The Matrix Resurrections (2021) – Review

The Matrix Resurrections is now streaming on HBO Max.

By Palmer Rubin

This was my most anticipated release of the year. The idea of a fourth Matrix movie sounded almost impossible. The sequels were despised, and then re-evaluated. The franchise seemingly died with the end of a tie-in MMO, and not a peep was heard for over a decade. The Wachowskis would go on to make other films, none of them achieving the success of their breakout hit. Speed Racer was an ambitious failure, Cloud Atlas was a polarizing picture, Jupiter Ascending is actually far better than people gave it credit for. Their most beloved work since was when they were relegated to streaming to make two seasons of Sense8, where clusters of interconnected minds are hunted down very similarly to a certain virtual reality. I mention that show specifically because much of its cast and crew has returned for the fourth film (the film’s co-writers, composer, DP and much of its supporting cast are right from the show). I began watching Sense8 in the days before this film was released, and it’s an earnestly dumb series with a likable cast of characters that cribs a lot from the Wachowskis’ previous works. I won’t spoil too much of that for those who want to check it out, but it’s a deeply optimistic work, and it’s in sheer contrast to this.

Not to say that The Matrix Resurrections is bleak or grimdark in the slightest. The Wachowskis have always been punished for being deeply sentimental filmmakers even when most of their output has been routinely mocked by most people. Underneath that sentimentality is a growing fury at the way their greatest work was misunderstood. No more is this apparent in how only one Wachowski, Lana, has taken the reigns as director this time out, as Lilly has gone off to permanently work in television. I saw the trilogy right around the time the third film was released, over three nights, and like millions of others, my mind was absolutely devastated by the possibilities it entailed. What I also remember are the Flash animations on Newgrounds that mostly mocked the films for their “philosophical mumbo-jumbo,” the MTV parody where Justin Timberlake re-enacted most of the scenes. It was mocked as a trilogy far too smart and too earnest for its own good, far too eager to be intellectual, far too unwilling to keep giving the guns and gore people wanted. I still quote these parodies, more often than the films themselves, as inside jokes with friends. It’s ubiquitous now in the way Star Wars is ubiquitous, it has informed every trend that came after it. It is possibly the most intentionally misinterpreted piece of media in existence by virtue of how its concepts have become toxic and weaponized. All the while, the Wachowskis silently avoided their own franchise, keeping reboots and sequels at bay while they watched their own language be used against them. The red pill is now a signifier for toxic masculine rage, the metaphorical virtual reality now fuels a mountain of conspiracy theories. This is not what they wanted.

It also doesn’t help that The Matrix is possibly the most prominent queer text in existence. This wasn’t known when it was first released, as the Wachowskis remained closeted for most of their lives. They would both reveal that they were trans after Jupiter Ascending was released, and the trilogy would become re-evaluated as a result. Later interviews would reveal that the trilogy, and all of their work, were explicitly analogues to their experiences with gender identity, the irony being how many cis people resonated with their metaphorical rebellion againsts systems trying to control them. The Matrix was not just text, but meta-text, deeply personal works that were dreamt up by people expressing themselves the only way they knew how. They are not perfect films, and there are many valid critiques about their portrayal of race and sexuality in their works (Cloud Atlas infamously featured mostly white actors playing racial caricatures straight out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they have a lot of reckoning to do). They are both deeply inspiring while holding a lot of reductive views that can often enter their movies. But even around a more pessimistic world left in their wake, even as the relentless sentimentality of Sense8 felt increasing vapid and rote, it was clear something was happening.

I’m writing all this because there’s so many swirling feelings about a fourth film actually existing, and being able to watch it. It’s also clear that Lana Wachowski has observed the rest of the trend of “legacy sequels, and the sheer way they have mostly poisoned the well. For every Mad Max: Fury Road or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, there is a Ghostbusters: Afterlife or a Space Jam: A New Legacy – vapid works that call back to better films in a desperate ploy to use IP to manufacture joy. How do you possibly square the circle of all those expectations without devolving into pure nostalgia bait? As this film’s version of Morpheus explains, “nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” So many audience members will just expect a Force Awakens style rehash of what was already there. So many audience members will just want the bullet time and the famous quotes. They want the shit literally spoonfed to them. They don’t want to be challenged.

