The Matrix Resurrections: Radically Poetic, by David Bax
For fans of a movie series, the scary thing about a legacy sequel is the threat that it will attempt to undo what was long thought resolved as an excuse for its own existence. That turns out to be a needless worry when it comes to Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections. Of course she’s going to make sure the new entry will have a good reason to be; this is one of the women, after all, who, when the actor who played the Oracle in the first two films passed away, came up with a detailed backstory for why the character looked different in the third.
Most of the original trilogy’s cast is still alive, thankfully. But not all of them return here. I won’t spoil who does and doesn’t show up but, in addition to those surprises, Wachowski (also just one returning director from what was previously a team of two) stacks her cast with big names. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris all play major roles, while the likes of Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Christina Ricci pop up here and there. But the breakout here is Jessica Henwick, a slightly less recognizable name, unless you stuck it out through the later seasons of Game of Thrones or were a devotee of the least celebrated Netflix Marvel series. I only knew her as the woman Rashida Jones thinks her husband is having an affair with in On the Rocks. In any case, she won’t soon be forgotten after stealing scenes from her more famous co-stars as The Matrix Resurrections‘ most active character.
This blend of the familiar and the new doesn’t end with the cast. The opening scene is actually a tongue-in-cheek joke about nostalgia and familiarity, just the first of the movie’s many such insistences of self-commentary. It’s recognizably The Matrix but also shiningly state-of-the-art; that endlessly cascading green code now in UHD/HDR. And even if the action scenes don’t have quite the go-for-broke ambition of the earlier films (maybe fight choreography was more on Lilly’s mind?), the playful and engaging visual ideas are up to par.
Take, for instance, the way things look inside the new version of the matrix. It’s less present day than it is a 90s idea of the future; there’s a bad guy who looks like one of the Lost Boys from Spielberg’s Hook. Humorous, self-aware touches abound in the dialogue too; one character is referred to as “the handsome Chad.” So, as you can see, the subtlety dial is at the same setting as before too.
The Matrix Resurrections‘ most overtly metatextual scene is one in which a bunch of characters literally sit around and argue about what The Matrix means. In addition to “a metaphor of capitalist exploitation,” one of the suggestions is “trans politics.” Given that both directors of the original trilogy have come out in the years since, it’s impossible not to look for trans narratives here. And they’re easy to find in specific character arcs, like someone, out of fear, fighting to remain the person they know they’re not.
But the more illuminating and more beautiful way to look at The Matrix Resurrections is as a picture of hope for a more open world with more ways of being. To reference another genre standout from the 90s, the film reminded me of the way the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer became more shaded and nuanced on the spin-off, Angel. On the latter series, there seemed to be as many demons who were decent, regular folks as were monsters. In The Matrix Resurrections, the duality of man and machine has similarly been bridged. There’s still evil to be fought but the binary has begun to disintegrate. For a movie ostensibly about a science fiction dystopia, this is one of the most optimistic and encouraging films of the year.