I spent the first ten minutes of The Matrix Resurrections grinning like a delighted madman, a feeling that barely waned for the entirety of this fantastically worthy successor to the original trilogy.
The answers to your most immediate questions are as follows: Yes, it recaptures the best energy of the first three films; and yes, it transforms that energy into something new and surprising. Yes, you should re-watch the originals before seeing this one, or at the very least locate a recap. No, you don’t absolutely need to see it in the theater; it’s available same-day on HBO Max, which won’t be the same experience but close enough. Yes, there's a post-credits scene. Yes, that was Christina Ricci.
Now for the question I am not able to fully answer: What is it about? I can confidently say that I understood approximately 70% of this film, which for a Matrix movie — hey, that’s not bad.
It is difficult to provide a spoiler-free summary since The Matrix Resurrections is essentially one continuous series of surprises, and since I don’t want to rob you of any of the film’s pleasurable jolts I hope you’ll forgive the escalating vagueness of this review. It’s not giving too much away to say that it begins with what seems like a faithful remake of the first film before taking a giddy swerve into something new and impossible — a wondrous shock that is the first of many.
In an early scene, there’s a neat bit of stunt-work in which a character moves through a doorway into a room that appears to be sideways until gravity shifts and the character rotates to plant their feet on the ground’s new orientation. That little dance is repeated throughout, a magic trick that presents something familiar before spinning it around to reveal that nothing you thought you knew is as it seemed. That goes triple for the original films.
We meet Thomas Anderson, an exhausted late-middle-aged techie who designed a famous video game called The Matrix twenty years ago. In this world, that’s all that The Matrix is — a turn-of-the-millennium-era fantasy created by a weird nerd that captured the world’s imagination for a while. We catch glimpses of his game from time to time, which consists of footage from the original films, now transformed in-universe into something false that Neo — I’m sorry, Thomas Anderson — dreamed up.
Or did he? Thomas is haunted by visions of some other life. His therapist assures him that these are delusions, brought on by stress and the trauma of having survived a mental breakdown and suicide attempt. (The therapist, by the way, lives in a mansion on a hill that will drive San Francisco residents to madness trying to place in real-life geography; perhaps the movie’s greatest achievement is that it's managed to create new housing in the Bay Area.)
Thomas’ visions seem to be growing worse, brought on by recently renewed capitalist interest in his twenty-year-old opus. This is explained with astoundingly self-referential dialogue that I won’t spoil, but you’ll know when it happens because everyone around you in the theater will sputter with bewildered amazement. “How dare you,” I said aloud.
And this, I’m afraid, is where we must part ways, unless you want me to give it all away, which I will not. The remaining beats of the film stack in ways that are as startling as walking through a doorframe to find gravity rotated ninety degrees. I can offer you only visions: Marvelous leather cyberpunk costumes await you. There are robots, one of which has attitude. Things explode. There’s a rescue plan that doesn’t fully make sense, but who cares as long as it’s exciting? Time moves strangely during fights, almost all of which are slightly too long. Computer programs have learned how to snarl. Someone knows kung-fu.
These tropes, often novel in the original films, feel as tired today as Austin Powers saying “ooh, behave.” Fortunately, most of them have been forced to zig-zag away from simple predictability. Nearly all of these surprises are delightful, but a warning: There is a night-time chase scene that includes images so surprising, horrific, and evocative of another memory from twenty years ago that I found myself literally unable to breathe.
The most interesting evolution from the original films is the perspective, which has aged with its cast. No longer a twenty-something Gen-X meditation on “what will my life become,” it is now a fifty-something Gen-X reflection on “how have I allowed my life to be this?” Our heroes are older, and they’ve come to believe that they have nothing to do with their younger selves other than the largely irrelevant coincidence of having once been them.
"Quietly yearning for what you don't have," one character describes another's life, "while dreading losing what you do."
I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the revelation that Thomas Anderson’s in-fiction game, The Matrix, is more than it once seemed. Far more interesting is the exploration of how much more the Wachowskis' movie, The Matrix, could be.
“At some point, I think I gave up searching for something real,” one character says. Resigned for years to an obedient routine, laughed at when she questioned if she could be more, she is ready to fold herself back into the Matrix’s code. But perhaps it’s never too late for a transition.