Take one step past the thick green curtain, and you may be in one of two realms. One with witches, or another involving the bending of reality if it were pipes designed by 3D printer. The former remains in development hell, but after nearly two decades away, Lana Wachowski has ensured the latter finds its way back to the memory. As a casual observer to her (and sister Lilly’s) most well-known franchise, not having conquered it at face value until fairly recently, I was too skeptical whether it needed to bear fruit again. An overdue fourth installment, The Matrix Resurrections, is about to share marquee space over the holiday stretch. And the evidence is vast to prove the runtime feels as long as the nearly two-decade wait, a litany of speed bumps to smooth over. We’d all want to take the blue pill to overlook what gets in the way of this unique refresh, but then the bigger picture would needlessly zoom by.
And it’s often like a dense, thought-provoking portrait Wachowski would paint in her spare time. Nothing like the genre-shaking ‘99 original, however. Here, it’s less resplendent, keeping heads low while creativity festers. The way the series cut out at the end of Revolutions, we were all led to believe we’d seen the last of Neo (Keanu Reeves), literally walking off into the sunset as a lone figure lost on his life’s purpose. Fast forward twenty years, we find him in San Francisco, having reassumed the identity of Thomas Anderson, and working as a successful game designer.
It’s not a perfect life, however. As he parlays to his psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris), Thomas’ mind is clouded by visions of his past, varying enigmatic sights that disturb his judgment, be it disturbances within the Matrix itself or the woman he had to leave behind, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). He’s prescribed nondescript blue pills as a means to counteract these symptoms. But that may only provide the faintest of solace, as Thomas is immediately pulled into the creative lead role on manifesting the Matrix as a fleshed-out video game. From there, just as before, the lines between reality and the virtual code-scape are blurred, if not completely eradicated. With Neo reluctantly taking the red pill and diving back in, to face a tougher threat greater than the simple Smith virus.
With the bar already high enough to risk stopping short on, Wachowski, co-writing with novelists David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Aleksandar Hemon (The Lazarus Project), recognize the challenge and go a rather unexpected route to fulfill. Even I could believe there wasn’t any more story to tell inside The Matrix. Any fear of empty-minded hollowness was rendered mute in their capable brain trust, with the key appearing as a sense of reunion, revisiting long-lost friends or creative muses before the electricity dies out. Any longer of a wait, we would be much worse off. Resurrections lands at the tail-end of “just the right time”, with Lana identifying a desire to make the past highly aware of itself as a way of healing and closure. Think Wes Craven’s New Nightmare colliding with the Enter the Matrix game, going as far as working in fourth-wall shatter. Thus brings in much of the film’s humor, showing game dev on the rails in adapting an impossible IP (sound familiar?). And just as much its affliction with Neo on a similar path, questioning his cognition. That alone adds a new layer to Reeves’s screen presence, he’s fighting on a secondary level beyond mere virtual combat.
That doesn’t quite mean we aren’t completely out of the woods with some rough decision-making. Resurrections was one of those momentary occasions where patience may have been drained by the onslaught of necessary exposition. That much could’ve been accomplished in less time, and with fewer voices disrupting the boil. To that effect, the pacing reaches multiple snags as we’re introduced to a supporting cast of both familiar and fresh faces. Considering how much The Matrix has evidently changed in two decades, the apparent recasting fits the story arc, mirroring new host bodies in the digital realm. In it lies a very different Smith, Thomas’ business partner ably portrayed with figurative claws by Jonathan Groff. As well as a newer, alternate Morpheus (a captivating Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), stampeding to continue Fishburne’s legacy without hesitancy. Older incarnations of Machine War survivors Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) reemerge as a means to emphasize that desire not to retread on past mistakes.
Zion couldn’t be rebuilt, so it’s beyond important to preserve what was left untouched. That’s where Neo and new ally Bugs (an electric Jessica Henwick) step in. Not for a second war, but an investigatory cleanup, seeking patchwork against a greater foe while Neo comes to terms with the lingering business of his past. The bond he shared with Trinity, who might’ve found her way into Thomas’s reality, now a hard-working mom with a penchant for Ducatis. Reeves and Moss step into frame, and it’s as if they never separated. His modern hipster dad energy invokes a charming coolness carrying him between worlds, her brooding ferocity counteracting with a snarky bite. Fenwick’s mild fangirl attitude allows the action to take on fresh eyes, as Neo gets pulled through the wringer. Groff and Harris do pose a nimble amount of both concern and mistrust to steal the spotlight when the moment calls.
The experience is all still somewhat taxing, as Wachowski does wander around, finding herself a bit lost in returning to the old Matrix haunts, aligning them with an over-modernized San Fran. All of the sights catch your eye without fail, as John Tull’s camera precision takes account of every living (or non-living element) in a given shot. Tighten up the character motivation, remove 20 or 30 minutes of extraneous material, or refocus that same time on rekindling the forbidden romance Neo could never keep.
The Matrix Resurrections is an overall weird, awkward mix of ideas, but a lively one as this virtual universe regains a welcome stronghold. As a franchise newbie, I felt much like Bugs, exploring about, remembering the poster-friendly face, but only knowing part of the story. Now, having made it out the other side, I have a certain respect and admiration for the Wachowskis’ crown jewel to look past a few, though not all, of its varying imperfections. This fourth act remedies and restores many mistakes and benchmarks, but it couldn’t resolve everything. What can be done with its power makes enough of a case for its future, to venture forth past that curtain again and again. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The Matrix Resurrections opens in theaters and at home on HBO Max December 22, and there will be a post credits scene; rated R for violence and some language; 148 minutes.