In 1999, the first Matrix film left an indelible impact on popular culture. Although cyberpunk movies weren’t scarce before (Hackers, anyone?), The Matrix was something else entirely. Even if the sequels were not as highly regarded as the initial film, as a trilogy, they collectively tell a rich story of awakening, self-making, and, of course, revolution.
Their messages became meaningful for a lot of people across political divides, with some picking up on the queer codings and liberational nature of the films, while other viewers (mis)interpreted the films for more fascist ends. 18 years after the third film (or 60 in The Matrix Resurrections’ timeline), Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are back for second lives after their self-sacrifice at the end of the trilogy.
Resurrections is not an easy film to summarize. Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a famous game developer with a trilogy of highly-successful video games called “The Matrix” series. Despite his success, he’s discontent, continuing to feel like he’s living in a simulation. His therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) assures him he’s simply mentally ill and prescribes medication to help Thomas deal with the reality-bending experiences he has. Thomas Anderson is, of course, Neo, and the meds he’s taking are blue pills meant to keep him locked in a new Matrix re-designed to contain him. After both Neo and Trinity died at the end of the third movie, their bodies were salvaged, rebuilt, and re-plugged into the Matrix. Neo is once again freed by a cast of new characters including Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a new Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is actually a rehabilitated program. Neo re-enters the freed human society outside the Matrix and finds the old city of Zion has been replaced with a new, safer one called Io where humans and some synthetic beings live in peace.
The simplest word to describe Lana Wachowski’s approach to her first solo-directed Matrix film (sans sister Lilly) is “metatextual.” There are a lot of throwbacks to the initial trilogy, with some scenes purposefully mimicking them with new effects. The film flashes back to images from the older films while splicing them with either re-imagined or brand new shots. This approach can be very confusing, especially if you haven’t seen the old films in a while, but it allows Wachowski to weave a tapestry of cultural commentary that lampoons discourse around franchises, sequels, remakes, video games, “canon,” audience expectations, and more.
After two viewings, I still have a hard time understanding a lot of aspects. The mechanics of this Morpheus’s existence aren’t clear, and many of the technological finer points of the film’s third-act plan don’t fully register. If you’re okay with not getting everything on the first (or second) pass, and instead decide to enjoy the film for its themes, performances, action, and bigger plot ideas, it can be a much better experience. Henwick’s character Bugs in particular is a great addition to the large cast of characters, and the third act’s action does not disappoint.
A discussion of the film would feel incomplete without touching on the political themes, particularly queer ones. Although a trans allegory reading has always been possible for the original trilogy, Wachowski teases out this metaphor even farther in Resurrections, with uneven but commendable results. The film seems to draw a parallel between Neo’s false diagnosis of psychosis and the history of trans identity and psychiatry. While many trans people have been forced to undergo extensive psychotherapy before being deemed suitable for medical transitioning, and transgender identity has historically been labelled as a mental illness, the metaphor in the film does not fully hold up. When Neo tries to “free his mind,” he wants to jump off a building the way he was able to in the original films. Believing one can survive a fall or fly can be a real-world symptom of psychosis and isn’t comparable to feeling dysphoric or questioning and rejecting the transphobic cis binary.
With that said, including the ways society tries to “blue pill” trans people into doubting our own identities is an important topic, and, incredibly, one can find this metaphor in a follow-up to such a highly-celebrated franchise. As a person who changed their name because of their gender identity, I was particularly moved by Trinity’s anger at the orchestrator of the Matrix re-dubbing her “Tiffany”—a name she strongly rejects. While the Matrix can still represent a plethora of different socio-cultural experiences, the trans themes are far less subtle and dismissable here than in the past.
The Matrix Resurrections isn’t perfect, but it will mean a lot for many long-time fans and some folks who feel that cultural norms alienate them from their identity. The movie takes the franchise in a very unexpected direction but feels like a playground for Wachowski to do what she wants as an artist. In a panel at the International Literature Festival, she revealed that she lost her parents and needed a way to cope with death, and resurrecting Neo and Trinity, two characters that mean a great deal to her, helped her process this.
Resurrections is a deeply personal process that we as an audience have the honour of witnessing. Although it may not prove to have the most satisfying story structure or comprehensible exposition, it does convey the beauty of second chances and re-commitments.
The Matrix Resurrections opened in theatres and HBO Max on December 22.
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter