It is and has always been hard to put into words all the things you could say about the Matrix trilogy. It seems even harder now that there is a fourth installment in this rather complex movie series. By complexity I mean the multitude of interpretations. The Matrix movies were (and are) very much children of their time, crossing genre conventions and bridging the idea of blockbuster Hollywood cinema with a strong emphasis on a metaphoric analysis of philosophical, religious and existentialist questions. I’d also add, that the Matrix movies can be understood as media criticism as well, as media play a huge roll throughout all films. Not just concerning mass media or communication, but in a more mcluhanistic way as objects and concepts that extent our human bodies into the world around us. Phones, screens and computers play vital role, but so do weapons, vehicles, clothing and buildings or rooms.
Disclamer: This will contain my interpretation of the movies as it is my reading and reconstruction of the stories. If you have heard of the neoformalist approach, this is what that’s about. You may have created a different story from watching the films and that’s fine. My understanding isn’t complete or absolute.
I’m also not keeping this completely spoiler-free. If you feel like you want to watch the movies without knowing anything about them first, go ahead and don’t read this but watch them first. You have been warned! 🙂 Also, this is not really a review but more like an essay. Don’t expect it to be.
A l00k back up the r@bbit h0le
The first movie introduced us to the concept of the Matrix: A simulated world that has been created by evil machines (which we tried to enslave and lost to, as is later revealed through the sequeals and the animated movies of “The Second Renaissance”) to control what is left of humanity. More specifically the machines harvest the energy our bodies create to power themselves and use the Matrix simulation to control the minds while this is going on. We experience this through the eyes of Thomas Anderson/Neo, who when we meet him works a corporate job while he has been (illegally) hacking his way through the Internet to find out what the Matrix is and to locate an individual named Morpheus who he believes can help him find the answer. He also meets agents of the system who are very keen to keep him under control. Morpheus, Trinity and the rest of his crew try and ultimately succeed to free Neo from the Matrix to show him the real world or rather “the desert of the real”, because the real world has been utterly destroyed. In the end Neo learns that humans in the last city named Zion are fighting the machines and free people from the Matrix but have been waiting for the One, an individual announced by a prophecy. The One is said to be able to change the Matrix code and to free all humans once and for all. Neo ultimately turns out to be the One and at the end of the first movie sucessfully fights and destroys an agent of the system named Smith. This (apparently) kicks of a new phase of the war between humans and machines with humans having the higher ground.
The two sequels which really are one big movie then show us that the very simple conflict depicted in the first movie is really much more complex and complicated. There are areas of grey, not everybody is what he or she appears to be and essentially the prophecy turns out to be another system of control created by the machines to keep humans in check. It is apparent that the machines and AIs cannot understand the human capacity to make (irrational) choices. It takes all of the second movie for Neo to learn that he is somewhat part of the system of control but also part of a divergence within the machine world to create a new kind of peace. Part of it is that he enabled the cration of a free Agent Smith who is now infecting the whole of the Matrix like a virus and poses a thread also to the machines.
At the end of the third movie Neo and Trinity go off to the machine city where Neo bargains for peace in exchange for him to destroy Smith. We see that the Matrix is rebooted and Neo and Trinity apparently die, while Zion is saved. There is in fact a lot of nuance and complexity to the story but I’ll stick with this little summary. The conflict seems to be resolved, the protagonists are disposed off and there’s really no obivous way to continue the story one might say.
Why then is there a fourth movie now and what does it add to the story world?
Well, let’s look at the second question first: We meet Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves) again, in a world that seems to take note of the events depicted in the first three movies only via a very successful video game that Anderson has conceived and created. We learn that he has been going through some tough times and psychological damage caused by his faint memories/dreams he believes to be true, mainly through talks he has with his Analyst (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris), who also prescribes him blue pills to treat his apparent mental illness. He is then asked by his boss (played by Jonathan Groff) to create a sequel to his successful Matrix game which again seems to throw at him questions of authenticity of this story he is told to have made up. He also meets a woman named Tiffany (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) at his favorite coffee shop, who he feels connected to through a character in his game. Did all this really happen or is it just his imagination and a delusion? Things take a turn though when Anderson is subsequently discovered by Bugs (played by Jessica Henwick), a free human from outside the Matrix, and a new Morpheus character (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a modal program he created himself that merged with an agent of the system, who both try to convince him that his memories are indeed true, that he is caught in a simulated reality once more and (again) try to free him. As it turns out Neo as well as Trinity had been reinserted into a new version of the Matrix after he had fullfilled his role as the One, but their memories and digital self image were tempered with to not really recognize each other or be recognized as themselves. Outside of the Matrix there also was a war within the machine world and now some machines cooperate with the humans of Zion in what seems to be a compromise of peace in a new city on the surface. We learn most of this was caused by the Analyst, who created this new incarnation of the Matrix and discovered that Neo and Trinity could be a great source of power if he kept them in control and at a distance from each other. After Neo has been freed he immediately tries to also get Trinity out of the Matrix but he needs help from a few new and old friends, specifically Bugs and her crew, Sati (played by Prianka Chopra Jonas), who we met in the sequels as a little girl, and Niobe (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith), who fought to defend Zion and helped Neo fullfil the prophecy. However this being a completely new Matrix and an overall different world compared to the first three films, the Analyst does all he can to keep the order he created. In the end it is Trinity’s choice to leave the Matrix and she and Neo flee through the city only to discover that while Neo does not have all the abilities he had in the old Matrix, Trinity apparently gained some new ones when she is freed. They both decide to reshape the Matrix from the outside and announce this to the Analyst although we don’t see what the consequences of this might be.
