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Matrix Resurrections

Justin Khoo feels let down by the fourth instalment of the Matrix Franchise, a movie that by its own admission "shouldn’t exist" - in cinemas now; also on premium VoD on Monday, January 24th

The original Matrix trilogy was an unparalleled achievement in blockbuster filmmaking – a commercial repackaging of radically subversive ideas that provoked and challenged its audience, forcing viewers to examine their own relationship to narrative saviour arcs like the one told in the story itself. The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) was, for those of us lucky enough to see it in theatres, before it had saturated the pop culture ecosystem, a revelation, demonstrating the intellectual and visceral and creative heights that could be uniquely reached in the medium of film. The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowskis, 2003) subverted its predecessor’s narrative arc, revealing the journey of “The One” to be just another mechanism of ideological control necessary to keep the system in place. And The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowskis, 2003) subverted the prior two films by ending on the pessimistic note that even revolution will eventually be agglomerated into the same, self-perpetuating, system of control.

This brings us to The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise. By its own admission, this movie shouldn’t exist – at one point, a character, referring in the film to a video game trilogy called The Matrix, says that its parent studio Warner Brothers is going to make a fourth instalment with or without the game’s creator (Thomas Anderson, or Neo, played by Keanu Reeves). It’s a not so sly nod to fans wondering why Lana Wachowski (directing the trilogy for the first time on her own, without her sister Lilly) relented to reviving a property she had resisted coming back to for years. And, it’s the part of the film that works best.

For the first 30 minutes, the film keeps its audience in a state of confusion – we are re-introduced to old friends, Neo and Trinity and Morpheus, but something is off. Neo is a depressed game designer, Trinity is a mom who likes riding motorcycles, and Morpheus is a program inside of Neo’s video game. It’s a fresh way to destabilise an audience prepared for anything, and it opens up a plethora of narrative possibilities, some of which are even lampshaded by a satirical pitch meeting for the fourth film/game itself.

But – and this is where my heart sinks – the film ultimately chooses the least interesting path forward, a retread of Neo and Trinity’s relationship that suggests that (human) love is both the best source of machine energy as well as a power that can transcend and defeat the systems of control keeping us docile cogs in a consumerist engine. To be sure, a wholehearted and sincere embrace of anything (be it love or whatever) as an antidote to the cynical and mercenary string of blockbuster franchises inundating cinemas is a welcome reprieve. I want to be clear: love is a good thing! But, for a franchise distinguished by defying expectations and finding new paths through challenging narratives, falling back on maybe the oldest cliché in the book is more than a tad disappointing.

It’s also indefensibly naïve. Merely pointing out the ideological curtains blinding us to the mechanisms of subjugation is not an end in itself, but only the first step in a genuinely emancipatory project. And it’s dangerous to stop there. We’ve seen firsthand how easily the same observations can be perverted by conservatives to reinforce conformity to the status quo, under the guise of resisting change perceived as imposed as a kind of thought control (see: the red pill movement). And love isn’t the answer to any of this, especially not romantic love between two individuals. Sometimes we forget this, but people who disagree with us about politics love other people too.

At times, the film hints at a different answer: the problem lies in our adherence to binary thinking (good/evil, man/woman, friend/enemy), suggesting that escape from the system of control requires a conceptual revolution as well as a material one. Agent Smith and Neo have, after all, been frenemies from the start, and in this film Smith reprises his wild card role in adjudicating the conflict between human and machine. More interestingly, we learn that, since the events of the third movie, human and machine life have become ever more intertwined, with some machines defecting to help the humans and with programs gaining physical manifestations through “exomorphic-particle codices.” At times, the film seems headed towards a resolution through community, our symbiosis with the machines spurring the next phase of our evolution into synthetic-organic hybrid organisms. Binary overturned!

But, no; instead, we have to talk about Neil Patrick Harris and his character, The Analyst. He’s the new Architect: a bad guy who gaslights Neo and is written to be an annoying parody of what Gen-Xers think Millennials sound like. Did I mention he’s a bad guy? Naturally, he must be stopped, Trinity must be saved, and so there goes the uninspired final act of the movie, which delivers more “two hands up while grimacing action” (see below) than this viewer can handle.

In the final frames, we learn that it’s not “The One” but “The Two” (I guess?), since Neo’s powers were the result of his connection with Trinity (so we have that binary again), who’s now sporting some nifty powers of her own. Their final exchange with the Analyst takes on a reflexive character, with him proclaiming that “the sheeple” prefer the status quo to sentimentality – presumably an attempt to pre-empt criticism of the film’s sincerity. But, as I argued above, sentimentality is great, and beside the point. So what else does the film offer us in its closing minutes? Trinity and Neo are off to remake the Matrix with rainbows (wouldn’t that mean being complicit in the enslavement of most of humanity? Never mind, never mind), and… that’s it. It’s hard not to feel let down by a franchise that served up a cold dose of challenging truths in its first three instalments and now leaves us with the equivalent of a Hallmark card in consolation.

Let’s not end on a negative note. There’s plenty to enjoy. Jessica Henwick shines as Bugs, a plucky upstart captain who takes up the tradition of Morpheus in seeking out The One. And Lambert Wilson’s over the top reprisal of his role of the Merovingian (complete with Fisher King inspired loungewear) includes memorable lines like, “You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!” and “You gave us Face-sucker-Zuck and cock-me-climatey-Wiki-piss-and-shit!” Finally, Neo and Trinity’s awkward “first” conversation over coffee is a gentle and knowing nod to any of us who’ve tried to make friends or start relationships in adulthood. There’s a lot to like about the film! But all of that would have been better in a non-Matrix film.

Matrix Resurrections is out now in cinemas across the nation. On premium VoD on Monday, January 24th.

By Justin Khoo - 23-12-2021

Justin is an associate professor of philosophy at MIT. Before coming to MIT, he did his graduate work in philosophy at Yale, and was an undergraduate at UC-Davis. He works in philosophy of language an...

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