The fourth instalment in The Matrix franchise is a joyless, pompous, unimaginative exercise in greed. By Christos Tsiolkas.
The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski siblings and released in 1999, is a film very much of its time. A postmodern confection, it gleefully blurred genres. It stole from Hong Kong action cinema, lifted themes and subject matter from the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, and was one of the first blockbuster Hollywood films to embrace a look and style based in the digital, computer-generated screen worlds of video games.
I remember it as a lot of fun when I first saw it, but rewatching it recently I was surprised by how flabby and messy it is. Once the central idea is revealed – that humans are being kept as factory farm animals, and our life essences are being mined by a machine race that keeps us stoned and believing in an alternate simulated universe called “the Matrix” – the film quickly runs out of energy. Video games don’t rely on linear narrative to succeed. That is difficult to replicate in mainstream Hollywood cinema, which is hostage to the authority of the three-act story structure. The final 40 minutes of the film are repetitive and the faux gnostic mysticism that underlies the script is often laughable.
Nevertheless, there are genuine pleasures in that first film. The art design is striking, and Laurence Fishburne is sparkling, slyly sending up the archness of his lines while never undermining the story. That artfulness is matched by Hugo Weaving as the nefarious Agent Smith. Carrie-Anne Moss is assuredly dry as Trinity. Even Keanu Reeves, who gives his usual slothful, awkward performance as Neo, the revolutionary would-be Messiah, is a delight to watch: he is astoundingly beautiful. The sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, offered nothing new visually to counteract the lumbering stolidness of the writing, and by the third film, The Matrix Revolutions in 2003, all joy had been sucked out of the franchise.
There is only one genuinely pleasurable scene in the new Matrix film, The Matrix Resurrections, and it occurs very early on. Reeves is Thomas Anderson, a video game developer who is most successful for having designed a game called The Matrix, which the company he works for wishes to relaunch. At a storyboard brainstorming session, the young creatives rehearse all the possible reasons for reviving the game, from acknowledging the economic capital accruing from nostalgia to desiring a genuinely thrilling rethinking of the concept. A cynic in the room announces that all such reboots suck, that they never work. We have been warned.
The scene is not particularly elegant, or even that funny. Nevertheless, my hopes were raised for a moment. It suggested the filmmakers were aware of the promiscuous stealing from across genres and styles that gave some verve to the original film. The opening scenes had been disappointing – stultifyingly grim – with the actors forced to deliver huge amounts of exposition. The gentle self-mockery of the brainstorming scene offered hope for some lightness. But with Anderson’s realisation that he is really Neo, and that he has been malevolently returned to the Matrix, the film returns to the dull earnestness with which it began.
We really miss Fishburne, that droll humour that underlined his playing of the gnomic Morpheus. Surprisingly, I also missed Carrie-Anne Moss. Her tetchy, Amazonian playing of Trinity in the early film was a highlight, but in Resurrections most of her screen time is taken up playing her alter-ego in the Matrix, a subdued mother named Tiffany. Moss gets to finally shed that skin but her ensuing scenes are mechanical, enervating action sequences that offer her no opportunities as a performer.
Of the younger actors, only Jonathan Groff, as this episode’s version of Agent Smith, seems to be having any fun. He’s not trying to emulate Hugo Weaving. Instead, he invests his role with a preening self-satisfaction that allows for some blessed comedy. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a rebooted version of Morpheus, and though he is physically commanding, his acting abilities are limited. He doesn’t seem capable of implying the dynamic cunning of the original.
Jessica Henwick plays Bugs, the revolutionary sent into the Matrix to rescue Neo. Every gesture and every line reading are performed with a solemn piousness that bogs down the film. She’s a dead weight and after a while I found myself groaning when she appeared in a scene. I knew I wasn’t going to be having any fun at all.
The blame isn’t completely Henwick’s. The overblown piety is also integral to the sluggish script by director Lana Wachowski, co-written with Aleksandar Hemon and David Mitchell. Both are very fine novelists, but on the evidence of this script they have no sense at all of cinematic language, with seemingly every alternate scene requiring the actors to stop and start declaiming points of clarification to the increasingly byzantine and ridiculous plotting.
The Matrix Resurrections takes itself seriously, much more so than the original film, and it is written and directed with a solemn purpose, as if there was really some radical subversion inherent in the story. That deliberate soberness forecloses any sense of lightness or play. I was, for example, looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers would reference the fact that taking the red pill over the blue pill, which in the original film was a sign of enlightenment, is now one of the most popular alt-right memes. Well, they avoid it all together. If I were feeling charitable, I could say they did not wish to dignify the reactionary appropriation of the theme. Having sat through the turgid two-and-a-half hours of their film, however, my goodwill is depleted. The truth is that the writers lack the talent for either comedy or irony.
Why have they decided to resurrect The Matrix almost 20 years on? It doesn’t take a brainstorm to realise it is all about the money. I want to be clear here that I have no problem with that. I have spent pleasurable moments in the cinema watching Lana Wachowski’s films, and I have an affectionate regard for Carrie-Anne Moss and even for the accidental actor that is Keanu Reeves. We all have rents and mortgages to pay and families to raise, and I don’t begrudge any of that to the people involved.
What is galling, however, is that there is no artfulness and no humour and no flair in any part of this film. The only glimmer of craft is in the editing work by Joseph Jett Sally, including the swift interpolation of scenes and images from the original films. The use of these rapid, almost subliminal, flashbacks seem a mirror of how our consciousness functions, of how memory is triggered and assimilated. But even his work is undermined by the end, as the action sequences limp endlessly along, directed stolidly and with no imagination. The finale looks like the finale to the last Marvel film, which looks like the finale to the Marvel film before it. Even in the single moment where one might think the director would try to imbue a sense of grace, when Trinity, upending the masculinist assumption of the first film, is the one who now can fly – even that shot is perfunctory, lacking in beauty. It fails to make an impact. No one has bothered to work hard on this film.
I usually sit and watch a film through right to the end. I couldn’t with this one. A cover by Brass Against, of Rage Against the Machine’s jarring, metallic hip-hop track Wake Up, plays over the end credits, and once singer Sophia Urista started name-checking Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, I knew I had to leave. It seemed a travesty that these figures of political integrity were being used to confer dignity to such a pompous and unimaginative film. Part of me wishes that the use of the song was cynical, but I’m afraid that the intention is even worse than that. I think the filmmakers were using the song because they truly believe that they are doing something radical, that the new progressive Hollywood is somehow in step with the humanist aspirations of Dr King and the militant bravery of Malcolm X. The self-delusion is dumbfounding. This is a film created for only one reason: pure, venal greed. I must have taken the red pill. It stinks as much, if not worse, than the old Hollywood.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 8, 2022 as "Matrix theory".
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