There are a very small number of movies that have had a profound impact upon our culture, jumping immediately to the status of cult classic or, in some instances, genre classic. The Matrix, released in 1999, was just such a hit, a film that turned actor Keanu Reeves into a star, catapulted director siblings The Wachowski’s onto the A-list and had us all marveling at the “bullet-time” super-slow-motion action sequences. The story was engaging, a stunning visual essay on the meaning of reality and free will. 22 years later, it’s still a fun and thoughtful sci-fi thriller. Then there were the sequels, both released in 2003: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. They weren’t anywhere near as good, but the two films, with a total running time of 267 minutes (that’s almost 5 hours), also suffered from being too long and definitely too self-indulgent, as the Wachowski’s have also demonstrated in their other post-Matrix films (notably Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, the atrocious Speed Racer and the Netflix series Sens8).
21 years later, The Matrix Resurrections arrives, with the signature red pill/blue pill decision and dueling realities of the metaverse and the grim underground life of the few humans who are unplugged and experiencing reality. In the simulation, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a famous video game programmer, best known for the creation of a game called The Matrix. His game company co-founder, Smith (Jonathan Groff), keeps showing up, but what puzzles Thomas is that he keeps bumping into a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) at his favorite coffee shop, Simulatte. He’s unsure about what is real and what is his fantasy life, but is sure that she’s actually Trinity (even though in the earlier trilogy she died, asking him not to bring her back). She, for her part, has no idea who he is or why he’s so obsessed with her.
Anderson isn’t just a brillant game designer, though, his inability to differentiate fantasy from reality has caused him to have a breakdown and try to kill himself. He’s now in therapy with The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems extraordinarily calm regardless of what Anderson shares. When young hacker Bugs (Jessica Henwick) spontaneously appears in front of Anderson, he gets mighty confused. But when Morpheus (now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) appears and talks about following the white rabbit to find the real truth about the world, Anderson realizes that there might be more to his life than just the daily workaday grind. The film is at its best wryly self-referential when Anderson and his development team argue through meetings as they explore ideas for a sequel to the successful Matrix game. Shades of Mythic Quest.
Anderson takes the red pill (which pierces the veil of reality and let’s you see the “real” world) over the blue pill (which leaves you unenlightened) and as he’s unplugged and whisked to safety, realizes that Trinity has been in the adjacent pod all this time. Soon he’s in the secret human enclave of Io and the story becomes distnictnly derivative ,rather than a delightful, self-referential homage: The leaders of the city are afraid to change the status quo, even as the tenuous peace between humans and the machine is clearly coming to an end. Fortunately, Neo’s back and has his motley crew of Bugs, Morpheus, and other misfits to circumvent authority and rescue Trinity, come heck or high water.
To start with the positive, the visual effects are gorgeous, just absolutely top notch. The more you know the original Matrix trilogy, the more you can see the great attention to detail. And visual effects – and wire work – have improved dramatically, so the action scenes are generally terrific. The snarky, dry humor of the first portion of the film, referencing the previous films as video games needing a sequel is really fun, and occasionally startling in how self-referential the actors are in the story. The heavy CGI scenes are so perfectly matched to the original that they could almost be outtakes, they’re that close a match.
All good, right? Except for the actual narrative journey. A film about religious awakening, about “seeing” the real world around you, has become a more pointed screed against capitalism. These diatribes become increasingly overt, to the point where it’s impossible not to get the “money begets control, open your eyes!” subtext. Even with the name “resurrections”, it’s more about capitalism than it is about any rather obvious possible religious overtones about the “resurrection” of “the one”.
Worse than that, however, is that director Lana Wachowski succumbs to the same problem she’s had throughout her career: She made a film that’s just too long. Scenes that would be an exciting five minute sequence become ten or more minutes long and, one after the other, they add up to an exciting action flim that’s often rather boring. With a full running time of 148 minutes, I feel like the non-director’s cut could be a tight, lively, and exciting 120 minutes without losing an iota of the story.
Even with these complaints, however, I really enjoyed The Matrix Resurrections as another logical and equally flawed sequel to the brilliant first movie. The concept is so terrific that much can be forgiven for fans of the film. If you aren’t heavy into The Matrix, however, you might find it ends up being a bit boring, as both of my adult children did at our screening. Recommended for true fans, everyone else might just wait until it’s on HBO Max or a similar pay channel.