The Matrix Re-Skinned?
Full disclosure: I am not the biggest fan of “The Matrix” movies.
To some readers, that may sound blasphemous, but it’s true. I reasonably enjoyed the first film, though it seemed to borrow much of its style (over substance) from Japanese manga/anime (particularly 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell”–which itself was heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”). I particularly enjoyed the movie’s Philip K. Dick-style reality-bending; not the most novel concept in sci-fi, but nicely done. The ultimate reason for the existence of ‘the matrix’ felt somewhat anticlimactic; using humans as batteries while keeping us hooked on a virtual existence. All the same, “The Matrix” was a solid sci-fi action flick, and its then-groundbreaking visuals more than compensated for its lack of character depth and its use of the well-worn “chosen one” trope.
Note: I never quite bought the movie’s idea of using human beings as power sources. Human biochemical energy is highly inefficient for the most part; requiring constant amounts of food and water to keep us going. There are far more efficient energy sources pretty much everywhere on the planet–solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, etc.; any one of which would quickly put us inefficient, biochemically-driven humans out of business as a reliable energy source.
Like “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” “Jurassic Park” and other trendsetting movies, “The Matrix” created a visual shorthand; in this case, the iconic images of leather/vinyl-clad, sunglass-sporting characters running along walls and dodging artillery in ‘bullet-time’ under a greenish tint. Once again, a good enough sci-fi/action movie, but enough. In 2003, my wife and I saw “The Matrix Reloaded”, and that’s where we both jumped off the tracks for this franchise. Despite a few showstopper action pieces (such as the battle with the 1,000 Smiths) that first sequel was overlong and unfocused. The narrative seams became frayed. Despite ending on a cliffhanger, neither of us returned for “Matrix Revolutions” later that same year. We own all three films on DVD (for completist sake, if nothing else) but we never quite got around to popping the third movie into the BluRay player to see how it wrapped. Word of mouth and Wikipedia were enough.
Eighteen Years Later: “The Matrix Resurrections.”
With the current COVID pandemic weighing heavily on my personal decision to watch all new movies at home (“Matrix Resurrections” is on HBOMax for the moment), and with admitted curiosity from the intriguing trailer, I decided to revisit this universe I abandoned 18 years ago. Like the previous trilogy, “The Matrix Resurrections” was directed/produced by the Wachowski siblings, Lana and Lili.
Right off, I noticed that the movie began with a somewhat warmer visual palette than its cooler, greenish-hued predecessor, since that telltale ‘green sheen’ is now a dead giveaway for the “matrix” reality created by the sentient artificial intelligences using humanity as squishy Duracells. The rebooted world looks a step closer to our reality, yet still too clean and too perfect.
The movie opens with scrappy young hackers named “Bugs” (Jessica Henwick) and “Sequoia” (Toby Onwumere) teaming up with a reskinned Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as they search an old address belonging to the legendary “Thomas Anderson,” aka “Neo” (Keanu Reeves). Now, I am not going to recite all plot details of this movie, because, in all honesty, I have little idea of what the hell was happening for much of it. Besides, the specifics of the movie are largely unimportant to the central story, which I’ll get to in a bit…
Note: In the first of many meta-references in the much more self-aware first part of the film, we learn that “Bugs” is self-named after cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who is, of course, another famous property belonging to Warner Bros. Studios–the production company behind the film.
In this rebooted Matrix, Neo is back as “Thomas Anderson” once again. Anderson is, to those around him, still recovering from a recent mental breakdown where he believed he was the hero Neo from his own wildly successful three-part video game series called…“The Matrix.” The creatively burned-out Anderson is also haunted by a familiar-faced soccer mom named “Tiffany” (Carrie Anne Moss) he sees at a local coffee shop. Anderson is obsessed with meeting Tiffany, as he feels a strange, deep connection with her. They finally chat, and he learns (to his dismay) that she is married with several kids; one of whom she has to pick up from practice, of course. They both feel this bond, but thanks to the ‘rules’ of this new reality, they are prevented from acting on it.
Note: Carrie Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves have both aged spectacularly. Each are roughly my age, yet they look utterly fantastic. I’ll have what they’re having, please. Also nice to have a story where two fiftysomethings are the messiahs who have to save the world–a role usually reserved for twenty/thirtysomethings in most movies.
Anderson’s “The Matrix” video game series was completed years ago, but now the gaming company “Binary” is now demanding a sequel. Feeling the heat from Binary’s parent company, Warner Bros (I see what you did there, movie…), the semi-hallucinatory Anderson is brought before his creepy yuppie boss (Jonathan Groff), and is calmly-but-firmly pressured into rehashing the very property that drove him to his alleged madness.
