08 January 2022

First Impressions: The Matrix Resurrections

Nearly twenty years after a generally unlauded finale, the Matrix series returned to HBOMax to create another fruitless sequel professing finality and promising nothing but corporate maneuvers rather than artistic storytelling. Or at least that's what seems to be at the core of this film's genesis, plot, and structure. Whether it is or it isn't is a source of debate, but hey, this is the Matrix, it was made for debating.

First, a bit of background. This film feels like the culmination of a trend of re-hashing old properties that most folks will say started with The Force Awakens (2015) but really it was Jurassic World (2015) but really it was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) but really it was Rocky Balboa (2006). Rocky's been at this so long he's gone back to it again with Creed (2015). The point is that the concept of bringing back old characters that worked once a long time ago is nothing new at this point. A lot of this is just because movies became too big in the 1970s and 80s. They became pop cultural standards and fandoms emerged. Human beings like to belong to groups and defend what they like as part of their identity. We then just got sort of stuck in these grooves and wanted to revisit them. What's weird is that now the revisit is fresh. I don't know what we'd do with a Jurassic sequel in the 2040s with an elderly Chris Pratt. Would anyone care?

Sometimes you find a good vehicle for aging characters to pass on the mantle (well...Creed I guess is it), but more often these films falter for three major reasons: 1) Characters are too old to be plausibly doing the same crap again, 2) They coast on nostalgia and recognition over creating genuinely engaging new adventures and 3) Their earlier stories wrapped up succinctly so that these new stories undercut the stories we actually liked and make us depressed about their happy endings.

That third one cuts rather hard in The Matrix Resurrections (2021), but we'll get to that. SPOILERS forever, you ought to know the drill by now. While this concept is nothing new, 2021 felt like a particularly egregious year when it came to this stuff. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) surprisingly has a lower critical score than Ghostbusters (2016), although its audience score is far higher (you can't exactly trust these metrics that were driven by Troll campaigns), but more importantly it grossed $5 million less domestically and $44 million less worldwide than the 2016 effort. And the pandemic is a good excuse until...

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). Now, this is assuredly an anomaly, but the success of this film really seems to fly in the face of any other movie whining that the pandemic is the cause of their box office failure. The truth probably lies more in the fact that this was just the only kind of movie that made people want to risk their health and sanity to go to see. So why is that? Well, it's one of the most popular characters in one of the most popular franchises (the MCU) but also connected to one of the most popular franchises of twenty years ago (Spider-Man) with the promise of direct connections to said franchises in a frankly swell "I didn't know they could do that" kind of cinematic moment.

It's really just The Flintstones meets The Jetsons, this is assuredly nothing new. It's just a gimmick to get people in the theater, but on a grander scale. But what folks seem to forget is that this is really trading on early-2000s nostalgia. And more than almost any other time period, this is one that is so rife with memes, regurgitated from half-remembered bizarre cultural artifacts from millennial childhoods that propel said generation now to the theater. The marketing for this didn't start in the past month, it started two years ago when false COVID claims on snapchat accompanied Willem Dafoe saying "I'm something of a scientist myself." They just made that into a movie.

So, getting to the Matrix. People today might forget how big The Matrix (1999) was when it came out. Looking back, it feels like such a perfect movie. It was small and unpretentious about super-pretentious stuff. It was a fresh take on an old sci-fi idea, the simulacra of reality, but with an early Internet twist, which makes it feel so much like a movie of its time. It backs this up with a soundtrack and action that exists in service of its story. And the cast hits really well. It's this really rare film where it's this sincere blend of technology, philosophy, zeitgeist, Hong Kong action, and Keanu Reeves. If you want to turn your brain off to the philosophy it has the action. If you want to turn your brain off to the action it has the mind-fuckery. It just works on every possible level.

Now, the sequels get a lot of flack, but I really enjoyed Reloaded (2003). It felt like it was doing everything a sequel needs to do. We saw the ramifications of Neo's godlike powers within the Matrix, and villains' increased efforts to confine him (mostly by exploiting the Matrix to strand him on mountains or trap him in corridors. Some of Neo's reality warping was nerfed, which always disappointed me, but whatever. It expanded the world and mythology by traveling to the real-life last human city of Zion. And it doubled down on both the action and the philosophy, the former through the Highway Chase, which is paralleled in the past twenty years only by the entire Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the latter by long diatribes by both the Merovingian and the Architect, which folks will generally roll their eyes at for dipping too hard in that pretentious pool, but I also think that's the point. These are machines who think that they are better than humans and they...exhibit that.

I was never a huge fan of Revolutions (2003), though. The big battle for Zion is the showpiece, but it didn't really feature anyone we had journeyed with this whole time. It mostly focused on these generals and that newbie wiener kid who no one cared about. And the Dragon Ball Z fight between Smith and Neo lacked clarity to be a final showcase. I mean, I kind of get it, Smith absorbed the Oracle, which somehow gave him Neo powers, and then absorbed Neo, which allowed the machines to blast him when touching the source code. Right? But like, why would the machines ever honor their truce?

