The word that kept coming to mind while watching The Matrix Resurrections was “echo.” Not already seen — not the spooky sensation of having dreamt or lived something already without being able to account for when or where it happened. But echo: in which you know the origin, you can pinpoint the source, and yet here it comes, boomeranging back, somewhat the same as before, but also different. Distorted.
A case in point: the return of familiar characters, like Morpheus and Mr. Smith — unforgettably played by Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving, respectively — but without those actors. (This is no spoiler; we’ve known since at least last year that Fishburne hadn’t been invited back for this sequel.) And a plot, meanwhile, that winkingly replays the story we already knew, almost beat by beat, with an awareness that only heightens the sense of revision. This is a movie that’s playing out in its own, disruptive present tense, looking back on its past self with curiosity and also skepticism. Unsurprisingly, this gets literalized: Minutes into the movie, a crew of familiar characters looks on from a distance as the opening scene of The Matrix replays itself… sort of. And throughout Resurrections, quick, cutting insertions of the previous Matrix movies jut their way into this new movie, sometimes in the form of memories, or maybe-hallucinations; other times grafted onto a literal screen, a torn curtain of sorts, like they’re a scene from a movie — which, so far as we’re concerned, is what they are.
Most ominously of all, we get the return of already seen itself, which was once a mere harbinger of some revision in the code of the so-called Matrix, a bit of cleverly conceptual world-building incited by the appearance of a black cat — less of an outright, midsequence info-dump than a brief pause in the action for a tiny info-leak, all of it whittled down into the form of a random animal. Now, in Resurrections, Already seen is the name of an actual black cat. And that cat belongs to the therapist of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a man recovering from a suicide attempt and very much still working through it. Anderson’s therapist wears glasses with bright blue rims — a singular, unmistakable blue, an unmissable echo retrieved from the franchise’s gnarled world of symbols and codes. An echo: the same, different. And consistent in this fact: It is a harbinger of something amiss in this world.
The Matrix Resurrections is a movie that knows you know its legacy — knows that the language and iconography of The Matrix (“red pill,” “bullet time,” “The Oracle,” “The One”) have seeped into the culture, into our minds, even if we somehow haven’t seen any of the previous movies. It also knows that this is the 21st century. Which means that much of what felt novel or prescient about the world of that first movie — with its allegorized, cyber-savvy world-within-worlds, its riffing on the idea of digital selves — has come to define human experience as we currently know it.
So an early scene in which Thomas Anderson and a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) sit down to coffee works whether you know the significance of this encounter or not. Here are two people — he a famed game designer of a smash-hit called The Matrix; she a wife with three kids who, in her free time, loves riding and fixing up motorcycles — tiptoeing around the question of whether they know each other. Whether they’ve met before. Why it is that the heroine of the Matrix game, a cyber-creation named Trinity, looks so much like Tiffany. The emotional motor of the scene is this unspoken affinity, recognizable whether you know the backstory or not (or can remember the labyrinth of detail and philosophy that burdened the trilogy’s unfairly maligned, but still flawed, sequels). Likewise, the fact that the coffee shop itself is named not Stimulate, but Simulate, is probably not lost on you. It’s seemingly all right there, right on the surface. Yet the sentiments it inspires in us, the audience, feel drawn from some deeper abyss.
It’s wonderful. It’s also how so much of the Wachowski universe — whether we’re talking about The Matrix and its offshoots or their other, more embattled, but equally fascinating subsequent projects — has tended to work. (Even in those cases where it doesn’t totally work). Lana Wachowski directed Resurrections alone, yet the juice — familiar from the siblings’ collaborative projects — remains that peculiar genius for mixing the sentimental and obvious with the subliminal, the hypersymbolic with the just-out-of-reach. And the central accomplishment of Resurrections is in how deftly, even movingly, it nails the chemistry of this mix.
Resurrections opens with a gambit that should feel a little more tiresome. Suffice it to say, a franchise wrought of an explosion of seemingly binary ideas about choice (free will versus fate being the primary axis) and identity (whether “digital” or material) has already, as if by accident, set itself up for a late-coming sequel in which everything that came before is material for meta-reflection. Enter, again, Thomas Anderson: video-game designer — architect, you could say, of a game called The Matrix. Do I really need to proceed? Resurrection was co-written by Wachowski and novelists David Mitchell (whose Cloud Atlas the Wachowski sisters adapted back in 2012, with Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in tow) and Aleksandar Hemon, both of whom collaborated with the Wachowskis on the beloved Netflix series Sense8. So cleverness in the conceit is even more apparent now than it was in the first movie. The vibe of Resurrections is not so unlike the iconically playful opening of Wes Craven’s Scream 4, which practically shouted “We know you know how the story goes” — and then doubled, tripled, quadrupled-down on that knowledge with a nesting-doll nimbleness, a sense of humor about itself and about the fact of sequels, about our cynicism toward their utter non-necessity beyond making more money.
