Whether or not The Matrix Resurrections works very well - I am generally of the mind that it doesn't really, though it is a better film than either The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions, and that's sort of the only target it needed to hit - what cannot be taken away from it is that is a movie with a whole lot of love and heart driving it. In the 2020s, given the perilous state of big-budget major studio filmmaking obsessively driven by intellectual property management, that is absolutely not something to take for granted or to dismiss idly. Even more impressively, it manages to do this thing while literally including, as part of its narrative, an unambiguous declarative statement by its director and co-writer that she doesn't actually want this project to exist and she doesn't want to be the person making it. But having marched herself to the point of making it anyways, she does so with unhesitating sincerity and conviction. That's admirable as hell, even if the film that resulted maybe isn't.

The director in question is Lana Wachowski, one-half of the sibling filmmaking team responsible for 1999's The Matrix and its pair of 2003 sequels. Her sister Lilly wanted nothing at all to do with this, and so they have parted ways for Lana's first solo feature film (they have already worked independently in television - Lana on season 2 of the Netflix series Sense8, Lilly on Showtime's Work in Progress). To be frank, I think Lilly had the right idea, and from the end result, it would seem that something important about the sisters' creative process left with her. There's a certain fuzziness in both the conception and execution of The Matrix Resurrections, as though the remaining Wachowski knew exactly what ideas she wanted the film to express, but had a tough time finding a way to articulate them in an actual script (co-written with David Mitchell & Aleksandar Hemon).

It's also at least a little bit fuzzy just what the hell the actual story is meant to be. When we left things, the great war between the machines who ran a massive computer simulation called the Matrix and the humans who had escaped the Matrix to live free in the desolation of a post-apocalyptic world had ended in the beginning of a tentative peace, brokered in part through the deaths of heroic kung-fu techno-badasses Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Now, Neo and Trinity seem to be alive in well in what is unambiguously San Francisco, California, rather than the deliberately unplaceable Big City of the first movies, and they're not called Neo and Trinity: he's gone back to "Thomas Anderson", and he's an extremely well-regarded video game designer. She's "Tiffany", and she's a harried mother who frequents the same coffee shop as Thomas. Or perhaps there was nothing to "go back" to - perhaps Thomas is just having an increasingly hard time keeping reality and fiction straight, and he's convinced that his iconic, groundbreaking trilogy of video games about a virtual world, The Matrix trilogy, is actually something he experienced in his past, and only with the help of his psychoanalyst (Neil Patrick Harris) is he able to keep at least one foot in reality.

So, no duh, that's not what's going on. The Matrix Resurrections is looking to tweak what being "a Matrix movie" consists of, but it's still fundamentally about a giant virtual panopticon called the Matrix where real humans are imprisoned in a computer simulation, so obvious Neo and Trinity have just been stripped of their identities and given this new world for reasons as yet unknown. The film doesn't really expect us to believe otherwise; hell, it's more or less given away the game before we even see our former heroes again, in an opening scene that re-enacts the opening scene of The Matrix as quite literally a simulation within a simulation, and introduces us to the idea that will drive the first hour of the new movie: Resurrections is a film about what it is to live in a world where The Matrix is a media property, and what it means to make The Matrix, and what it means to give it a sequel years later. So what we get first is Bugs (Jessica Henwick) watching the iconic first scene from the first movie as an enraptured fan, commenting on what's cool about it and getting irritated when it goes "wrong".

This is a pretty fun, smart opening scene, but it's also typical of the film's dreariest single element: The Matrix Resurrections is just flat-out addicted to metacommentary. Almost all of the film's first 45 minutes and a decent amount of the rest of it (including credits, the film stretches out to a wearying 148 minutes, because in 2021 we can't have appropriately-paced movies anymore) functions at least as much as Wachowski's attempt to grapple with what the fuck she's doing returning to The Matrix as it is a story about what the fuck Neo is doing returning the Matrix. And while this is all, on some level or another, very interesting, I don't know that much of any of it is good, or even watchable. For one thing, it is unbelievably, painfully obvious, self-referentiality of a crushingly surface-level sort. See, Thomas and his partner business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) have just been informed that the games' publisher, Warner Bros., has decided it's time to make a fourth one, and this will happen even without Thomas's input. So with great, literally suicidal misery, Thomas decides that if anybody is going to fuck up a fourth Matrix, it might as well be him. Cue many scenes of much younger people spitballing ideas of how to make a new Matrix, debating "what The Matrix means as a brand", offering simplistic, pat symbolic readings that the editing in a stultifying montage set to a remix of "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane makes very clear are insultingly simple attempts to read what was once a personal expression but has since become a cultural product for people to butcher as they see fit.

