I went into The Matrix Resurrections with zero knowledge or expectations outside of the trailers. And boy was I surprised at how much I liked it. I was surprised at how stunningly original and fresh this material was (I’ll return to this theme of originality again as it seems to be a theme in some of the negative reviews I have read).
(Warning: Massive Spoilers ahead)
So many people seem to be fundamentally confused about this movie. One reviewer even went so far as to say that it relied on nostalgia too much because it literally plays clips from the original trilogy, as if that wasn’t the point entirely. Another critique I saw dismissed it as mere “nostalgia porn,” as if the literal playing of old film clips on a ripped theater screen isn’t an on-the-nose meta-commentary on the brokenness of the film industry and its lust for endless franchise reboots.
Before I begin I want to add an important caveat: it’s ok to not like this movie. Art is subjective. Film is subjective. I’m not questioning anyone’s intelligence or capacity to understand “meta” level commentary. But what I do want to do is try to provide some speculative context into some of Lana’s creative decisions as well as I why I enjoyed them so much.
Let me paint a picture. As a film director, your last name is synonymous with a famous movie trilogy. So famous in fact that it became endlessly parodied and a source of a million memes and jokes. What was revolutionary (e.g. bullet time) is now cliche, boring, and pretty much archetypal in the collective unconscious at this point.
Moreover, while the original movie is seen as an all-time classic, the 2nd and 3rd movies in the trilogy are often seen as examples of some of the worst sequels of all time, with most of the critical consensus being that they were unoriginal, too long, unnecessary, and painfully repetitive.
Now, put yourself in Lana Wachowski’s shoes, faced with the prospect of making a fourth sequel 18 years later (perhaps with some pressure from studio execs to make it a blockbuster success).
Everyone is going to expect you to make something fresh, to reinvent the wheel (again). To make something original. Some way to make bullet time and jacking into the Matrix unique and interesting again, even though conceptually that idea is about as original as sliced bread in the popular imagination.
It feels like an almost impossible task to live up to the expectations of a fanbase that so desperately wants to see awesome and over-the-top Matrix-y action but also somehow expects something fresh and original even though the first three films were filled with so much awesome and over-the-top Matrix-y action that it eventually became boring and predictable.
So what did Lana do in the face of these impossible expectations? She basically took all the expectations and immense pressure for originality and made a giant 2.5 hour self-referential meta-commentary that is deeply layered, deeply philosophical, and, in my opinion, utterly brilliant.
Matrix Resurrections’ central storyline is that the Matrix was “rebooted” (an obvious self-referential nod). And in this new Matrix Neo himself is resurrected as Good Ole Thomas Anderson, a game designer who made a videogame called The Matrix, the plot of which is exactly the plot of the original Matrix Trilogy.
This is an undergraduate philosophy major’s wet dream of a storyline. A dream inside a dream inside a dream.
“Tom,” however, somehow starts to question whether his videogame is in fact real-life or fiction. This theme of reality vs fiction is immensely important to the entire idea of the Matrix.
Indeed, I wrote a whole post asking a classic philosophical question: are we living in the Matrix?
In 1999 the original Matrix kicked off the popularization of the thesis that we are all living inside a virtual computer simulation. It has now become an Elon Musk-level meme.
Lest you think this is some crack-pot zany idea, professional analytic philosophers such as Nick Bostrom publishing in respectable academic journals have published serious works of analytic philosophy putting forth the simulation argument to the effect that there is a non-trivial chance that we are in fact living in a computer simulation.
Philip K. Dick, the gnostic mystic sci-fi writer, was convinced of the truth of this thesis, as have been many religious and philosophical thinkers throughout time, as well as many certified paranoid schizophrenics. It is a thesis both at home in the time-honored school of metaphysics called Idealism as well as the idle musings of shroom-heads everywhere.
I myself have written extensively about the relationship between the ancient religion of Gnosticism and the modern simulation arguments.
The original Matrix movie took all this philosophical history and turned it into a bubble-gum cinematic cliche.
So going back to the plotline, we find Thomas Anderson, the game designer of The Matrix, called into his office because his boss wants to make a new sequel to the Matrix.
The dialogue here is basically just Lana speaking directly to the audience and her critics.
