Review of The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections. Dir. Lana Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 2021.
The Matrix, which was directed by the Wachowskis and released to worldwide acclaim in 1999, became a landmark in the history of science fiction cinema. An epitome of cyberpunk, it popularized postmodern philosophy and 1980s science fiction for a wider audience. Together with its turn-of-the-millennium contemporaries, such as George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001), it paved the way for a new phase in Hollywood cinema, which intensively intends to mesmerize the audience by science fiction and fantasy spectacles. It featured revolutionary visual effects, such as the upgraded version of bullet time, and also became a landmark in the media history of home entertainment, since the special gimmicks on its DVD edition helped to popularize the DVD format (Jenkins 94; McFarlane 106). By creating a “collage of… high cultural and low cultural allusions and genres” (Barnett 366), for example, directly displaying Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical book Simulacra and Simulation, it became a favourite of young scholars whose education was dominated by postmodern continental philosophy. Hence – at least temporally – the film managed to bring closer scholarly research on high culture and popular culture (Barnett 365). With the exception of the animated anthology The Animatrix (2003), the sequels mostly disappointed the audience and critics alike. Nevertheless, with its sequels and interrelated comics, short stories, and computer games, the Matrix saga became an important early example of multimedia franchises and transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 21, 93-130).
Since then, many of the cyberpunk extrapolations have turned into our reality and the young scholars have grown up. These days, selling DVDs serves a niche market of collectors only and multimedia franchises and transmedia storytelling are the standard. The question arises then: how—and as for the anti-nostalgic sceptics (for example, Bradshaw; Cameron), why—to make a sequel more than twenty years after the first film and roughly eighteen years after the heyday of the franchise?
As successful recent additions to the Batman saga such as The Joker (2019) indicate, movies based on superhero comics can always place their characters into a different era or a new mise-en-scène, thus forming variants on the same theme without scruples. In contrast, as the struggling sequels of the Terminator saga demonstrate, science fiction franchises that want to revive old stories face a bigger challenge, since they cannot ignore the duties and restraints of nostalgia. As Svetlana Boym indicates, nostalgia can be either restorative, that is, serious and reconstructive, or reflective, humorous, sarcastic and ambivalent. As for the latter, “This type of nostalgia is ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary” (Boym 50). Forming a perfect embodiment of restorative nostalgia, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) proves that it is possible to create a beautiful and relatively meaningful pastiche to pay homage to the original story, which both the critics and the audience can appreciate. Terminator Genisys (2015) taught us that another possibility is to produce a self-reflexive, playful, fannish, somewhat goofy sequel, which the fans mostly enjoy, while the majority of critics patronizingly pan (see, for example, Hersko) and the general audience distantly tolerates or more-or-less ignores. With The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski chose the latter path, following the bumpy road of reflective, humorous and ironic nostalgia.
Ironic and self-reflexive elements, multiple embedded stories and images, as well as moments of breaking the fourth wall, were already tangible in the first Matrix film. Surveillance footage, television screens, references to Bruce Lee’s iconic gestures and Hollywood clichés, addressing the audience directly, and other elements of parody saturated the film. Nevertheless, the cyberpunk themes, which were relatively fresh in Hollywood cinema, together with the revolutionary visual effects, managed to make the audience temporarily disregard or suspend the irony. Alternatively, the audience viewed the movie with a double vision: we saw that it was a goofy, banal, self-reflexive film, but it was refreshingly new at the same time. Thus, it is only logical that if Lana Wachowski’s 2021 sequel did not bring to light fresh themes and revolutionary visual effects, but kept or even increased the intensity of parody, the result would be a significantly more comic and self-reflexive film. This explains the mixed, and mostly negative, reviews: for a few critics, The Matrix Resurrections is a sarcastic and ironic production that shows once again how digital surveillance, social media, and Hollywood filmmaking impact our lives. For many others, the film is a childish, clichéd, badly executed farce which can acquire cult value only due to its relatively faithful repetition of characters and plot elements.
As already highlighted in the marketing materials and trailers, the 2021 film revolves around déjà vu and reflective nostalgia. The opening sequence is an uncannily re-enacted version of the opening sequence of the first Matrix film. In this new version, different actors play the roles of policemen and agents, uniforms are more up-to-date, and Ellen Hollman appears as the reflection of the original Trinity character (Carrie-Anne Moss). The commentaries of the hackers who peek into this scene also emphasize that there is something wrong with the repetition. As gradually explained, the re-enactment is a “modal,” a test environment for computer games, and the hackers who monitor this are fans of Neo’s story depicted in the first three films. Soon after this, one of the fans who watches the uncanny repetition, Bug (Jessica Henwick), meets the re-embodiment of Morpheus (originally played by Laurence Fishburne and this time by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). She is just as happy to see Morpheus – who at this time appears as an agent in the “modal” – as a devoted fan is happy to meet an actor of a beloved television show or film; she even hugs him when it turns out that they are both fans and seekers of the long-lost Neo. It is easy for the audience to become disoriented and captivated by the multiple embedded levels in the renewed opening sequence. Yet, at the same time, the fannish and somewhat naïve enthusiasm expressed by the characters results in a burlesque parody.
