The Matrix Resurrections: Precision and poetry
You really have to see Lana Wachowski‘s solo effort The Matrix Resurrections more than once to fully appreciate the precision-point filmmaking and the poetry of its first act. This is some initial thoughts on an uneven film based on two viewings.
The hero’s increasing feeling of alienation and losing his grip on reality is genuinely unnerving. Keanu Reeves is utterly convincing in his helpless confusion as he can hardly look anywhere or having any interaction without images flashing up from the Matrix computer game he has designed, which come across as frighteningly vivid and real to him.
The disorienting, unreal opening shot is marvellous, showing us a corridor, its shape a visual extension of the giant Matrix-code zero that we have just plunged into, with the reflections of the police officers in the water on the floor a harbinger of the film’s extensive play on mirrors and reflective surfaces. Another, very elegant foreshadowing comes in the form of quick, inexplicable glimpses of people not fitting the scenes: a face reflected in a coffee shop table that does not at all look like Neo sitting there, and later in the same table, a woman with blonde hair who does not look like Trinity. (Eventually it is explained that this is how everyone else in the Matrix is seeing them, the “disguise” allowing both of these iconic characters to exist within the simulation without being recognised from Neo’s famous computer game.)
Neo’s two conversations with Trinity, played with calm soulfulness and suppressed yearning by Carrie-Anne Moss, at that table are high points of the film. In the first one, from a certain point, the sounds of the café are removed so we only hear their voices, the device suddenly whisking them away into a bubble of heightened intimacy. The last scene could not be less intimate, late in the film surrounded by masses of the story’s warring forces, but is nevertheless moving in its sincerity and subdued intensity.
A key scene towards the end of the first act takes place in a cinema where the first Matrix movie is playing on a half-ruined screen, which casts an enthralling spell on a situation that in itself is atmospherically shot. The mirrorings are everywhere, not only between actions, locales and images of the new film and the previous trilogy, and the use of mirrors as portals for the rebels to enter the Matrix, but in small details. The way Neo sits in the coffee shop filmed from the street through a window, reflects how the new version of Morpheus sat (at the same place?) during his own process of awakening in the Neo-less opening segment.
But there is an even more minute instance, wonderfully poetic and precise: in a reflection in that window we see Trinity walking in the street, and at the very moment her reflection reaches and melts into Neo’s face, he looks up, giving no sign of having seen her but as a token of his yearning and inexplicable connection with her.
There are a vast amount of such details, revealing the great level of thought and care invested in the film. “The same stories with different faces”, a man remarks looking out the window, and (but we do not yet realise) it is Agent Smith with a new face. Many conversations are shot against such large windows, as if portals to a wider reality just waiting to be accessed. When Neo rubs his trousers – another harbinger: later we learn this is an anxiety-suppressing technique to get a better grip on reality – Smith immediately answers with brushing dust off his own, as if secretly mocking or manipulating him.
An especially brilliant echo occurs when Neo throws a bunch of blue pills into a wash basin, their shape and status as weaponised medicine recalling the empty cartridges falling in various iconic Matrix shots. At the exact point when Neo’s colleague says the word “destiny” Trinity turns up at the coffee shop. Christina Ricci‘s eyes suddenly seem creepily too large in one close-up. Drops of water are glimmering in the light in an especially magical fashion during an early fight scene. Signs are meaningfully commenting on the story, like in the image below, when a new character slides down one that spells “Anderson”, Neo’s civilian name.
During an affecting montage of moments from the hero’s sad, everyday life, an image from the first Matrix film flashes up. Neo is here moving his arm during the bullet time scene, and the movement is immediately mirrored in the next shot, when he is in the shower, an endearing but also pathetic contrast in all its mundanity. Amidst an emergency situation in the office building the sprinkler system is set off, and considering all the rain inside the Matrix in the earlier films, it is as if the simulation is now merging with Neo’s real life. In the restroom scene when he meets the new Morpheus for the first time, there is a skyscraper pattern on the wall, which is then reflected in the mirror, as if it is instead a window towards the city. Everything is uncertain and could be connected to anything else.
Seeing the film again, I also liked the climax better. The idea with the “human bombs” throwing themselves to the streets to try to stop the heroes during a chase scene is memorable, and the chase itself is reasonably energetic and propulsive. I also liked the extremely crowded struggle in the café just before and was quite moved by the sun-emblazoned end to Neo and Trinity’s storyline, with the realignment of their relative strength especially satisfying. At one point, their bodies form a large “T”, as if in celebration of her.
