who have passed. Lana says it best, explaining the importance of stories by saying:
“You can look at it and say “Okay, these two people die, and okay, 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 and they’re important.”
The Matrix Resurrections is playing in cinemas now