Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections.**
If you’ve ever watched the scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! where a ragtag band of Bohemian musical artists trip out on absinthe to Kylie Minogue’s Green Fairy, then you’ve basically already seen The Matrix Resurrections. And not just because both leave you with a sense of “what on earth did I just watch?”, but also because both espouse romantic love and self-expression as the highest values; they insist that “the show must go on!”; and they both take place under the hazy green light of an altered state.
Of course, you could also just go see the first Matrix film if you’re curious about The Matrix Resurrections because this fourth installment in the once-great franchise borrows so heavily from the first movie, it will leave you wondering if writer/director Lana Wachowski understands that nostalgia does not mean the viewers want to see exactly the same scenes filmed again—but worse.
Available now in theaters and on HBO Max, The Matrix Resurrections joins the ranks of money-grab sequels that came along to say, “Remember when you thought your favorite heroes saved the world? Lol—jk! It’s actually worse now!” The Matrix Resurrections reunites the incomparable Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in their original roles as Neo and Trinity about twenty years after the close of The Matrix Revolutions, the final film in The Matrix trilogy. The only problem is, you may remember that Neo and Trinity both died at the end of The Matrix Revolutions. Died died—it wasn’t left open ended. So there’s been a lot of speculation going into The Matrix Resurrections: How are they bringing Neo and Trinity back? Is it really Neo and Trinity, or is there something else, more interesting and twisty, at play?
Unfortunately, interesting and twisty this movie is not, and the story would have been better served if “resurrections” wasn’t so literal, in this case. But… where there’s a will and a franchise to restart, there’s a way, I guess? I’ll toss Warner Bros. a bone here in that at least they did better than “somehow Palpatine returned,” but not much better. It’s explained in the story that the machines rebuilt Neo and Trinity’s bodies because the two of them and their unrequited love-energy were needed to make the new and better version of the matrix thrive. Or something like that. It’s all inadequately hashed out in one of the many (many) sequences of long exposition that are the word salads gluing together a nonsense sandwich.
Now I’m the one being nonsensical, or at least you think I am. But this movie literally has an action sequence in the final third that can only be described as a scene from the movie Time Bandits, and I… I just can’t get it out of my head. So, bear with me.
Neo and Trinity are alive, but they aren’t together, and they are somehow once again inserted into the matrix. Didn’t we already solve this problem in the three previous movies? Yes, but why come up with original conflict when you can carbon copy a story you’ve already written and instead switch out your themes? In this version of the same old story, the world doesn’t need saving (well, it does, but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore). It’s Neo and Trinity who need saving instead. And they are the only ones who can save themselves. Oh, they have help from the cool people who wear their sunglasses at night, but in the end, it’s Neo and Trin, ride or die. The show must go on for the WB, and it’s a dismal show.
Think I’m being harsh in calling it a money-grab sequel? Don’t blame me for that assessment—it’s right in the script. Within the matrix in The Matrix Resurrections, instead of being a peon in a corporation, this time around Thomas Anderson/Neo is a world-famous game designer. But not just any game designer—the designer of the game called The Matrix (and its two sequels), which contain all the scenes and events from the first, second, and third movies, and which star a version of himself and Trinity. In other words, in the most heavy handed metaphor ever created, The Matrix (the games) in the movie are stand-ins for The Matrix movies. Matrixes within Matrixes. It’s so self-aware it’s icky, especially as Neo is forced to face the task of building a fourth version of the matrix “game” (which of course doesn’t really exist, get it, because it’s really the movie we’re watching that he’s “creating” as an actor, get it??). Feel like it’s bizarre yet? It gets worse.
In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes of self-immolation I’ve ever seen, Neo’s business partner boss tells him that he has to create a fourth version of The Matrix (the game). His boss laughs self-deprecatingly about how he knows it’s not original, and aren’t sequels the worst? But their parent company, Warner Bros., insists! If Neo doesn’t agree to make the fourth “game,” Warner Bros. would just make the sequel without him, without all of them. “Can they do that?” Neo asks. They can—so, as far as his boss is concerned, they’re all slaves to the fourth “game”—and however many more sequels there may be.
Yeah. Warner Bros. really are the worst, aren’t they? Long Jim Halpert stare into the camera.
Telling the audience your film is a cash grab and your actors are slaves to the franchise is bad enough. Making The Matrix Resurrections a sloppy film that bastardizes the original trilogy just adds insult to injury. Every time I was tempted to think, “this means something,” I realized it was a flimsy veneer slapped over a badly reheated mix of better ingredients from previous installments. And I’ve never watched a movie that was filmed with so much ironic self-loathing about what it was. Filming techniques the Wachowskis famously used to make special effects possible for The Matrix trilogy (like “bullet-time”) entered the story world of the matrix in The Matrix Resurrections because apparently characters are so self-aware they can punch through the fourth wall and grab them. Even the characters run around as they try to create the fictional fourth “game” saying things like, “What made The Matrix great?” and deducing that it was great because it “messed” with people’s minds.
I honestly can’t decide if Lana Wachowski is trolling us with this film? Or trolling Warner Bros.— or both?
