“The Matrix Resurrections” (2021): The Metatrix

· Films & Video Games

★★

The end credits replay the Rage Against the Machine song that had famously closed The Matrix. While Rage was always only ever good for its guitar, the new version is a kidz-bop style shallow cover. Ironic that a song called “Wake Up” can put you to sleep; but credit where due – this is the film’s most honest moment.

The rotten tomatoes of film “criticism” who have almost never once stopped from their shilling for Disney sequels, reboots, and reshoots really want you to believe that they love all the ways The Matrix Resurrections dumps on reboot, sequel, and franchise culture.

Speaking in constant reference to itself in a manner that breaks the fourth wall such that it seems that the audience is being let in on “the joke,” whatever that joke is supposed to be, is perhaps the trend of the decade. It’s a stupid trend, rarely done in an interesting or illuminating way, but the ironic thing about it is that The Matrix Reloaded already did it. It was the worst scene in that movie because the Architect was a monotone word generator with no personality or contrast to any character rambling unintelligibly to explain what was actually an ingenious and magnificent plot twist. It turned out that all the fist pumping anarchy and smash-the-system fervor that gave the first film such rousing effect had been entirely pre-calculated, planned, and “programmed” by the machines (it also inspired the Reapers of Mass Effect). All that wish-fulfillment fantasy conveyed in the original about being a secret weapon and special savior the “real world” of the underground and the internet (compared to the suspiciously sterile and corporate-conformist office culture of 1999) was waiting and looking for was, at least in theory, grounded into dust. Instead of being an anvil dropped on your foot from the top of a cliff, that twist whistled by like a fart balloon. Reloaded ended without ending, and nothing in the third film (even when you watch the sequels back to back as a single picture – i.e. how they were intended) could save it.

The one thing Resurrections gets right is in the stylistic way it re-does that twist. When its own version of that reveal arrives here, it is with energy, dynamism, and even genuine cinematic surprise. By far the best scene in the film; there’s just two problems. Reloaded already did it, and it was the same twist. And I mean the exact identical twist with barely a splitting of the hairs. The only thing added to it was an even more literal video game metaphor. How clever because that’s what the Matrix essentially was to begin with.

The entire movie is out of cards after the reveal. Everything before is a scattered building block to get you there, such as the plot point that everyone now remembers the prior trilogy in all elaborate detail because it was a popular video game that now suddenly needs a sequel. The real world became a much better place to live after the war ended (symbolized rather effectively by an artificial strawberry that recalls how Cypher described the steak) even with the turmoil that arose later, so naturally the Matrix needed a new allure. But just when you think the film might be sincere about its philosophical inquiry as to what choice is, or what it has become, it chickens out.

You call that a choice?

This line is repeated several times, but it’s not interesting enough to be a theme. The prior two sequels clumsily attempted to expand on the question, concluding that the paradox of human choice was a virtue of the species even if it was predictable as long as people actually exercised it. Now we have a film where at least one person argues that human beings have given that up entirely, but instead of presenting any drama as to whether that point is correct (or how it informs the fate of anyone we care about), the final conflict is a dull and meaningless series of chases and zombie evading that Army of the Dead did far better. Framed around a supposedly important character choice that we are given no context to or information about in any way, and thus can only assume will go the right way. It does, and that’s all there is to it. Worse – the scene in which that character must make the pivotal choice is the fourth scene where that character is even present. The one before it had nothing.

If Resurrections doesn’t work as a basic story involving characters, it works even less as social commentary. I don’t know how many times I have to say it but simply being meta on its own does not make for smart storytelling or resonant effect. The supposedly biting criticism against the larger landscape of media and pop culture that The Matrix itself had inspired that rings all throughout the first half hour of the fourth film (and then is never referenced again except vaguely) rings with the same unimpressive, pretentious clonk Birdman did. Even Reloaded had within it small hints and traces of its own irony. Morpheus suggesting “a sentinel for every man, woman, and child of Zion; that sounds exactly like the thinking of a machine to me…” could be contrasted later with “When I see three objectives, three captains, three ships, I do not see coincidence. I see providence.” There is no dialogue here that even hints at that level of awareness. They recycle (and also replay) half the dialogue and images in the prior trilogy, so you’d think they might have keyed in on what the important lines actually were. Perhaps the missing Wachowski did all the philosophy studying.

But speaking of Morpheus, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that even if you put aside all of the supposed heavy ideas offered up by this resurrected junk, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mr. Lawrence Fishburne’s unfortunate replacement, is the most unconvincing and uninteresting member of the new cast. Fishburne and the always wonderful (even here) Keanu Reeves can be found together in the next John Wick movie. This one suffers from Fishburne’s absence, and suffers like fragile porcelain in the Oracle’s apartment from his replacement. I don’t know if I can point to a bigger failure of character portrayal in any film other than maybe Jonathan Groff as the new Smith in this very same film. It was bad enough when Gloria Foster died before she could finish filming her scenes as the Oracle. It should simply not have been allowed to continue without only part of the main cast, let alone when the two missing members are also the two best actors – Fishburne and Hugo Weaving. But if Yahya is a no-no as the replacement actor, his character is an even sillier one in the form he takes. He (and some others) are here as a kind of reversed physical projection – instead of his real-world self being mentally, digitally, and dreamily projected into the Matrix, the Matrix is where he really is but he can access the real world in molecular form. They do not explain how this works, but it’s an awesome idea that recalls the deus ex machina A.I. in The Matrix Revolutions, and there could probably have been an action scene built around the mechanics of it. Another missed opportunity in doing the one thing these movies are supposed to do better than nearly anything else. And when it comes to Morpheus, his importance as a character dies right there with it.

A shame too because the look of the film is still very much what I wish all modern blockbusters would aspire to. Vivid colors and definitions are abound here, yet none of the imagery comes anywhere near even the momentary stuff in the original sequels, such as the Agent totaling a car on the freeway by jumping on the front of its hood or the kitchen door that opens into a big opera lobby where Neo fights “the exiles.” Neo’s ability to stop bullets is a horse the new film beats to death and continues beating into the next life and death. Trinity is given a bizarre character obsession with motorcycles that feels like what I imagine it would feel like if someone told me that William Wallace loved his kilt more than his wife just because he wore it a lot. I didn’t think it was that important.

None of this is important. Nor is the fact that none of this is important the thing that is important. Nor is the… you get it. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One did everything hinted at here with far more depth, complexity, and introspection even for all the stuff in it. This inferior matrisequel was made by the same creator of its originals, but it has none of the bones, muscles, and brain surges the original movie had and even that its original sequels had. It’s all meta, which means it’s all nothing.

– Vivek

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