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Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Matrix Resurrections: “Déjà-vu and yet it’s obviously all wrong”

Hayley Chow reviews the Matrix's Resurrections

Right now, you believe you are reading this review in Cherwell. This is your reality. Yet in the world of the Matrix films, that could not be further from the truth.

Although Resurrections was one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2021, fears that it would disappoint fans and ruin the trilogy’s legacy were pervasive. Lilly Wachowski does not return as co-director, leaving only her sister Lana, and neither Laurence Fishburne nor Hugo Weaving reprise their roles as Morpheus and Agent Smith respectively. Resurrections confusingly morphs elements of these two principal characters into the single figure of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), shedding the distinctiveness of each. Rendering Morpheus a program also contradicts his role in the trilogy as the leader of a decisively human crew in the war against the machines. Similarly, the attempt to reinvent the character of Smith (Jonathan Groff) as a smooth-talking business partner does not succeed in creating the menace characteristic of Agent Smith in the trilogy. Whilst Resurrections occasionally produces interesting characters and dialogue worthy of profound contemplation, at other points it lacks the tight cohesion of the original film.

As Morpheus remarks, ‘nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia’, and Lana Wachowski takes this to heart. Resurrections pays homage to the trilogy with parallel shots and flashbacks, particularly in its largely faithful recreation of the opening scene of The Matrix. That is not to say, however, that Resurrections has not evolved with the times. Humans now use portals rather than landlines to travel in and out of the Matrix. Furthermore, the way in which Resurrections addresses contemporary digital culture differs from the original. The latter is grounded in how the Internet and hacking were more of an underground subculture in the 90s, whereas in this film Thomas Anderson works as a game designer in the mainstream spotlight, emphasising the significant extent to which technology now permeates our personal lives, especially in our interactions with others. Our increased dependence on technology diminishes our capacity to discern reality from simulation, a phenomenon seen in the growth of virtual reality, for instance. Resurrections not only resurrects Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), but also the franchise itself. ‘That’s the thing about stories’, Smith points out. ‘They never really end, do they?’ Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that we cannot let them end: we cannot let go of past stories and we continually seek to resurrect them.

Unfortunately, resurrection does not necessarily constitute innovation. The grand visual effects make Resurrections worth watching in the cinema, yet to expect something as groundbreaking as Bullet-Time was in The Matrix is to expect too much. Similarly, the action sequences struggle to be as original as those in the trilogy, and the fight scenes are staged in an unclear way. Resurrections eschews the distinctive green and blue tints employed in The Matrix to distinguish simulation from reality, favouring sunlight instead for the most part. Paradoxically, this radiant natural lighting enhances the semblance of artificiality because, as Smith notes off-handedly, ‘it’s so perfect, it’s gotta be fake’: a meta nod to the simulation of the Matrix.

All four Matrix films focus on choice, for instance that between a simulated world and the real world, but Resurrections diverges from the trilogy because it examines how subjects do not possess choice. On one hand, whilst Trinity’s body can be freed, her mind must leave the Matrix of her own accord, suggesting her power to choose. On the other hand, Bugs (Jessica Henwick) states to Morpheus that ‘the choice is an illusion. You already know what you have to do’, implying the absence of free will. In contrast to The Matrix, Neo exhibits an initial reluctance to take the red pill; in fact, his therapist prescribes him copious amounts of blue pills to manage his supposed breakdowns. Resurrections depicts just how difficult it is to let go of what one thinks is their reality: the comfortable existence one has always known. The film speaks to broader ideas about the nature of choice and reality by suggesting that reality is not something we can choose; rather, our choice lies in how we confront the truth about reality.

Choice features just as prominently in our interpretation of the films as viewers. Resurrections is playfully meta, especially in the scene where a group of characters discuss their interpretations of what The Matrix is about, because the beauty of that film lies in the absence of a single definitive interpretation. Yet the self-referentiality also gestures to broader questions about technology in society. For example, Neo’s memories, which formed the events of the trilogy, are buried in the Matrix video game he designs. Not only does this reference the films themselves as he is tasked by Warner Bros. (the studio behind the Matrix films) with designing a sequel to the trilogy, but it also investigates ‘the power of technology to trap or limit our subjective reality’, as Lana Wachowski reflected in an interview. Indeed, Resurrections explores contemporary concerns about technology and reality, including the way in which technology trivialises human emotion and experience. If the trilogy contested the nature of reality by contrasting the dream-world and the real-world, Resurrections complicates this by throwing memory and fiction into the mix. ‘Are memories turned into fiction any less real? Is reality based in memory nothing but fiction?’ These questions posed by Morpheus remain unanswered.

Despite the philosophical themes in Resurrections, emotion is at its heart. Neo is no longer just the stoic messiah figure; he is shown to be in psychological turmoil and yearns for what he does not have. Where Resurrections truly succeeds is in developing the character of Trinity. Fierce in her own right, she becomes Neo’s equal in this film: he may be the One, but they are only formidable together. Moss delivers the perfect blend of toughness and vulnerability with a commendable nuance. The film’s emotional core is built around Neo and Trinity’s love for each other, and it is a journey of rediscovery where their love triumphs, despite the machines erasing their memories in order to create artificial lives. Their love gives them the power to remake the Matrix as they see fit, to transcend its rules and controls, borders and boundaries: to free the minds of those imprisoned within the simulation and to reveal reality.

Lana Wachowski dedicated Resurrections to the memory of her parents, and said at the premiere that she wrote the film because she ‘needed something to help me with the grief’ and ‘inventing a story where two people come back to life was healing and comforting’. ‘Love is the genesis of everything’: the credits state at the film’s end, and it is ultimately a love story. In a world of simulation where the nature of reality is constantly challenged, perhaps what is real is love.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image Credit: Elchinator//Pixabay, Comfreak//Pixabay, Tobias_ET//Pixabay

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