Taking the red pill and the blue pill
Hollywood is awash with nostalgia nowadays. From churning out live-action remakes of classic Disney animated movies to rebooting iconic film franchises with new instalments – we’re looking at you, Star Wars and Star Trek – studio executives and audiences seemingly can’t get enough of retelling stories that we’ve seen and heard before.
For two decades, The Matrix had been immune to suffering a similar fate. But, with studios keen to tap into fan nostalgia by any means necessary, the iconic and ground-breaking sci-fi film series has become the latest property to receive the reboot treatment, albeit of the ‘soft revamp’ variety.
The result is The Matrix Resurrections, an evocative and fan service-fuelled sequel to 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions that reunites us with beloved characters including Neo and Morpheus. With the original Matrix trilogy telling a complete story, however, is a fourth movie necessary? And, perhaps more importantly, given the middling-to-poor reception that the last two films received, is it actually any good?
Thankfully, The Matrix Resurrections is a satisfyingly good movie. Its evolution of The Matrix’s story, its new characters and its exploration of novel themes are married with a nostalgic re-tread of what came before. However, as a by-product of how the movie industry has moved on since the original film’s 1999 release, it isn’t the game-changing spectacle that many fans might have hoped for.
Set 20 years after The Matrix Revolutions, Resurrections finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) – who is going by his real name, Thomas Anderson, again – living a seemingly normal and mundane life as a San Francisco-based video game programmer. Neo, though, is plagued by hallucinations of his former life in the Matrix, and it’s only through a prescription of blue pills and regular visits to The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), a shadowy therapist, that he’s able to maintain his grip on reality.
But a chance encounter with a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss), who bears a striking resemblance to his deceased lover Trinity, causes Neo’s world to fully unravel. And, when his former mentor Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) suddenly re-enters his life, Neo is forced to confront reality: the Matrix is real, and its band of rebels need his help.
If the final part of that plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically the synopsis for 1999’s The Matrix movie.
Once more, Neo and company must tackle a foe that has supposedly enslaved humanity in the Matrix – much as the machines did in the original film. Again, Neo must make a choice between learning the truth about the Matrix (take the red pill), or going back to his life as a video game programmer (take the blue pill). And, as in the series’ first movie, he must unlock his powers and help to overthrow the Matrix’s current Machiavellian overlord.
So The Matrix Resurrections isn’t shy about reminding us of what came before – and not only through its main plot points, but also from a visual perspective.
Footage from the previous three films is regularly (and smartly) spliced together with Resurrections’ new footage, lending an unsettling and illusory feel to proceedings. The effect is two-fold: to emphasize that the Matrix is an ever-evolving, cyclical world, and to give us a curious insight into how Neo’s mind operates in this ‘new reality’. This dualism largely works well, especially when it’s used in combination to show the blurred lines between what Neo thinks is real and what’s actually real, and the existential crisis he endures until his mind is freed in the film’s second act.
Where Resurrections gets too clever for its own good, though, is in its propensity to lean heavily into meta territory.
The constant callbacks and references to previous Matrix movies eventually become tiresome, but they’re nothing compared to the overbearing self-awareness that’s employed at various points. The Matrix itself is used as the inspiration for the game that Neo is helping to create – an intriguing if slightly surreal plot mechanic that ties Resurrections to the franchise’s other movies.
But the film’s self-referential elements don’t stop there. Side characters – Neo’s co-workers, for the most part – begin name-dropping The Matrix franchise at will. Meanwhile, another incident sees Warner Bros. unashamedly referenced by another individual.
Warner Bros. has utilized this kind of fourth wall-breaking in previous films, including Space Jam: A New Legacy. But, while such self-awareness can arguably be overlooked in a family-friendly flick, it has no business being in a movie series like The Matrix. It’s the type of eye-rolling and groan-inducing story beat that adds nothing to proceedings, and feels so misplaced that it’s bound to momentarily distract viewers from what’s happening on the screen.
