For years, Warner Bros. has dreamed of making another “Matrix” movie, but the Wachowski siblings — architects of a cyberpunk classic whose appeal rests largely on bending rules and questioning authority — resisted the pressure, insisting they’d said everything they wanted to with the original three films. Let’s not forget: By the end of the trilogy, Trinity died, Neo sacrificed himself and the humans were freed from their virtual shackles, which means anyone hoping to continue that story had their work cut out for them.
That explains a clever moment of self-awareness early in “The Matrix Resurrections,” a welcome but undeniably extraneous fourth installment — more of a patch than an upgrade on the franchise that came before, reframing déjà vu not as a bug but as a feature of the brand. In said scene, employees of a San Francisco video game company sit around a corporate conference table, brainstorming how to build upon the Matrix saga. “Our beloved parent company, Warner Bros., has decided they will make a sequel to the trilogy,” one says, explaining that the studio is planning to do it “with or without” the creators.
Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or so director Lana Wachowski seems to be telling us, slyly stepping back from the dazzling infinity mirror presented in the earlier films to reveal one more layer: the real world in which we the audience reside. Sadly, that’s about as wild and/or meta as “The Matrix Resurrections” gets, while the rest could fairly be described as more of the same: more time- and gravity-defying action, more Goth-geek fashion pointers, more “free your mind” mumbo-jumbo.
Essentially a greatest hits concert and a cover version rolled into one (complete with flashback clips to high points from past installments), the new movie is slick but considerably less ambitious in scope than the two previous sequels. Where those films set out to break sound barriers in our brains — the way “bullet time,” the highway sequence and Neo’s final battle against an apparently infinite number of Agents Smith did — this one largely eschews innovation. Rather, “Resurrections” takes comfort in the familiar, fleshing out the emotional core of a world that always felt a little hollow.
In short, Wachowski doesn’t add much to the rich mythology she and sister Lilly have established, but she’s careful not to mess it up either.
By reviving Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a handful of other key characters (some, like Agent Smith and Morpheus, requiring new actors to step in), “Resurrections” tethers its latest iteration to the “simulation hypothesis” — the theory, given oxygen by Elon Musk, that video game technology is advancing at such a clip that odds are good you’re already living in one. The difference, compared with “Matrix 1.0”: The “sheeple” in the movie’s brave new world have that potentially liberating information, and still they choose to sleepwalk through their lives. Just like … you?
It’s been more than two decades since “The Matrix” issued the wake-up call. So what are you doing chained to whatever career/family/hobby numbs you to what really matters? Like fanboy audiences — who passively watch heroes disrupt the system, watching, rather than participating in, social reform — the humans in this latest simulation stay blind. Neo has reverted to his Thomas Anderson identity, only now, he’s head designer for WB-owned game company Deus Machina and described as a “balding nerd,” though it’s still Keanu that audiences see, sporting rock-star bangs and a surfer-guru beard.
It would’ve been much edgier to present Reeves as an aging incel with receding hair and a dandruff-speckled turtleneck — or better yet, as a self-deprecating version of himself, like the one he played in Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe.” Storytelling has evolved by quantum leaps since 1999, and as futuristic as the “Matrix” franchise once felt, it all seems rather quaint today, what with the advent of “reality TV” (consider Paris Hilton’s recent claim that she’s been playing a character all along) and such ontological series as “The Good Place” and “The OA” (the latter ended with the characters crossing into a new dimension, where they’re all actors on the show we’ve been watching). “The Matrix” may have made 1982’s “Tron” look primitive by comparison, but even that franchise has evolved, leaving this one in the dust.
That’s not to say the sequel is simply “The Matrix Recycled” — although the title is every bit as apt as the more biblical-sounding one they went with, teasing (but never directly addressing) the messianic dimension of Neo’s earlier arc. Off screen, Lana Wachowski has completely reinvented herself in the interim, sharing much of that journey via Netflix’s stunning “Sense8,” whereas Thomas Anderson is stuck back in brainwashed mode, wrestling with relatively mundane midlife-crisis questions.
Self-doubts aside, Anderson drags his feet when Morpheus (now embodied by “Candyman” star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) kicks open a door and tries to offer him the old red-pill enlightenment. Meanwhile, his shrink (Neil Patrick Harris as the Analyst) has him on a steady prescription of blue pills. And then a spunky young cyber-anarchist named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) shows up, having narrowly escaped an obvious-trap “modal,” or training exercise, where she rescues the new-and-improved Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen is great but seems green vis-à-vis the sage and sorely missed Laurence Fishburne).
Speaking of green, the phosphorescent glow that defined the trilogy (extrapolated from old-school CRT monitors) has been all but banished here. Yes, a stream of green glyphs spells out the opening titles, and the human survivors of Zion (many played by members of the “Sense8” cast) search for signs of Neo and Trinity on outdated screens. But compared with the grim and grimy “real world” spared from a Sentinel attack in “Revolutions,” the dimension where Anderson reunites with Trinity — now married with kids and going by the name Tiffany (but still played by Moss) — is rich in color and detail. Strange then that it should look so cheap, conspicuously lacking a striking visual signature.
Far removed from the shadowy film-noir vibe of the original, it’s easy to imagine humans being seduced by such a setting, especially when presented in the magic-hour glow of recent Marvel movies — and against which the grungy post-apocalyptic realm of spaceships and people pods seems less appealing than ever. That has always been the trouble with the “Matrix” movies: They insist that waking life is far worse than the illusion, asking us to care about the fate of a garbage dump where brain-jacked humans serve as an energy source for the Machines.
Of course we’d rather spend time in San Francisco — or Berlin, where shooting shifted. These days, instead of battling actor Hugo Weaving’s square-jawed man in black (the original Agent Smith appears only in flashback), Anderson works for a snappily dressed human Ken doll also named Smith (Jonathan Groff, whose good looks reinforce the notion that everything got a major aesthetic upgrade). Once Neo starts to question his reality, it’s Smith he must face off against, again. The subsequent showdown feels overly choreographed, stuck in late-20th-century Hong Kong mode, versus the brute-force fighting style we’ve since seen in Bond movies. Even Neo’s ability to stop bullets and blast energy waves from his hands pales against so many of the superhero abilities to which we’ve been desensitized.
The great irony of “The Matrix Resurrections” is that a property that was once so appealing for being cutting-edge is now being mined for its nostalgia value — what a screenwriter friend of mine has dubbed “CuisinArt,” wherein studios are forgoing fresh ideas in order to rehash everything audiences love about the past.
Lana Wachowski has said she agreed to make a “Matrix” sequel after her parents died, taking comfort in being reconnected with fictional family Neo and Trinity. Many viewers will agree, even if it would have made more sense to reboot with an all-new cast of characters. But in a world where “Space Jam” can hack into the “Matrix” IP, this far-from-radical add-on seems distractingly preoccupied with justifying its own existence, rather than seeking a way to take fans to the next level.