The Matrix Resurrections (et al.)

In an absurd accidental feat of elision, there are no spoilers for any installment of the Matrix series in this. Not a one. I also don’t know how I did that.

It’s time to shatter the glass on my last few weeks plugged into the Matrix: write about it.

A lot of people will write you something about how they saw The Matrix and it was momentous, how it changed everything, awoke them to cinema, they wore out their DVD (it’s still one of the highest selling DVDs of all time). But I’m not. I saw The Matrix when I was 20, ten years after it had come out, thought, ‘that was pretty green’, and moved on. 

Three years later I would be sitting in a theater just minutes into the opening of a story I knew nothing about with goosebumps running down my arms and legs, and while I don’t know if it changed everything, I was awaking to something. ‘This is…! This is…?’, I thought, and then reasoning just kind of fell out of my mind. 

It was 2012, and the Wachowskis had just released Cloud Atlas with their new collaborator Tom Tykwer, a movie that today I see not as a turning point for them so much as just a key mile marker in their long, pronounced bend from gritty cyberpunk disillusionment toward sunlit kaleidoscopic dorky-pure DJ sets about the transcendent horny power of human connection, or in its purest form to date: Sense8 (2015-18). 

In the years since I was reintroduced to the siblings who had created The Matrix as the people who were now making, say, Jupiter Ascending (UNDYING), I always struggled to…hold that all together in my mind, you know? I honestly think I would simply forget most of the time that those were the same Wachowskis. When the news broke that Lana Wachowski was returning with another Matrix movie, I don’t know if I even caught it, it might have just slipped into that disconnected space in my mind between the Wachowskis of 1999 and the Wachowskis of 2019. The Matrix? I don’t think I know her.

I’m sorry to do this for the second review in a row, but this is the point where I tell you that a trailer came out and I was besotted. It was The Matrix, but it looked like Sense8. It was all golden hour San Francisco and Keanu Reeves looking crushingly dear and someone with queer blue hair and Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ soaring vividly, merrily on-the-nose in the background, and it all looked so sincere and big and uncool and romantic and I wanted it, I wanted it so badly. It looked like the Lana Wachowski that I know, that I love, returning to her origin story and making it over as the filmmaker she has become today.

And it is, it is exactly that.

But the only way we can get there, is by first going back. (“—back to the Matrix!”)

I rewatched The Matrix for the first time last month. In some ways it was the same (green), in others, I am a different person now (who can relate)! That is a heck of a script—a heck of a storyboard, more expansively. It looks terrific. It runs terrific. It’s full of gizmos and notions. These amazing Gen X scenesters show up at Neo’s door to pick up a floppy disc from him or what incredibly ever and are like hey since we’re here wanna come out with us to The Night Club?, and you gotta say yes. Then when we finally emerge in the real world everyone is dressed like a Borrower or something, they’re all in these threadbare layered sweaters that have ALL frayed into boat necks (a gorgeous look on anyone, wear more boat necks memo @all), and that’s really the secret sauce of this dystopia: it contains both drag culture and drab culture and you get to see everyone in both. The costume transitions into the Matrix are what dreams are made of. Suddenly Trench. Suddenly Pleather. Then we go back and everyone’s all wan and shadowed—fantastic.

Anyway I liked but did not love this movie. I know! Or rather I don’t know! I’m trying to figure it out. Live—I’ve been at this review for a while. Ultimately all I can figure is that for once in my damn life, it actually matters to me what I took this series to be About. That’s the best way I can explain why the further this movie and its two follow-up sequels got from the studiously storyboarded office-drone resentment anime awakening origin, to a much more messy and amorphous exploration of love and choice and myth-making as a kind of programming, the more I was keyed up on this as a piece of art & entertainment.

Now I can only take others’ words for it, but it seems from my scholarship (eight and a half hours of Blank Check podcasts and a stack of Emily VanDerWerff pieces) that the initial response to Reloaded and Revolutions had been sort of the opposite of what I’ve been up to. And in watching these from my vantage point of the 2020s, with the privilege of knowing the works the Wachowskis would go on to make after these, it does seem like the continuing series has essentially treated that first Matrix as a place-setting from which to develop a different kind of narrative just interested in different things. I completely understand why fans of the original might find this disappointing and frustrating! It’s just my luck it seems that I was more interested in the things the Wachowskis were becoming more interested in as well.