What follows are some hilarious executive/creative meetings that essentially outline the very uselessness of a Matrix sequel, with Christina Ricci (“The Addams Family”) hamming it up as a corporate suit. This movie has no need to be, yet it seems very aware of that fact–if anything, it’s giddily reveling in its own pointlessness.
Note: The self-aware, anti-capitalist vibe of the movie’s first 40-odd minutes or so is easily the best part, as the Wachowskis deftly skewer corporate mandated sequels-on-demand, as well as video game tie-ins, action movie cliches (“One word; bullet-time!”). I can imagine a universe where the Wachowskis went ahead to make the entire movie as a giant middle finger to corporate filmmaking. Sadly, it was not to be…
This seeming meta-sequel continues, with Anderson going to see “the Analyst”, played by Neil Patrick Harris is an effortlessly scene-stealing role. Harris is, in fact, one of the few characters who really registers among the many new faces populating this film. Harris’ Analyst remains empathetic enough but with a stylishly sinister undercurrent, as he is determined to keep Anderson in his bubble of non-reality. Despite the Analyst tipping his hand early on, Neil Patrick Harris owns just about every second he’s onscreen–not too unlike his cameos in the “Harold & Kumar” films, where the openly gay Harris (bravely) reimagines himself as a tail-chasing, substance-abusing, hetero-nightmare of a human being.
We soon learn that even the franchise’s former villain, “Agent Smith” (who’s been rebooted as Anderson’s smooth-talking corporate boss) hates the Analyst’s guts and wants him (it) destroyed as well. The Analyst is like HAL: 9000 reborn as a shrink.
As Anderson begins more of his waking hallucinations, even seeing a vision of himself in the mirror as a much older, different-looking man (Steven Roy), Anderson’s reality begins to unravel. Soon he realizes that he is indeed Neo from his own game series, and that the game series itself is really a historical document. What is missing from his memory is what happened between the end of the machine war in “Matrix Revolutions” and this new ‘reality.’ For that trip down the rabbit hole, Neo’s met by his newly rebooted former mentor, Morpheus, who, like Neo, has also recently awakened to his true identity.
Bugs bursts into Neo’s unraveling universe and pulls him into a zone between reality and the matrix–with gatekeeper Morpheus once again offering him the choice between the red pill (reality) and the blue pill (the virtual existence of the matrix). In a room where images from the actual film trilogy are shown on giant screens surrounding them, Bugs and Morpheus need Neo’s help to turn the tide in a new revolution between the humans and the AIs. In another cinematically self-aware moment, Morpheus tells Neo that they are projecting images from “The Matrix” in the hopes that “nostalgia” might it all go down a little easier.
Note: Once again, the movie becomes the very thing its satirizing; using nostalgia as bait for our hero, just as it’s being used by the Wachowskis to shamelessly manipulate fans.
With his mind now free from the matrix, the resistance has to pull Neo’s body into the real world as well. As seen in the first film, large insect-like machines snatch Neo from the Pepto Bismol-filled pods, detaching the energy-draining jumper cables from his pale, nearly-hairless body. This is one of the few deviations in a sequel that otherwise emulates its predecessors; the machines that rescued Neo are actually allies to the resistance. We also learn that Neo’s body, along with Trinity’s, was remade somehow in the gooey resurrection tub (shades of 2004’s “Battlestar Galactica”).
Note: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does a good enough job as Morpheus 2.0, though he lacks Laurence Fishburne’s considerable gravitas in the role. He seems more like a traveling road company version of Morpheus, much like Jonathan Groff’s new Agent Smith. The new Morpheus & Smith seem to be taking a sly jab at sequel recasting.
This was where the movie begins to fall apart, as Neo finds himself in the new city of Io (Zion 2.0…?) and from here on, the movie begins a positively dizzying stream of endless exposition as the characters attempt to bring Neo up to speed on the changes to their world since the war “ended” in the last film (game–whatevs). Neo re-teams with his former wartime all Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who is now the de facto leader of Io. Niobe, smothered in “Star Trek”-style old age makeup, tells Neo it’s been many decades since the war, and that he and the equally dead Trinity have been titularly ‘resurrected’ (via cloning, whatever; who knows), but the resistance was only willing to risk resources enough to rescue him.
