Resurrected Reloaded Revolutions, or, Please Stop
A Review of The Matrix Resurrections, a shrug of a film.
At long last I found time to watch the newest addition to the Wachowskis’ Matrix franchise and can now provide my assessment: it is a strange mess that confirms these writer-directors as masters of ideas, but miserable at their execution. The film is too long; manages to both have too much going on in its story and too little; bypasses character development; leans heavily on a mythos few genuinely care about; fails to fully relate its sincerely clever notions; undermines the momentousness of what was previously a great conclusion and one of the redeeming features of the third film, etc. Emphasis on ‘etc.’
Cards on the table, while I have watched the original trilogy and the Animatrix, I have not played the computer games or read the comics. I am led to believe, do believe, that these are important to the film’s story. To my mind making such things a requirement to enjoy a movie is fine, but the movie will still be judged both as a stand-alone work and in relation just to other works within the same medium. Moreover, seeing how it relates only to the other movies and the Animatrix, I cannot accept that the problems will evaporate when the games and comics are accounted.
In a previous piece speculating on the possibilities for The Matrix Resurrections, I noted that the combined narrative of the two prior films (which I described as belonging to that so-bad-it’s-good category) are nonetheless ‘a decent vehicle for the great ideas that they are intended to convey.’ The latest instalment ranks below the third one, but above—in my estimation—the second. That is somewhat an artefact of the second film, Reloaded, needing to be seen as the first half of the third movie, such that its plot is very muddled, but it is more due to some embarrassing plot choices per se and tiresomely dragged-out action sequences. (Although the car/motorbike chase is underrated.)
So without further ado, much of my analysis below contains spoilers.
Let us start with what is good. Helpfully, the film’s main merit is clear: The Analyst. Here is a villain that is everything The Architect, whose role from the previous films he fills, was not. The Architect was a non-character, speaking in philosophical clichés and failing to convey the sinister inhumanity of the system. He lacks agency, a random obstacle when he appears at all. He lacks presence, didactically pontificating from a chair. He lacks menace, a quality Agent Smith embodies.
But here enters a genuinely hateable antagonist who still makes sense and grasps the awfulness of how coercive power distorts relations. Here is an opposite for Neo who also shows the ways in which the nihilistic Agent Smith and redemptive, loving Neo are quirkily similar. The Analyst is a potent critique of how authority often subtly reproduces. A perversion of the kindly Oracle in such a way that his very existence in this world makes it all the grimmer, whose mere possibility is an indictment.
Almost everything good about this film is down to just this one character, aptly depicted by Neil Patrick Harris in equally the standout performance. Indeed, he is frustratingly good because this is a bad guy who deserves a better story in which to play out his nefarious, smarmy, abusive games. And he almost seems aware of that, mocking the franchise itself by joking around with bullet-time as a gimmick—acting like an even more evil version of Deadpool by breaking the third wall to laugh at audience expectations.
In my anticipatory article for this film I wrote that ‘The Matrix was very rooted in late 90s early 00s sense of office ennui, whereas this instalment appears to be more concerned with a moment of profound crisis and confusion and uncertain nostalgia.’ In short, I praised the impression, provided by trailers, that this story would address our times rather than those of the first—and only truly brilliant—Matrix film. And thankfully it does. Here the target is very much that of capitalism with a human face, to borrow Zizek’s term. (As an aside, Zizek’s own review, apparently done without watching Resurrections, is itself a mess with some good ideas contained within.)
At the start of the story, back in The Matrix, Thomas Anderson (Neo’s deadname) was stuck in a meaningless, dehumanising, indifferently grey office. But now he is the microcelebrity star of an office where his boss and colleagues all play the role of friends. Rather than trudge noir streets and reside in a dingy apartment, Neo’s home is palatial and he spends his time wistfully crushing on Tiffany (a.k.a. Trinity) in a coffee café with large open spaces and lovely little cups of espresso. He takes prescription drugs (blue pills!) and attends regular therapy sessions. His life has a superficial charm and even the problems he faces, such as workplace pressures, are treated seriously. I love all of this.
Even more I love the way in which ‘Tiffany’ is used to savage the violent, misogynistic Incel movement’s despairingly awful appropriation of the franchise. She is caged explicitly as a trad wife, with children, a husband called Chad and the boredom and sadness all of this implies. Often the best mockery of reactionaries is just to depict the horrifying, dehumanising vapidness of what they seek; nothing about this life, not even adopting Chad’s POV, is appealing.