Why indeed. That's probably why we get to where we are now. There was no reason for the machines to honor the peace, although Neo's efforts did lead to some machines defecting. That's great. To talk about this particular film, we then need to examine a handful of simultaneous levels. First is the actual story going on within the film. Then the meta commentary about the production of the actual film by Lana Wachowski, and then the actual cultural context of this film's release. So, before we get into all that, let's give them some credit for creating a film where this kind of discussion is even needed in the first place.

In Resurrections, Neo is a game programmer living in a new version of the Matrix where he has created a video game series called, The Matrix. He creates a module that rapidly evolves a program into an amalgam of Morpheus and Smith (I was never quite convinced they pulled this off, he doesn't seem to have much Smith-ness. More just like, some kind of hip Morpheus. But I'm still a big Yahya Abdul-Mateen II fan). This program, with the prodding of Bugs (the best new part of the film, played by Jessica Henwick), re-awakens him. They then try to re-awaken Trinity, for both were resurrected by the Analyst because of the great power they bring to the machines.

That's pretty much it. For all the convolution, this is basically a heist rescue story about a group of freedom fighters trying to free one of their former leaders, Carrie Ann Moss. The notion that you could trick Neo by telling him the Matrix was a video game he created is rather inspired, and I'll again give this movie credit for somehow creating genuine new mind-fuckery. You do really start to think, "What, were those previous three films all just a video game we were watching?" This film folds this meta commentary upon itself, at one point literally dropping the reason this film exists (one might surmise), which is that parent company Warner Brothers (mentioned by name) will make a sequel with or without its original creators. There is then a lauded scene of people in a room pitching what made the Matrix great and how they might replicate that in a sequel.

So, this is both really canny and clever, but also disappointing. It feels very clear that Lana Wachowski (her first time directing without her sister, Lily), was in danger of Warner Brothers making a sequel with or without her. It's nice to get the original creator back. The George Miller effect, if you will. But the key rub is that that long list of what made the original Matrix cool isn't wrong. It is what made the original film cool. Resurrections darts much of this. The Merovingian reappears and starts spouting off philosophy but it's during an action scene and every character ignores him. Neo isn't even the One anymore, or maybe he is, but Trinity is also the One. So there are two Ones and one is named after the concept of three. A lot of this feels like fucking with the audience, which is fine, except that you can't expect that you would ignore everything that made The Matrix cool and then still be cool.

I sound like a bro. What I mean is that this just isn't going to satisfy Matrix fans, but it's not trying to and it doesn't have to make a good movie. It ends up being a pretty shit movie because it defies a lot of expectations that come with being a long-range nostalgic sequel, but it also quite frankly doesn't. It still follows the beats of the first film (in fact, bits of all films), but just because it's commenting on itself doesn't mean it's elevating itself above itself. It reminds me of 22 Jump Street (2014) which everyone loved because it was so meta, but that's not enough, it still followed its meta path. Or the Deadpool movies which smile in their self-awareness but then still commit superhero movie sins. Or even Jurassic World, which fully admits that they are never going to make a movie as good as Jurassic Park (1993), so settle on making a shittier film. You get that sense constantly in this. Scenes from The Matrix are literally projected on the walls during companion scenes in this film. You could make an argument for that being brilliant art - it's saying "This is what you want? You want more Matrix? Here it is literally the same scene again" but within the context of the characters in the movie there is little more commentary than that and the function of the scene remains the same.

It's a hard film to have its cake and eat it too. There are still realistic stakes here for the characters. See, the big issue with this premise being a mystery is that there is this big question "What is the Matrix?" that has a pretty simple answer. The Matrix is a simulation of life in the late 1990s to keep human beings compliant and happy while machines in the real world suck the electricity out of our brains. While there is this deep philosophy and mystery as part of the story, the plot isn't all that convoluted and there are still progressions and consequences. This film seems to shy away from what could have been a sincere meta experience and instead use its meta elements to enforce a plot that is basically the first movie. Thus the film, despite all its effort, still falls into that nostalgia trap.

Alright, let's shift and talk about some of the little things. It has been oft commented already, but while each of the first three movies has spectacular action set-pieces, this movie...doesn't. It feels cluttered, boring, and inconsequential. Maybe part of that is the darting of expectations, but I struggle to think so, because it feels like they are trying. It's not the 21 Jump Street (2012) mode of shooting at a gas truck and having it not explode. They are fighting, but it doesn't feel original or interesting. This means that a big staple of the franchise, why folks tuned in, is instantly dulled.

Again, maybe this was on purpose. The Wachowskis seem a little bit ashamed of the monster they created. Unfortunately the Matrix has many possible readings, and the alt-right has co-opted red pilling as becoming aware of liberal world conspiracies. It was about being closeted trans and finding a safe space on the internet to create the person you really are, you clods. One might look at the Wachowski's post-Matrix Trilogy filmography to gain some understanding of how this film came about.