That's not even where the metacommentary gets to, it's where it starts. And I will say that it's hard not to admire the chutzpah of a film that more or less begins with a scene where it's writer-director stares us right in the eyes and says, "I didn't want to make this film I was forced into it. It actually kind of depresses me that I'm making it. I don't think I really have any ideas for what I want to do with this." But it's also hard not to feel like an awful lot of The Matrix Resurrections is, well, exactly the movie that Lana Wachowski has just told us to expect. As I was saying way back up there, it's never in doubt that the film's San Francisco is just another version of the Matrix - less filthy and much less green (indeed, much less interesting to look at - this film's cinematography, by Daniele Massaccesi and John Toll, is shiny and lifeless, nowhere remotely as vivid and defining as Bill Pope's work in the original trilogy, and probably the film's single biggest liability), but still the Matrix. Plot-wise, we're just hanging out waiting for Neo to realise that and work to fight his way back to reality. And this happens - almost an hour into the film. Meanwhile, Wachowski and company are just marinating in their metacommentary.

One thing that cannot possibly be denied: this is a film coming from a personal place, and it exists the way it does because one of the two women with the most indisputable moral right to make such a decision wanted it to be this way. Wachowski is obviously genuinely trying to work out things with this film: the impact, for good and bad, of The Matrix on culture and cinema, who she was as both an artist and a (pre-transition) human being when she co-directed it and its sequels and how her priorities are very different now. And look, in the barren world of 2020s studio filmmaking, that an IP cash-in like this could come from a place of deep, complicated introspection and personal investment in the story being told - that is a god-damned Christmas miracle. So I absolutely do not want to grouse about The Matrix Resurrections spending so much time gazing into its own navel; it is a rare and precious thing that it's able to do so. It's just that I really, really didn't enjoy watching it, and there is so much of it.

Perhaps I'm just a coarse ape, then, but I like the movie a hell of a lot more when it gives up on intellect and just starts to do what it can to function as a genre film. At which point I can no longer give you any kind of plot synopsis, partially because I would not like to spoil things, partially because it starts to become very hard to actually follow what the fuck is going on in the plot. Basically, Neo and a bunch of young people who sort of feel like The Matrix cosplayers - and a rebooted, younger version of the software ghost of his old mentor Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) - go into the Matrix to rescue Trinity. In so doing, they encounter enemies in the form of old exiled programs who want to bring back the bad old days of the Matrix as a human prison, as well as enemies in the form of other programs attempting to redesign the Matrix to be even more efficient at extracting power from human bodies as batteries, which is good, because that would be a super inefficient way to get power. The stakes are... hard to pin down. The human/machine peace has held; the machines themselves have broken into factions, but when Neo meets his former ally Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), she makes it clear that things are going well enough that she's not going to let him fuck things up by antagonising the machines.

So really, I don't even know what the story of The Matrix Resurrections is. But I can say that it makes a whole lot of emotional sense, and that's what makes this feel like a Late Wachowski work, much in line with the Cloud Atlas or Sense8 tendencies in the sisters' careers than what they were up to back in the early 2000s. Without hoping to give away too much, the film ends up being more about The Power of True Love than anything else, and this, to be fair, was already a theme present in The Matrix Revolutions, but it's presented with substantially more earnest cheesiness here, and I am not going to say bad things about earnest cheesiness, not the way Lana Wachowski presents it as the most desperately moving and wonderful thing in this film's fantastically sincere climax - really, in pretty much everything this film does with Trinity, who gets far too little screentime, but who is its rock-solid emotional and narrative core.

It is, anyways, pretty easy to say other bad things about the film. I have complained as much as I intend to about the metacommentary; I've also touched on the frankly lousy, digitally sterile cinematography. In general, the film's aesthetics are lacking; there's one very amazing scene that uses shutter-speed manipulation to do something like "anti-bullet-time", and it's pretty great to look at even as it's kind of dull to listen to (it finds Harris delivering one of the franchise's characteristic 5-minute explanatory monologues - he's smarmy enough to give it some good spin as he does so, but an endless wall of exposition is an endless wall of exposition no matter how you dress it up). But this is pretty much the beginning and end of interesting technique. The editing is shaggy and does nothing to help the pacing stay up, especially during its frequent indulgence in footage from the first three movies, presented as a steady drip of "previously on" recaps (there is some pretty cunning crosscutting, mostly in the film's back half). Conversations trudge on choppily, and the film's action sequences are given no propulsion or momentum by the cutting. And they need it: as the heir to a franchise that did so much to redefine action choreography in American cinema at the dawn of the 21st Century, The Matrix Resurrections has shockingly "just okay" fight scenes; the best one by far is the last, where there's at least some feeling of urgency in the escalating scale and speed of the fighting, but it's still not any sort of standout. Perhaps it's that you can't be about The Power of Love and The Power of Fists simultaneously. And if that's the case, then I cannot fault the filmmakers for making the choice they did. I honestly can't say that I find this terribly satisfying or that I think it fully justifies returning to this well 18 years later, but it's the product of artistic choices, not business calculations, and that already makes it worth holding onto.

Reviews in this series
The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)
The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowskis, 2003)
The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowskis, 2003)
The Matrix Resurrections (Lana Wachowski, 2021)