starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris
screenplay by Lana Wachowski & David Mitchell & Aleksandar Hemon
directed by Lana Wachowski
by Walter Chaw I guess I wouldn't mind that The Matrix: Resurrections (hereafter Matrix 4) is so stupid if it didn't spend so much of its bloat trying to explain itself. Just let it go. If you're riding with the same plot as Space Jam: A New Legacy, own it--run with it, for fuck's sake. Exposition is always a delicate if necessary evil, but here it's particularly undignified. It's Glen from Raising Arizona explaining his Polack jokes. The plot of Matrix 4 is essentially that conversation with the guy who's way too stoned who has this great idea for a Matrix sequel. "Okay, okay, see, Neo is--haha--NEO is Mr. Anderson again and--haha, check it--he's like this programmer dude, real boring piece of shit, and he made a game back in 1999 called 'The Matrix', and yo, yo, yo, wait, wait... What if Trinity was The One, too?" You've heard of the concept of "raising all boats"? Well, an hour of deadening exposition devoted to explaining a plot this contrived, this smug and half-cocked, this simultaneously convoluted and simplistic, sinks the boat--sinks all fucking boats. Good poker players have confidence and chill; not only does Lana Wachowski have a real bad tell, she gives speeches about what she's holding. "Hi, I'm Lana, creator of The Matrix, and I'm drawing on an inside straight." Small wonder Lilly refused to participate in this boondoggle, leaving Lana to recruit their Cloud Atlas partner-in-crime David Mitchell as one of her co-writers. That either of these people kept their names on this is evidence of an almost majestic, feline confidence.
I wasn't kidding about the plot. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is back to being Mr. Anderson. This time, he's a game designer famous for a trilogy of video games that are, the film reveals, just the first three films in this series. How those films were video games is beyond me, unless this is Wachowski's idea of hilarious self-deprecation addressing the criticism that she and her sister's Matrix trilogy was just a bunch of video game cutscenes. I don't remember this criticism of the films, precisely--the original, with its green filter and "bullet time" manipulations, essentially changed the way we expect science-fiction/action pictures to look. Its influence is manifold and indisputable. I do remember how the sequels were criticized for being gasbags heavy with ponderous ideas, though I like that they damn the torpedoes, and I think time has revealed a comely madness to the Wachowskis' tale of messianic transmutation. These are some of the biggest movies ever made, and there is about them a sense of the personal that is affecting to the point of touching. Neo, an archetypal Chosen One-cum-omnipotent superbeing by the end, begins as a nebbish in search of an identity, trapped in a featureless existence he hates. Although the first film plays as a For Dummies guide to Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation and Cartesian philosophy whose most compelling images are cribbed from Oshii's Ghost in the Shell, its sense of our collective, mechanized dehumanization and its hope that we might be, for all our despair, special, lingers on.
While The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions may have muddied the waters considerably, they still manage to run on the overheated love story between Neo and woman warrior Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who gives her life for his painful emergence into his true self. The third spoke on this wheel is dour Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who initiates Neo into the truth: that an artificial intelligence is keeping humans plugged into a virtual reality, so the world as we know it is a simulation. In the original The Matrix, there is talk of how the machine intelligence created a simulation where everyone got what they wanted all the time, but people, like the gambler in that "Twilight Zone" episode who thought he was in Heaven but was actually in Hell, hated getting everything they want. Hence: the mess we're in. What the AI is hiding from us is that our bodies are being used as meat batteries suspended in amnionic sacs from birth to death--which is, in the final analysis, not a bad description of Capitalism. I wondered if Matrix 4 would be about a world governed by a beneficent God (Neo), and if the AI's warnings were correct that happy people, happily-provided-for, would be incredibly, unhappily discontent. Nope! The new manager of the Matrix is The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), and he gives the same speech Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) gave in the previous films. And while we're on the subject of Agent Smith, he's now played by Jonathan Groff, who is more alien and affected as King George III in Hamilton than he is as a pitiless machine avatar in Matrix 4. Which is an incredible shame, because Weaving's outer-space performance was a huge part of those films' effectiveness as weirdo cult items of interest. Fear not: there are a lot of flashbacks to the first three movies to spice up the interminable monologuing.
