When George Lucas chose to prolong his Star Wars trilogy with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he did so with the knowledge that there was intense fan demand and, crucially, more story to tell. That’s not the case with The Matrix series, whose original (premiering the same year as Lucas’ prequel, and stealing much of its thunder) remains hugely influential for its bullet-time effects and red pill simulation-theory fantasy, but whose severely underwhelming sequels ended both its tale and widespread franchise interest.
Thus, The Matrix Resurrections (Dec. 22, in theaters and on HBO Max) arrives on a wave of middling excitement due to a lack of perceived purpose. As it turns out, there’s good reason for that attitude: devoid of its trademark style, action and depth, it’s a pointless follow-up that falls back on cheeky self-referentiality in order to justify its existence.
Most of The Matrix Resurrections’ meta shenanigans are confined to its early going, highlighted by corporate bigwig Smith (Jonathan Groff) explaining to his game-designer business partner Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) that Warner Bros is going to make a fourth installment in their hit The Matrix video game series with or without their participation, so they may as well get on board with the project. Anderson’s video game smash is, as one might expect from this set-up, based on the events of the first three Matrix movies, although we never see the actual interactive title; instead, it’s depicted as literal scenes from the cinematic works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski. No matter. What’s front-and-center during these initial passages is game developers dissecting the many things (bullet-time, metaphors, ultra-violence) that made the franchise so popular in the first place.
This plays as more gratingly cutesy than clever, but at least it adds a temporary new wrinkle to a well-worn template. As directed solely by Lana Wachowski (who co-wrote the script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon), The Matrix Resurrections wants to play with the nature of Anderson’s reality, which he himself is struggling with, mainly in therapy sessions with an analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) that focus on a prior suicide attempt born from his guiding belief that The Matrix is less a product of his imagination than a memory. As if that weren’t enough of a mystery for the film to spin, it also presents us with a prologue vision of a badass named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) who, while in the Matrix, has a run-in with an agent (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that leads them to Anderson’s old apartment. In the blink of an eye, Abdul-Mateen II’s character is revealed to be Morpheus, the true-believer played by Laurence Fishburne in the initial trilogy. But even that’s not quite right; talk of modals and programming imply he’s some sort of synthetic variation on Fishburne’s guru.
The Matrix Resurrections moves at a blistering clip from the start, and there’s some exhilaration to be had from being bombarded with names, faces, facts and scenarios that feel like alternate-universe takes on bedrock Matrix material. Yet beneath its bewildering surface, Wachowski’s film remains a predictable contraption predicated on the unavoidable fact that Anderson really is Neo, and that he’s somehow found himself re-imprisoned in the Matrix by Earth’s machine overlords. How that scenario came to be—given that Neo apparently died at the end of The Matrix Revolutions—isn’t explained until much later into the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. More frustrating, though, is that the answer to this question is handled as hastily as everything else in this muddled saga, which has a fondness for explaining convoluted post-Revolutions events with great big gobs of semi-coherent exposition.
Anderson eventually embraces his inner Neo, thereby facilitating the film’s trips to the “real world,” where humans now live in a giant metropolis that’s far more advanced than their previous safe haven Zion. As before, every time The Matrix Resurrections departs the Matrix for this grim mecha-planet, all traces of wonder, liveliness and thrills promptly vanish; the best that can be said about red-pilled humanity is that it appears to have gotten over the impulse to stage embarrassing cave raves. Thankfully, Neo spends less time in this realm—which is overseen by a familiar face in so-so old-age makeup—than he does partnering with Bugs and her crew on a mission to free Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) from enslavement. This requires unhooking her from her gooey hose chamber as well as opening her eyes in the Matrix, where she’s living as a wife and mother whom Anderson semi-stalks at a coffee shop called, wink-wink, Simulatte.
This requires unhooking her from her gooey hose chamber as well as opening her eyes in the Matrix, where she’s living as a wife and mother whom Anderson semi-stalks at a coffee shop called, wink-wink, Simulatte.
While some of this might have read as crafty on the page, in practice, The Matrix Resurrections is an unwieldy beast that itself has forgotten what made its sci-fi reverie unique and captivating in the first place. From Bugs (who’s named after the Looney Tunes bunny), to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” to the sight of an Alice in Wonderland book—not to mention the literal looking-glass portals through which Neo and company now leap (phones are so 1999)—Wachowski hammers home her allusions. She does likewise with her thematic preoccupations with binaries (free will and destiny, fact and fiction, conscious and unconscious, desire and fear) and with the overarching notion that stories become real when they profoundly stir one’s heart and mind. These elements aren’t dramatized as much as bluntly articulated in between fleet martial-arts skirmishes and massive shootouts, and they strain to lend these proceedings a modicum of import.
In the process, The Matrix Resurrections ditches just about everything iconic about the franchise. Gone are the elaborately and immaculately choreographed combat set pieces, here replaced by borderline-incoherent herky-jerky action punctuated by a plethora of slow-motion shots. Even more sorely missed is Hugo Weaving’s overly enunciating Agent Smith, the embodiment of the entire affair’s evil, as well as a measure of truly momentous dramatic stakes. While Groff and Harris do their best to put new twists on well-known figures, they—like everything in this unnecessary sequel—come across as wan facsimiles rather than rousing upgrades. Reprising their famous roles, Reeves and Moss are at least able to rekindle a bit of the romantic spark they once shared. Alas, for the most part, they’re envisioned not as complex flesh-and-blood heroes but as pawns for Wachowski’s whirligig wannabe-philosophical mayhem. Incapable of vitally expanding the series’ ideas and form, it’s a film that’s less the one than a zero.