With The Matrix Resurrections, the franchise about sentient machines — among many other things — has finally achieved its own level of sentience. Intertextuality has always been woven into the (black) fabric of these films, with references ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. But the text that the 2021 reboot most engages with is the Matrix series itself, with playful self-awareness and reinventions of the films whose discussions dominated online forums and real-life conversations. Even beyond the technological obsolescence of landlines, it’s no coincidence that The Matrix Resurrections trades phones for mirrors as the way into and out of the Matrix.
The fourth film begins with a strong sense of déjà vu. Neo (Keanu Reeves), aka Thomas Anderson, is essentially back where we met him in the first act of The Matrix (1999), but now he’s the most famous game designer in a world that looks eerily similar to our own. His handle on reality — or perhaps reality itself — begins to shatter. Familiar characters return, even if their faces don’t remain the same. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jada Pinkett-Smith reprise their roles as Trinity and Niobe. Laurence Fishburne only appears as Morpheus in flashbacks; instead, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II appears as a younger incarnation of the iconic character, at once inhabiting the Morpheus we know and love while bringing a new smooth swagger to the part (complete with colorful new suits). Newcomers to the franchise include Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Christina Ricci, but Jessica Henwick is the standout, finally getting the substantial, kickass role she deserves after Iron Fist.
Writer-director Lana Wachowski’s first solo big-screen effort pokes at the concepts of story and IP, as well as how much the movie industry has changed in the almost 20 years since the last time this franchise was on the big screen. The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t feel as world-shifting as the original or even the first sequel in terms of special effects and action sequences; unfortunately, there’s no 2021 equivalent of bullet time or the highway scene present here. It is visually brighter than its predecessors were, with their green tint and heavy lean on darker shades, but it’s not just a stylistic choice. The overall lighter palette befits the film’s more gleeful tone, which some fans of the original films might not expect — or like. The Matrix Resurrections still offers bone-crushing action and heady philosophy, but there’s a delightful silliness present here, especially in the film’s first half. Though The Matrix Reloaded (2003) predates the MCU in its use of post-credits content to promote the series, here the stinger is just for fun — and has some at the expense of those who wait through the endless crawl for something of substance.
Which is not to say that this film is lacking in substance. Wachowski and her co-writers — and fellow postmodernists — David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon pack a lot of big ideas into The Matrix Resurrections. What’s most interesting for a film franchise heavily steeped in computer coding and languages is its opposition to binaries as a concept. While the original trilogy centered on the battle between humans and machines (good vs. evil), The Matrix Resurrections posits that this way of viewing the universe no longer applies. It’s easy to read it through the lens of Wachowski’s biography as a trans woman who has transitioned in the years between The Matrix Revolutions (2003) and this reboot. However, despite the personal origins of this theme, it still comes across as authentic to the story, rather than didactic or shoved in for an agenda. And in case there was any doubt on where Wachowski stands on the co-opting of the red pill/blue pill metaphor by MRAs, incels, etc., the film shoots down misogynist ideas with speed and precision even Mr. Smith would envy.
Meanwhile, instead of revisiting the clash of Neo vs. Smith and the machines for a fourth time, the conflict at the heart of the film isn’t a battle (even if there are plenty of fight scenes). Instead, it’s Neo’s quest to reunite with Trinity. “The One” no longer seems to refer to the singular savior of humanity; instead, its meaning here is more personal and achingly romantic. After the events of The Matrix Revolutions, decades and literal death separate Neo and Trinity, but it still cannot keep them apart. The chemistry between Reeves’ Neo and Moss’s Trinity has always had a circuit board-melting heat, but The Matrix Resurrections foregrounds their romance above even what the first three films demonstrated, and it takes on an even greater resonance this time around. Did I think that I had a deep emotional attachment to this couple? Nope. Did I get choked up multiple times during The Matrix Resurrections just at the thought of their love story? Yes, yes, I did.
The Matrix Resurrections is a nostalgic triumph that reminds us of what — and who — we loved about the original trilogy (or at least the first two films), without constraining itself to a familiar path. There’s a sense of joyous freedom and delight in revisiting these characters and this world, both from Wachowski and the stars. The Matrix Resurrections will probably infuriate the MRAs and the like with its full-throated denial of their interpretations, but that’s just another point in its favor.
“The Matrix Resurrections” is in theaters and on HBO Max Wednesday.