Ironically, The Matrix Resurrections trades heavily on nostalgia for that pioneering first film, while also embodying many of the same flaws that doomed its sequels: For all the explosions and throat-punches, much of this movie’s runtime is an uphill tromp through low-grade philosophical claptrap, hokey dialogue, and obnoxiously cute riffs on its own self-awareness. That’s too bad, because it’s still great to see Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss suit up, and director Lana Wachowski serves up a few jaw-dropping beats of chopsocky goodness. Unfortunately, every sequel seems to confirm that The Matrix was a refreshing burst of magic that just can’t be duplicated.
This fourth film doesn’t so much ignore its immediate predecessors as narratively sidestep them. Wachowski wisely lifts a few key plot points and characters from Reloaded and Revolutions and chucks the bulk of both films in the dumpster. Put another way: If you don’t remember much of the sequels, you’ll probably be fine for this one. All you really need is a general awareness: The second film was immensely disappointing; the third was like a firm kick to the Nutter Butters.
Resurrections begins even further into a dystopian future. Neo (Keanu) has once again settled into the persona of Thomas Anderson, his Matrix-bound avatar. It seems that Thomas has gained fame and prestige as a video game designer, particularly for a reality-bending adventure called The Matrix. His connection to the events in that game runs deeper than he can understand. Flashes of suppressed memory regularly leave him in a state of panic and confusion. For this, Thomas visits a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), who calmly attempts to assuage him that Neo and the Matrix world aren’t real.
Meanwhile, Thomas meets cute with Tiffany (Moss), a housewife with an affinity for building motorcycles. These two share some deep spiritual link, although neither can understand why. Unfortunately, Tiff seems contentedly married, so Thomas resigns himself to pine from a distance.
Of course, this little bubble world is destined to burst: One day, Thomas gets a visit from Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a badass warrior-punk who attempts to educate him on his legendary past and free him from this construct. Thomas resists at first, but ultimately cannot ignore the allure of Bugs’ persuasion. Now liberated to the real world, Neo meets up with Bugs’ crew, including a new incarnation of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), his serene mentor from the earlier films. From here, Neo attempts to reunite with Trinity, regain his former power as The One, and destroy this latest version of the Matrix. This puts him on a collision course with a younger, hipper Agent Smith, now played by Jonathan Groff.
Resurrections‘ plot somehow manages to feel achingly simple and horrendously overcooked, all at once. At 148 minutes, the gooey love story at its center gets surrounded by ungainly globs of spiritual mumbo-jumbo and torrents of techno-blather that makes Star Trek sound like a David Mamet play by comparison. Four movies in, these actors deserve a gold star for unloading some of this undiluted gibberish with a straight face.
Wachowski and company apparently realize the unhinged goofiness of the Matrix franchise, because they’ve baked a relentless sense of macro-awareness into this fourth film. Not only has Mr. Anderson given the world a Matrix video game, but Warner Bros. (bankroller of the actual films) has secured the rights to produce a movie franchise. Characters recite quotes and play clips from the first film. Even Bugs’ name derives from the famous bunny, a Warner Bros. staple. A few of these riffs are worth a chuckle; a few hundred made me want to thwack myself over the head with a folding chair. In fact, a lot of your tolerance for Resurrections will be dictated by how well you tolerate all this cutesy schtick.
That opinion could also be bolstered by the welcome presences of Reeves and Moss. Their natural chemistry seems unaffected by the passage of time. Henwick also scores big, as the headstrong Bugs. Goff and Mateen do fine work, but they–and the occasional reel of archival footage–only show how much Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne are truly missed: As the original Agent Smith, Weaving imbued the role with a terrifying giddiness. He massaged every syllable of dialogue to give it a seductively sinister silkiness. Meanwhile, Fishburne supplied the earlier films with the vulnerability of a true believer. Their absences result in a much lesser Matrix film.
The terrible truth is that the original Matrix only suffers under the weight of further movies. Yes, it had its share of spiritual drivel, but the Wachowskis practiced enough moderation to keep it contained. Subsequent installments put that New Age hooey front and center, yielding scripts that were too pretentious for their own good. Even worse, the filmmakers attempt to explain away every minute detail of their mythology, and end up stripping away all the mystique that made the first film a hit.
Beyond all that, Resurrections also proves that how brilliantly The Matrix captured the late 90s zeitgeist. The internet of the Clinton era was still an undefined novelty for most people. That means the technology of the online revolution could serve as an effective boogeyman for a movie like this. Two decades later, social media has become the shapeless, rampaging monster many feared, a fact that drains a little of the fun from a movie like The Matrix. “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” the rebooted Morpheus tells us. Unfortunately, it can also serve as an indicator of all the innocence we’ve lost along the way.
148 min. HBOMax. R.