The way I conceptualize it, is that it’s almost like they accidentally fell a bit in love with their own doomsday creation. It’s been deliberate that some of the words I’ve been using around the original Matrix have been ‘disillusionment’ and ‘resentment’, and I’ll add ‘alienation’, too—those feelings are definitely present in that movie, and clearly (and understandably) very meaningful to many who saw it. But what would become steadily more apparent, is that that ethos just didn’t stick for the Wachowskis. The story of someone discovering that he was right, he is better than all this, was beginning to fall away even in that first film, revealing filmmakers actually far (far) more drawn to collectivism than individualism, and taken with a kind of kooky, speculative curiosity in this cyber netherworld they’d made. 

Basically, as soon as they realized that sentient AI meant you could talk with computer programs like a person and they’d be weird, they wanted to do that, and so did I. The Wachowskis have never underestimated my desire to talk to a weird little guy. Their stuff is full of them, and what’s more, full of the mechanics to enable weird little guys to literally just pop up while you’re trying to do things, sending me into paroxysms of joy. I’m not saying the whole reason we have Jonas Maliki is because of Agent Smith but like, Hugo Weaving is in that sourdough starter and I don’t think that’s overstating anything.

In the sequels the Wachowskis just got really interested in the idea of computer programs bopping around being a tool or an obstacle depending, and ohhhh I get the appeal of this, oh boy do I: it’s just the mechanics of narrative made manifest. IT’S SO NEAT. This is one of the reasons why even when the filmmaking gets more all over the place as we move into Reloaded, I just like what it’s doing more. Listen, objectively not good things happen in the sequels, and some of these action set piece are just, oof, too long by my watch, but also: The Architect. The train station. The blindfolded messiah. By the time we get to Revolutions I’m the happiest I’ve been yet in this series. Everything’s about storytelling interfacing with computer programming (computers of course we originally built!), and also what if you made a butch friend with a rocket launcher. Keanu Reeves is going completely fey, Hugo Weaving is figuratively and literally climbing up the scenery, Jada Pinkett Smith is stripping her sweater off because she’s getting too hot danger-piloting a hovership through some sort of underworld duct, and I get my second instance in media after Babylon Berlin (Tom Tykwer I see you buddy) of a character who has been going through hell for a long time and also immediately prior suddenly looking into the dazzling sunlit peace above the clouds, turning their open, awe-struck face briefly to crystal and gold, and my own heart breaking in wonder with them. In short, the original Matrix‘s Wake Up, Sheeple attitude is so far in the background that you’d be forgiven for missing it waving in the rearview mirror as we continue to loop-de-loop ahead into this strange techno-philosophical love story that is both not at all and also maybe exactly where we should have expected we might go after Neo saw a rabbit tattooed on someone’s shoulder and they asked him to step through the looking glass.

Which brings us to: the hero’s shoulders. (Had to complete it.) It’s 2021 2022 and Lana Wachowski has re-entered the Matrix without her sister this time, but with two people who have been with her since the beginning: Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves. And basically the three of them are turning from the bathroom mirror daubing blood from their nose after fighting a bunch of Agents and saying: “This is a love story. 🙂 It always has been. One of the things I love about Resurrections is that its golden light is also thrown back in time, catching things in the first three movies and illuminating them anew. The way Carrie-Anne Moss plays Trinity here…it doesn’t recontextualize the Trinity of 20 years ago as just brings her to a platinum glow. Her surety. Her bravery. Her strength that can get misconstrued as coldness when it’s actually this banked warmth. You understand why Neo would try to rend the very fabric of the world to keep her from harm—again. They had such chemistry at 30, but somehow watching the two of them together today, both in their 50s and on some deep resonance possibly more attractive than ever, turned me into a bell—don’t knock into me or I will just start clanging love, love, love ! 

And Keanu Reeves’s new Neo…a dark-eyed miracle of vulnerability. A shaggy noble raven trembling to unfurl his creaking, magnificent wings. This aching sweetness and confusion radiating out of him, an earnest desire to please struggling against a clutching hand of anxiety, a clouded weight of depression. There’s a shot of him in this, it’s in the trailer too, on his knees soaking wet and looking up at someone with a gun trained on his forehead, and Keanu, always such an attuned physical actor, makes this little movement like his entire body is being tugged with the hurt, startled eyebrows on his tired, still so beautiful face. It’s no wonder this performance is resonating so much with people who’ve had a real hard go of it during these last two intangible, endless years of worry and isolation. We can see ourselves in this Neo, trapped and sad and just trying to put on a brave face, trying to ground ourselves, perhaps even trying to somehow still make things to share with others, to connect. And then feeling a little overwhelmed by being suddenly surrounded by a bunch of hotties again. 

