In Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections, we find Thomas Anderson, A.K.A. Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), having to choose whether to take the red pill or the blue pill while watching a similar scene from the first Matrix movie projected on the screen of an abandoned theater, with Morpheus (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) showing up with the set from that same scene.
“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” Morpheus tells Neo, a smirk on his face as if he realizes how silly it is that they have to return to this same process again.
In a time in pop culture where old favorites and blockbusters are restored, remade, and revived with clockwork frequency, a sequel to The Matrix feels inevitable given how iconic the original still remains. The action, the leather clothes, the screens filled with green scrolling text from a computer era gone by, the strange and surreal concept of a world that’s just not right: it was an instant and enduring cultural artifact that nobody has forgotten.
Even with the Wachowski Sisters’ less-than-profitable post-Matrix career, it’s more than likely that people will show up to watch it in theaters if just to relive those iconic scenes again.
But Lana Wachowski has bigger things to say, and her ambitions have led to a sequel to The Matrix that refuses to passively relive the old glories of the franchise. Instead, it refocuses towards its themes of love and the meaning of freedom, all the while challenging the preconceived binaries through which we automatically perceived the first films and rejecting the violence and action that made the movie so popular.
It’s… a lot, and for many, it’s too different to be enjoyable. It’s not as action-packed, everything seems to have a queer subtext, and it shifts its visual style from the cool, green hues of the original in favor of less moody and more natural lighting.
Yet, I can’t help but find The Matrix Resurrections good because it makes these clear, decisive stances and artistic choices about the personal feelings of the creator to the Matrix and its characters, without caring about alienating entire swatches of viewers or screwing with the future franchise potential of a film.
Here is Lana Wachowski openly criticizing the conservative groups who co-opted the imagery and iconography of her most iconic film, the culture of films as brands and franchises that are only concerned about setting up the next hit instead of saying anything substantial, and the people who refuse to engage with the messaging of The Matrix just to enjoy the action of the movie.
It is as divisive and alienating as a $200 million blockbuster can get, and I can’t help but admire a director taking that kind of personal artistic risk to ensure that their work remains uniquely theirs instead of just cashing in on their legacy like many do (not that I’m disparaging artists who do that; it’s hard to get paid and sometimes, that’s the only option left). In a landscape of blockbusters driven by what is starting to feel like rote and repetitive films with an air of self-importance, it is refreshing to watch a movie that seems to be more than about pushing the next movie forward, willingly engaging in the messy desires and contradictions that comes with being human and serving it up on a grander scale.
There’s honestly a lot to tackle here. The Matrix Resurrections is loaded with blunt messaging and imagery, along with layers and layers of tiny details that pile on top of each other to better spotlight the bigger points. Make no mistake, even if only one of the Wachowski Sisters is directing the film, it is still as ambitious and cluttered as all of their other work.
So, for my own clarity, we’re going to talk a bit about two of the big topics that the film puts forward: one is a commentary on franchise and pop cinema as a whole, and the other is the film being Lana Wachowski’s attempt to reclaim The Matrix as a queer text. With work as loaded with things to talk about as this film is, I imagine that I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of it.
Since bringing long-dormant franchises seem to be in vogue now, it feels like this film is supposed to be a legacy sequel in the same vein as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the very least, that’s how Warner Bros. seems to be positioning it to the world: as a way to return to these old favorites and enjoy some of those nostalgic times we had together.
But this film mocks the very idea of being a legacy sequel as well as the concept as a whole.
Legacy sequels are a new-ish trend in today’s film landscape. Of course we’ve had sequels that had long gaps between the last film that was released (The Godfather Part III comes to mind), but these legacy sequels are here less to continue or conclude stories as they are there to restart dormant franchises, done most likely to make studios as much money as possible on a recognizable brand.
These films tend to hold the original up so reverently that they either use meta-commentary to talk about its importance (Jurassic World, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) or they just try to mimic the previous story beats of the original as much as they possibly can (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Terminator: Dark Fate). Stemming from the idea that the fans and casual lovers of the material must be pandered to as much as possible to wring as much money as they can out of the film, it’s a strangely cynical trend that is informed more by the hyper-capitalist film scene today rather than any artistic instincts on the part of the filmmakers.
That’s probably the trend that got The Matrix Resurrections greenlit. But that’s not the kind of film that we got in the end.
Lana Wachowski does not waste time pretending to even participate in placating previous fans of The Matrix with fan service and pandering. At times, she seems to directly tell the viewers in the most unsubtle way possible that she would rather make anything else than a sequel to The Matrix. One of the biggest laughs of the movie for me was when Smith (played by Jonathan Groff) literally outright tells the audience that Warner Bros. wants a sequel made to the Matrix, represented here as an in-universe video game, that the protagonist had spent years refusing to make, with the threat that the sequel will happen regardless of their participation.
It’s a meta-joke that many found cringe-worthy, but it helps set the tone of the meta-thread being followed throughout the film: what does a Matrix movie mean in today’s landscape, and how would you even go about making a sequel to it?
