Editor’s note: The following review contains mild, non-plot spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections.
Action filmmaking has seen several pivotal titles that singularly redefined the genre over the decades, with movies that tested and in many cases broke through the ceiling of what audiences and even creators thought could be achieved on-screen. In the year leading up to the millennium, no film succeeded at this more than The Matrix. In fact, you could probably divide most sci-fi movies into two categories from that moment on: those that came before The Matrix, and those that came after. The first Matrix movie wasn’t just a breath of fresh air in Hollywood filmmaking; it became a cultural moment that permeated our society, a work of fiction to be dissected by fans, a fame vehicle for its young lead Keanu Reeves, and eventually, fodder for plenty of MTV Movie Awards parodies. The massive success of the film would go on to spawn two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, filmed back-to-back in one long run of production and released in the same year of 2003, although each follow-up was met with diminishing critical response in spite of being box office hits. The growing franchise also led to the release of The Animatrix, a series of short anime movies. Pretty soon it became obvious that Warner Bros. just wanted to keep the Matrix train running by whatever means necessary.
When a long-awaited sequel was announced back in 2019, it was anyone’s guess how the creators would approach the concept, especially since it’s a question that has loomed over the sisters’ heads even as they worked on other films together like Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. Eventually, Lana Wachowski came back to make The Matrix Resurrections solo, directing and co-writing the film alongside her Sense8 series finale collaborators David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon — which, if you know the Netflix show, should already clue you in about the type of sequel movie you’re in for. With these three at the helm, The Matrix Resurrections becomes an acutely meta and epically romantic film — one that also asks us to question things like our own instinct to reach for nostalgia, or our reliance on sequels and reboots to comfort ourselves rather than wholly original ideas.
The Matrix Resurrections is set approximately twenty years after the events of the last movie — coincidentally, almost as many years as it took this sequel to come out. Neo (Reeves) is living what appears to be a rather mundane life in San Francisco as Thomas Anderson, a virtuoso game programmer whose most successful and award-winning title to date is, surprise-surprise, The Matrix. He’s clearly going through some shit on a personal level, evidenced by his constant visits to his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), who prescribes him suspicious blue pills when he confesses to having odd visions and dreams, as well as the strange desire to try jumping off of buildings to see whether he can fly. He’s also captivated by a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) that frequents the coffee shop near his office but is still trying to work up the nerve to introduce himself to her. When Anderson’s business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) approaches him about the heavy demand for a new Matrix game, it sends Neo into a spiral of ennui and creative listlessness, one that is unexpectedly broken when he’s approached by two strangers, the blue-haired Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a man calling himself Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Summarizing up the film aside, what do you do when you’ve already smashed through the ceiling as far as action moviemaking is concerned? If you’re Lana Wachowski, apparently that involves focusing on the bigger question hovering around this sequel by textually wrestling with what it means to contribute to franchise culture by making Resurrections in the first place. It’s evident from the jump that Wachowski’s script, at least in part, serves as a mouthpiece for her to make one thing plain to fans — the overlords at Warner Bros., as Groff’s Smith so directly states to Neo, were planning to make a Matrix sequel with or without the original creative team. It’s a moment in the movie that’s played for humor, but the underlying cynicism rings distinct: you wanted me to make another Matrix film? Well, here it is, and you can take it or leave it. There’s also even more weight to the scene when one recalls the fact that Resurrections almost never saw the light of day; when the movie had to halt production for pandemic reasons, Wachowski reportedly considered leaving it unfinished and had to be convinced by the cast to come back and resume filming.
Fortunately, what results from Wachowski’s return to the franchise is well worth plugging back in for — and while Resurrections does afford screentime to plenty of action as well as keen philosophizing about free will vs. choice and the switch to manipulating feelings over facts in this new version of the Matrix, it’s never been clearer that the crux of this franchise is a love story. In a realm defined by technology and science, Neo and Trinity have been linked by the most illogical concept of all: fate. Although the movie introduces each of them as having no idea who the other person is or what they even mean to one another, there’s still an unconscious charge that happens the first time they shake hands, a magnetic pull that continually brings them into each other’s orbit in spite of greater forces conspiring to keep them apart. Their romance in this movie is not implicit by any means, and the love that Wachowski still openly holds for that story persists through every single emotional beat of its script. When Neo finds himself awakened to the reality of this new Matrix, courtesy of a red pill from Morpheus 2.0, his sole mission becomes about how to save Trinity — and his love for her defines every single choice he makes from that moment on. Reeves and Moss sell the relationship between their characters in every scene, from quiet conversations over a coffee shop table to standing on the precipice of a skyscraper, weighing whether or not to jump into the unknown together.
Cast-wise, there’s as much to love from the crop of newcomers as there is with the franchise’s legacy players. Henwick’s Bugs is the character whose unwavering optimism drives most of the story as she works tirelessly to free Neo from the Matrix. Abdul-Mateen’s Morpheus serves as less of a guiding figure in this new iteration and more of a force designed to shake Neo out of his complacency, as well as inject plenty of levity. As the Analyst, Harris is responsible for delivering much of the sequel’s metaphysical monologuing, which he commits to with a blend of menace and sangfroid. And Groff absolutely makes a meal out of the scenery as the newest incarnation of Smith, capable of alternating between charming and sinister energy without missing a beat.
The place where Resurrections does fall a little short is with its action. The sequel continues to emphasize all of the ways in which the Matrix eschews the laws of physics, resulting in many thrilling visuals, but the film, at many points, oddly veers away from the wire-fu and wide camera angles that the first movie became defined by. The result is a lot of frenetic and close-up perspective on certain sequences that makes the action very difficult to parse. It’s a minor quibble in the overall delivery of the plot, but this is one particular instance in which leaning on nostalgia might have served the sequel better rather than trying to deliver something so divergent in terms of camerawork.
The most common question that circles around sequels, especially ones that are finally released after years of waiting, is whether they were even worth making to begin with. With The Matrix Resurrections, Wachowski has succeeded in not simply providing her own answer but conveying a film that represents the story she was most interested in telling after all this time, for better or worse. The Matrix Resurrections is an admirable follow-up in that it’s less concerned with being the movie any fans might believe they want and instead serves up a sequel that will invite lots of conversation, encourage us to parse through the story code, and ultimately linger behind in our minds long after the credits roll.
The Matrix Resurrections premieres both in theaters and on HBO Max on December 22.