I think that art and story are products of a conversation, perhaps many conversations. Sometimes it’s the result of a conversation between the artist and their audience. Other times it’s can be a culmination of the conversation that the artist has between their own experiences and their own influences — and in both of these cases, artist and audience, or experience and influence, it’s a kind of battle between self and anti-self, which now that I’ve said that out loud is clearly a sign I’ve already crawled up my own ass with this very pretentious argument.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s talk about The Matrix: Resurrections.
The Short and Sweet
If you want the brevity review, without any kind of spoiler, it’s this: I did not always love The Matrix: Resurrections, even as I loved many things about it. The script is strong. The worldbuilding is wonderful. The emotional core is throbbing. It cuts away from a lot of the squirrelly academic philosophical claptrap that mired the two previous sequels, shedding them for something that is ultimately less about mind and more about heart. Feeling over fact.
It’s also got action scenes that feel airless and disconnected from their stakes, has an over-abundance of shiny-sheen CGI, and is unusually style-free and sexless — it projects a Silicon Valley version of Sexy, an imagined video game product of it divorced of Actual Sex, creating a PG-13 movie that is mysteriously R-Rated. Some of this is, I expect, on purpose, but it is occasionally jarring for a Matrix film to feel wholesomely generic in its design and style. (Exception to this: Neo-Morpheus, who wears some of the sexiest, baddest-ass shit. And Bugs’ sunglasses. I want those.)
Still, I’m thinking about it even now.
I keep thinking about it.
I keep wanting to talk about it.
Which is not nothing. And that leads me to:
The Value Of Being Interesting
The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s interesting.
This sounds like a low bar, but I assure you, it’s not. When I say that word, I mean interesting in italics — it’s interesting, I say, my eyes squinting a bit as I focus on the middle-distance. It also sounds like it could be a back-handed compliment, or a way to say I actually hated it without upsetting anyone, but that’s also not true, not at all.
What it is, is this: most Big Films these days don’t bring a lot of emotional or intellectual umami — that is to say, to me, they’re missing complexity and depth, lacking a measure of thoughtfulness that is reflected in art that allows itself to be a bit messy, a bit complex. It’s far more fascinating to have a story willing to be contradictory, to have a vision but to challenge that vision, and that’s definitely on the menu here. And that’s wonderful —
Because it isn’t always on the menu.
The 800-lb Hulk in the room here is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has essentially become the cinematic water we’re all swimming in. I delighted in, for instance, Shang-Chi, and don’t brook anybody their love of that movie. It had some of the greatest fight scenes in Marvel movies. It was a blast. (It also, like too many movies, has a floppy third act predestined by its own format.) When I turned it off, I also didn’t really think much about it. It was like a fancy fuckin’ marshmallow. I ate it. I enjoyed it. I’d eat it again. But it was puffy, happy sweetness and not much else.
But Resurrections… you know, there’s some puffy, happy sweetness in there, but it’s also weirder, gnarlier, not as easy to get your hands around. It’s willing to be complicated. I don’t mean to suggest that you’re going to find something here on par with The Lost Daughter or The Power of the Dog in terms of that emotional and narrative chewiness, but I just mean, this isn’t your standard blockbuster franchise film. It’ll give you some marshmallows, but it’s also got some texture there I didn’t expect to find. And part of that texture is watching a franchise, and a filmmaker, grapple with the legacy of that franchise. Part of that texture is in the conversation the art is having.
The Conversation Of Which I Speak
As I said at the fore, the conversation a story has — both before it ever reaches an audience and then, the one it has after — is really interesting to me. I sit down to write and I inevitably feel like that story is the conversation had between all the things I’ve experienced and all the other stories I’ve subsumed. I’m not unique in this. I think this is standard operating procedure, even for writers who refuse to believe it. I think some writers probably try not to have that conversation, and try to escape it, and I believe those writers are creating art that is worse for that rejection.
Films can be a little trickier, TV too, because they’re not the product of a single voice. Again I hesitate to cleave to too much haughty pinky-out nose-in-air pretentiousness, but we don’t have as much authorial (“auteur”) presence in film and TV as maybe I’d like. That’s not always the worst thing, and some of the strength of film and television is that, in the right circumstances, the agitation of smart creative voices working in chorus can make some fantastic storytelling. But there’s also the reality that such chorus is only as strong as its shittiest voice, so someone can fuck up the whole song by screaming a series of off-notes before falling off the stage, drunk.
Franchises end up trapped by this because they’re often shepherded forward not by voices but by companies. This is very basic, droll bullshit, and a softball of a critique, I know, but you get story-by-committee that is crafted out of formula and geared toward brand — that’s not to say you can’t get some truly interesting stories out of that process. You can. We have. We will again. But you also end up with a whole lot of narrative vapor-lock.
Franchises get so big, so insular, that they end up having conversations only with themselves. It’s the ants-in-a-death-spiral circuit. A big franchise chases itself, round-and-round, getting bigger and bigger but never really changing its shape. It’s just a larger circle, a bloating loop.
