Back in 1994 Wes Craven released New Nightmare, a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel that turned itself into a full-blown metatextual exercise. It was in that film where Heather Langenkamp played a version of herself, an actress reluctantly returning for a Nightmare On Elm Street sequel as the world around her blurs the lines separating reality, fiction, and dreams. For a good chunk of The Matrix Resurrections, it plays like Lana Wachowski’s version of New Nightmare. But this time, Keanu Reeves isn’t playing “Keanu Reeves,” he’s still Neo, but this time he’s once again living the pointless, soulless life of “Thomas Anderson,” having been plugged back into the simulation sometime after the events of The Matrix Revolutions. But in this particular program, Thomas Anderson is a world-renowned game developer, hailed for his visionary work on a trilogy of video games called — what else? — The Matrix. Living under the assumption that he had a psychotic break after completing the trilogy, Thomas takes his blue pills every morning, and visits a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) who explains to him that sometimes creatives get so immersed in their work that they lose the ability to discern imagination from memory.
Then Anderson’s business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff), calls him into his office and announces that “our benevolent parent company Warner Bros. has decided to make a sequel” to The Matrix. Thus begins the mind-bending meta dimension, as Wachowski stuffs all of her resentment about the existence of the very movie we’re watching into a slickly edited montage set to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Lana and her sister Lilly throughout the years have stated that they had no interest in continuing The Matrix as a film series. But Resurrections implies that the only reason Lana has come back for a fourth movie is because that Warner Bros. would have done it with or without her participation. Which then renders The Matrix Resurrections as both a calculated compromise and a self-aware reclamation.
This time around though, love still remains the key philosophy for this fourth installment. But first, Wachowski and her co-writers, David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, still air their grievances. They do so through the character of Thomas/Neo, whose depression presumably mirrors the writers’ feelings at having to do a Matrix revival because no one will fund their original ideas. None of the meta elements in the first half of the film are at all subtle: they range from a cat named “Deja Vu” to a coffee shop called “Simulatte,” to having a literal group of people have a discussion and try and analyze what the previous Matrix movies (or for them video games) were about. But in an era where the body of cinema is being consumed by franchise rot, it’s righteously interesting to see Wachowski try and fight a little as she’s dragged into the insatiable maw of recycled IP. And besides, subtlety has never really been in the Wachowskis’ vocabulary.
Reeves remains an avatar for Wachowski throughout the film, into a second half that trades screaming into a pillow for a messy but optimistic statement on what it feels like to see something you created grow beyond you. Old favorites from the original trilogy do appear, but it’s the new characters who are most effective in shaking Neo out of his Mr. Anderson funk. These include Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a freedom fighter with blue hair and a white rabbit tattoo, and the new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), more colorfully dressed but equally unflappable. All these characters approach Neo with an awe of seeing a myth come to life, reminiscent almost of how Rey and Finn looked at Han Solo in The Force Awakens. And at times, there are parts of The Matrix Resurrections that play like that particular Star Wars adventure, albeit dressed in more interesting and popping costumes (designed by Lindsay Pugh). Like the latter-day Star Wars films, Resurrections is at its weakest when it bends to conventional wisdom about what audiences want from a sequel: the fan service of constant references and callbacks. Wachowski does bring some inspired visual touches to her film, but these are in constant tension with the dopey callbacks and tortured exposition dumps.
Where Resurrections really disappoints is in the staging of the action. The Hong Kong-influenced long-take action sequences (choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping) that made 1999’s The Matrix so revolutionary are all but absent, replaced by rapid cuts that render the fight choreography here less legible than any of the previous installments. And although there are a few giddy moments of sci-fi mayhem, the set pieces — and there are many — never reach heights as outrageous or as thrilling as something like the highway chase sequence in The Matrix Reloaded. But even as they’re might be less motorcycles this time around, a certain hopefulness still appears. At one point this film has a character pointedly remark that “nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” but it also has another say, “Hope and despair are almost identical in code.” So clearly there’s a certain ambivalence of creator for creation in The Matrix Resurrections, but the impression left by the end is not of bitterness but hope. A confusing but endearing hope. Occasionally falling victim to dopey callbacks and references, The Matrix Resurrections still renders itself into a peculiar, self-aware reclamation to the idea of the Hollywood reboot; something too bold to dismiss.
The Matrix Resurrections is playing in Theaters nationwide and available to stream on HBO Max