If that amounts to most of what is good about this film, why does it not save the movie from its failure? Everything about Neo’s new state of life is interwoven into The Analyst. Gone is the iron fist of The Architect, replaced by a diffuse control. Alienation is a feature of both iterations of the Matrix, but here its source in everyday life is obscured by the trappings of an upper middle class, suburban existence. And that postmodern obscuring makes the systems of nonetheless real domination harder to locate than would a Matrix located in the world of Fordist capitalism or an earlier society defined by the brutal scarcities now relegated to the (admittedly growing) margins and to the global peripheries.
This comes close to addressing the criticism of the first film levelled by Jean Baudrillard—an influence on the Wachowskis. Namely, when he argued that, ‘The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.’ Which is to say that the boundaries between the real and the matrix are what is at stake, and clarifying these boundaries misses the extent to which the virtual has eroded the real and therefore does the task of maintaining the ‘desert of the real’. That is to quote the Baudrillardian line used by the character Morpheus.
I am not much impressed by Baudrillard’s theories (a topic for another time), but speaking in the terms of the Spectacle pioneered by Marxist theorist Guy Debord, his notion of the totality of illusions produced by capitalist mass media, we find a good lens to read the franchise. There is something to be said for a more sophisticated critique of the capitalist spectacle than that supplied by The Matrix. Arguably, the second two movies start to do this by making the ‘real’ of Zion itself apart of the system of control engineered by the Machines. The problem with that solution, and the problem with this new movie, is that for all it engages with the creep of the spectacle and the impossibility of being outside of it, neither has much to say about emancipation for stories about rebellion.
This can most clearly be seen in how The Matrix Resurrections handles the unavoidable subject of nostalgia as the very subject-matter of spectacle in today’s world. A world in which capital has exhausted most creativity to a point of endless sequels, prequals, reboots, cinematic universes, meta-references, memes, and collages. The film at least manages to avoid the pitfall of ignoring nostalgia as a part of the very substance of itself as a work of art. But beyond that low bar, beyond a futile pointing to the nostalgia that contextualises it, and is now the kernel of itself, there is little else to be said.
In this Matrix Neo is a game designer and the three previous films are reconceived as games. He is called upon by his good buddy boss to make a new one, against his wishes since he believes these stories caused a psychotic break that had him ‘imagine’ he was the protagonist of his own ‘fantasy’. In one of the best sequences of the film we are treated to a montage in which ideas for the game are thrown around, and this engages directly with the fandoms Matrix discourse. We hear of the trans allegory reading, of the possibilities of reboots, of the centrality of spectacle violence. But self-awareness is not critique.
Bringing back The Merovingian, possibly the worst character in the franchise, but as a more obviously farcical joke, most risibly demonstrates the failure of this film to critique even itself, never mind society broadly. So many characters in this film are throwaway, including the plucky rebel ship leader Bugs and her team that include a new programme version of Morpheus who combines aspects of Agent Smith and the original Morpheus. Even the new Agent Smith, who is at least amusing, feels more like a plot contrivance than a character with his own developed arc. For such a long movie, it is rare for anyone other than Neo or Trinity to be given a second of emotional weight. Trinity is not given a lot.
In an offhand comment form 2015 Lilly Wachowski described the notion of a new sequel to The Matrix as ‘repellent.’ She has claimed her lack of involvement has much to do with going through the process of gender transitioning, which makes sense, but honestly, I there is something also to her earlier judgement in light of the film that we have received. It was written by Lana Wachowski, Aleksandar Hemon, and David Mitchell. I know little about Hemon, but Mitchell’s involvement interested me. As well as liking a lot of his fiction, I greatly enjoyed Cloud Atlas (as a book and as a Wachowski film adaptation) and felt its sweeping, gnostic-mystic themes and focus on human redemption had many echoes in The Matrix. Sadly, whatever the authorial input, it was insufficient.
The film’s ending attempts at humour, but achieves only a glib undercutting of any of the atmosphere it otherwise sustained. In particular it takes the internal knowingness of the writers precisely nowhere and feels in its framing much like a Marvel Cinematic Universe sequel setup. (At this point I sincerely hope we are spared a further three hour outing.) That means the pessimism implied by an unending story, a sequence of events without resolutions and therefore meaningful change, is fully embraced.
What is left is Neo and Trinity, older, seizing a more limited freedom than they previously sought, to merely play about in the worlds of illusion created by an alien system, perhaps tinkering with it to free some of the select. (In this sense it aptly shows the problem with taking Gnosticism and all its elitism, insofar as such a thing is historically meaningful, as a liberatory spirituality.) This is finally (I hope, at least) a world where radical possibilities do not exist, and in that sense one where The Analyst earns his charismatic smugness as the ideological victor. A victory that makes even him, the one great idea of the film, finally as hollow as the illusions he spins.
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