Mirror, Mirror, on the screen
So lets address the elephant in the room: Lots of the building blocks of Matrix Resurrections are obvious or not so obvious homages, references, parodies or even mirror images of characters, events and places of the original trilogy and the title obviously implies this. A lot of aspects are literally resurrected in one way or another. It also references at least in subject matter the more recent works of the Wachoswkis, specifially their Netflix show Sense8 (lots of actors from that are in the movie in minor roles) and Cloud Atlas. In fact the author of the original book Cloud Atlas is credited on working on the screenplay for Matrix 4 and Tom Tyker who was a director on both projects made the music for the movie replacing (but in part resurrecting as well) the very unique sound of Don Davis. Only Lana Wachowski was actively involved in the movie it seems, however the theme of identity, purpose, gender and reality that the siblings established with Matrix, Cloud Atlas and their other movies still runs deep in the new film. But there is more.
The look and style is very different. While the Matrix of 1999 and 2003 was a very bleak dystopian mega city and colored in a contant tint of green, the new Matrix looks much more friendly, warmer and somewhat less crowded and enormous. It also looks more recent, given that the original Matrix used pre-1999 technology a lot and of course looks pretty dated compared to today’s smartphone and wifi-based tech world. While there are some obvious updates, a lot can be understood as a way to make the world more similar to our own reality, so that the criticisms and questions that are scattered throughout the movie hit closer to home. The outside world or physical world still looks somewhat steampunky but also has an updated look representing the collaboration of humans and machines. The difference is still obvious (e.g. in color scheme) but the movie doesn’t really revel too much on the idea that they’re still seperated worlds. It feels much more like one world where switching is easier for both machines and humans.
The movie, and I feel like that’s a point that has been criticised a lot, is also very aware and very meta in the approach it takes to its own world. The fact that the story of the first three films is part of the world in the form of a computer game is a great way to discuss the importance of stories, thruths and perception. It also comments (bluntly) on the idea of commercialised art, specifically the tendency of hollywood cinema to produce sequels based on the success of stories. At one point Anderson’s boss Smith tells him that Warner Bros. wants them to make a sequel to the Matrix game, and they would do so without them if they had to. It seems obvious that this is what probably happened to the movies too. Warner pushed for a sequel and might have made one with or without the involvement of the original creators and cast. The movie goes on to comment on the reception of the stories, whether they were perceived as deep questions and social commentary, superfluous action and entertainment or even their role as a cultural phenomenon referencing some of the theories that had be created about the movies over the years. We need to remember that The Matrix story world spawned not only three feature films, but also the Animatrix (a collection of animated short films telling stories from the universe), several computer games (like Enter The Matrix, that bridged the gap between Matrix 1 and 2/3, Path of Neo, which let you play the whole story interactively or The Matrix Online, which continued the story after the third movie) as well as graphic novels.
But lets get back to the citations and similarites between the first movies and the latest one. There are certain scenes like the opening, that re-imagine scenes from the 1999 Matrix with similar looking actors, but then they play out differently then we remember. Characters like Morpheus appear looking similar but being different. The smae happens with Smith. The Analyst seems to be a mirror of the Architect and Sati of the the Oracle from the other movies. A lot of the movie seems to rhyme with the first three films in a weird way while still being aware and sometimes mocking their predecessors. This is driven to extreme when during the scene when Bugs frees Neo from the Matrix original scenes from his first awakening are projected in the background inside theatre emphasizing the parallels of the situation while still pointing out that it’s not quite the same. One may criticise that as simple throwback to appeal to the nostalgia of the knowing audience and this is precisely what Morpheus points out: “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” So while parts of it may feel like a remake, those parts are used specifically to comment on the mechanics that have been driving hollywood storytelling (and not only theirs) for the past decade or so, maybe even longer. E.g. the Merovingian appears out of thin air to comment on the decline of the world and his loss of power. He still there but no longer part of the narrative as there is no greater narrative really.