So I’ll try to give what info I can while saving the really juicy bits as a surprise for anyone who hasn’t already seen it. But I think I have used discretion in what you’ll find out and what you won’t if (somehow) I am the last word on whether or not you’ll sit down at home (don’t you dare go to a theater with Omicron on the loose) and check it out. What I will say, which will draw certain people in and reject others, is this: it is not like The Last Jedi in the way some people are saying it is. No, The Matrix Resurrections is closer to Gremlins 2. It is both the funniest comedy and most heartfelt love story of 2021.

Thomas Anderson is a game designer who created a trilogy of beloved video games called The Matrix. They are about a lonely office worker called Neo, who discovers his world is a virtual reality. He’s freed from his prison by two humans called Morpheus and Trinity, and he falls in love with the latter while fending off rogue programs called Agents. Interestingly, the three games have the exact plotlines as the first three movies.

These are the equivalent of Super Mario Bros in this setting, they are that ubiquitous. Even Tiffany, the motorcycle mechanic Thomas harbors a crush on, who he keeps meeting at his local coffee shop (called Simulatte in one of the film’s many hysterical visual gags), has heard of The Matrix. Somehow, she looks and acts exactly like Trinity, one of the heroes of his games! Despite barely knowing each other, somehow Thomas and Tiffany have this almost metaphysical connection. But despite his mass success and cushy lifestyle, Thomas Anderson still has a deep and dark emptiness inside of him, which he lets out in his sessions with a therapist and his cat, Deja Vu. Oh, and did I mention that Thomas works for a company called Deus Machina, the Nintendo of this world? But there’s an additional problem for Thomas: apparently, Warner Bros, who owns the rights to the games, wants to create a legacy reboot called The Matrix 4. Lots of time is spent speculating on what that game could be like, how it could appeal to fans, how it could possibly compare to the work Thomas did as a young man. Thomas has no idea, because he really wants to work on his masterpiece, a game called Binary.

See where this is going? If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, this is as much info as I’ll be providing at this time. Of course, all is not as it seems and maybe some of those aspects thought to be fake or fictional are really not. Maybe Thomas starts to learn stuff about himself we already know. And if you’re wondering, “did Lana Wachowski really decide to go meta with this?”

The answer is yes. The only way out is through, the only way to give Warner Bros the obsessive references and callbacks they need is to make the references and callbacks the literal text of the film. This is why I hesitate to compare it to The Last Jedi, though that film too was trying to commentate on the way a certain franchise is viewed by the public, and why that might be. Even The Last Jedi didn’t dare go to the point of the game designers talking about whether or not the famous “bullet time” should be in the game/film at all, and then the film itself sort of cuts the Mobius strip regarding its inclusion. It is a piece of media commentating on both itself and what it has to be, with Thomas as both the character we know and a literal stand-in for at least one Wachowski. It is as close to Adaptation as a franchise film has ever gotten, and surprisingly very little of it is the action the series is most famous for.

Now, does this work overall? Yes and no. Yes because it takes swings few other films have the stones to ever dare try for, no because not every choice is a hit. Something that’s kind of astonishing that this film pulls off is to fully make the plot of The Matrix Online, the MMO that was shut down over a decade ago, into literal backstory of the film in ways that will only make sense due to a certain character’s off-screen death. Only a Wachowski would pull something like that. It is so massively insane that it somehow works. It is just as defiantly earnest and sentimental as anything else the Wachowskis have made, still spending its entire time commenting on how audiences will view it. This could be, and rightfully be, infuriating to a lot of people. It will feel like a punishment for some to have minor plot details of the third and most disliked film suddenly become very important to how this one turns out. If I hadn’t done a rewatch shortly before seeing this, I would be completely baffled. It’s like the intricate backstories of a Marvel film, that you’re expected to memorize, are suddenly shot through a cannon while on acid. It is both so massively dumb and somehow kind of impressive. It is not a film to watch if you haven’t already seen all three previous films, and that might be a mark against for a lot of different people. I can’t really blame people who get confused by how obtuse it often (intentionally) is being. As one of two legacy sequels to have at least one of its original creators come back (George Miller being the other), there’s something defiant in a Wachowski playing like they’re a fangirl of their own work. Is it a bit stuck-up? For sure. Does it feel like you’re going nuts in a good way? Most of the time!