Because there are some other people Lana has also brought along with her to Resurrections. If you (me) watched The Matrix Reloaded and felt a tell-tale Wachowski tingle in the air a second before we slid into a subliminal dance orgy in Zion, then you (me) will be set up for total personal disaster looking at Neo surrounded by half the cast of Sense8. There are 10 ten of them in this, and maybe it’s the sheer numbers? (though Wes Anderson surely has hit this mark before), maybe it’s how I haven’t seen most of them in anything else? (this seems possible), but at times the sensation was very much like I was watching a secret Sense8 Season 4. Really it’s a wonder I’ve been able to type any of this given how often I was abstractedly trying to gnaw my wrist off because Will Gorski was wearing a choker. APPROVED, as a feeling!

Listen! This movie is already so meta anyway! The first moment where I said “Lana I can’t believe you’re doing this” was not Trinity ordering a cortado from Bug (Resurrections is a Neo/Trinity Sense8xMatrix fusion coffeeshop AU, which is actually my most supported take in the text and why I’m burying this in a parenthetical), but when Smith informs Neo that their game developer’s parent company, “Warner Brothers,” is going to make a sequel to their Matrix trilogy with or without them. I just laughed brightly. Naturally these bits are going over poorly with some viewers, but like, so too do the Wachowski dance orgies. And in both cases, the people who dislike them are wrong, so it’s pretty simple. Naw I’m jesting of course—the lasting truth of the Matrix series is that it can have SO many different interpretations. Sure there’s one in particular where I’m like, oh god no, but when you rewatch the original movie, you can see where the malcontented online creeps’ Red Pill stuff could come from just as much and even while the film’s trans themes are also emerging. So for me, having a sequence in Resurrections where a roomful of game devs are tossing around a bunch of blithe takes on what the Matrix series was even saying is kind of cathartic and crunchy. I enjoy getting to see an artist chew on their own work like that, woven within a new work. I like stories about stories. 

(Also I loved how the questions being asked were compleeetely different with the Neologians within Neo’s own world, I thought this was very cool. The programs in the Matrix discussing the “game” are approaching it as, naturally, a work, from the outside. They’re questioning what drew people to it, and, as befits a program (or a developer): how you could recreate it. But for the people in the real world, for whom the events of the story are part of their history, their salvation, what they’re grappling with are more internal, almost theological questions of like, what exactly Neo and Smith are to each other. This rules. This is such a great 60-years-on development for the initial trilogy’s upended messiah story. Stories about stories!)

Self-reflexiveness can go too far sometimes, though. The quick cutting to a shot of something in the earlier movies is one thing about The Matrix Resurrections that doesn’t work for me that well. I do really, really love Neo walking through a torn movie screen that’s playing a projection of his first meeting with Morpheus, that part stays, that’s so fucking metatextual, but I think if it’s me I lose really all the rest of the edited in flashes of the original footage. I get that they’re like intrusive thoughts, I like it in theory, but in execution I just found it a bit much. And I think you can really do what you need through just exactly mirroring shot composition, sound cues, etc for those certain key moments. The actors are already doing such a good job echoing the original roles, I trust in the talent of this team to create really rather uncanny moments of repetition without any literal clips, just playing on our memories.

Our relationship to art from our past is quite a theme and study of this movie in fact. I don’t think there’s a clear thesis here, and I think that’s basically the point of so much of this: it’s not black and white, one or the other. In the very first scene, Jessica Henwick’s precious new character Bugs (“as in Bunny,” bless) effortlessly casts down the idea that everything’s binary, liberating herself and her series from being tied to that framework anymore. So there’s dialogue in this movie about the insipidness of reboot culture, there’s a character intoning “nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” there’s whatever irate French invectives the Merovingian was managing to get out under all that castaway hair*, and there’s that Lana has said that where the heart of this movie came from was that she was grieving the death of her parents and it consoled her to spend time with Neo and Trinity again. 

*Sidebar, and for the life of me I cannot find who it was I saw make this comment, but I wholly agree and love it that perhaps nothing better encapsulates early-stage to late-stage Wachowski like a character who goes from being called The Merovingian to allusively ‘the Frenchman’ to finally Jonathan Groff just going “that’s the Merv.” 

So where are we, at the end of The Matrix Resurrections, and ostensibly, at last, the Matrix series? Richer, I think, for getting the dish that is this last chapter. Something a little upset but a lot playful, something empathetic, wry, transformative, about itself but also moving beyond anything it had done before, not always perfectly successful, but always bold, loving, boldly loving. For the one thing we really can say this Matrix is absolutely About, is that Neo & Trinity are so hot and so in love. And maybe that’s what’s going to save us all—the power of love. 

Like we’ve been saying: it’s a Wachowski movie.