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Movie Review: “The Matrix Resurrections”

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

 

Movie Review: “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one real Spider-Man: the version played by Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s early-aughts film trilogy. Andrew Garfield’s rapscallion portrayal was unrecognizable as the nerdy high schooler Peter Parker, and Tom Holland’s iteration—while perfectly adequate—mostly seems to have mastered the art of looking nonplussed.

Raimi’s trilogy was ideally calibrated to fire the preteen imagination. I watched the films in junior high, the perfect age to be entranced by them, roughly as they released in theaters. And while some purists complained that the cast didn’t look much like high schoolers—all the main leads were very clearly in their twenties—for me that was part of the charm. There was a profoundly aspirational element to them all, rooted in the idea that we could all potentially be Peter Parker, working to eventually balance adult responsibilities and win the love of a pretty girl. Unusually for the genre, the comic-book action really did play second fiddle to the human drama. I love them to this day, even the third one.

Because I still cherish the Spider-Man character and mythos, I’ve seen all the follow-up films since, though none have ever held a particularly privileged place in my heart. Marc Webb’s two “Amazing Spider-Man” flicks felt inauthentic, and Jon Watts’s “Homecoming” and “Far From Home” were throwaway popcorn fun. But given the glowing reviews for “No Way Home,” naturally I was there in the theater as soon as possible.

(It’s tough to write about this movie without revealing major plot points, so consider yourself duly warned that there are spoilers throughout.)

As “No Way Home” opens, a leaked cell phone video taken by deceased villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world. Overnight, the lives of Peter and friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalan) are transformed as they become worldwide celebrities. Worst of all, their college applications to MIT are summarily rejected, on the grounds that the university doesn’t want to court controversy over their admissions. (This part strains credulity. In real life, it’s obvious that schools would be fighting over them.)

In search of a supernatural remedy, Peter seeks out fellow Avenger Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strange promises to cast a spell of forgetfulness that—with a few exceptions—will expunge the memory of Peter’s identity from the world’s collective consciousness. Naturally, the spell goes awry, tearing a rift in the multiverse that brings in a swarm of others who know Peter’s secret: for the first time in years, past versions of the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Sandman, Lizard, and Electro turn up on the silver screen. And, as anybody who’s been remotely online for the past few months already knows, the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield incarnations of Spider-Man show up from their respective continuities to fight alongside Holland’s version.

Following some early fisticuffs, we learn that these villains were transported from their respective timelines while seconds away from death, at the very instants that they came to know Peter’s secret. (For example, the Goblin of Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” first saw Spider-Man unmasked in the moments before being impaled on his own glider.) Banishing them back into the bowels of the multiverse, back to their own timelines, is thus a death sentence. And this is an outcome Holland’s Peter does not accept. Instead, he decides that—consequences be damned—these classic villains can still be put right, saved from their own horrible fates.

On the surface of things, there’s a delightfully eschatological bent to this plot—a kind of apokatastasis, or universal redemption, in comic book form. Here “No Way Home” taps into a common theme of the Spider-Man canon—the conversion of enemies into allies—to suggest that no soul is, in principle, beyond all possibility of reconciliation. So far, so great.

But alas, from a narrative standpoint, all these story beats don’t really cohere.

For one thing, the villain-redemption plot element disappointingly sidesteps a haunting metaphysical question. To redeem these villains is, inevitably, to alter the timelines in which they reside—and so to alter their relationships to the respective Peter Parkers of their universe. But would Tobey Maguire’s fortysomething Peter Parker be the same man, with the same character, if he had never had to reckon with Norman Osborn’s death? To change the past is, inevitably, to change the future—potentially for the worse. And yet this dilemma is simply never posed.

What’s more, it’s worth noting that in “No Way Home,” these villains are “redeemed” through direct therapeutic interventions, which correspond to the circumstances of their transformations. So the Goblin is injected with a counter-serum that undoes the effects of his toxin, Doc Ock is refitted, Electro’s bioelectrical charge is drained away, and so on. But throughout the prior films, many of these transformations were not, morally speaking, accidents: in the case of the Goblin and Doc Ock, their hubris led to their respective falls, with technology playing only a contingent role. Accordingly, in allowing for these characters’ restoration through mechanical quick-fixes, “No Way Home” retroactively cheapens the moral stakes of its predecessors. This grace comes too cheap.

Finally, “No Way Home” concludes with a nod to the controversial “One More Day” comic arc that, while poignant, feels unearned. It simply doesn’t follow from this film’s narrative logic that Peter’s tragic destiny is to have his true identity forgotten by everyone. His fate is not a punishment that follows organically from the villain-redemption motif. or that’s germane to the theme of multiple “Spider-Men” existing across dimensions. Rather, it comes off as a screenwriting decision that lands like a lead balloon.

So, for that matter, does the movie’s decision to kill off Aunt May—which I haven’t mentioned thus far because it’s so transparently a replay of Uncle Ben’s death. (You thought you were safe from having to see a third take on this scene in Holland’s trilogy? Ha! Gotcha!) And to make matters worse, the introduction of the multiverse means that Marvel character deaths now feel even less weighty than they did before. I didn’t feel much, and chances are you won’t either.

Now, none of this means that “No Way Home” isn’t a fine enough time at the movies. The repartee is unsurprisingly great, and it’s a delight to see old Spider-Men back onscreen once again. And it offers an entertaining, if not really pulse-pounding, climax. But on the whole, this is not the game-changer that I expected and hoped it to be.

Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff. The tangled skeins of Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling are increasingly beyond my ken. But I have read my fair share of Spider-Man comics and followed these cinematic characters for the better part of two decades, and by that standard, “No Way Home” is less a triumphant coda than it is a monument to creative exhaustion.

By the time 2041 rolls around, I fully expect to watch a fully CGI version of Harrison Ford, playing Indiana Jones at his prime, battling Godzilla and Darth Vader in the same film. I’ll probably go see it, and I’ll probably enjoy it. But I won’t feel much inside.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2021 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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