While nostalgic blockbusters rampage through the film industry, The Matrix Resurrections shows that a sequel can form a dialogue with its past while redefining the present. After years of wrangling with studios, writer-director Lana Wachowski has triumphantly returned to the big screen with a movie that contains extensive reflections on aging, trauma and liberation alongside high-octane, telekinesis-heavy kung fu brawls.
Wachowski’s brand of thematic bluntness, intertextuality and stylistic boldness — staples of her and her sister Lilly’s classic 1996 debut Bound all the way to the pair’s gloriously dumb Jupiter Ascending — is alive in Resurrections. There are glimpses of the series’ iconic digital rain and red pills and allusions to Alice in Wonderland and the original movies’ debt to sci-fi anime like Ghost in the Shell. But Wachowski, a solo filmmaker after her sister’s late-career turn to indie queer media, refuses to simply revisit old stomping grounds, announcing her intentions with meta lines like, “this cannot be another reboot, [or] retread.”
Resurrections invites its audience to reflect on their relationships with stories. An extremely meta montage of game developers analyzing The Matrix — which the protagonist Neo has turned into a video game to which they’re producing a sequel — repeats verbatim arguments real people have made about The Matrix over the years, saying the movie is about “trans politics” or “capitalist exploitation”. Neil Patrick Harris’ character The Analyst, Neo’s therapist, baldly claims at one point: “It’s all about fiction. The only world that matters is the one right here,” while pointing to Neo’s head. The movie blatantly acknowledges The Matrix’s status as an influential text, how it’s been read in the years since and how it intends to proceed now.
Blue-haired hacker Bugs — played brilliantly by Jessica Henwick — serves as the audience viewpoint character. A fan of Neo indebted to him for liberating her mind, Bugs enables his return to the real world. An intrinsically 2021 sci-fi protagonist with blue hair, a silly, queer-coded name and a true nerd’s appreciation, Bugs gives the new generation a voice within the movie. The Matrix returns because the youths want it back.
Bugs’ role provides a doorway to Resurrections’ themes, which are largely invitation and consent to participate. The act of watching a movie or video game can be a gateway to participation, but mere spectating frees nobody. Bugs sees Neo and helps free him from his malaise as a game developer in the Matrix. The movie’s climax hinges on Neo seeking the consent of his former lover Trinity, now an amnesiac occupant of the Matrix, to return to him and the real world.
Merely existing is insufficient. Resurrections argues that complacency and watching events unfold without acting is spiritually fatal. We lock away our desires and trauma ostensibly to free ourselves, but inevitably trapping ourselves in another prison. In the movie’s words: “Are memories turned into fiction any less real?”
Doubtless this is why many fans have railed against Resurrections. The original movie’s red pill has been co-opted by the alt-right, and nerdom is largely crypto-alt-right these days. Reactionary nerds were never going to appreciate an out trans filmmaker’s sequel movie that rejects nostalgia. The film’s leisurely-paced second act shows how characters’ failures to negotiate with reality in Reloaded and Revolutions has affected their lives. This kind of nuance doesn’t accommodate nostalgia. Resurrections embraces aging as a painful yet beautiful path to growth.
Fittingly, this means Resurrections centers Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss, who’ve aged 20 years but remain obnoxiously beautiful. While the original Matrix trilogy can be fairly criticized for its somewhat shallow view of emotional bonds, Resurrections uses the passage of time as a dramatic engine. The fact that Neo and Trinity have known each other for so long is a dramatic hook. The movie acknowledges the audience’s love for the characters without taking it for granted, presenting their relationship as fraught and challenged, yet worthwhile because it is hard-won. As desire persists, distance increases.
It’s no secret that Lana Wachowski made this movie while healing from her parents’ deaths. Last year at a German panel appearance, she said the story came to her fully formed one night while she mourned: “I couldn’t have my mom and dad… yet suddenly, I had Neo and Trinity.” The movie is called Resurrections, after all. It’s art as healing wish fulfillment: losing a relationship and gaining a new one.
Wachowski, who is trans, undoubtedly understands the silent, unattainable desire which is often part of queer people’s lives. Sometimes you look across a room at someone but never speak to them. Sometimes you see somebody and want to be them. You look in the mirror and see a person who’s not you, as Neo often does. Even within queer relationships, there’s shame and trauma to overcome. That we have any visibility is a wonder to us some days.
As the current sole major trans filmmaker in Hollywood, Wachowski could easily have made a movie that was about transness, responding to long-standing theories about The Matrix being a trans allegory (which isn’t quite right — The Matrix never seemed consciously trans so much as two trans filmmakers’ pre-coming out work with trans resonances). Resurrections acknowledges trans and queer readings, dropping little gags like “paint the sky with rainbows,” a queer in-joke and reference to The Matrix Revolutions’ ending. Yet Wachowski steers away from “The Matrix is trans now,” instead crafting a movie whose themes are profoundly relevant to queer people.
While no characters are explicitly trans, the movie has staggeringly trans moments. Neo’s self-image is shown — dashing middle-aged Keanu Reeves — while in the Matrix he’s perceived as a much older man who’s only briefly glimpsed. It’s an astonishingly trans use of cinema, evoking experiences of gender dysphoria with film techniques that echo Mr. Robot’s similarly formalist depiction of dissociation. And then there are the movie’s motifs of face-changing, blue pills (estradiol tablets are blue) and Neo’s endless gazing into mirrors.
Resurrections tackles all of these themes with aesthetic boldness and yet real subtlety. It’s quieter than its predecessors: Wachowski’s use of silence makes Resurrections peaceful and tender. Under co-cinematographer John Toll’s influence, Wachowski has embraced natural light in shooting scenes, even spontaneously rearranging shots to capture a moment’s authentic lighting. Atypically, composers Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer scored the movie before it was shot, meaning editor Joseph Jett Sally cut scenes to their music, creating fluidity and a spacious approach to time.
Resurrections owns its moment. It embraces the passage of time and falls into line alongside the feminist science fiction of its era while dialoguing with its source material. It assesses the landscape of cinema and science fiction and says here’s my role. The movie rebukes the alt-right’s appropriation of the red pill with diverse filmmaking. It rebukes the insulting notion that a sequel should be anything less than a challenge to its own source material. The Matrix Resurrections is one of the finest blockbusters in years. It’s strange and queer and fun and tender; if more movies were this benevolent, we’d have a healthier film industry.