The fight scenes look pretty much the same as they did in the earlier movies, although less grandiose than they did in Reloaded or Revolutions and they are less heavy on the consequences as well. In the first movies fighting served as a metaphor: Smith fighting Morpheus showed that they were not on equal footing, Smith fighting Neo showed that Neo had grown close to being able to overpower Smith, but not quite, until he becomes the One. In Reloaded Seraph fights Neo to recognite him as himself, multiple Smiths fight Neo assuming that it’s inevitable for them to clash, establishing their connection. Neo fights the Merovingian’s programs and everybody fights against the Matrix systems to enable Neo to meet with the architect. In Revolutions the humans in Zion fight the machines, while Trinity, Morpheus and Seraph fight to free Neo, showing the determintation every has to fulfill their role in the prophecy they believe in even after it turned out to be false. Fights seem to be (apart from the entertainment) ways to display character’s determination and their conviction of their choices. In Matrix 4 the fights seem to be less important and personal. New Morpheus fights Neo to remind him of his powers, mirroring his awakening from the first movie. Neo fights Smith but it feels more like an echo and in the end is inconsequential to the story. In fact, Smith ultimately switches sides in the final stand off. Neo doesn’t really fight the Analyst, and he is established as much too powerful so that Neo couldn’t win and open fight. Fighting doesn’t feel deadly also. While a lot of people died in the first three movies, nobody really does in the fourth one. Death served as a metaphor for having a achieved ones purpose, but purpose in the fourth movie is not as clear to any of the protagonists. What are they there for to do? Sure, Neo falls back on the grand theme of the earlier films, which was to save his love Trinity (or rather them taking turns in saving each other). But there is no longer an overarching reason or explanation for them to work towards, they decide for themselves without a prophecy and an oracle to give them quest markers.
What 2 make of it
Now why would I like this movie? Well, given the apparent inevitability of a sequel I feel it’s quite a feat to go and make a sequel to comment on not really wanting to make a sequel or rather on how to fullfil or subvert the expectations that continuing a story seems to have nowadays. The first movie presented a simple world, good and bad were very obvious and we cheered for Neo to ultimately win against the evil system and the agents. The two sequels showed that it’s not so simple, and that all the rigid elements of who’s good or bad, what is right or wrong and what is factual or make-believe were more complex but ultimately still valid. The war ended, Neo fulfilled the prophecy and Smith was defeated, although maybe in a slightly different manner than they had expected. The new movie questions all those believes: Did it really happen? What did all this achieve? Was it all part of the cycle of control created by the machines or did the Oracle (and by extend Neo) really break through to establish a new peace. It also adresses old questions anew: Do all people really want to be free? What is freedom? Given the choice between a world of controlled risks and fate, but also chances, entertainment and a multitude of stimulations and diversions inside the Matrix OR a world of chaos and destruction that used to be the world outside but can be rebuild, what would people choose? This one is especially puzzling: How important is the fact that one had been born into a specific type of world to accept it’s possibilities and limitations? Neo agrees to return to the Matrix only to be together with Trinity if she decided to not want to leave with him. Which is both highly irrational but also a decision humans are uniquely able to make.
I started out with a hint at the role of media depicted in the Matrix, asking: How important are media in the construction of what we perceive to be the world around us. In the writing of Marshall McLuhan media are defined of extension of our body and minds into the world surrounding us. Clothing and Housing are extensions of our skin which keep us warm and safe and also identify us to other humans. Electric or digital communication media enable us to connect to each other more and more ignoring time and space. We can connect us individually or with any type of crowd. And we do it in a very blind way, being able to recognize what goes on before our eyes in many cases. The rule of law, laws of science and humanities, concepts like our systems of society, economics, education, arts and entertainment are ways that structure our world, the way we interact with each other and how we perceive the world. They also determine what our goals are, how we decide what to do and what not to do and our understanding of the world and ourselves as parts of it. This may seem like a really big bag, but what Matrix Resurrections does (imho) is to put a mirror in front of us as good art does questioning our awareness of all those fundamental influences we live with and that we have created ourselves. The ending of the movie is somewhat metaphysical. Just like in the first one, we see Neo and Trinity somehow being empowered by one another. This may be an abstract comment on the idea of togetherness, overcoming individual differences and the need for social connection and inclusion or a very specific one on sex and gender and how they really are created as a whole that is a driving force for humanity. Matrix Resurrections also managed to establish the story as a medium, the way we tell and re-tell events to create perspective and understanding. We now have the unique capability for the masses (if not everybody) to tell stories and we see their consequences in the world. They don’t need to be factually true (or true in any other sense) to create an effect. The sole fact that there are very different stories seems to suggest division and a lack of social cohesion, because common stories create community. Late Modernity or maybe even more post-modernity tries to establish that there are no more common stories, that they have been fragmented and discredited and the systems they have established are also damaged in the process, because they loose their legitimacy. Neo and Trinity learn that their believes about the real world are not legitimate and in return deligitimize the Analyst’s world as they announce to make changes. It’s ultimately just a change of power which we can’t really assess. We might cheer for the hero and heroine because they won, but why do we feel that way? How does the movie manipulate us into believing there is a victory when we already learned that there really wasn’t in the first three movies. It all depends on one’s perspective it seems.