The lines about Warner Bros having the power to compel artists to reboot a franchise are basically Lana Wachoswki turning straight at the camera and saying “You think I wanted to make this?”
So much of this part of the movie is a meta-commentary on how nobody actually wants originality; they just want action sequences and “bullet time” or to have their minds “effed with” with zany philosophical thought experiments. I half-expected from the trailers that the new movie was going to reveal that Zion in the original trilogy was itself in a more meta Matrix.
There is also meta-philosophical commentary on the nature of fiction and storytelling itself, bringing up the question of whether the same story told with new faces is a new story or not, completely self-referential as the new actor for Mr. Smith delivers these lines as if challenging the audience to ask themselves whether they will be entertained by a new “modal” based on “old code.”
Lurking in between the lines, there is also a great deal of self-referential commentary on Lana Wachowski’s (and her sister’s) public gender transition. Almost every trans cultural critic has endlessly discussed how the original Matrix movies were chock-full of trans themes and the Wachowski sisters have straight-up admitted as much.
Just the idea of having an alter-ego in the virtual construct where you project an unconscious image of yourself that could be at odds with how you look in “real life” is a completely trans theme. Taking little red pills of truth is a direct nod to how the old school estrogen pills were themselves little red pills.
The Matrix 4 is a commentary on all of this.
And going back to our theme of reality-vs-fiction, Neo as Mr. Anderson begins to question his reality. He sees an “Analyst,” played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris, who ends up being the new architect of the rebooted Matrix.
In this new Matrix, it is absolutely key that both Neo and Trinity remain plugged back into the Matrix.
Accordingly, it is in the Analyst’s best interest to keep Neo questioning his sanity, not knowing whether the videogame he created is real or not real, questioning whether his memories from the original trilogy are real or not real at the exact same time as we, the film audience, are questioning whether our original memories and understanding of the metaphysics of the original trilogy are real or themselves just a fiction within a fiction.
The movie brilliantly tackles the possibility that the entire Matrix trilogy was nothing more than an imaginative plot dreamed up by a slightly psychotic videogame designer.
As someone who has herself had a half-dozen very serious psychotic episodes in the psych ward with a corresponding diagnosis of some type of schizophrenia and who still takes anti-psychotic medication daily, I can attest that the way the movie plays with your own sense of what’s real or what’s not real felt incredibly true to life. Keanu’s acting was phenomenal in this part.
There is a whole montage where the classic psychedelic-themed song “White Rabbit” was playing, which itself is the basis for some motifs and iconography in the original Matrix (“follow the white rabbit.”)
I thought this whole part of the film was a brilliant depiction of psychosis and an homage to the philosophical roots of the Matrix as a concept (one of the rejoins from the videogame execs who wanted a sequel was “the Matrix effs with your head, man!”)
It strikes me as impossible that Lana would not have been familiar with the famous and tragic cases of mentally ill people who became obsessed with the Matrix movies and became convinced they were living in a computer simulation and subsequently killed other people in the midst of psychosis, with their lawyers claiming a new version of the insanity defense now called “The Matrix Defense.”
This was dramatized in the recent documentary on the Simulation Hypothesis (that I enjoyed) called A Glitch in the Matrix, a fascinating look into how movies like the Matrix and Bostrom’s Simulation Argument have influenced people to take seriously the idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation.
In the documentary, it interviews young men who grew up playing video games and shooters and upon learning that they very well might be living in a computer simulation, began to fantasize and wonder if everyone around them were “NPCs” or “non-player characters”. Bots essentially. And if they’re just bots, it’s not wrong to just kill them right? They’re just programs.
Matrix Resurrections is self-referential in this respect with its idea of “bots” in the film, which is a new program for agents where essentially just everyday plain-clothed people can become mindless bots or programs.
At the end of the movie in the big climactic action finale, Lana basically brings to life the scene of so many videogame obsessed shooter addicts who daydream about taking an assault rifle and just blowing through hordes of mindless bots, turning the whole world into some suicide-mission Grand Theft Auto take-as-many-down-as-you-can scenario where everyone around you is just bullet fodder.
I can’t help but think this was a meta-commentary on how the very idea of the Matrix, the very idea of living in a computer simulation, raises thorny ethical questions for people who themselves think of the masses as “sheeple.” In Resurrections, at the end of the film, The Analyst himself says that most people want to remain mindlessly plugged into the Matrix. That they don’t want freedom or independence. They just want to have good feelings and nothing else.
