Movie Review: “The Matrix Resurrections”

28 Dec

I may be one of the very few people out there who genuinely enjoys the two “Matrix” sequels—“Reloaded” and “Revolutions.” Arriving four years after the iconic cyberpunk epic first hit theaters in 1999, the sequels inevitably ran into the meat grinder of impossibly high audience expectations. And to be sure, the sequels had a very different feel from the original film: they were thick with ponderous meditations on free will and determinism, overtly Christian symbolic references, and heavily saturated color palettes. Frankly, that’s why I like them.

“The Matrix Resurrections,” for all its visual and narrative callbacks to the first groundbreaking flick, isn’t a movie for those who hated these sequels. Rather, it’s a sort of open-ended coda to the series, the completion of a thematic circle that “Revolutions” tried and failed to close.

(I’m going to spoil basically everything about this movie in this review, because I can’t do justice to the major ideas otherwise. That said, it’s streaming on HBO Max, so no need to hit the theaters to see it.)

“Resurrections” opens by introducing us to world-famous programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who resides in a world very much like ours. The “Matrix” trilogy exists in this universe as a series of overwhelmingly popular video games: the characters “Neo” and “Trinity” are household names in the same sense as Mario and Master Chief. Thomas spends his days glumly brainstorming a fourth installment in his series, pining after the pretty soccer mom Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his own character Trinity, and visiting his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris).

Then strange things—strangely familiar things—begin breaking into Thomas’s world. The world around him seems increasingly unreal, and strangers—in particular, a figure both like and unlike the legendary Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a young hacker named Bugs (Jessica Henwick)—keep turning up out of apparently nowhere.

And all of a sudden, it becomes clear that “Resurrections” isn’t a reboot or a fully meta take on the series, but a full-on sequel. Following their apparent deaths at the end of “Revolutions,” both Neo and Trinity were revived by the Machines and had their consciousnesses reinserted into a new, improved version of the Matrix. The notion that Thomas is a video game programmer who created the “Matrix” series as fiction is itself an illusion wrought by the Matrix; the game series really does reflect his real-world memories, though he has been conditioned not to apprehend them as such.

This time around, the landscape is different. Thanks to the peace treaty brokered by Neo between humans and Machines (in “Revolutions”), old battle lines have blurred. Some of the Machines now collaborate directly with the humans, and sentient programs can now interface directly with the physical world through projector-like technology. But the overall situation, on the whole, is pretty bleak. In the wake of “Revolutions,” energy shortages—sparked by humans disconnecting from the Matrix—led to civil war among the Machines and the eventual emergence of a particularly aggressive Machine faction, which in turn produced the new Matrix and its digital overlord, the Analyst. It’s up to a newly emancipated Neo, coming to terms with who he is and with his own past, to free Trinity from her own bondage and confront the Analyst.

In the runup to release, I’d heard rumblings that the new “Matrix” film would go in a “meta” direction, and honestly I wasn’t looking forward to that. I expected an overwrought take on capitalist greed that swapped the original trilogy’s intricate cosmology for a fairly banal fight-the-system plot. How wrong I was: “Resurrections” leans harder into the saga’s gnostic structure than anything before, plumbing the depths of the potential deceptions that stand between the human soul and its final truth.

The prime metaphysical villain here, unsurprisingly, is the Analyst—who turns out to have been Thomas’s longtime therapist. This Analyst is a very different sort of character than the godlike Architect of “Reloaded”: the Analyst is not a figure of omnipotent fate, but of lies and darkness. He is, in short, a consummate demiurge—a spiritual power presiding over the “realms below” who hopes to keep the souls in his keeping perpetually deceived with the language of the therapeutic. Hence his means of ensnaring Thomas: convincing him that his own personal story, the true story of his life and purpose, is simply a throwaway video game fantasy devised by himself—poiesis without a trace of mimesis.

And this is the lie that “Resurrections” rejects, in a fascinatingly paradoxical turn for the saga: a series often invoked as exemplifying postmodernism rejects the postmodern skepticism of metanarrative. For “Resurrections,” to know the genealogy and structure of a story, to know that it is a narrative, is not to imply that that narrative is untrue. Neo’s story is the true story to which he reawakens, out of a morass of lies and cynical social-constructivism. And it is a story that transfigures all metaphysical levels of the world.

Happily, the full implications of all these plot elements aren’t simply gestured at and then set aside. Rather, these themes are all borne out in the film’s conclusion, which finds a reunited Neo and Trinity teaming up to fight once again within the Matrix. 

In his essay collection The Sophiology of Death, Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov distinguishes between chiliasm and eschatology as interlocking aspects of Christian thought about the future. Chiliasm—or, in more familiar terms, millenarianism—captures a longing for terrestrial perfection, or the restoration of immanent human affairs as we know them to an Edenic state. By contrast, eschatology is transcendent in orientation, centered on liberation into the direct presence of God and the utter transformation of all things. A Christian futurism worth embracing, Bulgakov stresses, must hold these chiliastic and eschatological poles together, without allowing itself to become fully world-embracing or world-denying.

“Resurrections” ends with the affirmation of something very like this unity. Those human beings within the Matrix are still invited to free their minds, to look beyond the shadows that imprison them and embrace a more authentic existence. But the Matrix as such is not abandoned to its fate: Neo and Trinity set out to improve it directly, to (literally) fill it with rainbows and help lead human souls toward their proper end.

There is a maturity here that’s not present in 1999’s “Matrix” or 2003’s “Revolutions.”  No longer is it sufficient to simply pursue one’s own freedom through esoteric knowledge, to become one of the “elites” who grasps the visible world as fake and hollow. The swaggering Neo of 1999 is no longer, properly speaking, a role model. Rather, “Resurrections” recognizes that to be awakened to the world’s truth is to assume a greater responsibility for the custodianship of that world. And that awakening, crucially, must be pursued in community—not as a solo voyage from, as Plotinus might have put it, “the alone to the alone.”

Suffice it to say that the ideas at work in “Resurrections” are every bit as fresh and compelling as those in any of its predecessors. If you love the “Matrix” series because of its intellectual depth and mythic power, you’ll find much to like here.

That being said, if you’re more attracted to the series for its eye-popping action, I am sorry to report that “Resurrections” is really nothing special. Despite what seems like a very high budget onscreen, there’s nothing like the chateau battle or freeway chase of “Reloaded” or the swarming Sentinels of “Revolutions”; director Lana Wachowski’s fight scenes are choppy and overcomplicated, devoid of the grace of the originals. And this, I must admit, is a real letdown.

But that’s not what I’m going to remember about “Resurrections.” What I’ll remember is the fact that, after almost 20 years, this series finally has something that feels like a proper ending. “Revolutions” concluded with the Oracle’s gnomic remark that peace would last “as long as it can” and that Neo might reappear one day; in “Resurrections,” those predictions are finally, satisfyingly, cashed out. 

I really hope there’s no “Matrix 5.” As far as I’m concerned, the cycle is at last complete.

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Posted by on December 28, 2021 in Sci-Fi


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