Post-Trilogy they produced V for Vendetta (2005), which seems in their wheelhouse. It had decent critical reviews and remains a pretty solid film. Then they made Speed Racer (2008), which everyone hated. It has since earned a cult following and positive re-appraisal, but I will admit that I have tried to sit down and watch it twice with the mood to appreciate it, and don't totally buy into it. I'd like to show it to children I guess, which is is the target audience. It is colorful and unique and with the best casting ever, so I'll give you that.

It seems crazy that after the Matrix Trilogy and V for Vendetta they'd dive into Speed Racer. I suppose it's the George Miller Happy Feet (2006) effect, but it's also a chance for them to get into more green screen work, more building works out of CGI, and to do something totally different. Standing back now, I can appreciate that. They've only made two feature films since then though - Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015). Both were enormous box office bombs and appreciated by no one.

Cloud Atlas was an adaptation, but Jupiter Ascending sought to create a new sci-fi world that could have become a big blockbuster franchise. It...did not. These films combine for the popular fact that, despite any cult opinions, the Wachowski's really haven't directed a film SINCE The Matrix to receive universal critical acclaim. I'm including the sequels in that, which are fair to say have also been reviled. It must be hard to make a game-changing film and not be able to follow it up for like twenty years.

This feels like the context where Resurrections was created. They're coming off Jupiter Ascending, an original film that everyone hated. Warner Bros is in a position to dangle the Matrix and pass it on to anyone else willing to make a rank in file sequel. A Colin Trevorrow or oof, JJ Abrams. I want to see the JJ Abrams Matrix now, just so I may hate it forever. I picture Lana Wachowski being so fed up and thinking, "They just want the same crap?! I'll give them the same crap!" It feels like both a way to make a movie they want to make again (to their credit, I have no idea why people keep giving them huge budgets to make bombs, it's a testament to just how good The Matrix was that studios will still roll the dice on whatever insane shit they want to make) and to stick it to our current nostalgic trends.

Now, I'm obviously leaving out a big project of theirs - Sense8. I completely loved Sense8. It was the best work they've done in the past twenty years, the ending was obviously very rushed with impending cancellation, but I'm glad they got one at all. The mystery of that series may have also outpaced its execution, but it was generally really fun, comprehensible, and obviously the best showcase for LBGT and sex positivity maybe ever on screen. And of course, being a Sense8 fan allowed me to recognize that half of the cast in Resurrections were people from Sense8, which was fun as hell. 

Let's end how we began. We are finally at the point where we are getting knee deep in early-2000s nostalgia. Spider-Man: No Way Home nailed it, and it doesn't feel like a coincidence that Resurrections came out less than a week later. Spider-Man, the Matrix, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter were the biggest franchises of the early-to-mid 2000s. I'm surprised we haven't seen more Shrek stuff, especially as Mike Myers' career slumps, but they may have drowned that with four films of descending quality and a spin-off. The Pirates of the Caribbean is the same way - they just drowned us in Jack Sparrow with the most recent film coming out in 2017 until Johnny Depp burnt up all his goodwill. We just aren't really nostalgic for those first films. We did get more Tolkien films with the Hobbit movies, but the nature of that franchise (along with Harry Potter) has prevented more film-only projects from organically springing up.

That's really what makes superhero films superior to anyone - there's always another story to tell. There is no holy text. All we have is an abhorrent New Shadow lurking as a sequel to the Lord of the Rings. Don't tell Hollywood about that one, by the way.

Ultimately we're just in this conundrum, which I think the Wachowski's realized. The best move is to not make a sequel. Obviously the original Matrix Trilogy wrapped things up pretty tightly, with most characters dying and the world being saved. A nostalgic film won't make us feel the way we did when we first saw The Matrix or Spider-Man (2002) or The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). But in the absence of original creators with artistic vision we get The Rise of Skywalker (2019). It is a really difficult position to be in when Jupiter Ascending doesn't catch on. But also, I watched this so what does that mean? I'm still in this world as guilty as anyone else propagating a machine of drained culture.

A lot of this is actually in Resurrections, by the way. Neil Patrick Harris' Analyst says as much. The Matrix exists both within its world and as a sequel because it's what people wanted. It makes them happy and continues to feed them. This is as close as the film gets to upgrading the lessons of the Matrix and Internet culture to 2021, and I admittedly would have liked to see that aspect pushed further, but also in the world of the Matrix that no longer makes sense. I suppose they must have had 2020s, right? Unfortunately it's just not going to be as groundbreaking, or maybe this film is what the Wachowski's now think of the Internet in 2021 but it's just not as in line with the zeitgeist as 1999. And that makes sense, since no one can capture 2021's zeitgeist - it's just a fractured mess where everyone has only their own opinion and as big of a microphone in history to shout it and accept no others.

Except for Spider-Man. We all like Spider-Man.

I may have convinced myself in this review that I actually liked Resurrections. It's always hard at first to enjoy a movie that says you're dumb for watching it, but I can maybe appreciate what they are saying. I still think it didn't pull off the commentary quite the way it wanted to, and didn't elevate beyond its whining about the state of nostalgic movies. But honestly, I'd still rather have this than overly reverent Ghostbusters: Afterlife and JJ Abrams.

Take that red pill and transition, baby!!

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