Decades on, The Matrix has been resurrected, but can the belated sequel recapture the magic of the original? Here’s our review.
When The Matrix first detonated across screens in 1999, it was the sheer audacity of its core idea that left audiences reeling. The film’s writers and directors, the Wachowskis, to their credit didn’t simply try to offer us more of the same with the subsequent sequels either. The next two films in the original Matrix trilogy would come in slightly different flavours, though ultimately, neither would prove to possess quite the same winning formula that made The Matrix so revered.
And so we come to The Matrix: Resurrections, another attempt, this time with just Lana Wachowski at the helm, to rediscover the alchemy that made the first film so special. Sadly, Resurrections never gets close to harnessing the wonder of the original, which is a shame because on paper at least, it has the makings of a pretty good idea. But much like Reloaded and Revolutions, it fails to execute them with anywhere near the same finesse as the 1999 classic.
Keeping story details as light as possible, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is living an unfulfilled life as a successful video game designer. Despite enjoying all of the trappings of success (a corner office with a skyline view, adulation from his peers, regular therapy sessions), he’s haunted by the feeling that there’s a far more interesting life he is failing to live: a life that he snatches glimpses of whenever he encounters Tiffany (Carrie Anne Moss), a woman with whom he is infatuated whenever they cross paths. Anderson’s existential longing is poured into his video game creation, Binary, whose plot resembles an iconic cyberpunk struggle between man and machine that you may just recognise from The Matrix.
I appreciate that the plot details there are somewhat sparse, but that’s because The Matrix: Resurrections’ strongest element is its premise, and for those of you that want to go in knowing as little as possible, to give too much away would diminish your enjoyment of one of the film’s few interesting elements. Suffice to say, the film’s core idea is strong. Not as strong as the breathtaking premise that sits at the heart of The Matrix, nor even the convoluted but clever twist that caps off Reloaded, but it is propulsive nonetheless. An interesting enough idea for somebody to get excited about it and write a script to develop it, as was clearly the case.
However, from a storytelling standpoint, that’s really where the admiration for this project ends. Sadly, the actual execution of the story’s core concept is poor, and by extension, Resurrections is by some way the weakest film in the series to date. Unwisely, the movie elects to build its narrative framework around two key pillars, neither of which work well, for this writer at least.
The first is the film’s pronounced metatextual tone. The second is the romance between the characters played by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Let’s begin with the first. For some reason, Resurrections elects to scoop layer upon layer of metatextuality all over itself, in a way that at first feels fun, but quickly becomes tiresome.
Take the idea of Thomas Anderson recreating the events of the first Matrix film inside of his video game, Binary. Yes, it’s clever, for reasons we all understand. Yet when the film’s characters, pitching an idea for a new game, poke fun at Warner Bros and its demands for a sequel, it all feels far too on the nose. Instead of possessing a knowing coolness, Resurrections’ playful winking at the audience seems reminiscent of Simpsons-esque parody, rather than the sort of narrative ingenuity and clever postmodern sleight of hand that it seems to believe it is dishing out.
The Matrix Resurrections knows what it is. It knows that it is a belated addition to a beloved franchise that has over successive instalments, and for some fans at least, been gradually eroded by the failings of inferior sequels. It knows that it’s been green-lit by a studio on the strength of its brand, rather than the strength of its idea. Furthermore, the film can’t help but remind us of this, and it thinks that in some way, that makes it clever. It really doesn’t. Here’s the thing about being self-reflexive as a film: if you are going to draw the audience’s attention to your very nature, showing viewers that you are in on the joke too, then you better be funny, or clever, ideally both. Tarantino knew this some 30 years ago when he made Pulp Fiction, a film that knowingly winked to audiences about the nature of noir characters, but then entertained us by replacing those well-worn character archetypes with versions that were refreshingly unfamiliar to us.
This, in essence, is what The Matrix Resurrections is going for, but it really doesn’t work. Not only is the approach itself a ageing holdover from the 1990s (Being John Malkovich, Pulp Fiction, Scream), but the film pointing to the very artifice of its construction sadly makes for an unflattering view, when that construction is so painfully inadequate. Granted, the unfamiliar characters, of which there are several, are refreshing. Reeves, Moss, Yayha Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathon Groff and Neil Patrick Harris are all fun in their roles, and Jessica Henwick is particularly watchable as Bugs, our narrative point of entry into this world that is at once both familiar and unfamiliar.
However, this is where the film runs into its second problem, electing to construct much of its second half around the relationship between Reeves’ Anderson and Moss’ Tiffany. Again, the idea here is sound, but there’s an argument to be made that veering into the sentimentality of a love story is one of the reasons that the original Matrix trilogy was derailed. Just to be clear, this writer doesn’t have a problem with romantic plots, only, like any plotline for that matter, when they are executed particularly poorly. Neo and Trinity’s shudder-inducing love scene at the beginning of Reloaded went a long way towards dispelling the cool mystique that the original Matrix worked so hard to create. The same is true here. Despite being based on a strong core idea, the execution of the storyline between Reeves’ Anderson and Moss’ Tiffany is found wanting, and as such, leaves the film without any emotional heft, the space between audience and story as vast and disconnected as the gulf that separates Anderson from his own ‘world’ in Resurrections’ promising opening.
What else is there to say? The action sequences are good, but even they, sadly, aren’t free from a level of metatextual spamming that repeatedly and inelegantly harkens back to the first film, only serving to remind us that we’re watching something far inferior. Whether in time The Matrix Resurrections will enter Highlander II territory, the truly vilified purgatorial space where sequels are not named, invoked or recognised, remains to be seen. Perhaps in the years to come, it will be re-examined and found to be smarter than the audiences who viewed it, but I suspect not.
As it stands, Resurrections’ ironic title leaves it at the mercy of the same archness that it presents to the audience. This is no resurrection, rather a shambling, uncoordinated reanimation.
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