While The Matrix Resurrections struggles to find the right footing for its self-referential elements, the same can’t be said for its action.
The original trilogy is renowned for reinventing combat sequences in the movie business, and Resurrections does a stellar job of replicating its predecessors’ formula. Battles are tense, frenetic affairs with plenty of Bullet Time-esque scenes and gravity-defying set-pieces. And, thanks to the advancements in technology since the original trilogy was released, Resurrections is a grander visual spectacle than we’ve previously seen in the franchise.
As marvelous as Resurrections’ fight sequences are to look at, however, they play things safe from a viewing experience. There are no new era-defining or genre-bending creations here, such as the aforementioned Bullet Time visual effect, that represent great leaps forward for action in the film medium – something that may be a tad disappointing to some. Still, Resurrections’ action feels high-octane and weighty enough, even if it isn’t suitably innovative.
Where The Matrix Resurrections does feel new is through its use of other genres to accentuate particular sequences. Its finale takes subtle cues from horror movies – zombie flicks, to be more precise – that imbue it with a slightly terrifying sensibility. There’s a real sense of the stakes being raised during this part of the film and, while it seems that our heroes will navigate the obstacles in their path, there’s no guarantee that everyone will make it out alive.
While its horror-like subtleties are reserved for its final act, Resurrections isn’t afraid to marry its sci-fi and fantasy elements with the romance genre earlier in proceedings.
Neo and Trinity’s relationship was the real heart of the original trilogy and, given how The Matrix Revolutions ended, you may expect their romance to be of greater significance here. But, as Neo struggles to convince Moss’ character of who she is, it’s unclear if they’ll get their happy ending.
Corny as it is to say, you can’t help but root for this outcome – and Resurrections really wants you to do so, too. There was the very real danger, though, that the pair’s potential reunion may have overshadowed other aspects of the film; it’s the heart and soul that drives the movie series forward, after all. Thankfully, this isn’t the case; Resurrections’ creative team correctly choosing to spread this particular plot point throughout the film’s runtime.
The Matrix Resurrections isn’t just about these two characters, however. The film’s other cast members are as important to its story as the iconic duo, although some aren’t used as effectively as others.
Jessica Henwick shines as newcomer Bugs, playing a key role in helping Neo to remember his past and rescuing other prominent players. Neil Patrick Harris, too, is wonderfully menacing as The Analyst, while Jonathan Groff imbues the returning Agent Smith – portrayed by Hugo Weaving in the original trilogy – with a newfound sense of ferocity and devilish charm.
Yayha Abdul-Mateen II’s Morpheus, though, is criminally underused. As a character who’s as beloved as Neo and Trinity, Morpheus should have had a bigger role in the new movie. And, while he ultimately is a crucial component of the third act’s heist-like mission, as well as helping Neo to realize that the Matrix is real, he’s relegated to the sidelines for large swathes of Resurrections. For an actor of Abdul-Mateen II’s talents, and for a character as iconic as Morpheus, it may be a tough pill for fans to swallow, if you pardon the pun.
The Matrix Resurrections isn’t the generation-defining sequel that some viewers hoped it would be, but, for the most part, it hits the required marks that will ensure diehards get a kick out of it. It’s stunning to look at, and its plot and characters are largely likeable. Resurrections’ exploration and re-examination of themes including mental illness, trans and women’s rights, legacy and religion are handled well, too, much as they were in the original trilogy.
But there are missteps. Resurrections’ exposition is messy and slightly confusing at times, while its continual flashbacks and self-referential approach become a millstone around its neck. In walking the fine line between feeding on and preying on fan nostalgia, Resurrections winds up falling into the latter camp – a clever plot device that was likely conceived with good intentions becomes something of an ego trip as the movie progresses.
As film franchise revivals go, then, The Matrix Resurrections is a worthwhile reboot that faithfully recaptures the spirit of the original; and for most long time fans of the series, that’s likely to be good enough. But, if you’re expecting a medium-defining flick that can truly hold a candle to 1999’s The Matrix, it may be time for a reality check.