After chasing the White Rabbit through a very long tunnel, Alice enters a low, dim hall. There are doors up and down the hallway but they are all locked. As she walks down the hall, Alice wonders how she will ever get out. You might find yourself asking about the same question while watching the fourth movie in the “The Matrix” series, as it alternately amuses and frustrates you with its fantastical world.
The series first invoked Lewis Carroll’s elusive rabbit in the first film, the 1999 game changer jointly directed by the Wachowski siblings and quickly set audiences’ minds on fire. “Follow the White Rabbit,” Neo, aka the One (Keanu Reeves, the ideal savior of the cinema), reads on his desktop monitor shortly before doing so. The chase went on and at times seemed never to end as it lasted until two sequels, comics and video games. It also provided grist for a multitude of articles, dissertations, and scholarly books (“The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real”), taking its place as one of today’s pop culture’s ultimate interpretive chew toys.
The series resumes in “The Matrix Resurrections,” which pushes the cycle forward, even as it circles back to swallow its own tail. Again, Reeves plays both Thomas Anderson and Neo, who exist in separate but merged realms. Anderson’s world is similar to ours (though artificially directed airless), but is a software program called the Matrix that is run by artificially intelligent machines. Here human avatars do their job by believing they are free. In the humorously perverted take on the series’ circle of life, these machines keep human bodies – including Anderson’s – locked in slime-filled barrels, using the energy from these flesh puppets to power the Matrix.
Directed exclusively by Lana Wachowski, “Resurrections” announces its intentions after the opening credits, with their streams of cascading green code. Somewhere in the illusory world, a woman with short hair fights unsmiling men in suits and shades, a setup that mirrors the thumping preliminaries in the original film and makes you long for Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity, Neo’s comrade in arms. Don’t worry, she’s on board too, just wait and see. Now, however, two others join us in watching the action, including a man wearing a headset (Toby Onwumere) who analyzes the action like a sports commentator just before Bugs (Jessica Henwick) jumps into a very familiar battle.
What follows plays like a loving, narrative homage video to the ‘Matrix’ cycle itself, complete with countless bullets and almost as many flashbacks to the younger Neo. (You don’t have to look back at what happened earlier in the cycle, the movie does it for you.) Again, Anderson is in dreamland writing code, this time for his role as a video game designer working on a project called Binary. Speaking of which, as before, he also has a clear choice to remain ignorant of his existential state or to embrace its painful truth. He also encounters a mysterious figure called both Agent Smith and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, whose velvet tomb voice sends shivers of danger).
Since the third film, there have been some significant cast changes. Unfortunately, both Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne are missing from action, who added gravitas and much-needed humor. Instead, a silky-smooth Jonathan Groff now prowls menacingly, his boyishness armed nicely for his role as a cunning trickster. A less fortunate addition is Neil Patrick Harris, who delivers a useless, one-dimensional performance as an analyst. Still, there’s not much here other than some facial creases and salt-and-pepper hair from Reeve. Characters still wear fetish clothes or studded threads, and continue to fight as they fight and howl through the labyrinth.
Some of that wail is amusing simply because “The Matrix” (and its successors) are examples of what are called mind-game movies, “a ‘certain tendency’ in contemporary cinema,” as film theorist Thomas Elsaesser put it. . Like others of this type, “The Matrix” plays with the perception of reality of both the protagonist and the audience, asks questions about the limits of knowledge and addresses doubts about other minds and worlds. What makes mind-game movies particularly fascinating — and helps explain their cultic appeal — is how they draw spectators into the game, in part by showing them worlds they recognize. Or, as Morpheus once said, “You’ve been feeling it all your life that there’s something wrong with the world.”
So yes, “You have a lot of questions”, as a character called the Architect tells Neo in the first “Matrix”. No joke! That film offered some convincing, or at least tantalizing, answers: the world is an illusion, a simulation, an ideological prison, but it is possible to escape with lots of guns and cool kids in black, until the sequel. The first film offered viewers doors they could open—unlike Alice—which allowed them to enter more rabbit holes. Once there, one of the more resonating readings, as critic Andrea Long Chu has explained, is that “The Matrix” has been embraced by trans women as an allegory for gender transition. In this version, the world of illusions is the gender binary.
Whatever the limits of the allegory, this interpretation is both intriguing and moving. (Lana’s sister Lilly Wachowski has said, “That was the original intent.”) It adds emotional resonance to “Resurrection,” which gets plenty of miles from his—and ours—nostalgic yearning, thankfully fueled by Reeves and Moss’ reunion. The actors’ sincerity and effortlessly synchronized performances have always been the series’ biggest special effects, and it’s a joy to watch them slip back into their old roles. The movie they star in is still just as tied to the same old weapons and poses as the earlier ones, the same dubious ideas about cool, the same box-office-friendly crushing violence. But it’s still nice to dream of an escape with them.
The Matrix Resurrections
Rated R for extreme gun and other violence. Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.