The Matrix Resurrections is not one of those legacy sequels that ignores all the installments some people don’t like. Nor is it necessarily a passing of the torch to a much younger cast while going through familiar settings. While a few roles feature notable recasting, and Jessica Henwick plays a major part, Keanu Reeves remains the star throughout. In every way, Resurrections is a sequel to Revolutions, moving the world forward rather than rebooting it utterly. If you’re the type of fan who prefers to pretend the 1999 original Matrix stands alone, and hates the sequels, this one also may not be for you. But for all who have come to appreciate the larger story, world, and breaking down of the simplistic good vs. evil dynamic? You’re good. And this advances the stuff you like even further.
With one caveat: the action is significantly less good than before. Lana Wachowski, now directing solo without sister Lilly, opted to direct all the action scenes herself rather than use second-unit. And master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping’s name is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps as a result, the fights are cut to all hell with drop-frame stutter vision, and larger action sequences simply lack the urgency or sense of geography they really need. The most memorable action moment is the most literal reboot: Neo and Morpheus fighting one another again to tune up their moves. Viewers who like to speed through the plot parts to get to the action may feel let down, unless they enjoy that editing style. As surely someone must.
Fortunately, the story compels enough for fans to forgive battles that will look better on TV anyway.
It’s best to go in not knowing much about the plot, but just to confirm what trailers already show: yes, Neo/Thomas Anderson is somehow alive again. Yes, there’s a new Matrix. No, the events at the end of Revolutions did not get undone, though time moved on and new developments occurred. And indeed, we have new actors as Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff). The convoluted whys and wherefores are better explained onscreen. They mostly seem to make sense.
The Wachowskis always shined at world-building, and that’s no different here. As in Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and the rest, it feels like they’ve created a much larger environment than we see onscreen. It’s not always shot like an epic, though. Constant splicing in of the green-tinged footage from prior films looks cheap and doesn’t match the new aesthetic, while the large establishing shots that exist clearly look digitally created. The best established environment in the movie is a coffee shop; many of the rest feel like snippets that don’t really convey a sense of location.
So those are the criticisms. Still, they’re far outweighed by the good. Which can seem tough to talk about without giving anything away. But let’s try.
First, there’s Reeves himself. Current viewers may not remember, but in 1999, many moviegoers wrote him off as a joke. He was still thought of as the “Whoa, dude!” guy, considered a lightweight with bad fake accents in more serious fare, and had whiffed in the similar-looking Johnny Mnemonic. The Matrix began the Keanussance as we know it. Now, he’s one of the most beloved actors in cinema. And he plays gloriously against that type here as a neurotic sad sack. Tom Anderson, programmer, got everything he wanted, but he still has hallucinations — or are they? — of another reality. But when it comes to the inevitable fighting, he can still go with the best of them.
Carrie-Anne Moss hasn’t had the same level of career, but she slips right back into her star-making role without missing a beat. “Trinity syndrome” has become a whole trope since 1999, referring to a woman who’s more skilled than the man she helps become a Chosen One, relegated to a love interest. It was never entirely fair, but Resurrections knows it’s out there and plays with expectations some.
And then there’s the social subtext. Reloaded frustrated many viewers by introducing the notion that The One represents an illusion of choice to preserve balance in an eternal binary struggle. The analogy annoyed those who wanted a more satisfying victory over the bad guys, but has become a great political allegory in the years since. Resurrections takes it to a new place that feels just as relevant. Though the use of the word “sheeple” by one villain strongly suggests that the same misogynists who misappropriated “red pill” last time will get the wrong message.
More than any other Wachowski movie, though, Resurrections is overtly comedic at times. The sisters have always had a sense of humor, but it’s often misinterpreted. Critics who seize on some of their more absurd story points, like Channing Tatum’s dog DNA in Jupiter Ascending, miss the point that those parts are actually supposed to be funny. The jokes in Resurrections play as far less poker-faced, and should appeal more. (A post-credits scene makes absolutely clear that Wachowski’s in on the joke.)
We shouldn’t blame Lilly for not wanting to return to co-direct, due to connecting the franchise to traumatic life events that happened contemporaneously. But we can say it lacks something without her. Maybe she’ll watch this one and feel a pang to return to that world, because above all else, Lana has provided a new and exciting glimpse into a still-evolving mythology.
It’s not quite up there with Reloaded, which upped the action stakes and upended the underlying story. But it beats Revolutions‘ over-reliance on new cast members who weren’t up to the same level as the prior stars. Henwick is reliable as ever as the Trinity-esque Bugs, while Groff’s new Smith evolves the relationship with Neo into more explicit codependence. (Expect plenty of new fanfics.) And for what he does here, Neil Patrick Harris is perfect.
If only the action were up to snuff, The Matrix Resurrections might rate a full five stars. The script is impeccable. Its execution — quite possibly hampered by COVID like everything else — delivers that gnawing feeling that something’s not quite right. Like maybe there’s another reality out there where it did come out perfect. Or maybe that’s the next sequel.
The Matrix Resurrections opens Wednesday in theaters and on HBO Max.
Recommended Reading: The Matrix Comics, Vol. 2
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