Obviously, I see a lot of movies. I see as many as I can, but I am only one person. This past Christmas, there were no less than five movie premiers. Between all the family festivities and the general hustle and bustle that goes along with them, it makes it difficult to see everything. One has to prioritize. By my estimation, The Matrix Resurrections was getting the most attention in terms of trailers, both in theaters and on television. The irony is not lost on me. The franchise is all about systems of control, and yet the ads infiltrated the internet and broadcast airwaves, crossing over into everything from Direct TV to spots during professional football games. These sorts of things give one pause. When the original The Matrix (1999) came out, much like Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), they captured a concept that was more felt in society than spoken, true zeitgeist moments. The fear is that any attempt at sequels are going to be pale comparisons to the original. Things just never are the same, are they?
Making matters worse with The Matrix Resurrections is the fact that it has been almost two decades since the last installment. One can put forward an argument on both sides as for the wisdom of making another iteration in the franchise, or the cleverness of this one’s beginning. If you are familiar with the first’s opening, then you might be wondering if you are seeing the same movie. A woman sits alone in a dingy apartment waiting for a phone to ring. There is a difference, though, and it is that this scene is being observed by a woman going by the name Bugs (Jessica Henwick). Like us, she knows what is about to happen. She has this knowledge because she is part of the resistance against those controlling the eponymous system run by machines, and using humans as batteries for their power. This event is part of human history now because the woman is supposed to be Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the wife of Neo (Keanu Reeves). The latter of these figures had been the prophesized “One” who was to free humanity from its bondage. Yet, this is not an exact duplicate of the what happened in previous years or movies. This time, one of the agents, Agent Smith to be precise, is in the form of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Bugs recognizes him too, and is able to free him from the Matrix. We then shift to the person who Neo was in the Matrix, Thomas Anderson, now as a fully bearded program developer (think every software executive you have ever seen in Silicon Valley), and he works for a company for which he made a computer game called “The Matrix.” He does not realize that what he created actually happened to him, and throughout you get the sense that these games match up with the movies of the same title. Things do not seem quite right for him, unfortunately. He has a therapist, who is referred to as The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who proscribes for him these blue pills that are meant to keep his sanity. As becomes apparent, though, his life is stuck in a cycle in which he has trouble finding meaning. The only bright spot in his days is when he sees Tiffany, who is the Matrix version of Trinity. They have no memory of each other, she appears to be married with children, and yet there is a connection between them whenever they meet. It is shortly after their initial real meeting that Bugs and Morpheus make their first attempt to get Neo out of the Matrix. During this struggle, they find out that Thomas Anderson’s business partner is the real Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff). Neo is, at first, dubious, but when things begin to happen in a fashion eerily similar to the game he supposedly created, he decides to go along with Bugs and Morpheus. When he awakens in the real world, he sees that his pod is separated from the others, save for one other, which contains Trinity. When he is taken back to the city set up by the human and machine resistance, now called Io, he is reunited with Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a comrade from his previous life. It has been over sixty years since he had last been seen. Niobe, now in charge of Io’s defenses, forbids Bugs and Morpheus to take Neo back into the Matrix. Neo wants to go to try to get Trinity out, and Bugs disobeys orders to do so. In order to get a little help, they visit another old soul, a program known as Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who explains the importance of Neo and Trinity to the Matrix. Together, they form a plan to reunite Trinity with Neo, along with the help of other captains in Io’s defense forces. Their first opportunity to make this happen resulted in the Analyst intervening, who is the program currently in charge of the Matrix and is reluctant to let Trinity go because their connection is what makes the new version of the system tick. Neo reminds the Analyst of their agreement from years ago, and tells the Analyst that she must be given the choice. The analyst accedes to this path, but, of course, reneges when Trinity ultimately chooses freedom. The Analyst then turns all the minds plugged into the Matrix into drones to attack Neo and Trinity and their comrades. In the end, it is Trinity that saves them, and her freeing from the Matrix signals a new era.
The Matrix Resurrections is somewhat tricky to describe, particularly if you are familiar with the first three films in the series. It would seem that they were unable to get all the actors from the original trilogy back, so they improvised. Indeed, improvisation is an apt word to use when describing this latest installment in the franchise. Laurence Fishburne would not reprise his role as the iconic Morpheus? Turn to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II to fill-in, and call it a “glitch in the Matrix.” Moviemakers often have to make decisions like this when it comes to producing sequels. A classic example of this is when Terrence Howard, who played Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) friend James Rhodes in Iron Man (2008), did not return in Iron Man 2 (2010). Hence, when Don Cheadle appears on screen going by that name, the actor switch is explained in one simple line of dialog. With The Matrix Resurrections, one gets the sense that this is a film that the Wachowskis wanted to make for a long time, but never had the studio backing to make it a reality. There are stretches where you see employees of Thomas Anderson’s company talking about the Matrix that does not just break the fourth wall, but all the walls. I turned to my friend I saw it with while listening to this seeming comedic relief and pondered aloud whether we were being given an insider’s glimpse into board meetings at Warner Brothers Studios. I am also not sure what these debates did for the plot, either, other than the dubious relief they provide.
Speaking of questionable use to the plot in The Matrix Resurrections, there is the whole Agent Smith subplot. In the older movies, Smith represents the opposite of Neo, the former bad and the latter good. They represent a dichotomy, and the theme of binary choices is played upon throughout the latest film. You have the blue pill or the red pill, slavery or freedom, Smith or Neo. While they do not seem to explore the Smith part to its logical conclusion, I will at least credit the film for telling us that life is not truly an either/or proposition. God did not create us to be machines, although the machines in this movie seem to be as human as you and I, the only thing lacking being flesh and blood. To avoid disappearing down the rabbit hole of binary choices once more, just know that what trumps all the options is the ability to do the right thing. When Niobe tells Bugs not to help Neo, seeing in that path only more war, Bugs can either obey and maintain the status quo, or disobey and face losing her position or worse. When it comes to doing the right thing, the two sides of the equation should be taken into account, but so should any number of other relevant factors. What helps best is taking this all to God. He will help make the way forward clear, even if not immediately so. At the same time, these sorts of long periods of discernment do not make for griping cinema. No matter how long it takes, it can also lead you into unexpected and glorious ways of experiencing God and life. I believe there is a certain parallel here to the way Trinity emerges as the stronger between her and Neo.
Given how much time has passed between The Matrix Revolutions (2003) and The Matrix Resurrections, it is somewhat of a miracle that they made a film with any semblance of cogency. I was with the film most of the way until the end. There is a telling saying in it that mentions the powerful balm that is nostalgia. It soothes anxiety. Times have been tough for everyone for over a year, and having a film like this one hearkens back to a day when we all moved about freely without the worry of a potentially deadly disease. Because nostalgia plays such a huge role here, I think it explains the ending. At the end of The Matrix Revolutions with Trinity having been impaled on a metal spike and Neo spent in fighting Smith, I always wondered what ultimately happened to those two characters. Their actions saved humanity, but I never truly accepted that they were dead. I guess I was not alone in thinking these things. However, the actual ages of the actors proved a limitation, which they could not easily overcome. At times they made fun of themselves, but they finally chose computer graphics with them flying through the air. Why not let them retire somewhere in Io and let the next generation, led by Bugs, keep an eye on the Matrix? To me, this would have made an okay movie a little better, and a fitting conclusion for the two main characters.