In Hollywood, everything old is eventually new again — even The Matrix.
More than two decades after Keanu Reeves’ aimless hacker Neo took the red pill, woke up in a tub of goo, and kicked off a war against Earth’s machine overlords that would last through two sequels and countless spinoff projects, The Matrix Resurrections hopes to live up to its title by reviving the seminal, multimedia cyberpunk franchise. The film brings back Reeves as humanity’s savior, Neo, who now finds himself plugged back in to the machines’ titular simulation along with his one true love, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), despite both characters’ supposed demise at the end of 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions.
If you’re wondering how they got there, you’re not alone. Set 20 years after the events of Revolutions, the film has a new group of hackers discover Neo and Trinity within The Matrix (which is apparently still a thing), initiating a chain of events that draws heavily from the original trilogy while establishing a new status quo in the franchise’s universe. And despite a generous recycling of old concepts and themes, The Matrix Resurrections delivers a satisfying new chapter in the franchise fueled by its leads’ chemistry and charisma, and supported by the franchise’s signature blend of high-level visual effects and action choreography.
Along with bringing Reeves and Moss back in front of the camera, The Matrix Resurrections also brings back franchise co-creator Lana Wachowski behind the camera as director and co-writer. She joins other returning members of the cast and crew from the original trilogy in a film that, as its title suggests, is more revival than reboot, bringing the characters, themes, and mythology forward into a new story built on the foundation of the original trilogy.
In Resurrections, Neo — or in this case, Thomas Anderson — finds himself living a life less adventurous as the designer of a wildly popular game franchise titled (wait for it …) The Matrix. His new reality suggests that the events of the original trilogy were actually the plot of a game he designed, and he pays a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) to assure him that he is not, in fact, the savior of humanity. He also swallows a never-ending supply of blue pills to keep his daily existence safe, stable, and predictable.
Meanwhile, Trinity — now Tiffany — is a married mother of two kids who enjoys spending time in coffee shops and working on her motorcycle. It’s all very domestic, really, and the duo appear to have no recollection of their past experiences. However, everything changes when Neo encounters a familiar figure from his past who offers him a chance to dispel the illusion and see reality for what it really is.
If that premise sounds familiar, it’s because Resurrections makes a concerted effort to follow the formula of the first film closely, recycling lines of dialogue and even musical cues (Rage Against The Machine, anyone?) from 1999’s The Matrix at various points. It’s all intentional, though, as the film cleverly turns its reverence for the past into a plot point in Neo’s latest adventure.
In Neo’s new reality, his life is defined by the success of the game franchise he designed. Everywhere he goes, he’s surrounded by images from the past. A bust of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) sits in a corner of the game studio, for example, while advertisements featuring Neo, Trinity, and iconic scenes from their adventures pop up here and there. It all serves as a reminder that even in this reality, Neo can’t escape The Matrix. When Thomas is tasked with creating a fourth installment of his game franchise — a series he thought he was done with — the line between reality and simulation gets exponentially fuzzier, not just for him, but for the film’s audience, too.
This self-aware aspect of Resurrections could have easily slipped into unintentional parody, but Reeves plays it with the perfect balance of cautious skepticism and recognition that something is very, very wrong in his life.
Taking the red pill was a decision that changed Neo’s destiny in the original trilogy, and in Resurrections, we get a glimpse of what his life might have been like if he took a different path. In the absence of that (literally) game-changing choice, Neo is far from a resolute, confident figure always thinking several moves ahead, and instead, we get a paranoid, introverted game designer and a fascinating “what if?” scenario.
The meta elements of Resurrections‘ premise also offer plenty of opportunities for humor, and the film delivers on those moments without getting lost in self-promotion. A scene featuring Thomas’ fellow designers arguing about the real meanings of The Matrix games offers a wonderfully self-aware encapsulation of 20 years of conversations regarding the franchise’s philosophical themes, while the iconic “bullet-time” filming technique the 1999 film introduced is put to creative (and somewhat mocking) use at another point in the film.
And yet, despite all of the dissection and deconstruction of the original trilogy that occurs throughout Resurrections‘ first act, it all ends up feeling like an endearing tribute instead of a roast, thanks to the smart ways all of this self-reflection is handled by the film’s cast and creative team.
It’s not all self-referential moments in Resurrections, though. As fans might expect, there’s no shortage of action and explosions, too.
Wachowski and the franchise’s creative team have always done spectacle well, and Resurrections continues that trend with some truly impressive choreography that channels the physics-defying tone of the original trilogy’s fight sequences. Despite how crazy things can get in the world of The Matrix, there are rules to the virtual world they inhabit, and Resurrections does a nice job of simultaneously abiding by those rules and pushing the boundaries of what characters are capable of within it.
The film also is served well by two decades’ worth of evolution in visual effects techniques. Resurrections looks as cutting-edge now as The Matrix did back in 1999, and the film puts all of that modern, VFX power to good use in both its large set pieces and some smaller elements that would have been impossible to pull off 20 years ago — including the presence of a featured character composed entirely of metal beads who emotes and interacts with the human characters.
Still, packing in all of that action comes at a price, and Resurrections gets a bit lost in the mayhem around the film’s midpoint, drawing out one of its most explosive sequences longer than necessary as it reels off explosion after explosion without any forward movement in the plot. The film’s decision to tread water and bask in its own spectacle a little too long feels like a rare miss in an otherwise well-paced story, but it eventually gets back on track and finds its groove again as it enters the final arc.
Although it’s easy to celebrate Resurrections as another example of Reeves’ resurgence in Hollywood, the fourth installment of The Matrix franchise wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding without Moss’ impressive performance alongside — and in some cases, in front of — her franchise co-star.
Not only is the chemistry between Neo and Trinity just as good (if not better) in Resurrections than it was in prior films, the veteran actors bring a depth to the roles this time around that wasn’t nearly as evident in the original trilogy. In the world of The Matrix, Neo and Trinity have seen it all at this point, experienced the full spectrum of emotions and even died and been reborn, and the ways they move, talk, and otherwise interact with each other in Resurrections reflect that sense of familiarity and comfort with their roles in the story playing out around them.
More so than in any previous film, Moss is every bit the action hero Reeves is in Resurrections. Not only does the film leave the door open for future adventures, it makes abundantly clear that The Matrix isn’t a one-man show anymore. Given the wider range of storytelling opportunities that creates, it feels like a brilliant pivot for the franchise to make if it hopes to build on this revival.
Walking the line between following the formula of a successful, franchise-spawning film and recreating that film wholesale isn’t easy (just look at the polarizing response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for example), and Resurrections deserves praise for its careful, thoughtful approach to reviving the franchise. Finding the right measures of inspiration and imitation often means the difference between success or failure with revival projects like this, and Resurrections keeps that balance by distilling the most iconic, rewarding elements of the franchise instead of simply duplicating them.
Whether Neo and Trinity’s triumphant return ultimately ends up capturing lightning in a bottle again remains to be seen, but regardless, The Matrix Resurrections offers a great example of how to do right by an iconic franchise with a revival that delivers in substance, spectacle, and a genuine awareness about what made the original trilogy so special.
Directed by Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections will premiere in theaters December 22 and on the HBO Max streaming service.