Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Carrie-Anne Moss (Memento), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Jessica Henwick (Love and Monsters), Jonathan Groff (Frozen), Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl), Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Quantico), Jada Pinkett Smith (Girls Trip)
Director: Lana Wachowski (Speed Racer)
Writers: Lana Wachowski & David Mitchell & Aleksandar Hemon (Sense8)
Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes
Release Date: 22nd December (US/HBO Max, UK)
Every five years or so, a movie comes along that redefines the style and aesthetic of Hollywood filmmaking; Jaws and Star Wars are popular examples of this. It’s not always necessarily for the best (the first Michael Bay Transformers flick is one moment we’re still feeling the aftershocks of), but they’re the kind of movies that become commonly used as a frame of reference and studios blindly copy the cosmetics of in a feeble attempt to follow trends. 1999’s The Matrix most definitely counts amongst them, popularising slow motion, black leather, and Hong Kong martial arts that ended up defining much of cinema in the early 21st century. What stuck with audiences who saw beyond its cool coating, however, was its infusion of transhumanist philosophy into its more traditional hero’s journey narrative, in turn making the film into a potent allegory for capitalism, patriarchy, and the transgender experience. That didn’t stop right-leaning audiences taking completely the wrong message from it though, hence the alt-right “red pill” movement.
After its sequels Reloaded and Revolutions doubled down on its philosophical musings in a way that deepened its themes but alienated general audiences, the franchise has remained mostly dormant and its creators Lana & Lilly Wachowski made perfectly clear they never intended to return to it…until now, that is. Whilst The Matrix was a trendsetter back in its day, The Matrix Resurrections is instead something of a rebuttal to today’s trend of franchise revivals, continuing the saga of The One but in a defiant and unorthodox fashion one could only expect from a Wachowski sister. The final result is a piece of cinema truly unlike any other in recent memory, delivering everything a Matrix fan could ask for whilst weaponizing its own nostalgia to say something about the series and Hollywood filmmaking in general.
It’s difficult to get into detail about Resurrections without immediately jumping into story spoilers that the trailers have cleverly avoided divulging, so please excuse me as I try to remain vague. Suffice it to say, whilst the film is very much a sequel to Revolutions rather than a fresh start, it does use certain tropes of reboots to its own ends, with its opening moments being an eerie recreation of the first movie but with a fun perspective twist that cleverly foreshadows things to come. What follows is quite possibly the most meta film ever conceived, simultaneously functioning as a fourth entry in the series but also a deconstruction of itself, its predecessors, and the concept of franchises in general. Whilst it certainly takes a moment to readjust to its unconventional approach, once the story starts clicking into place and the lines between fantasy and reality start to become a little clearer, it becomes undeniably compelling and doesn’t let up from there.
It is a film as thematically deep as any of the previous entries if not more so, further exploring and expanding on the recurring concepts of the movies whilst adding on new ones (queer fans, rest assured: this is still a deeply trans film), but it avoids a lot of what bogged down the other sequels. There’s a better balance between story, action and philosophy, and it communicates its complex ideas about free will, identity and perception of reality in more understandable terms rather than the impenetrable jargon of academia (Ergo, concordantly, vis-à-vis. Sorry, couldn’t resist!). That self-awareness carries into the tone of the film itself, often bordering on a satire of itself as it drops a lot of the pretention and delivers a more earnest and heartfelt coda to the original trilogy. When you pull away the dystopian musings and cyberpunk trappings, The Matrix Resurrections is a love story about rediscovering what makes you happy in life in spite of logic and societal expectations, in turn reminding you why you fell in love with the first film. The closest comparison one could make between this and another blockbuster is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and if you had any problem with how that film threw out the rule book and deconstructed that franchise…what were you expecting? This is a Matrix movie! They’re never been what you expect them to be. Needless to say, you won’t like this one.
Though he has plenty of iconic characters under his belt, Keanu Reeves will always be remembered first and foremost as Neo and his return to the role here is more than welcome. When we are first reintroduced to Thomas Anderson, he is practically (and, in some cases, literally) unrecognisable as a man who has lost touch with his own identity and reality, depicting depression and suicidal ideation in a bold and effective manner as his sanity is tested by the repetitiveness of his everyday life. This only makes his journey to becoming the Neo we remember all the more satisfying, but even so this is still a wizened Neo with a different outlook who still can’t quite live up to who he used to be. Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity receives a complementary arc, going on her own identity crisis as reuniting with Neo makes her question her own supposedly idyllic life. Even after nearly two decades apart, Reeves and Moss’ chemistry still burns and more brightly than ever, and it’s clear both actors are having a blast revisiting characters they and we thought would never return. The only other major returning face (if not necessarily a returning character) is Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe in a role comparable to the late Carrie Fisher’s in the Star Wars sequels, but she is honestly given more gravitas and weight in this one film than Princess Leia was in most of those; amazing for a character who got more screen time in the tie-in video game than the actual movies. There may be another certain familiar face in the film who has mostly been left out of the marketing, so I won’t spoil it here, but fans of the sequels should get a kick out of seeing this character back in a startling fashion.