The film is at its best when it self-reflexively mocks consumerism, reboots, and remakes. As verbalized in the film, “Reboots sell,” perhaps because “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” A crucial and memorable sequence describes Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a successful but somewhat burnt out game developer who invented the fictional Matrix-themed video game series, which is part of the new matrix, the current version of the computer simulated dreamworld to keep humanity under control. He intends to refuse the task of adding a new sequel to the already finished world of his award-winning video game series—but his boss and Warner Brothers insist, and they will make a sequel, entitled Matrix 4, with or without the contribution of the creator. This is followed by a brainstorming by a think-tank, the development team of Matrix 4, which comes up with various and sometimes contradictory explanations why the original game was impactful. Here the story is blatantly, perhaps all too blatantly, making fun of its own production process and the various intellectual and pseudo-intellectual reactions to the previous Matrix movies, which were, in fact, embraced and accentuated by the Wachowskis (Jenkins 99-100).
Other remarkable and tragicomic scenes depict the ordinary life of the disillusioned Thomas Anderson, that of Tiffany-Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who eventually becomes more powerful than ever, and revolve around The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris). The latter, after masquerading as Andersons’s psychotherapist, reveals himself to be the master of the current matrix. In a way similar to Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in the first film, Harris’s speeches are often ideologically revealing about consumerism, and at the same time, they inject additional humour into the film. The lives of Anderson and Tiffany are saturated with reflective nostalgia insofar as they search for their original selves, home and stories, but they need to realize that the target of their nostalgia “is in ruins or, on the contrary, has just been renovated and gentrified beyond recognition” (Boym 50). Their previous romantic love story has been transformed into an extremely popular and commercialized computer game, Zion was destroyed by a war, and the new city of the resistance, Io, is much less rebellious and “human” than Zion was. For example, while in the first Matrix film the freedom fighters needed to eat tasteless food and only the traitor character Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) enjoyed his simulated juicy steak, in Io, humans and embodied computer programs cooperate to cultivate genetically resurrected, and supposedly delicious, fruits.
To sum up, The Matrix Resurrections features many self-reflexive moments, Easter eggs, multiple embedded worlds, playful references to the Matrix saga, strong female characters, and a relatively complex storyline with quite a few plot holes. True, the new Matrix film is not as revolutionary and does not impress the audience as much as the first film did. But it clearly does not intend to. The first film warned the audience of the increasing digitalization and upcoming artificiality of our environment. The fourth film reminds the audience of the omnipresent digitalization, consumerism, and artificiality of our environment. Further, it intends to mock reboots, remakes, and sequels, and unmask how the entertainment industry exploits our nostalgic inclinations. The Matrix Resurrections is perhaps even more postmodern than the first Matrix film was (Barnett 363-366)—which does not mean that it is successful or excellent. Perhaps its postmodernity even marks it as somewhat outdated, less comprehensible and enjoyable, at least for the younger audiences. However, this should make it, to some extent at least, worthy of scholarly research and teaching.
Barnett, P. Chad. “Reviving Cyberpunk: (Re)Constructing the Subject and Mapping Cyberspace in the Wachowski Brothers’ Film The Matrix.” Extrapolation, vol. 41, no. 4, 2000, pp. 359-374.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Bradshaw, Peter. “The Matrix Resurrections Review – Drained of Life by the Hollywood Machine.” The Guardian, Dec 21, 2021, pp. 17. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/matrix-resurrections-review-drained-life/docview/2612183571/se-2?accountid=17116
Cameron, Charles. “Why Resurrections Hurts The Matrix Franchise More Than Revolutions Did.” Screenrant. https://screenrant.com/matrix-resurrections-hurts-franchise-more-revolutions-why/.
Hersko, Tyler. “Terminator: Genisys Feels Like Disappointing Fan Fiction.” Reno Gazette – Journal, Jul 10, 2015, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/terminator-genisys-feels-like-disappointing-fan/docview/1695156532/se-2?accountid=17116
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
McFarlane, Brian. “The Matrix: Cult Classic or Computerized Con?” Screen Education, no. 41, 2006, pp. 105-110.
Sándor Klapcsik is an assistant professor at the Technical University of Liberec, where he conducts research on acculturation and stereotypes in migrant cinema. He earned his PhD at the Cultural Studies Department of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, in 2010. He was a Fulbright-Zoltai Fellow at the University of Minnesota, did a long-term research at the University of Liverpool and at the Department of the Sociology of Culture, University of Lodz. His book Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach was published in 2012.