If Alien: Resurrection is any indication, a sequel (part 4, no less) in any franchise with the word “resurrection” in the title will surely be a letdown; Matrix: Resurrections is a dud.
So, what about Matrix 4 makes it so underwhelming? There are lots of things, but in broad strokes:
- The movie couldn’t decide what it was about
- It was relentlessly self-referential to the point of parody. It even makes fun of the fact that the film itself doesn’t know what it is about
- The motivations and goals of most of the players in the plot are unclear. The big question is the question of the movie’s existence itself: What’s the point?
- There is simply no actual resolution to the plot at all.
As we continue, keep those four things in mind because I believe if this movie had been better planned at the writing stage, we could have seen something exceptional rather than something very bland.
The movie begins with Neo, now 20 years older, as a veteran game developer famous for creating The Matrix videogame trilogy, and he’s suffering psychic breaks as he hallucinates that events from the games are really happening to him. Worse, he’s been tasked with making a fourth Matrix game by the publisher.
The first third of the movie is spent playing with this premise and weaving in many, many references to the original movies. There’s even a scene with “developers” sitting around a table like a Hollywood writer’s group, pitching ideas for Matrix 4—just what The Matrix is truly all about, whether it’s about philosophy or guns or action, etc. It would be a cringe-worthy attempt at being meta if it wasn’t so meta about the story itself, possibly in unintended ways.
You see, the first third of the movie was by far the best part of Matrix Resurrections, but for the interesting and fresh presentation of the gnostic themes that dominated the original trilogy, rather than for the lame-but-metaeffective meta. Keanu Reeves looks miserable as he sits and listens to people sound off internet abbreviations (LOL, OMG, etc. This is something I’ve seen millennials and Xers do in LA, but nowhere else), tell him about his Matrix game, or lecture him about “the truth.” He doesn’t look like he’s acting. It looks like they turned a camera on the real man and captured just how he feels about his existence in Hollywood.
That makes a perfect acting presentation for the initial setup. Neo’s disconnect from the fake Hollywood people surrounding him is resonant with the strong “descent into madness” that envelopes the first act. Ultimately, the people act fake because (spoiler) they are fake – they are computer programs like Agent Smith. The new Morpheus is a program created by (we presume) Neo, as an echo of the real thing.
Unfortunately, Lana Wachowski chooses not to go much further with this premise. Instead of some truly shocking revelations or the simpler questions of sanity, the movie shifts in the second act into undoing the ending of the third movie while trying to retread all the old ground of the first.
The gnostic underpinnings of the first trilogy are mostly dressing at that point, when that first act could have set up something unique. This time, Neo, as a game designer is the Demiurge. He’s the creator of the flawed, false reality rather than a prisoner of it. He could have then discovered, in a continuation of Plato’s cave, that his own reality was shadows, and we could have been treated to an even stranger “new world.” We could have seen that the original Matrix trilogy was a distorted reflection of truth hidden from Neo the Demiurge. That would have been interesting, and it would have worked well with the ending of Matrix Revolutions in which a blind Neo is able to see the world around him as code; in other words, it was implied that he never escaped the Matrix and that the “real world” was just another illusion meant to misdirect and contain him. Matrix Resurrections could have presented the resolution to that black pill by showing the next layer, that Neo was acting out a fantasy created by himself, a Demiurge-like being.
I would have settled for something less certain, perhaps: that the Neo in this movie was descending into madness and chose to embrace his delusions and fantasies rather than see reality as it truly was. Neo’s embrace of madness and escape to the Matrix could have been an attempt to AVOID realizing the truth. But we got none of that. We got a diluted movie instead of a diluted protagonist. Before the end of the first hour, we are back to where we were 20 years ago: there is a war between humans and machines (no peace), Neo and Trinity are alive, there is a matrix that imprisons people to use as energy, people need to be freed from the Matrix, some people don’t want to leave, there is a hidden human city, etc.
This missed opportunity aside, there were other problems, specifically with plot and motivations. After the first act, we are treated to several long monologues attempting to explain the setup of the “real” conflict since the first act was spent questioning Neo’s sanity. Despite this, it’s not clear why any of the characters are doing what they are doing. The humans seem to have reached an equilibrium hiding from the machines, not trying to destroy them. One rogue pilot wants to find the resurrected Neo, but we don’t know to what end. It’s not clear why the machines brought Neo and Trinity back from the dead (we are treated to a monologue explaining that unsatisfied people make better batteries, but that doesn’t explain why Neo and Trinity), nor is it clear why the resurrected Agent Smith wants to kill Neo or what we wants to do once he is free (or why exactly he has to kill Neo to be free-all we are told is that he is somehow tethered to Neo).
The leap into the third act finally establishes a goal: free Trinity. However, the point of this goal is rather fluid and never really gels with the larger conflict. The best we get is “Do it because you love her.” The “resolution” of this is that Trinity is also “the one” (or at least shares his powers) and together with Neo they are going to remake the Matrix how they see fit… but what is the point of that? Wasn’t it true before that humans rejected false heavens? How will remaking the Matrix free people? What is the state of the war? If people can be resurrected in body and therefore also in mind, what exactly does that mean for the substance of humanity? What about sentient programs?
Like before, the movie is gnostic but can’t really escape from its own materialist assumptions.
We’re back to where we began at the end of the first film, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps Anderson is embracing his madness and hallucinating, and part of that is using the Matrix to make his own world, but the movie certainly doesn’t convince me of any such thing. It mostly convinced me that the writers didn’t know what they wanted to do with this opportunity, so they ended up phoning it in. And unlike the original films, the flashy effects and wild kung fu weren’t there to save it. Even the action sequences seemed manufactured and uninspired, and Keanu Reeves looks bored and bothered doing the fistfights.
What’s going on behind the scenes to explain this failure, I can only guess. Perhaps the personal life of the (remaining) central creator makes the entire idea of “truth and illusion” more subtle or difficult to execute, or maybe the internet’s seizing of the terminology of the films made the creators crack. Maybe the system is as such that you can’t make a creative big-budget movie in Hollywood anymore. I’ll leave you to speculate.
In any event, it’s a movie with hints of what it “truly” could have been.
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