Eighteen years after what we thought was the third and final Matrix film, The Matrix Revolutions, Lana Wachowski has directed a fourth: The Matrix Resurrections. But despite some ingenious touches (a very funny name, for example, for a VR coffee shop) the boulder has been rolled back from the tomb to reveal that the franchise’s corpse is sadly still in there. This is a heavy-footed reboot which doesn’t offer a compelling reason for its existence other than to gouge a fourth income stream from Matrix fans, submissively hooked up for new content, and it doesn’t have anything approaching the breathtaking “bullet time” action sequences that made the original film famous.
The first Matrix was a brilliant, prescient sci-fi action thriller that in 1999 presented us with Keanu Reeves as a computer hacker codenamed “Neo”, stumbling across the apparent activity of a police state whose workings he scarcely suspected. Charismatic rebel Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) brings Neo to the mysterious figure of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who offers our reluctant hero one of the most famous choices in modern cinema: the blue pill or the red pill. The first will allow Neo back into his torpid quasi-contentment, the second will irreversibly reveal to him the truth about all existence. He swallows the red and discovers all our lives exist in a digitally fabricated, illusory world, while our comatose bodies are milked for their energies in giant farms by our machine overlords.
A vivacious and underrated sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, appeared in 2003 and later in the same year The Matrix Revolutions, in which the idea ran definitively out of steam: the awful truth was that the drab “reality” in which the rebels were fighting their tedious intergalactic war against these machines looked like Battlefield Earth, the dire sci-fi movie starring John Travolta.
But the red pill and the blue pill was an irresistible meme gifted to political discourse at the dawn of the online age. Christopher Nolan’s Inception was surely influenced by The Matrix and when Succession’s digital media baron Lukas Matsson, played by Alexander Skarsgård, contemptuously compares social media users to Roman slaves, he is echoing ideas touted by the original film. Jeff Orlowski’s documentary The Social Dilemma, about social media serfdom, comes with Matrix-esque imagery – and Mark Zuckerberg is attempting to craft a new digital world called Meta. Moreover Lilly Wachowski, the original’s co-director, has intriguingly discussed the world of Matrix and its relevance to the dissenting politics of gender.
The fourth movie wittily begins by showing us Neo in haggard and depressed middle age, operating under his normal name Thomas Anderson: he is an award-winning but burnt-out game programmer. But there are weird eruptions from within his alt.reality: an activist called Bugs (Jessica Henwick) tries to make contact with him, along with a renegade government agent (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who has assumed the persona of Morpheus. Meanwhile, Thomas’s obnoxious billionaire employer Smith (Jonathan Groff) seems a parallel version of the sinister Agent Smith played by Hugo Weaving in the original films. But Thomas’s analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) is on hand to assure him that this is all just his imagination. But is it? And is Thomas still deeply in love with Trinity, whom he sees everyday in his local coffee shop?
In some ways, The Matrix Resurrections has a degree of charm as a love story of middle age, and usually returning action franchises give their ageing male lead a younger female co-star. Not here: it’s a pleasure to see Moss return, but a shame to see her given so little interesting to do. The Matrix is an idea that is most exciting when it is starting to come apart: when there is a glitch. But the franchise is now a glitch-less narrative: we basically know all about the illusion and the “Battlefield Earth” reality out there in space which is where we are largely marooned: a huge, dispiriting crepuscular ruined cityscape glowing at its rocky edges, like the Verneian interior of a volcano. And the nature of the machines’ thinking and their motivations is not really solved by this fourth film, despite some playful new ideas about whether some of them are disloyal to their side. Lambert Wilson’s character The Merovingian, a veteran of the Machine War, returns, ranting enjoyably about the superiority of art, music and pre-digital conversation.
Really, Resurrections doesn’t do much to remove the anticlimax that hung like a cloud over the cinema auditorium at the end of the third film in 2003. This movie is set up to initiate a possible new series, but there is no real creative life in it. Where the original film was explosively innovatory, this is just another piece of IP, an algorithm of unoriginality.