It seems like a conscious choice on Wachowski’s part to start the film by throwing away any of our preconceived notions regarding the franchise as a whole. There are scenes where we get a peek into meetings of people talking about what The Matrix should be, what the audiences loved about it, and what it needs to have.
The film mocks the idea that there can only be one way to make The Matrix, a limited formula that audiences will recognize and enjoy—which makes sense, considering that the original movie itself ended with Neo’s rallying call of, “A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”
Of course, the world we currently live in has a very factory-like process in making films—almost like the Machines have won the war. Popular movies are devoid of any singular artistic voice that used to exist within blockbusters in the past. Whether it’s a Marvel film or the new Fast and Furious movie, everything feels like it’s been smoothed out to appeal to the broadest amount of people with the least amount of offense.
So yeah, they’ll have queer characters and broad general talking points that reference some kind of theme without really committing to it, and maybe they’ll even change the cinematography of the film to match its director’s style. But it never really adds up to anything substantial, and it never really says anything.
Wachowski and her co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon (both writers for the Wachowski Sisters’ Sense8 TV show) definitely say something about all of these monolithic blockbusters, especially with the scenes where a focus group discusses what The Matrix means using use buzzwords that signify nothing.
By showing us the emptiness that exists within this world, Wachowski and her co-writers show the alienation at the heart of creating the cultural products of today: propulsion with no direction, innovation without humanity.
And with that opening third, The Matrix Resurrections sets up a film that takes our binary conceptions of how movies—hell, of how reality is supposed to be—and flipping its meaning from before our very eyes.
“They took your story, something that meant so much to people like me, and turned it into something trivial,” Bugs (played by Jessica Henwick) tells Neo somewhere in the middle of the film, around the moment that Neo finally escaped the Matrix once again.
Within the context of the film, it seems to refer to the way that the Matrix tends to take the true, lived experiences of humanity and turn them into tools that keep the Matrix and its illusion going, to the detriment of the billions of people who live within its confines. It does take on a new meaning, however, when put in the context of how the Wachowskis are one of the few openly trans mainstream filmmakers—and how their work has been misinterpreted and disfigured as an alt-right talking point.
It absolutely makes sense in hindsight to see The Matrix as a film about the trans experience from two filmmakers who were in the closet at the time. And yet, many won’t see it because of how the violence and the action of the films overwhelm the senses to the point where a lot of the subtext of The Matrix is easy to wave away.
What Wachowski and her co-writers did to remedy this was to focus instead on the love story that was always central to Neo’s journey in the original trilogy: his love and connection with Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss). Their connection to each other keeps the current Matrix powered and working, but most importantly, their love gives them the vision to perceive a world free of the illusions of the Matrix, where they are free to soar together and paint the skies in wonderful hues and colors.
It’s there that they find themselves in a conclusion that this franchise has been harping on since the beginning: there is no spoon.
The binary choices that seem to dictate their lives are not the only choices out there; it is merely an illusion that prevents you from exploring further into discoveries and ideas that are equally valid but are hard to pigeonhole in the narrative of good and evil.
The choice given to our characters in The Matrix was either to live in the miserable reality of their post-apocalyptic world or to live in the comfort of a lie made by the Machines to keep you compliant. Us versus them, good humans versus bad machines, et cetera, et cetera. But The Matrix Resurrections concludes that whether you’re stuck in the Matrix or outside in the hellscape of real Earth, the story and the choices you have are much broader than we are led to believe.
We define our community, and we figure out how to move forward in an unjust system that forces us into boxes, that make us cut the complexities of who we are to make us easier to control. We remember that there is no spoon, that we bend reality to suit our inner selves.
That’s a very queer message to impart to your audience, and it strikes harder knowing that it was made by an actual queer director who was given the leeway to create something so unapologetically personal and different from any other blockbuster being made today. It also takes back The Matrix from those redpillers who use it to perpetuate misogyny, racism, and other right-wing extremist values. You don’t free your mind with prejudice, she seems to say; you free it with love.
The ambitious scope and personal themes of love and freedom make The Matrix Resurrections a great film to watch, discuss, and dissect. There are a lot of things you can quibble about, like that weird anti-bullet-time effect that looks unconvincing and ugly, or that awful Rage Against the Machine cover in the end credits.
Yet, in the end, Lana Wachowski successfully created a very personal blockbuster that reclaims the narrative of The Matrix for herself, carving out a unique artistic vision that could only be created by her. It is messy and blunt and achingly sincere and pretentious—but it is also unashamedly proud of that humanity, knowing that without it, without these imperfect impulses, we are nothing.
Whatever comes at the future of The Matrix or either of the Wachowski Sisters (I would love another season of Sense8, but that’s just me), I am glad for this film, if only to remind us of the unexplored possibilities that still exist in film—hell, in art—today. Unambiguously queer, unembarrassed at its sincerity and love for its world and its characters, The Matrix Resurrections is just bursting with ideas for those who are ready to engage with it.
“Just remind people what a free mind can do.”