In Resurrections, as in Craven’s movie, Lana Wachowski doubles down and, similarly, wins us over with a pointed sense of intention. But the intention, here, is more of a mixed bag of sentiment. I’ll leave the finer details of the story to the movie. But much of what was built and sustained in the previous films — the utopia it imagined, the love made possible — is now gone. The new cast (headlined by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas; with great additional work by the crew of the not-but-almost Nebuchadnezzar, played by Eréndira Ibarra, Max Riemelt, Brian J. Smith, Toby Onwumere) offers up a series of performances that play like avatars of those buried origins, just as Jada Pinkett Smith and Lambert Wilson (reprising their roles as Niobe and the Merovingian, respectively) signal just how much has changed since we last dove into this world. There are even Easter eggs, of a kind: for example, Chad Stahelski — the John Wick director who was once Keanu’s stunt double in The Matrix — makes an appearance here as “Handsome Chad” (the details of which are, like most things, better left unspoiled).
I’ll give this much away: Abdul-Mateen plays a character named Morpheus, and very early on, the actor — who seems to be having the time of his life — playfully nods to Fishburne’s classic performance before setting up the entire movie to concede that there’s no neat return to the once-was. Time has passed. People have changed. Even Thomas Anderson.
In another, lesser movie, much of this would be easier to write off as fan service. I doubt either Wachowski is above that; their fans, even the fans who’ve misused their ideas, are crucial to the way their work has been sustained in the mainstream over time. But one of the wonderful turns of Resurrections is how thoughtfully it interrogates these bits of return. Thomas Anderson sits through business meetings in which his own work on The Matrix (the video game) gets repeated back to him by young, boardroom-creative types — because the company that owns his company, Warner Brothers (ahem), has demanded a sequel. And these young guns start mouthing off about what the originals “mean.” Crypto-fascism, they say. Trans politics, they say. Anderson becomes the frustrated artist who endures other peoples’ reads on his work: has the legacy of that work shouted back at him.
It isn’t that those interpretations are wrong. The Matrix — the movie — absolutely speaks to its moment. It secured the sibling auteurs’ widespread cultural endurance in a late-Nineties culture exhausted by the promise of white-collar capital (see also: Office Space, released the same year) and furthermore sensitive to the steady leak of metal, data nerdery, and outsiderness into the postmodern mainstream. And it absolutely bears an essence that spoke to, still speaks to, the trans community, whose read on the movie as a digital-era trans allegory — in which people can shed their names and the embodied selves they present to the world in favor of exploring their gender identities online, from behind the relative safety of digital avatars — precedes, but was later validated by, Lilly making the trans metaphor explicit. (The character of Switch, it should be remembered, was conceived as a trans character. Warner Bros. nixed the idea.) And as for the dilemma of the “red pill” and what it now means — well, its salience cannot be denied. But nor can the irony, which speaks to the slippery capaciousness of what the Wachowskis pulled off, of seemingly opposing groups all latching onto the same metaphor to their own ends.
This is a lot of baggage for a sequel made two decades later to wrestle with. Rather than wrestle full-on, Wachowski has given us a movie that most astutely reminds us of something Lilly once said at the GLAAD Awards in 2016: “While the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.” Resurrections is a love story — between Neo and Trinity, obviously. Resurrections plays like a spin on the preceding Matrix trilogy that could only have come on the heels of projects like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, in which the Wachowskis leaned further and further into their loving strangeness, their woo-woo theatrics and sentimentality, their conceptual ambition. It is a Matrix movie that could only have come with twenty-plus years of hindsight — and insight.
I was moved, impressed — far more than I expected to be. The emotional engineering of The Matrix Resurrections is exacting and rapturous. It initially feels corny. Then Jonathan Groff’s character, like Keanu’s, becomes who he “is,” and the hallucinations and denials of the movie’s early stretch have the veil ripped off. The fight scenes, even when they’re knowing rehashes, are finely tuned and psychologically astute for much of the movie — until the ending. Which is a rush of sincere feeling matched to handsomely choreographed action, bodies thrown asunder with the wave of a hand, others turned into sentient bombs. Like its predecessors, Resurrections has a way of imploding its multiple dimensions of meaning while also offering up a satisfying straight story. In the end, it all rests on a choice not unlike that which every character on the good side of this franchise’s fight has to face before delving into this other world. It’s a choice about who to be. It’s to the movie’s great credit that when the story tells you the fate of the world rests on this choice, more than ever before, you believe it.