When it comes to sequels, especially ones released nearly two decades after the original, it can be hard to balance the feel and tone for the original work while also bringing it into the present day. In 2021, what does The Matrix Resurrections — the fourth installment in The Matrix franchise and the first one directed by only one of the Wachowski siblings — have to say that the original trilogy hasn’t already? How does it evolve its characters in an authentic way? Directed by Lana Wachowski from a screenplay co-written by her, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon, The Matrix Resurrections tells a new yet familiar story, one that asks where the protagonists really belong in this world. While it’s heavily nostalgic, The Matrix Resurrections does have something to say about living in the past and the difficulties of moving forward.
Two decades after the events of The Matrix and its sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is working at a company that designs video games. Their most popular one being, of course, The Matrix. While he tries to focus at work and goes to see his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) after episodes where his mind blurs the lines of reality, Thomas still can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong. Everything changes when a woman, Bugs (Jessica Henwick), and her team try to extract Thomas (whose real name is Neo, to the shock of only him) from what he believes is his life, only for him to discover the reason why he and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are back is more sinister than he thought.
As is the case with every entry in The Matrix franchise, The Matrix Resurrections has a lot going on, but it seems to thrive in the overall chaos without ever losing its grip on the plot. It’s heavy on the exposition and there are certain explanations viewers will either have to revisit or choose to go with the flow. To that end, the expository scenes that arrive at the halfway point of the film do slow the story down a lot. It loses steam and meanders a bit before picking back up again for an engaging finale. The Matrix Resurrections isn’t without a heavy dose of nostalgia, which, according to Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), eases anxiety. In certain instances, it’s far too focused on the past and is reverential to a fault, often struggling to see the future through its greatest hits. The action is also underwhelming and a far cry from the first film, which brought something entirely new to the action genre. While The Matrix Resurrections was never going to rise to the level of its predecessors, the action set pieces are aggressively mediocre for a franchise of such high caliber.
The sequel is at its most exciting and fun when it gets meta. There are a lot of comments and jokes that are self-aware and self-referential, and are primed to elicit a few chuckles from the audience. Crucially, the film’s meta commentary pokes fun at itself, all while Neo sits in the midst of it all contemplating everything about his life up until this point. After 20 years of doing something, where does he really fit in? What is he doing with his life and are his best days behind him? The personal nature of his crisis and how it ties into the overall plot is symbolic and bound to make one think about their own lives in a bid to find some meaning. The film leans into ideas about choices, control, and free will. Do people want to be controlled? Are they more willing to go along with the charade and comfort that fiction brings them when the reality of their lives is so bleak? It ponders these themes through Neo and Trinity to make the audience care enough about what it’s trying to say.
The film introduces plenty of new and interesting characters, though they all remain firmly one-dimensional, with little effort made to expand upon their lives beyond their mission. The focus, however, never strays from Neo and Trinity, who is frankly (and surprisingly) underutilized. The pair has been at the core of the franchise from the beginning and The Matrix Resurrections capitalizes on their relationship, history, and the spark that has always existed between them. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss’ chemistry is still intense and the love the characters have for each other is ultimately the film’s driving force. Wachowski understands the depth of their relationship, as well as the importance of their connection, which boosts the story immensely and gives The Matrix Resurrections one of the best sci-fi romances in quite some time. Their love for each other is central to the film and one can’t help but root for them.
The film is strengthened by the supporting cast — namely, Jessica Henwick’s turn as Bugs helps to ground the film, and Jonathan Groff as a new version of Smith, Neo’s nemesis, chews up the scenery in the best way. Neil Patrick Harris as The Analyst is well-cast and his and Groff’s hammy performances certainly make an impression in an otherwise muted film. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does a decent job as Morpheus, and the in-world explanation for why he looks different makes sense. But it’s hard to shake Laurence Fishburne’s influence from the franchise, though the actor does his best to make it his own.
In many respects, The Matrix Resurrections does what other franchise sequels fail to do — tell a story about where the characters are now and where they’re ultimately going. As a story about Neo and Trinity, the fourth Matrix installment works, all while attempting to reference the past and move forward at the same time. It may linger too long in said past, sometimes showcasing too much of what made the franchise so good to begin with, but it’s hopeful in its exploration of making choices and the fear of leaving comfort and complacency behind. The action may not be at all what it once was, but the franchise has still got a whole lot of heart.