“The Matrix Resurrections” Is a Crucial Keanu Reeves Movie

“The Matrix Resurrections” Is a Crucial Keanu Reeves Movie

In “The Matrix,” from 1999, Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, who pops a mysterious red pill proffered by an equally mysterious stranger and promptly discovers that his so-called life as an alienated nineteen-nineties hacker with a cubicle-farm day job has, in fact, been a computer-generated dream, designed—I swear I’m going to get all this into a single sentence—to keep Anderson from realizing that he’s actually Neo, a kung-fu messiah destined to save a post-apocalyptic earth’s last living humans from a race of sentient machines who’ve hunted mankind to near-extinction. Neo spends the rest of the film and its two sequels bouncing back and forth between the simulated world, where he’s a leather-clad superhero increasingly unbound by physical laws, and the bleak real world, laid to waste by humanity’s long war with artificial intelligence. Like “Star Wars” before it, “The Matrix” was fundamentally recombinant, unprecedented in its joyful derivativeness. Practically every cool visual or narrative thing about it came from some other mythic or pop-cultural source, from scripture to anime. And, like “Star Wars,” it quickly became a pop-cultural myth unto itself, and a primary source to be stolen from.

Chances are you’re already aware of the original trilogy’s legacy, even if you’ve somehow avoided the films themselves. “The Matrix” is also like “Star Wars” in that we can’t avoid knowing about it, because we now live in a world that it helped shape. The scene in the first film where Neo chooses the red pill’s rude awakening over a blue pill that will return him to obliviousness now looks like a turning point in the history of American thought, although “thought” may not be exactly the right word. Online pickup artists and other message-board misogynists were the first subculture to appropriate the notion of the red pill; if you described yourself as “red-pilled,” it meant you’d accepted the supposed reality that the spread of feminism had rendered society anti-male. The concept propagated across the Internet, taken up by white supremacists and militant gamers alike; by the Trump years, being “red-pilled” had come to connote just about any epiphany leading to a rightward political tilt on the part of the pill-taker.

That’s funny, of course, because from the vantage point of 2021, it’s difficult to see “The Matrix” as anything but a wild leftist provocation draped in a shiny sci-fi trenchcoat—a film written and directed by two trans women, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, about how it’s sometimes necessary to kickbox the cops, whether on the street or inside one’s own head. Yet the specific ideological valence of “The Matrix” has stopped no one, including people on the other end of the political spectrum, from using the idea of the red pill to mean whatever they want it to mean. It’s just too rhetorically useful a concept to leave alone. On May 17, 2020, the entrepreneur Elon Musk, reportedly the world’s richest man, tweeted, “Take the red pill,” in what was interpreted as either a veiled protest of the pandemic-era stay-at-home orders that had shuttered his Tesla factory in Fremont, California, or possibly a declaration of broader Trumpian sympathies. About an hour later, President Trump’s daughter Ivanka quote-tweeted Musk and added a cheerful reply: “Taken!” And then Lilly Wachowski replied to Trump’s tweet, writing, “Fuck both of you.”

Having maybe said in four words all that she felt she needed to say on this issue, Lilly did not collaborate with her sibling Lana Wachowski on “The Matrix Resurrections,” a new “Matrix” sequel whose first act is a barely metaphorical rebuke of the many people who’ve either willfully or just obtusely misread and misappropriated the ideas of “The Matrix.” In “Resurrections,” Neo is back to living the life of Thomas Anderson. He remembers the events of the first three films, but with help from a therapist (Neil Patrick Harris, reliably untrustworthy as usual) and some suspiciously color-coded psych meds, he’s convinced himself that his life as Neo was a vivid delusion. He’s now rich and a little bit famous because he’s used those memories as inspiration for an award-winning trilogy of video games, also called “Matrix”—and when we first see him onscreen, he’s right where Thomas Anderson was at the beginning of the original trilogy, zonked in front of a bunch of monitors, waiting for a sea of code to show him a sign. Neo haunts Thomas the way that Tony Soprano’s life haunted Kevin Finnerty. He’s too blue-pilled to realize that the fellow coffee-bar customer he’s nursing a crush on is really Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity, who’s been similarly re-imprisoned in the simulation and believes she’s Tiffany, mother of two, married to a guy named Chad. Neo and Trinity’s struggle to find and love each other again, despite the best efforts of a malevolent hive mind, will become the movie’s emotional crux. But making Thomas’ rival a literal Chad turns the movie’s romance plot into a riff on the Virgin vs. Chad meme, with Reeves as the pining beta male. To make matters more meta, his alpha rival, the “Chad” in this equation, is played by an actual Chad—Chad Stahelski, who was Reeves’s stunt double in the original film and went on to direct him in three “John Wick” films.

