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‘The Matrix Resurrections’ frustrates as often as it thrills

The rabbit hole goes deep in a meta sequel preoccupied with the franchise’s past.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) can’t trust that what’s in the mirror is real in “The Matrix Resurrections.”
Warner Bros.

“Will we ever see [Neo] again?”

“I suspect so. Someday.” – Exchange between Sati and the Oracle in the final scene of “The Matrix Revolutions.”

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small — and the fourth pill in the “Matrix” franchise is equal parts dizzying, exciting, frustrating and just a bit too consumed with giving us a meta version of itself to make for a satisfying viewing experience. It’s cool to witness the return of Keanu Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity (among other returning characters) and there are intermittent reminders of why the “Matrix” trilogy left such a profound footprint on the popular culture some 20 years ago — but the plot line of “The Matrix Resurrections” actually undercuts some of the dramatic power of the original trilogy by telling us we shouldn’t have believed everything we experienced back then.

Granted, this IS the Matrix, and the sands are ever shifting, but there’s something arbitrary and unearned about some key plot developments in “Resurrections.” There’s the usual “Matrix” overload of double-talk exposition that tries to justify the setup and execution of events that transpire, but it roughly translates to: “We decided to make a fourth film, and in order for us to bring back Neo and Trinity, here’s what we came up with! Hope you’ll buy into it and come along for the ride.” And we do — up to a point.

Without traveling too far back into the weeds, here’s your reminder that by the end of “Matrix Revolutions” (2003), Trinity has been impaled to death in the cockpit of her hovercraft and Neo has died from wounds inflicted in his epic final battle with Agent Smith. The last we see of Neo his body is being carried away by the machines. These two great heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice for humanity.

End of the saga. Until now. “Maybe this isn’t the story we think it is,” says a new character in “Matrix Resurrections,” and down we go through the rabbit hole.

The story picks up some 20 years after the events of “Matrix Revolutions,” with Reeves’ Thomas Anderson living in San Francisco, seemingly oblivious to everything that happened in the first three movies, and working as — well, let’s just say Thomas’ occupation and status in life make for a fantastic and hilariously clever in-joke, and we’ll leave it at that. Neil Patrick Harris delivers an effectively deadpan performance as The Analyst, who has regular sessions with Thomas in which he helps Thomas decipher his dreams. The Analyst also provides Thomas with a steady diet of blue pills designed to help him distinguish reality from fantasy — yet Thomas has this nagging feeling there’s something … strange going on in this world of his.

Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) seems oblivious that she was ever alter ego Trinity.
Warner Bros.

These instincts are further heightened when Thomas meets a married, suburban mom named Tiffany in a coffee shop. Have we met? wonders Tiffany as they shake hands, and we’re thinking, um, YES, because that’s Carrie-Anne Moss as Tiffany. What in the world is going on, and where in the world are we?

Enter the mind-bending pyrotechnics. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II takes over the mantle of the Morpheus character played by Laurence Fishburne in the first three films; he’s a younger, alternate version, but he still believes in Thomas/Neo, and he offers him a red pill and says, “Time to fly.” (There’s also an alternate, younger version of Agent Smith in “Resurrections,” while Jada Pinkett Smith’s warrior Niobe has aged decades beyond Neo and Trinity. As always with these films, there’s a LOT to process.)

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays an alternate Morpheus, still packing the red pill.
Warner Bros.

So … we know Thomas and Tiffany are alive in one realm or another, but what about Neo and Trinity? Still dead? What do you think? We’re treading as lightly as we can around all the spoilers, but come on, this isn’t a romantic comedy from the 1990s about a couple with amnesia who bump into each other at a coffee shop and suspect they once knew one another, right?

“The Matrix Resurrections” eventually explains what really happened to Trinity and Neo all those years ago, and even before that we’re plunged into worlds where mirror images aren’t what they appear to be, where shootouts and hand-to-hand combat sequences feature noirish lighting and characters running up walls to avoid gunfire, where the blending of practical effects and CGI makes for some entertaining if not groundbreaking action sequences. Director and co-writer Lana Wachowski (going solo without sibling Lily this time around) also makes liberal use of callbacks to previous characters and scenarios in an effort to tie the past to the present and just maybe the future.

“Matrix Resurrections” is a great-looking film and Reeves and Moss remind us of what an iconic team they made in the trilogy, but the themes of finding one’s identity, free will, taking leaps of faith in order to serve the greater good, humans against machines — we already hashed all that out back in the day, and ultimately this feels more like a warmed-over tribute to the past than a bold and fresh new chapter.