Niobe serves two roles in the movie; as a tiresome, endless stream of exposition for Neo, and as the bureaucrat who exists to enforce the rules. For reasons that make zero-point-zero sense, Niobe forbids Neo from going back to rescue Trinity from her resurrection tub because his detainment will help pad out the film’s ridiculously long 150 minute running time. To that end, she leaves Neo in his temporary quarters with a generous open balcony for Bugs and company to abduct him aboard their ship as they fly off to rescue Trinity…
Note: I was enjoying the conceit of this movie existing as a meta-sequel to the original trilogy, but from here on in, it begins to become the very thing it mocks in its own first act–a pointless remake that only serves to regurgitate the greatest hits from the earlier movies.
Neo soon realizes that he and Trinity are a package deal; that only their mojo combined can turn the tide against the Analyst and this new wave of AIs. In other words, the table is once again set for the exact same story we saw nearly 20 years ago–superheroes using kung-fu and bullet-time force powers to save the human race from once again becoming a value pack of D-cells. Mounting a needlessly-complicated rescue mission that makes the Battle of Normandy look like a Sunday fishing trip, Neo and the others find Trinity in her resurrection tub, but before they pull her out of her blue-pill existence as “Tiffany” the motorcycle-loving soccer mom, they they need to give her the choice of abandoning her newfound life or not. To that end, Neo hacks back into the matrix to offer his former flame that choice. Turns out “Tiffany” really hated that name, and she slips right back into her old life with surprisingly little emotional hand-wringing.
Note: At this point, the film very much becomes the Keanu-Carrie show, with most of the other characters falling down the wayside as casualties of a successful reunion where the two real stars finally reconnect. This is not to say that Bugs, Sequoia, et al aren’t good characters, because they are…it’s just that they quickly become peripheral when the big duet act is finally reunited. Despite the layers of self-importance and mountains of exposition, this is what “The Matrix Resurrections” boils down to–reuniting the two balladeers to re-play their favorite hits. This movie is all about these two middle-aged lovers reuniting.
Quickly realizing that her hubby and kids were little more than “bots” designed to distract her, Trinity breaks loose from the final shackles of that false existence and takes Neo for one helluva bike chase with the Agents through downtown San Francisco (shot partly on location in the actual city). One of the best moments actually comes during this otherwise lackluster dominant portion of the movie, when Trinity asks Neo if he can still fly. Neo then assumes his flying stance, makes a few reality ripples, but ultimately fails. He then turns to Trinity and shouts, “Not happening!” This is one of the few times the movie playfully acknowledges the actors’ middle age, despite both of them looking absolutely amazing. What follows is a lot of whiz-bang as Neo and Trinity find their groove and whoosh off to confront the Analyst for the big showdown, which I won’t bother to spoil, other than to say there might very well be a sequel.
Note: There is a post-credits coda that harkens back to the earlier corporate meetings in the much lighter and better first act.
Summing It Up.
As someone without a deep attachment to the Matrix franchise, I find this movie frustrating. I applaud its courageous first act, which bravely skewered such useless, corporate-mandated sequels, along with its scathing indictment of capitalism in general (the AIs willfully draining humanity’s life force). The Analyst even lays it out for us when he says humanity would prefer to remain blissfully unaware as they take their blue pills and enjoy the artificiality provided by their corporate masters. Yet right after these scathingly satirical indictments, the movie becomes the very thing it previously mocked–as the reunited Neo and Trinity go through many of the familiar tropes of the previous Matrix trilogy.
I wish the Wachowskis had the courage to follow the first act’s more daring sequel idea–keeping the original “Matrix” trilogy as a fiction created by Thomas Anderson, a man on the verge of creative/emotional collapse. We could’ve seen Anderson finally stumbling onto the Warner Bros. backlot, (a la Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”) as he struggles to piece together his own fragmented reality. This film could’ve existed as a meta-parody of the original or as a genuine sequel. Viewers could take the blue pill and continue enjoying the original trilogy as canon, or they could take the red pill and embrace a self-aware subversion of a corporate sequel. Either way, it’s all fiction–so why not have some fun with it?
As Morpheus would say, “The choice is yours.”
Where To Watch.
“The Matrix Resurrections” is playing theatrically in both regular and IMAX screen formats, and is also available for streaming on HBOMax (with no additional codes/fees) until January 22nd. I streamed it at home via HBOMax through my HD projector onto a 7 ft. screen, and it looked just fine. The choice to see the film theatrically or not is entirely up to the reader, but I’d only ask that you observe any local COVID restrictions in your neighborhood theaters, for your sake and for their employees. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 810,000 (and well over 5.3 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are also available everywhere). There is also the highly contagious Omicron variant to safeguard for as well, so please continue to mask up in public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal).
Take care and be safe!