The other complaint that I’ve heard in reviews before watching was that the action in this is very unlike what people are used to from Matrix films. There’s not a single instance of that infamous 360-spinning shot that everyone knows, and the “bullet time” is very muted compared to what people expected. Unlike the three previous films, this one was apparently shot handheld and mostly without storyboards, much closer to a documentary than a comic book. It is an intentional choice, and one that’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Part of it is that this is the same crew that shot Sense8 on a much smaller budget, and those fights were edited quick with a very choppy pace. What’s also different is in how the effortless “wire-fu” fights are now replaced by scenes that are staged to be intentionally awkward, as an older Neo (don’t I mean Thomas Anderson, not the hero of his games?) has to reckon with being quite a bit out of practice, against rogue programs with far more significant upgrades. A newer Matrix, so to speak, comes with fewer ways to bend the rules of said Matrix, and so now he bleeds and pants for breath instead of looking cool and confident. Nothing is scarier than a vulnerable and very nerfed Neo, after all. It also helps that this is not quite the same setting that we are used to (after all, it’s just about a famous game designer being forced to reboot a franchise he wanted to walk away from! That’s it!). The rules aren’t quite the same, the programs involved made only cameo appearances in previous films. There’s even a character from one of the sequels that demands his own franchise and series of spin-offs as he starts a fight of his own. At every moment, the damn thing keeps reminding you how if somebody has to cook this turkey, it might as well be a Wachowski, someone who actually cares.

But there’s a lot of new cast members too, all of whom hold their own against the…four returning cast members from the previous films. The standout, as reported elsewhere, is Jessica Henwick as Bugs, sort of intended as the Rey of this film, though in a far more intentionally meta sort of way. This is a star-making turn for her, she feels like a fanfic character in the best possible way. Instead of reacting to Thomas like Rey did with Han Solo, she’s more quietly satisfied that her expectations have come to pass. Meeting a childhood hero feels like an inevitability for her. And yes, she’s named Bugs after Bugs Bunny, the most prominent Warner Bros mascot. It’s very much like a Marvel movie naming an original character Mickey in that way. She’s electrifying, she’s great, and I’m sure many will also claim she’s a Mary Sue since she’s so gifted. Let Jessica make any damn movie she wants after this, that’s an order. A bit of a letdown is that the rest of the new cast, while entertaining, ends up being mostly peripheral to Thomas and Tiffany’s emotional journey, and largely feel one-dimensional compared to the way even the sequels gave everyone a bit of depth. Most of this new cast is also played by actors from Sense8 (which just feels doubly ironic), so it feels more of an excuse for Lana to insert actors she likes working with, and making the film feel a bit over-stuffed when they’re around. Having watched the show for the first time so close to watching this, I would bust into giggles every time I realized I just kept recognizing people I’d just seen having an interdimensional mind-linked orgy (long story, it’s a very horny show).

But in the end, the film completely rewrites the narrative of the first movie in some pretty significant ways that feel novel and actually address some of the issues with that one. Some audience members won’t like that choice, but I personally found it pretty damn clever. It is a tonal mess in a lot of place, and the meta-ness of the film will rub a lot of people the wrong. This is not even close to the movie that a lot of people wanted, and it’s far more overtly comedic than all of the trilogy put together. There are full-on physical slapstick gags straight out of Buster Keaton or The Three Stooges at some points (including a hysterically funny one at the end). It is a million different tones and textures all in the service of an interdimensional love story that is both smaller and more intimate than the other films, and grander. It’s a highly flawed and highly fascinating commentary on the legacy reboot and sequel as an artform. It’s one of the most frustrating and most enjoyable films I’ve seen in a while.

I can’t give The Matrix Resurrections a letter rating, because I genuinely can’t tell exactly how I feel about it. But I would recommend a watch, just to see the ballsiest film in a long while. It is many, many things, but it is not boring.

The Matrix Resurrections Review: Hey, It's a Lot Better Than Revolutions,  and Here's Why - TV Guide