I might have forgiven the sins of the attempts to be “meta” (if that’s what’s going on?) if The Matrix Resurrections had anything decent to say. But form and function go together in a visual storytelling medium, and this movie’s form is such a mess that Lana Wachowski lost the right to deliver anything meaningfully philosophical in it as a result. While self-immolating for being an unnecessary sequel, characters say a few times in this movie that “stories never end.” I guess that’s what The Matrix Resurrections is supposed to be about? Stories never end, so that’s why we’re resurrecting dead characters and squeezing more plot out of a finished franchise. Winky wink.
Aside from capitalism and greed, this sort of approach to storytelling is a bad misunderstanding of the proverb “there’s nothing new under the sun.” There is no new type of story to be told, but the truth is that stories should end. In fact, it’s imperative that they do. If stories are to tell us the truth, they must have a resolution—whatever that resolution may be. We don’t live in never-ending loops of death and rebirth. We don’t get to try again in a new life if we screw up in this one. We get this one mad and joyous life, and “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Characters have arcs, and those arcs should look like actual arcs, with beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories, likewise, should follow those character arcs in meaningful ways; this is why story formulas, tropes, and conventions exist. The form of stories deliver themes, successfully or unsuccessfully—it’s the job of the storyteller to make the most of their limited means to point their audiences to the truth, beauty, and goodness that exists in the real world outside the pages or beyond the screens of the mediums they are working with.
Stories that don’t end hint that the storyteller is writing aimlessly into the void, and they capture the audience in the world of the story—essentially they keep the audience in a “matrix” (forgive me for the bad metaphor), convincing them, “But wait! There’s more…” Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien had written a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo and Sam and Gandalf return from the Undying Lands to discover that “somehow Sauron returned” and had forged an even more powerful ring and rebuilt his fortress in Mordor and things in Middle-earth were even worse than before!
Can you imagine how unsatisfying that would be? Not only as a story in and of itself, but also how unsatisfying it would make The Lord of the Rings in retrospect? Let evil be defeated, and let there be the hope of the Undying Lands. Without an ending, there’s no hope for what comes after.
The Matrix trilogy had already ended. Many fans of the movies didn’t like that Neo and Trinity had to die to achieve victory and peace between humans and machines at the end of the series, but it was an end, and it was a good end. They gave up their lives, nobly, to save the human race. But the fourth installment not only starts back up to undo all that, it also generally doesn’t really care about all of it either. Oh, Neo is assured that he and Trinity made things better—which means that the humans in the real world now have some cute robot friends. And they can grow fruit now. Yes, they’re still slaves, and they still have to hide to stay alive. But they get fruit. (I’ll give you a moment to process that.)
But there’s no “city on a hill,” no savior, no freedom from the machines. There’s just love, and all Neo and Trinity need is love to transcend it all.
The Matrix Resurrections flips the script so Neo and Trinity would really only die for each other. And for the WB, “The show must go on.” Cue spotlight and music at the Moulin Rouge: “Truth, beauty, freedom, love.” But Neo and Trinity don’t have to die this time around because in this story they are true to themselves, so instead they rise into the heavens of glory. And who cares if the matrix still exists at the end as long as our actualized couple remake it to be a comfortable prison for those still unfortunately enslaved. Truth is relative, and people can choose freedom only if they really want it. Because we’d better not take their agency away from them. There are no saviors necessary in this version of the old story, where the highest virtues are self-realization, being true to yourself, and romantic love devoid of sacrifice.
What are truth, beauty, love, and freedom really? Is it “painting the sky with rainbows” as Trinity says she just might do at the end of The Matrix Resurrections? The Matrix had interesting things to say about the nature of these things, but The Matrix understood that romantic love is not the highest virtue and there is no salvation without sacrifice. Moulin Rouge! uses its runtime to demonstrate the devastating effects of unbridled consumerism, and the failure of love for love’s sake to save anyone at all. Satine’s death by consumption is an important punctuation mark of an ending, “consumed” by the demand to entertain.
In The Matrix Resurrections, Neo’s therapist’s cat is named Déjà Vu—not just a callback to the first film, but a literal manifestation of an idea from the first film in which an episode of déjà vu takes place in the presence of a black cat. Notably and again, with cringe-worthy fourth-wall-bending self-awareness, Neo does not like the animal. His therapist is also not really his therapist, but a manifestation of the new architect who is enslaving him, once again, within the matrix. When Neo is freed from the matrix, however, he ends up on a ship called “The Mnemosene,” which is just Greek for “Memory.” Even in the real world in this story, Neo can’t escape reliving his old stories, and neither, apparently, can Keanu Reeves.
But we, as consumers, can hopefully sit up, wake up, and recognize that the sort of storytelling that’s happening here—the “resurrection” of finished stories for the purpose of unbridled consumerism—is of benefit to no one. And in some cases, like with this addition to the story of The Matrix that acts as a reboot of The Matrix that is about a reboot of the matrix that is also somehow about a reboot of The Matrix, it’s not just dishonest storytelling and a reworking of the meaning of the original story that’s the problem. It’s also that the story itself is just pathetically sad.