Morpheus is recast as well in Matrix 4 with Candyman flavour-of-the-moment Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and the switch is similarly disastrous--this time less for performance reasons than for a script that has him vacillating between self-aware jokester "recycling the old hits" when he says Fishburne's lines in Fishburne's cadence, CGI construct comprising thousands of tiny robots in the "real" world, and Django Unchained dandy dressing himself for the first time. The script jumps around like this, indicating that it knows what it is, making a joke at its own expense, plodding along awkwardly like a newborn fawn with a bad habit of talking in uninterrupted five-minute chunks. The new F/X "innovation" for Matrix 4 is "bullet time." I know you're thinking to yourself, "The old man's gone around the bend at last, he already mentioned bullet time!" But now it refers to The Analyst putting Neo in slow-motion so The Analyst can blather on in peace. That's right: there are scenes in this film where Doogie Howser says words as Keanu Reeves does Marcel Marceau "frozen and walking against the wind." Does this sound ridiculous? Trust your instincts. Neo, once he's reminded that he's Neo, must "find his mojo" again for a new generation of cyberpunk ruffians led by sprightly Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who confirms that she's named after "Bugs Bunny" and later asks, "What's up, doc?" when inquiring as to Neo's status. Though I admire a lot of things about Lana Wachowski, I guess her sense of humour isn't one of them. None of the new outlaws are well-developed, but they sure do get a lot of words to drop. Imagine that the words in this movie are like corn chowder and that with mouths full of them, these poor people let their jaws go slack and plot plot plot dribbles out as viscous, yellow drool.
Basically, Neo wants to find and "wake" the woman he's been stalking (Trinity), and suggests they meet at a coffee shop called "SIMULATTE." He's a sadsack legendary game developer; she's a soccer mom who builds motorcycles in a Flashdance warehouse with metal grinders and shit. She asks Neo if he based "Trinity" in his "game" on her, and it's almost as stupid as how Neo, in his Spongebob Squarepants "Not Normal" incarnation of regular person, is working on a game called "BINARY" for his bosses, "Warner Brothers." It seems "Warner Brothers" (sheesh, what a stupid science-fiction name, how'd they even come up with that?) doesn't like "BINARY" and so encourages Mr. Anderson to reprise his "Matrix" franchise even though there will be accusations (like from Mr. Anderson's sister Lilly Wachowski, maybe) of pandering to nostalgia. No, seriously, I'm paraphrasing dialogue from the "brainstorming montage" sequence in which Mr. Anderson's "bro" buddy, Chet--or Chazz, or Drew, I don't know (Andrew Lewis Caldwell plays him)--challenges his team of hipster tech scumbags to "dig into what made The Matrix great." Lots of guff about how it's not all action, how it's a mindfuck and whatnot. This is a film written by children. Dull children. It stinks of desperation, and its inspiration is obviously, "I'm going to do what I want." Any single other human being on the planet pitching this story to a room full of producers wouldn't even get past "Neo is working on a game called Binary, but he hates it," because it's obvious and pathetic. Likewise obvious and pathetic? Having Trinity declare how she hates the name "Tiffany" and is willing to abandon her kids to go on a poorly- choreographed and -filmed motorcycle chase where Neo uses the Force and The Analyst possesses ordinary people and forces them to jump off buildings at them. Okay, that last part's kinda cool, I'll give you that. If the rest of Matrix 4 were as nihilistic as a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, I'd be all in.
Here's the truly disappointing thing about this terrible movie: the action sequences are all shot in extreme close-up and more or less unintelligible. It's like how John Badham wanted to shoot all of Saturday Night Fever's dancing in close-up and reduce it to montage whereas Travolta wanted to do it in medium and wide shots so you could, like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (and Jackie Chan) preferred, fully appreciate the dancers and choreography: Here, Badham wins that argument. The action in The Matrix trilogy is landmark. That highway chase in the second film? Still amazing. Compare that to how there are three or four separate instances in Matrix 4 where Neo puts up his hands to stop a barrage of bullets. It's boring. So, so boring. Early on, Morpheus gets all dizzy and the screen goes blurry and the camera starts slip-sliding around and it looks exactly like my attempts to shoot video of my dogs with my cell phone. The "bullet time" effect that slows Neo down? Dreadful. For the latest entry in a series that revolutionized the American blockbuster--largely by pilfering stuff Hong Kong action cinema had been doing for decades, often under the guidance of those films' fight choreographer, Yuen Wo-Ping--to come up this short is frankly shocking. It's this sense of absolute arrogance in every facet of the production: a script that would suffer no notes; a final product that proves no woman is an island. I think what troubles me most about this picture is the same thing that troubles me about much of the Wachowskis' post-Matrix output: its unjustifiable optimism. There's a forced "happily ever after" to Matrix 4, a Pollyannaish declaration, made bluntly, that our new gods will right everything again that is at odds with not only the dirge-like pacing and gloom of the film, but also the first movie's wise and compelling notion that we maybe don't like when things are too easy--just as I think there's a repugnant disingenuousness to promising a second chance when all evidence points to the contrary. There's such a thing as toxic positivity, and The Matrix Resurrections, out of nowhere, saves its closing line to deliver a mortal dose of it.