After nearly 20 years, moviegoers finally have the change to revisit the imaginative cyberpunk world of 1999’s The Matrix with the fourth installment in the sci-fi franchise: The Matrix Resurrections. It’s not a perfect film, but there’s enough of the old magic to delight longtime fans. The stars still radiate chemistry, there are plenty of cameos and sly nods to the franchise throughout, and the familiar themes have been subtly updated to make them more relevant than ever.
(Some minor spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As I’ve written previously, it’s difficult to overstate the deep cultural impact of The Matrix. It redefined the sci-fi film genre and shaped an entire generation of fans—plus, it raked in $460 million worldwide, garnered multiple Oscars, and sent star Keanu Reeves’ already healthy career into the Hollywood stratosphere. Cyberpunk author William Gibson called The Matrix “an innocent delight I hadn’t felt in a long time,” and he named Neo as his all-time favorite sci-fi action hero.
We still refer to taking the “red pill” when searching for a metaphor to represent choosing between an unsettling, life-changing truth or blissful ignorance. Who can forget Reeves’ meme-worthy utterances (“Whoa!” or “I know kung fu”) or Laurence Fishburne’s fabulous sunglasses-wearing Morpheus? This is also the film that gave us “bullet time”: a special effect—used for the rooftop scene where Neo (Reeves) dodges bullets fired by one of the Matrix’s Agents—in which the shot progresses in slow motion while the camera appears to move at a normal speed through the scene.
That’s a hard act to follow, and the two subsequent films never quite reached the same heights, despite their box office success. The same can be said about Resurrections.
The film opens with Bugs (Jessica Henwick), captain of a rebel ship called the Mnemosyne, stumbling upon an odd program running on old code in an isolated node of the Matrix. It’s running a recreation of the original film’s famous opening scene in which Trinity takes out a group of armed officers and must flee from Agents. But certain key details are all wrong—including the presence of an Agent who turns out to be the digital embodiment of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Bugs frees Morpheus from the node and they team up to track down Neo in the Matrix.
Neo, back in his Thomas Anderson persona, is working at a game design company called Deus Machina, with his boss and partner Smith (Jonathan Goff). Thomas is famous for designing the company’s most successful gaming franchise: the Matrix. But he keeps having vivid dreams that seem like memories, and can’t shake a nagging sense that he really is imprisoned inside a fake computer reality. He regularly sees a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), who keeps Thomas well supplied with prescription blue pills.
Thomas is also strangely drawn to a married mom named Tiffany (Carrie Ann Moss) who frequents the same cafe (aptly named Simulatte). Of course, Thomas’s intuition turns out to be correct, and it’s not long before Bugs and Morpheus track him down and figure out how to rescue him from the Matrix once again.
The film’s premise is ingenious: the concept of the Matrix, and the One who can control and manipulate it, is so powerful, that the system had to figure out how to dilute it. What better way to do so than by trivializing it, transforming a heroic myth into entertainment? It provides the perfect opportunity to work in clever fan-service nods to the original trilogy in some unexpected ways, such as a black cat named Deja vu. And Wachowski has come up with an especially cool twist to “bullet time” that I can’t discuss in depth without spoilers.
There have been some technological updates, too. Bugs and her fellow human rebels pass in and out of the Matrix using mirrors as portals rather than phone lines; Agents can don “skins” to blend in better with the simulated humans in the Matrix; and Morpheus can be embodied outside of the Matrix via something called the “Exomorphic Particle Codex” (basically swarms of nanobots).
It’s well-known that the Wachowskis didn’t originally intend to make another Matrix film after Revolutions in 2003. Lilly Wachowski went so far as to call the prospect “a particularly repelling idea in these times” in a 2015 interview—a sharp critique of Hollywood’s preference for sequels, reboots, and adaptations. Nonetheless, Warner Bros. officially announced the fourth film in August 2019.
In Resurrections, Deus Machina’s parent company forces Thomas to work on a fourth installment of the Matrix game, giving Lily Wachowski, as director, a prime opportunity to skewer the studio franchise system’s obsession with focus groups and marketing. (“We need a new bullet time!”) As the game development team argues about which elements are most crucial, and what the true meaning of the Matrix is, it’s not hard to imagine the scenes as reflections of the director’s own frustrations.
Look, no sequel will ever come close to the visual pyrotechnics and breathtaking originality of the first film, and The Matrix: Resurrections has some issues. Most notably, the entire second act is poorly paced and muddled, although the third act finds its feet to bring us to a satisfying conclusion. The dialogue is often stilted, or bordering on pretentious—always a fine line to straddle when it comes to the Matrix franchise. And there is some pretty heavy-handed moralizing at times that would have benefited from a more subtle approach.
But these issues aren’t enough to sink what is otherwise a very entertaining film that gives longtime fans of the franchise pretty much exactly what they want. It’s got striking visuals, emotional resonance, dry wit, enough conceptual and thematic depth to spark some intriguing discussion, and plenty of fight scenes—even if the choreography isn’t quite as electrifying as the original film. In short, it’s a solid addition to the franchise that works more often than it doesn’t.
The Matrix Resurrections is now playing in theaters and is also streaming on HBO Max. We strongly recommend only going to see movies in theaters if you are fully vaccinated and boosted, and wear a mask for the duration of the screening.