Whether you find this part of the movie clever or instantly exhausting will depend on how big a sweet tooth you have for fourth-wall-breaking gags like that bit of literal stunt casting. Thomas’s compartmentalized reality begins to spring leaks after his business partner (Jonathan Groff) informs him that their game studio’s parent company, Warner Bros., has ordered up a “Matrix” sequel. “I thought they couldn’t do that,” Thomas says, but of course they can, contractually, and if Thomas isn’t willing to do it, they’ll cut him loose and hand the project over to someone else. This part of the movie appears to be based on a true story. The Wachowskis had long opposed the idea of expanding on the original “Matrix” trilogy, but, in 2017, The Hollywood Reporter quoted sources as saying Warner Bros. was developing a new “Matrix” film, to be written by “Ready Player One” co-screenwriter Zak Penn. The beginning of “Resurrections” is kind of a bird-flipping quote-tweet of that news and its implications for the Wachowskis as artists. In a montage of soul-withering development meetings, Thomas sits by in mute horror as arrogant and/or pretentious tech bros spout suspect interpretations of his original work (“ ‘Matrix’ means mayhem!”), while popping off toy guns and brainstorming ways to take the original idea in louder, dumber directions. “Originality” is now just another marketing key word, and all the marketing guys parrot the language of psychic-liberationist mind-fuckery that Timothy Leary bequeathed to the hucksters of Web 1.0: “People want us up in their gray space, switching their synaptic WTF light on!”

Thomas just listens, looking like he’s going to be sick. “Resurrections” is, in other words, a piece of corporate I.P. exploitation about how corporate I.P. exploitation ruins everything cool, a sequel about why sequels suck, a big “Fuck you” from Lana Wachowski to Warner Bros. that Warner Bros. gets to release in theatres and on HBO Max just in time to boost its fourth-quarter results. Everyone involved gets to have their virtual steak and eat it, too. The fact that it’s Wachowski meddling with her own blockbuster source code pays off in playfulness; any other writer-director given a set of keys to this franchise would undoubtedly have felt obligated to treat “Matrix” lore more dutifully so as to dignify the cash grab. In this one, when iconic moments from the first film are historically reënacted, there are new characters watching from the wings, whispering things, like, “Why use old code to make something new?” and generally acting as surrogates for us, the viewers who’ve seen it all before. One of these observers, played by Jessica Henwick, is named Bugs, “as in Bunny”; this being a Warner Bros. movie, you wonder why they didn’t go all the way and cast the Animaniacs as a Greek chorus instead. Henwick is one of several actors who seem like they can’t quite believe they’re in a “Matrix” movie, along with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, playing a reboot of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus who finds that he really enjoys the wardrobe and the catchphrases.

Eventually, the story moves from the world inside the Matrix—where they’re badass lucid dreamers, avatars skinned in cool suits and sunglasses—to the war-torn future, and Abdul-Mateen gets to come along only as a man-shaped cloud of C.G.I. nanoparticles, which puts a real damper on his energy. At this point, this “Matrix” movie about how they probably shouldn’t have made another “Matrix” movie becomes just another “Matrix” movie, albeit one that wears its self-awareness like an “ASK ME ABOUT MY SELF-AWARENESS” T-shirt. For what it is, it’s still pretty engaging, losing steam only when it tries to make topical points about our red-pilled political climate. The new iteration of the Matrix converts ordinary people into swarms of murderous hate-bots to protect its grip on power; its creator gloats about how easy it is to control people with feelings, rather than facts. “If we don’t know what’s real,” a character says to Neo, “we can’t resist.” None of this is objectionable. But minus a shot of bathroom graffiti guaranteed to turn every dude on Reddit into an expert on the thematic resonances between this film and Don DeLillo’s “Americana” (Don-pilled!), it’s served up without even the modicum of subtlety and egg-hunt mystery that made the original “Matrix” such a durable chew toy for undergrad post-modernists. There’s nothing to unlock in “Resurrections”—it’s a movie whose password is “password.” Then again, if you were Lana Wachowski and you’d spent nearly twenty years watching the world’s worst people hijack your ideas, you’d probably opt for placards over puzzles, too.

