‘The Matrix Resurrections’: Keanu Reeves Gets Plugged Into a Nostalgic, Self-Mocking Franchise Reboot

We live in the age of sequel overkill. The studios continue mining every hit from any decade to find an excuse for a follow-up. “The Matrix” remains one of the defining films of modern pop culture. It changed the way sci-fi and action movies looked and moved. In its story of reality as a digital prison run by machines and challenged by unplugged rebels, the Wachowskis crafted one of those fantasies that only grow more relevant, especially in these times when our tech-dominated reality and authority are hotly debated. Two sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” were clunky but grand, while breaking new ground in being released within the same year in 2003. Taking all this into account, director Lana Wachowski seems to be pulling our collective leg with “The Matrix Resurrections.” It’s a sequel that mocks the very idea of sequels, refusing to even really continue the story while endlessly commenting on itself.

Although set 20 years after the events of the last films, the movie begins with a rebel named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) who has ventured into a kind of module within the Matrix to liberate one of its dreaded Agents, Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Fans may be confused at this point since they remember Morpheus (played in the originals by Laurence Fishburne) as the wise sage who liberates the main hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves) from the Matrix’s grasp. That’s also his role here. It is true Neo died at the end of “Matrix Revolutions” after proving he was “the one” and stopped a machine apocalypse against humanity’s final remnants. Somehow he’s still around, now living within the Matrix once more as Thomas Anderson, a famous game designer best known for creating a franchise called “The Matrix.” He’s tormented by dreams and chugs blue pills to stay sane. His boss, Smith (Jonathan Groff), announces that their parent company, Warner Brothers, wants a fourth “Matrix” entry. While feeling the pressure to deliver, Anderson is approached by Morpheus and Bugs, who must break him out of the Matrix and reunite him with his great love, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), also living within the computer world as a married mom with kids.

The career of Lana Wachowski, and her sibling Lilly Wachowski, have been defined by a unique subversive spirit within popcorn entertainment. All of their work is infused with ideas and messages about identity, fighting capitalism and defying oppression. Even their take on “Speed Racer” was a critique of corporate merchandising. All of “The Matrix Resurrections” feels like Wachowski, directing a full feature for the first time solo, taking the money and saying, “fine, here’s your other ‘Matrix’ movie. But it won’t be the one you wanted.” Some of it feels like a self-referential remake. In the opening scenes, Bugs witnesses a redo of the famous opening of the first film, when Trinity takes on a crop of cops and agents. Bugs and her comrades comment on the moment like star-struck fans of the franchise itself. The movie’s first act can be quite funny as Keanu Reeves, looking like John Wick on vacation, sits around corporate offices while staffers quote lines from “The Matrix” and geek out over “bullet time” (the famous slow motion effect where Neo dodges gunfire). Wachowski keeps inserting clips from the first movies, which are meant to be Anderson’s plaguing flashbacks, which are also our flashbacks as audience members who have grown up under the films’ influence.

The effect can only go so far for a full movie. Eventually, “The Matrix Resurrections” suffers from the very things it is poking fun at. Once Anderson reclaims his mantle of Neo, the rest of the movie is another one of those endless parades of winks and cameos. Wachowski’s heart just isn’t into the action, either. The grandiosity of the original films is gone and replaced by rather standard shootouts and chases. Neo’s famous move of raising his hands to stop walls of bullets is done to the point of overkill. Much is recycled to keep the narrative on a loop. There was peace at the end of the third movie but alas, it soon dawned on the machines they still needed humans for energy so they simply reinstated the old order, meaning keeping humans living in their Matrix prison. Anyone who wants the full backstory on the machine apocalypse that led to all of this can stream the excellent “Animatrix” collection on HBO Max. So Neo is back to being a shaved potential messiah with a new crew of human rebels on a clunky ship. A new, updated version of the human hideout Zion lets us catch up with Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), extra-aged with makeup but still doubting Neo is The One. Wachwoski even finds ways to bring back the once-refined villain The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) as a ragged, mad computer “bug” and even Sati, the Indian girl who appeared in “Matrix Revolutions” when Neo was trapped at a train stop, reappears (played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas) as a digital collaborator. 

As fan service “The Matrix Resurrections” defines nostalgic kick with all of its endless referencing. Of course it’s the love story between Neo and Trinity that is meant to tug at our movie memories. Now named Tiffany inside the Matrix, Trinity senses she knows Anderson from somewhere when they have coffee. Later he needs to try and rescue her from those gooey pods where the machines harvest humans. You may recall they both died in the last movies, but Wachwoski fashions a resurrection for them out of “Star Wars” and “Frankenstein” courtesy of the film’s true villain, The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris). Jonathan Groff evokes Hugo Weaving’s slow, menacing voice as the new Smith while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a more kinetic, gun-toting Morpheus. It is The Analyst who also carries on a Wachowski tradition of injecting deep philosophy into the dialogue, particularly in a strong scene where he describes fear and desire as driving human emotions. 

There is a moment early in the film where we can practically hear Wachowski turning to address the audience when Smith tells Neo Warner Brothers is demanding a new “Matrix” video game, whether they come along onboard or not. Maybe Wachowski meant this film as both response and revenge. She and her sister have spent the last several years taking on critical and box office punches for their work, which has always featured a particular sincerity scoffed at in cynical times. The screenplay for “Resurrections” is co-written with the author David Mitchell, whose novel “Cloud Atlas” was adapted by Wachowski into a powerful, striking meditation on love, time and artificial boundaries, both admired and attacked. The Wachowskis’ gender-bending Netflix series “Sense8” was canceled after two seasons and their 2015 sci-fi fantasy “Jupiter Ascending” was savaged by critics. “The Matrix Resurrections” almost gets boring on purpose by regurgitating the same old story points from the original. If audiences don’t want anything new or challenging, Wachowski seems to be saying, then here’s a rehash that also laughs at itself. This is not a great film and can get redundant. Maybe that’s the point. What was once a dynamic, game-changing idea has been turned into just another consumerist product on autopilot. 

The Matrix Resurrections” releases Dec. 22 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.