Like just about every other girl with a natural estrogen deficiency and a complicated relationship with her parents, I went into The Matrix: Resurrections with a ton of anticipation and a whole truckload of expectations. It’s been over two decades since the Wachowski sisters first redefined action cinema with their 1999 techno-gnostic wuxia epic — decades which saw that film recognized as a revolutionary trans allegory while its symbolism was co-opted by reactionary movements all over the asshole end of the political spectrum — and I was thrilled to see what returning director Lana Wachowski had to say about her legacy in what appeared to be a deeply introspective new installment. I’m also one of those degenerate freaks who liked Jupiter Ascending (don’t tell anyone), so I was confident that even if it wasn’t a “good movie” in the traditional sense it would at least fail charismatically enough to earn my recommendation. So what’s my verdict? Well babes, I’m sorry to say it’s not great. Not that there’s nothing to like here — the movie sets out to do some really interesting things and there are some parts of it that I genuinely adored — but its failure to follow through on its best ideas leaves me almost more disappointed than I would have been if it had just been another thematically empty cash-grab sequel.
I’m hardly the only critic to point out that the film peaks in its first half hour, but it’s worth repeating: this thing opens strong. Upon being reintroduced to Neo as a burned-out game developer famous for creating an in-universe version of The Matrix trilogy, I was instantly on board. When it was revealed that he was being pressured into making a sequel – a fourth Matrix – by none other than Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., I was ecstatic. The questions being asked here, in 90pt neon typeface and with tongue firmly in cheek, are salient ones: What’s the value in coming back to a story that has reached its natural conclusion? How do we maintain a sense of meaning and joy in a media landscape dominated by the profit motive and the all-consuming spectre of Intellectual Property? Is everyone’s favorite sapphic white boy ever gonna catch a break? If the film elaborated on these themes with a fraction of the bite and consideration on display in this first act, you’d have a deconstructive meta masterpiece on par with Funny Games or The Homestuck Epilogues. Instead, what answers it does provide feel half-baked and saccharine and is made that much harder to overlook by its more pedestrian narrative shortcomings.
I could go on about how the supporting characters are two-dimensional, or how the action lacks the impact and majesty it had in the original trilogy, but by far the most glaring of those shortcomings is the frankly unacceptable percentage of the movie’s runtime where Trinity isn’t on screen. Now I know what you’re thinking: Nat you massive dyke, are you seriously gonna try and pass off your formative crush on a leather-clad Carrie-Anne Moss as legitimate grounds for media criticism? I understand your concern, dear reader, but listen: Resurrections is a love story. Neo and Trinity’s mutual struggle to overcome the forces keeping them apart is the film’s central emotional axis and the driving force of its plot, elevated by sci-fi conceit to a position of existential significance. As such, the fact that the entire movie takes place from Neo’s perspective utterly kneecaps it. The brief glimpses we get into Trin’s shitty, unfulfilling family life in this reconstructed matrix are compellingly bleak, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with her to become engaged in her plight, or to make the moment when she inevitably throws off her comphet shackles feel triumphant.
On a more positive note, the other half of the core duo succeeds in picking up some of the slack. Keanu Reeves plays a Neo who is convincingly over this shit. His exhaustion and resignation are vividly drawn, which is heartbreaking if you have fond memories of his fiercely rebellious younger self. This aspect of his character works on a couple levels: his exhaustion is the exhaustion of the franchise with itself, of a creator alienated from their work, and of a middle aged closet case who’s forgotten how to hope for anything better than the unbearable life in front of them. All of this plays nicely off of a new villainous program called the Analyst (portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris). He’s a wonderfully smarmy bastard, and his misogynistic, faux-friendly affect resonates more with a modern understanding of banal corporate evil than the imperious philosophizing of the franchise’s prior digital demiurge. In the same vein, Resurrections forgoes the oppressive, green-tinted color palette of the original trilogy for something far more colorful and just as striking. Within the matrix, unreality is communicated through oversaturation and dizzying visual excess in a way that feels copacetic with how the systems of control and disinformation that it represents have evolved over the decades. Unfortunately, all this truth and pathos goes out the window after the first act in favor of a sickeningly sweet adventure story that undercuts much of what made it work in the first place.
Okay, listen, I’m not a complete masochist. I believe that positive and uplifting stories have their place on the continuum of queer fiction. Hell, the original Matrix is one of my favorite movies of all time because it’s a fun and affirming power fantasy about realizing you’re trans, meeting the girl of your dreams, and murdering hundreds and hundreds of cops together. Crucially, though, that film has stakes that feel real and characters that face meaningful setbacks. It sometimes comes across as a little naive, but its sheer teenage punk energy is infectious enough that by the time Wake Up by Rage Against the Machine blasts over the end credits you’re fully in the mindset to sing along. Resurrections, on the other hand, is too invested in its own self-identity as a work of radical optimism to stick the same landing. Lana gives us a timely and articulate vision of societal rot, shows us how it feeds off of personal misery and the destruction of meaning, asks what can be done about it, and answers… love conquers all, I guess? The power of friendship? It’s hair-tearingly frustrating.
For example: just before the credits roll, there’s a scene where Trinity gets to perform an extended beatdown on the Analyst while Neo looks on supportively. You can tell this was meant to be a powerful and cathartic denouement, but as presented it fails to come across as anything other than hollow and self-congratulatory. By this point in the film — through weightless action, meandering plot threads and pulled punches — its main villain has been reduced from a sinister embodiment of modern capitalist patriarchy to a rhetorical straw-chauvinist who would be more at home getting humiliated in a fake story posted to Tumblr circa 2012. And that’s the taste thatThe Matrix: Resurrections leaves in your mouth: Neo and Trinity effortlessly beat the bad guy, get in a few zingers, and fly away into the sunset. And then everyone clapped.
As disappointed as it left me, though, I’m hesitant to write this movie off as a complete failure. Modern cinema being what it is, it’s refreshing to see a work that feels like it was made by an actual person with a singular creative vision, even if that vision utterly fails to connect with you. And, while inter-and intra-community pressure to childproof and sanitize queer stories is a pervasive issue, I don’t believe that’s what happened here. Rather, despite certain technical aspects of plot and character that fail to cohere, it feels like this is exactly the kind of Matrix sequel Lana wanted to make: tonally vibrant, thematically breezy, and optimistic to a fault. It’s absolutely not my thing, but it very well might be yours.