The Matrix (1999) shattered our taste for sci-fi. A cyberpunk sci-fi action extravaganza, it signalled a new filmmaking language and challenged the then new-found allure of simulated realities and the Internet. Lana and Lilly Wachaowski, the trans women sisters also known for other films such as Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer and V for Vendetta, combine complex socio-philosophical ideas about human society and its increasing immersion in virtual reality with a radically-imagined, VFX-fuelled visual scheme, making The Matrix and its two sequels that came out in 2003 (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) a pathbreaking, cult franchise. We refer to the “red pill” when we have to choose between a momentous truth or comfortable ignorance. The Matrix films also gave film technology many inventions including “bullet time”, in which a shot progresses in slow motion but the camera appears to move at a normal speed.
It isn’t quite clear why the new film, The Matrix Resurrections, had to be produced years later. The new film continues with the same ideas, and veers into numbingly familiar territory. The exposition is languorous; the visual design and orchestration continue to dazzle, but without the ambition to take the original idea forward and a denouement that neither gets our goats nor fling us into revolutionary metaphysical territory. In this sense, The Matrix Resurrections falls short of its predecessors. For most of the first hour, it feels cloyingly like the first one.
Neo (Keanu Reeves, bearded and befuddled) is a middle-aged software designer stuck in a dreadful funk of sameness. He is back to being Thomas Anderson. He is known for developing three world-famous video games called, well, The Matrix. When a colleague informs him that Warner, the parent company which also runs the gaming company where Neo works, is at work to make a sequel to the three games, Neo goes back on his word that he wouldn’t ever make another videogame. From there on, till we know that Neo has another world to save now, which includes the woman he fell in love with several years ago Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), he is back to being a messiah. Most of the film has high jinks references and in jokes, and an overall cheekiness and silliness punctuate the brilliantly-crafted visual pyrotechnics.
Director Lana Wachaowski can’t, however, sustain the playfulness. The old Matrix tricks appear soon enough. The real world is a pile of detritus. There are dark underground cities, big clickety-clack industrial machines and gargantuan robots with metal tentacles. In the virtual world, noisy shoot-outs, car crashes and ingenuously synchronised action set pieces unfold. Bullet time isn’t scarce. In both these worlds, there are verbose dialogues that try to make up for the lack of philosophical heft of the first three films, but they end up sounding pretentious because the matrix was never as much about tell as it was about show.
The fourth instalment, hopefully the last, has some new actors. Neo’s side-kick is blue-haired Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a hipster-like Morpheus is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen, whose performance angles more for the comic than the cerebral, and Jonathan Groff plays a new version of the evil Agent Smith. Moss’ reprisal of Trinity is a sketch, a helplessly trapped human in need of rescuing—she becomes the film’s raison d’être almost. Abandoning high stakes and meta ideas for routine superhero territory of a long-drawn-out rescue mission, the writers (Aleksander Hemon and David Mitchell) roll out the action sequences. Priyanka Chopra Jonas delivers a small but assured role as Sati the Oracle.
Reeves channels the jaded superhero jolted out to battle it out for a personal loss with deadpan seriousness, retaining a perplexed countenance throughout—almost as if the actor is acutely aware that this film is more fun and less deep thematically.