What “Resurrections” has to say about the exploitative nature of sequels, the tendency of sheeple to opt for lives of superficially comfortable, algorithm-controlled bondage, or the cyclical nature of life itself is ultimately less interesting than the way it symbolically repositions its male lead. This is a semi-important “Matrix” movie that’s probably too pinned to its context to resonate into the future the way the first one did, but it feels destined to go down as a crucial Keanu Reeves movie. I spent the better part of 2020 writing a book about Reeves’s movies, the thesis of which is that most of Reeves’s characters are essentially versions of himself, and most of his films are actually metaphorical dramatizations of the dilemma of being Keanu Reeves, a sensitive nineties artist whose career has been one long push-me-pull-you struggle with commercial imperatives, including the making of sequels. That being the case, “Resurrections” could not feel more designed to delight and unnerve me, specifically, if it had arrived at my doorstep as an unlabelled DVD in an envelope with no return address. It speaks to what I believe to be fundamental Reevesian themes, chiefly Reeves’s reluctance to participate in his own exploitation, which led him to choose Dogstar and “Hamlet” over a post-“Speed” action-movie career that was his to lose and seemed to tempt him little. In its profound (and profoundly early-nineties-ish) ambivalence about whether it should exist at all—and its attempt to work through that ambivalence onscreen, inside the story—the previous Reeves sequel that “Resurrections” most obviously recalls is “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” from 1991, in which Reeves reprises the role of lovable headbanger Ted Logan and also plays his own evil robot doppelgänger—a walking sequel with no soul, built to kill Ted and destroy everything he stands for.

Reeves would spend the rest of that decade trying not to become an evil-Ted version of himself. After 1994’s “Speed,” he could have settled into a long run as a slightly more zen Bruce Willis; instead, he ran off to play Prince Hamlet in a 1995 Manitoba Theatre Production of “Hamlet.” By the time the script for the first “Matrix” came to him—which happened only after a baffled Will Smith turned it down and Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio had done the same—he’d spent more than a few years adrift. The part of Neo finally allowed Reeves to square his own hipster-philosopher bent with audiences’ desire to see him kick ass. Before shooting, the Wachowskis sent him to martial-arts training camp but also told him to read Baudrillard and books on evolutionary psychology and cybernetics. This, it seemed, was the kind of improbable part he’d spent years looking for: a pop blockbuster with a hefty syllabus, an intellectually fulfilling tentpole-making experience.

In the second and third “Matrix” movies, Neo seemed increasingly burdened by the role of world savior and Reeves seemed increasingly weary of playing one. There is no creative act so exciting that it won’t start to feel like a job if you have to do it over and over. The wittiest thing about the “John Wick” movies is the way they build their story around Reeves’s disinclination to keep going back to the well—they’re all about a hit man, for whom making hits is a soul-killing way to make a living. And they’re also about getting older, something Reeves now knows a thing or two about.

At one point in “Resurrections,” Neo slips into a movie theatre through a jagged hole in the screen. What’s playing on the screen is meant in the film to be footage from Thomas Anderson’s “Matrix” game, but it’s really footage from the original “Matrix,” of Reeves’s first meeting with Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, and all of a sudden, we’re looking at Reeves looking at his own smooth, young, worried face circa 1999, a forgotten self projected twenty feet high. “Time is always against us, et cetera, et cetera,” Morpheus says, quoting a Fishburne line from the original that takes on new weight in this context. Time is always against us—all of us. It’s hard to imagine another leading man agreeing to return to one of his most iconic roles in the way Reeves does here, boldly risking comparison with his younger self by playing a Neo who’s lost a step and never quite regains it. The big fight scenes are mostly about him getting knocked around, and when he attempts the Superman-style up-up-and-away move that was once his signature, he can’t quite clear the sidewalk, and his shirt rides up a little, exposing a few vulnerable inches of normal-guy abdomen.