After an 18-year absence, director Lana Wachowski returns us to The Matrix universe; delivering a film that is as ambitious and full of big ideas as expected. However, its intention runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight.
If there’s one thing the Matrix franchise has never been short on, it’s ambition. The first film came blazing onto screens, changing action cinema in Hollywood forever. Its sequels yield somewhat diminishing returns, despite never lagging in their scope.
Matrix Resurrections opens to a familiar sight – the Heart o’ the City motel sign – with cops forming a perimeter around the building. More police approach Room 303 in a formation; guns are drawn and ready to apprehend their target. A car pulls up, and three sunglass-wearing men in suits climb out.
An officer sarcastically remarks, “here we go,” as they approach, and they exchange familiar words. As the agent says over his shoulder, “no lieutenant, your men are already dead,” we see someone is watching this from the outside. Like us, they know how this is supposed to play out. However, “Trinity,” after effecting her escape from the room, is eventually cornered by agents. This is where the blend of old and new begins.
A Biting Commentary
What follows is a film that is brimming with ideas and some, not at all subtle. In fact, it’s a rather biting commentary on the current state of Hollywood. We pick up with Neo living life as Thomas Anderson. He’s a videogame programmer, whose company released “the trilogy” (a clear nod to the first three films). Anderson is brought into the office of his business partner. He informs Anderson that their “beloved” parent company, Warner Brothers, is making a fourth entry – with or without their input.
This is very problematic for Thomas, as his ambition with the trilogy was making a game indiscernible from reality for the player. In doing so, he nearly sacrificed his sanity, as his sense of what was real and what was taking place in the game began to unravel. Again we as an audience are made to question the nature of reality in this universe: were the events of the first three films “real,” or merely a psychotic break for an overworked programmer?
New Players, Same Game
We are introduced to numerous new characters outside the Matrix and recognize Neo for who he is. The old and the new meet here as Neo is re-introduced to the real world but learns the fight he was once a part of is over – and a new, less clearly defined one has taken its place. He meets Niobe once again, who fills him in on what has happened during his machine-run absence. However, upon his liberation from the system, Neo sees Trinity in a pod opposite his, and liberating her becomes his priority.
At this point, the film begins to unravel as a whole. Trying to effectively marry the combination of nostalgia, a new story set in this universe, and the meta-commentary of the director. But the overall experience feels like the filmmakers got “lost in the weeds.” I think this is why the film has a lot of bad reviews – while it is undoubtedly ambitious and has a lot of ideas, it flitters between them, never really settling on a satisfying whole for the audience.
These disparate storytelling elements are most apparent when the focus shifts beyond the central relationship between Neo and Trinity. The “new” Morpheus is a waste of a character, giving the immensely talented Yahya Abdul-Mateen II little to do except wink at the audience and make the character a bit of a joke. The return of Agent Smith is given similarly short shrift, as Jonathan Groff is given little screen time. His ambitions are never really expanded upon beyond generic “I’m the bad guy who wants to kill the other bad guy!”
The new characters don’t fare much better. Bugs is the most fleshed-out of these, but she isn’t given much to work with. That is, beyond fangirling out for Neo and serving as an exposition robot. It’s an attempt to retrace ground already covered in the first film. As she walks Neo through her ship and introduces her crew, it falls flat. Little is done to distinguish these new characters from one another. While I can still recite the members of Morpheus’ crew, I forgot the names of Bugs’ virtually as I left the theatre.
Ambitious but Flawed
The problems with Matrix Resurrections go beyond characterisation, though. What was mind-bending in 1999 has become pretty standard VFX wise in 2021. Unfortunately, the effects are one of the main draws of the original. The sequences are less impressive than their 1999 counterparts. Also, the focus on semi-realistic fight choreography is eschewed by Neo’s abilities. This includes stunts like the “force push”, which effectively makes his enemies redundant. Overall, the action sequences are not as tight or well-executed as the original. In a film that so directly calls back to it, it invites these comparisons.
Ultimately this film is a disappointing return to a beloved franchise. There are some interesting ideas and a running thread of meta-commentary through it. But a failure to marry these into an effective whole is the real problem. Add this to a lack of meaningful characters beyond the central pairing and this ambitious feature falls flat.
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