And in this particular era, where we have franchises that have been around for 20, 30, 40 years, the pattern is becoming well-established. They want to keep a franchise going, but don’t just want to continue it straightaway, but also don’t want to reboot it, so you get something that is half-ass reboot, and half-ass continuation. You get a non-committal story that says, “Well, we need the OLD CHARACTERS to come back for the OLD AUDIENCE, but the KIDS TODAY don’t wanna watch the OLD CHARACTERS hobble their way around, so we need NEW CHARACTERS TOO, but also, that story that worked the first time worked again, so let’s bring back THE DEATH STAR ZUUL MICHAEL MYERS SPIDER-VILLAINS so we can lean on all that old stuff, and we’ll shake up the puzzle pieces a little and then, ta-da, movie made, pattern affirmed, back up the money truck.”
It’s not that this is all bad, or creates only poor art, but it’s getting a little predictable. “Oh hey the kids are going to find the ancient mcguffin and then a new evil rises but it’s actually the same evil we saw before and then at the end the old character, who we’ll call Indiana Venkmanwalker, shows up (maybe CGIed if the actor is dead) and nostalgia swells with the music and ta-da they beat the new-old evil with the power of narrative sentimentality and a cool new weapon.” It’s fine. Sometimes I’m a sucker for it. I’m only human. No harm no foul if you are, too.
There are a few movies that break this.
Mad Max: Fury Road gives zero fucks if you know anything about Mad Max and isn’t going to bring back the Old Actor or an Old Story and is just going to do what its own protagonists do, which is hard-charge forward through the oil-soaked nuclear sand because fuck you, that’s why. Witness.
Into the Spider-Verse remixed the Spider-Man formula so much and so well that it truly felt like a new thing — it felt more like art that was having that conversation between experience and influence, and because it used characters we’d never really seen before on a screen, it didn’t worry so much about everything else. And all the references were incidental, more curious than critical to understand. (I’ve not seen Far From Home, to be clear, so I have zero idea how this plays there. No spoilers on that, if you please.)
And then you have The Matrix: Resurrections.
It too, is in conversation with itself as a franchise, but you can also feel it in conversation with itself as a story, as a filmmaker, as actors. It wants to both grapple with its own impact and try to leave it behind. It’s self-referential in ways that are both cheeky and profound. Yes, it’s still kind of doing the pattern of TROT OUT THE OLD CHARACTERS, BRING IN THE NEW ONES, THE BAD THING IS BACK BUT WITH A TWIST, GO. But it also seems to know it. And wants to fuck with that — and you — a little bit in the process.
The result is a story that becomes altogether more thoughtful and emotional than I expected. The first movie amped me up. The second and third left me cold — I like parts of them a lot, love some other parts, but they really fell in love with ideas more than story. This new one, though, feels smaller. More intimate, more personal. You could do away with the fight scenes entirely (and should, because again, they mostly don’t work). It has things to say about the internet, and society, and itself.
It doesn’t always work. But when it does, it really does. And I admire something that reaches past the formula, climbing up and over the walls of its own franchise, to try to do something different and more… peculiar. This is that. It’s worth seeing just to experience that. I’ll be thinking about it a lot.
The Spoilery Bits
This is just disjointed stuff I liked or maybe didn’t like about the movie.
It will contain spoilers. Stop reading now if, well, you don’t want those.
I liked the synthesis of machines and people, and think that’s part of the synthesis of the conversation this movie is trying to have.
Niobe? WTF. Okay? I guess? Sure?
Swarm mode, bots, a society willing to believe things based on feeling? Incisive stuff, if a little quickly-handled. Just the same, I dig it.
Neo is mostly a tourist in this movie. Turns out, that’s for Reasons, I suppose, but sometimes it felt like he was mostly shuttled from one place to another. He did not have, at any point, the urgency of a character like, say, John Wick. Again, this is on purpose, but still. I did really, really appreciate a man at odds with his own reality, feeling trapped in it, locked into it, while seeing beyond it and feeling the madness of being so out-of-sync. As a human and an artist. This rang really true, given our current Pandemic Reality, which itself feels like a modal we can’t escape.
I also like that Keanu is a little looser, loopier in this. He’s more… well, Keanu.
Fuck yeah, Trinity. God Carrie Anne Moss is great.
Neil Patrick Harris owns again.
Groff, too, nails it, though he sometimes leaned into a Smith-like cadence, but then by the end of the movie seems to have forgotten it.
I’ve had some people ask me about the queerness or transness of this film, and I am 100% sure I am not the person to be deciding that. I am glad for Lana Wachowski and her vision, is what I can say.
They all wear sunglasses and it’s really obvious and I think that’s the movie literally making fun of itself, which both works and also feels clumsy.
I cannot stress enough how much the action scenes left me bored. Punches didn’t feel like punches, bullets felt like… I dunno, spitballs, it all felt weightness both narratively and in its impact. The fights in the first film are impactful, visceral, and this has really lost that. On the one hand, it showed me you can do a Matrix movie without any of the fight scenes, but also, the first three films are often predicated on having the DNA of Kung Fu movies, and this… did not, so it felt jarring.
JFC that Merovingian scene, one of the more irritating characters from the sequels shows up again? And is also annoying? And his exiles look like they’re from Spielberg’s Hook. Another huge fight scene that felt random and more like an obstacle in the narrative rather than something with necessity and urgency behind it. Obligatory. Almost an uncanny valley version of a fight scene.
Fuck yeah, Neo-Morpheus. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, baby. Those suits! Those suits.
David Mitchell, Lana Wachowski, and Aleksander Hemon created a helluva script.
Merry happy holidays. Buy my books or I die.