As I saw it, the script was one long-running social commentary on how mindless consumerism and digital-everything has taken good things and turned them into commodified franchises appealing to the lowest common denominator.
That’s why I feel like Lana absolutely had to make the movie to be tongue-in-cheek and so blatantly self-referential and nostalgic. She is making a meta-commentary on the public’s own eternal contradiction between craving original stories while turning out to make endlessly recycled reboots a massive commercial success.
She made it self-referential because if she just tried to make a straight-up serious 4th sequel it would have been deemed completely unoriginal. Because it IS. She is aware of that. She knows bullet time and kung-fu and shootouts with swarms of cops is completely unoriginal. So she made it meta. She made the movie aware of itself. She played with the very boundary between fiction and memory and narrative, acknowledging that nostalgia is a huge factor in what makes the Matrix “feel” like the Matrix.
She acknowledges very early on in the first scene of the movie that this feels like “old code.” Because it IS old code. It couldn’t be otherwise. So in a way this whole movie is Lana just having fun with it. Telling an old story with new faces (and some old faces) while being aware of itself and not taking itself too seriously.
But I think in not taking itself so seriously, in being aware of itself, it was precisely able to transcend the impossible weight of its expectations and became something truly enjoyable. As the Matrix itself challenges the notion of what’s real and what’s not real, so too does Matrix Resurrections play with the boundary between fiction and reality, breaking the 4th wall as it acknowledges itself within the movie as a cliche franchise while still managing to do some original storytelling (e.g. the new relationship with the machines, now called Synthients, who became allies of the humans.)
However, there was one line in the movie where one of the characters talks about how the Matrix itself turns everything deeply meaningful into something trivial. Indeed, this was Lana making a commentary on how her and her sister’s deeply personal cinematic masterpiece was turned into a trivial cliche often reduced to a single cinematic gimmick (“bullet-time”) when in reality trans people know that the Matrix was deeply personal for the Wachowski sisters and included many trans motifs and personal artistic expressions beyond just the mindless action it’s become known for.
But all that personal vision and originality became reduced to trivialities. What was deeply meaningful became a joke. And so the self-referential tongue-in-cheek attitude of Resurrections is a way to address this head-on.
Now, of course, if you read some reviews of Resurrections, one of the main criticisms seems to be that it’s nostalgic and unoriginal. Seriously! How many times do people really expect an audience to be able to stomach “going to broadcast depth and jacking into the Matrix” and not be bored? If Lana had just tried to continue the sequel as if 18 years of memes and parodies had never happened it would have completely fallen on its face.
Instead, Lana looked at all the impossible expectations square in the face and simply smirked, as if chastising anybody who actually expected something truly original from a fucking fourth iteration of the original Matrix premise.
But precisely in embracing the paradoxical, self-referential nostalgia and combining it with the beautiful cinematography and breathtaking CGI and action we’ve all come to expect, the Matrix Resurrections somehow pulled off the impossible and delivered something that was both deeply familiar yet also fresh and new. But at its core, Matrix Resurrections banked on the fundamental premise of the 2nd and 3rd movies, thumbing its nose at the cynics: the Matrix is a love story between Neo and Trinity, itself an allegory for the love story that is the transgender experience.
But it turns out, not surprisingly, that in the new Matrix film after Lana’s transition, the allegorical Trinity, the idealized super-woman, turns out to be the central figure of the story. And whereas pre-transition it was the heroic male Neo who was “The One,” in its resurrected form, an alchemical solution of both the masculine and the feminine combined to create a Greater Whole, a Two-Who-Are-More-Than-One, an acknowledgment that when it comes to gender, the solution to “The Binary” (another meta-commentary in the movie) is never reductionist.
To escape from the Binary one must transcend the limitations of social norms. This is why Matrix Resurrections is fundamentally alchemical in its gender metaphysics: “The One” (masculine) is made whole only when combined with his counterpart, the feminine, and when combined and dissolved alchemically create a new Whole, a new equilibrium between the false binary of 0 vs 1, light vs dark, male vs female, making space for the multidimensional potentiality in a whole new reality (with “rainbows painted in the sky” as the final lines of the films echo).