“We kept some kids entertained,” drawls Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix Resurrections. That’s one way to describe the Wachowskis’ seminal sci-fi series, which began with 1999’s The Matrix.
In truth, the first three films did a lot more than that – from changing the very nature of action cinema to inspiring conspiracy theories galore. If you saw this year’s documentary A Glitch in The Matrix, you’ll know some believe this fiction is reality.
Now, 18 years on from The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, two back-to-back sequels that increasingly diminished in power and potency, Lana Wachowski plugs us back in. Her sister Lilly is not involved, with Lana co-writing the script with Aleksandar Hemon and David Mitchell, the novelist behind the time-bending Cloud Atlas, which the Wachowskis previously adapted in 2012 for the big screen in what was arguably their best movie since the first The Matrix film.
The result is a wild meta-movie that begins with Reeves’ Neo nowhere to be seen, many believing with good reason that he’s dead after he seemingly sacrificed his life along with fellow rebel-rouser Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) at the end of Revolutions. The Matrix, the virtual reality simulation programme that enslaves all human beings, is still up-and-running, just like always. The squid-like Sentinels, killer robots that humanity fought in the so-called Machine War, are still in charge.
As it turns out, Neo’s back inside the Matrix, living again as Thomas Anderson, the hacker who went down the proverbial rabbit hole when he broke out of the simulation in the original movie. Only this time, he’s been reborn as a designer working for Deus Ex Machina, a San Francisco video games company behind the world’s most successful trilogy – The Matrix. As his boss (Jonathan Groff) tells him, Warner Bros., their “beloved parent company” now want a sequel.
Nodding to the studio behind the movies and the thirst for follow-ups is a neat touch, but Resurrections is more than just a few clever inside gags. Meditating on the idea of choice – free will or destiny is asked more than once – Wachowski’s film resets and reboots the original trilogy, allowing us to re-examine what went before. In the local coffee shop (amusingly called Simulatte), Neo/Anderson keeps seeing Moss’s Trinity, who is now a married mother-of-two and goes by the name Tiffany.
Both feel that they’ve met before, and this runs through the film – characters stuck inside endless repeating loops, like they’re the subject of an Escher painting. There are questions aplenty: Why has Neo barely aged? How did he survive? And why are he and Trinity back inside the Matrix? These will gradually be answered, as the blue-haired gun-slinger Bugs (Jessica Henwick) comes looking for Neo in an attempt to break him out of the Matrix once more.
Joining her will be Morpheus, the sage-like character who originally plucked Neo from this virtual prison. This time, he’s thrillingly played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the breakout star from this year’s Candyman, who replaces Laurence Fishburne. Wachowski also judiciously interweaves desaturated footage from the original film, featuring clips of Fishburne, Moss and Reeves in their younger years that play well against this contemporary footage. Needless to say, Moss and Reeves still look wrinkle-free.
These aren’t the only throwbacks to the earlier films. Excerpts of Don Davis’s score are interwoven into the music, Bugs carries a white rabbit tattoo, while one of Neo’s most famous lines is also parodied when he finds himself in yet another gravity-defying fight and says, “I still know kung-fu.” There will be appearances too from the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe) and Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), reprising their roles. And – yes – the red and blue pills also return.
Of the new cast, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas brings elegance to the older version of Sati, the child-like character who featured in Revolutions, while Neil Patrick Harris has a ball as The Analyst, the shrink who is there to help Anderson work through his problems as he continues to feel unsettling bouts of deja vu.
Just about everyone gets in on the frenetic action (gun-play, martial arts, you name it), though British-Chinese actress Henwick steals the show as the defiant Bugs, every bit the worthy successor to Trinity.
With all this, Resurrections certainly leaves matters open for a fifth part in the franchise – in a film that does much to wipe away the mistakes made in The Matrix Revolutions, which was a gloomy, dull and pretentious mess. Resurrections is a lot lighter on its feet, although it does miss the presence of Hugo Weaving as Smith – the black-suited, sunglasses-wearing agent who pursues Neo and Trinity across the first three movies. Perhaps he’ll return if a fifth outing occurs – and on this evidence it should. There’s still a lot more story to tell.
The Matrix Resurrections opens in cinemas on Thursday, December 23