Whilst it is accurate to say Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections, that doesn’t necessarily mean his character is the Morpheus; you’ll have to see the movie to understand what that means. Regardless, he absolutely nails playing this slightly warped version of the character, emulating aspects of Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal whilst still making him his own; he’s funny, charming, slightly unhinged, and just an all-around badass. Jonathan Groff is having an absolute blast hamming it up as a sleazy tech executive that astutely updates the Agent Smith persona for the modern era, and saying too much about Neil Patrick Harris’ role as Neo’s therapist would give the game away but he is an absolute revelation here; why have we been wasting his talents in dumb comedies again? The film also introduces a new generation of runners and operators, and whilst their roles are mostly perfunctory, they honestly still get more personality and screen time than the original crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (and most of them being played by cast members of Sense8 also makes them seem immediately familiar). The only standout of them, and quite easily the film’s best addition to the franchise, is Jessica Henwick as the youthful and rebellious captain Bugs. Whilst not necessarily the heart of the film, she is the glue that holds it all together and is just an immensely endearing and awesome audience surrogate who is as invested and excited to be here as the audience.
The visual language of The Matrix is still found in the blockbusters of today, so it might be easy to assume its offspring wouldn’t look too out of place in the modern landscape, but once again Resurrections defies expectations. This is an absolutely otherworldly cinematic experience that riffs on the previous films, sometimes even outright copying shots from them but never quite exactly. This eerie sense of “almost, but not quite” is felt even in the music, with familiar extracts from Don Davis’ old score weaved into the new compositions by Johnny Klimek & Tom Tykwer, which is overall a more ethereal, Phillip Glass-inspired soundscape than the techno-heavy music of the originals. The whole experience is kind of like a big-scale version of Neil Cicierega’s “Bustin”: you recognise all of the elements, but they’ve been muddled up and reorganised to make something new and yet undeniably familiar.
Unlike the muted greens and blues of the trilogy, this movie embraces colour and light to create an almost dreamlike look to the world of The Matrix, whilst scenes set in the real world have the familiar palette but are deepened by harsher shadows and contrasting tones. The work of the Wachowskis has always been heavily inspired by anime, and here Lana keeps up that tradition with a visual language and energy that wouldn’t feel out of place in 2D animation; there’s even a recurring visual motif where the framerate is lowered to an anime-like speed. It really takes advantage of the artificiality of its world, which slyly lampshades any criticism of its visual effects as looking unrealistic because…yeah, none of it is real, so why not go all out? There’s just an unbridled sense of artistic expression here you don’t get in films of this size, and whilst that does mean the movie isn’t quite as refined and carefully thought-out as the originals, the sheer unbridled creativity of it all makes up for when it colours outside the lines. This is most evident in the fight sequences, which abandon the complex wirework and precise cinematography for a more visceral and up-close-and-personal dynamic, but there is a comparable dynamism and spectacle to them that retains that Matrix magic but makes it feel fresh again. Yes, it is disparate from the previous entries, but that’s kind of the whole point. It wants you to feel off-kilter, it wants to notice what’s different and what’s the same, and in doing so it is weaving the themes of the narrative into its technical presentation. That, plain and simple, is good filmmaking no matter how unorthodox the execution.
The Matrix Resurrections is the sequel fans have always wanted but never knew to ask for. It is both a celebration and a castigation of the series, essentially revolutionising how franchise reboots are made whilst simultaneously criticising everything wrong with them. It recontextualises the original trilogy and irons out their flaws in a way that retroactively improves them, rediscovering that perfect balance between entertainment and education the sequels lost, and affirms the themes of the first three reinforce them against the toxic interpretations of their worst fans. It reinvigorates the series in a way that could open it up to further stories, but it also works as a perfect capper to the saga and it’d be perfectly understandable if Lana Wachowski wanted to leave things on this triumphant note. If nothing else, it reaffirms that Wachowski is far from a has-been, but instead an idiosyncratic genius who deserves as many chances as she’s willing to take. It’s perfectly understandable that general audiences may not be on board with its multiple eccentricities, but if you now or ever have had an affection for The Matrix, it’s certainly worth going down that rabbit hole for one last time.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10