Lana and Lilly Wachowski wrote and directed both, as well as the original film, “The Matrix” (1999). Now it’s just Lana. Keanu Reeves, who plays the series’ bland messianic hero Neo, went from being a big thing to not being a big thing and is now kind of a big thing again. More importantly, the culture’s ideas of virtual reality, not to mention the technology surrounding it, have come a long way from the days when these movies had viewers ooh and aah at the sight of computer code the color of poisonous lemonade running down a movie screen.
The series drew inspiration from everything from “Stars Wars” to World War II movies to Asian martial arts. But it never felt derivative. As wacky, as heavily solemn, the franchise was truly its own thing. This believed per se, which is a lot rarer in big-budget action movies than you might think. In fact, he really believed in yourself. That, and considerable technical chops from the Wachowskis, made it all work.
These movies threw together philosophical gibberish (free will! fate! reality! simulation!), digital gibberish, sunglasses as character development, a shooter fetishization so lavish it borders on pornography, and a muffled, even reverent acting style. whose awkwardness was strangely affecting.
All of these elements are back in “Resurrections.” What is new is a pleasant self-awareness. Sometimes it’s clever. The Warner Bros shield. in the opening credits is this toxic lime green. A café is called Simulatte. More often than not, it’s just infuriating. Neo now works for a game company called Deus Machina. It is owned by Warner Bros. and wants him to design a new “Matrix” video game – like the previous three he designed. At such times, “Resurrections” becomes a hall of mirrors which is all mirrors and no hall.
The basic premise of the “matrix” remains. “Reality” is a simulation inflicted on humanity by artificial intelligence. This simulation of an attractive and bustling everyday world hides a grim and ravaged reality. Only a few thousand humans know this truth. Jada Pinkett Smith, unrecognizable under a ton of old person makeup, is back as Niobe, one of their leaders. Freedom fighters live underground and go above ground to fight the machines, which look like humans.
The main machine is Agent Smith. Hugo Weaving played it with wonderfully elastic malevolence in the first three films. Now he’s played by a nondescript Jonathan Groff (King George in ‘Hamilton’ – is that bully typecast?). The revolutionary leader Morpheus, so aptly relentless played by Laurence Fishburne, is now Morpheus II (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Candyman”), who is kind of an ambitious Morpheus. It’s a bit hard to follow, but so is much of “Resurrections”.
Bearded and beleaguered, Neo is now a troubled man. Obviously, a lot has happened to him, in a bad way, in those 18 years, and a lot hasn’t happened, for the worse. He’s in therapy, right? – and Neil Patrick Harris plays the analyst. Helpful cinephile rule of thumb: Beware of characters with archetypal names. “Did you know that ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ are nearly identical in source code?” Harris asks. One wonders how candid Neo is about these therapy sessions.
Spiritually dead, Neo needs to be resurrected. Note that the title of the film is in the plural. His beloved, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), died at the end of “Revolutions.” So she really needs to be resuscitated. That’s good, because she was the best thing in the first three films: an inscrutable avenging angel in tight leather. If anything can snap Neo out of his funk, it’s saving Trinity. Forget all the pretentious nonsense about reality and simulation. Forget even all the action sequences – which admittedly are pretty amazing. At bottom, the “Matrix” movies are a love story.
Here’s where that joke becomes a bigger deal. Granted, Neo and Trinity aren’t exactly Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Yet, in the inner world of the “Matrix” films, Reeves and Moss’ mutual lack of humor is what makes Neo and Trinity such a great couple. Any pair of movie stars can sleep together and make it exciting to watch. How many can do that by sleepwalking together? This is not denigration. Anywhere else, such shared inexpressiveness would be disastrous. Here is the emotional glue that holds these films together.
Anyone over the age of 15 who saw the previous movies knew they were silly. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that they didn’t feel stupid. “Resurrections” yes. A movie doesn’t have to make a lot of sense, as long as it has enough speed. Speed, remember, is direction and speed. This one lacks one and has little of the other, though Trinity manages to mount it Ducati Again.
A sequel is never about the old movie or the new. It’s about the public. What is “Resurrections” for? Viewers who know and love previous “Matrix” films will likely be put off by this one’s wink. Viewers unfamiliar with the films won’t get the references – despite plenty of flashbacks throughout – and that’s assuming they’d go in the first place. It’s not like there’s been a huge demand over the past 18 years for a new “Matrix” movie. The problem is not if a movie is confusing. Momentum can make this irrelevant. The problem is, if it’s confusing, and the confusion that is “Resurrections” begins with the most fundamental question of all: why?
THE RESURRECTION MATRIX
Directed by Lana Wachowski. Written by Wachowski, David Mitchell and Aleksandr Hemon; based on characters created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. With Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith. In theaters across Boston, suburbs and streaming on HBO Max. 148 minutes. R (violence and some language)
Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]