Still, on the level of action and spectacle The Matrix Resurrections must be the least ambitious Wachowski film yet. (The debut film Bound from 1996 operates on an entirely different wavelength than the rest of their oeuvre, and its verve and richness of ideas make for a very ambitious work indeed.)
The self-referential aspects of the film are clever and extensive, already well described in other articles. Also interesting are this piece on its treatment of trauma, and this on the importance of 0, 1 and Io versus Zion, as well as how the newest film might be a more mature work than the original trilogy. The metaphor that struck me hardest, however, is a more direct reference to our real world: the fact that the machine civilisation has found out that their human batteries are giving off the most power when they are kept in a constant state of agitation, which is exactly the strategy of some of today’s sinister political forces, feeding their supporters a constant stream of lies and propaganda to maintain a high-level anger at the other side.
Other than that, there are quite a few more things to appreciate. I liked the way the rising sun at the end of the third film was used as a recurring motif for Neo and Trinity’s scenes, as they time and again are shot against a low, golden sun. The scenes within the machines’ enormous pod areas are still breathtakingly beautiful, with a powerful sense of wonder. An innovation in the new film is the fact that we sometimes see the actual ruined environment of the Earth as the rebels are peering into the Matrix, which is overlaid that same environment, for example when we see Trinity ride her bike on a gleaming bridge.
A special mention must go to the delicious WTF moment during the mayhem in the office building in the first act, when a fantastically out-of-place black cat suddenly appears, followed by a “glitch-in-the-Matrix” situation when Neo finds himself in his psychiatrist’s office with no idea how he got there.
In-between the first act and the finale, there are problems. Something happens to the film after the first act. Neo is taken out of the Matrix by the rebels, but the first scenes, within the Construct as the new Morpheus is briefing him in the spirit of his earlier incarnation, and the fight between Neo and Morpehus in the dojo, are respectively fine and passable. We have already been under a strain, however, since we have substituted the engrossing and visually interesting atmosphere of Neo’s precarious existence in the Matrix, with a situation in drab surroundings where we suddenly have to deal with a bunch of new characters, who are not all that interesting. And as soon as Neo becomes sure of who he is, he is losing the aspect of tortured doubts that made him so engaging, further reducing the human interest of the story.
The film’s real problem starts in earnest after about an hour as the rebels reach their headquarter. This follows the pattern of the earlier trilogy in that almost everything to do with the rebels’ internal affairs and their secret city is much less interesting than the rest. Specifically in this film, it has to do with the rebel leader Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a character who does not come across as particularly well acted or interesting, but nevertheless, out of the blue, comes to dominate the film for a considerable stretch. Also, this very old person, who is meant to appear wise, noble and admirable, has a very slow and thoughtful demeanour, which also means that all of her scenes are executed at a much slower pace than almost everything before, and in addition they are marked by a pathos that feels forced and uninvolving.
On top of this, these scenes are almost solid exposition, filling us in on what has happened since the third film. In fact, this will mark the story for an even longer period, because the next half hour or so will bring even more exposition, planning and discussion, including a complicated scheme for freeing Trinity too from the Matrix, very often shot in monotonously unimaginative shot/reverse shot. The only exception is a fight scene with a now destitute Merovingian and his minions, but that is very unsatisfying, chaotic and inelegant, as well as uninspired, especially an adjacent struggle between Neo and the new version of Agent Smith, which is all crashing through floors and walls in the most traditional manner imaginable.
It does not help that Jonathan Groff is not very charismatic as Smith, although this could be defended since this new version of the Matrix seems to be on purpose a paler, less vivid one. As always, the Matrix presented in the films corresponds to our current world, and Wachowski appears to have a rather pessimistic view on where we are heading.
The only scene of interest in this section has also to do with exposition. This one is electrifying, however, as the Analyst, a new character, is lording it over a helplessly near-paralysed Neo. Not only does Neil Patrick Harris know how to sell the situation with lively expressions and perfectly modulated rhetoric, but it is visually arresting too.
Time has frozen to almost a stand-still with Neo and Trinity in the latter’s motorcycle garage, sparks from a welding apparatus elegantly flying as if in ironic celebration of the situation, and the Analyst’s gloating is heartbreakingly contrasted with a desperate Neo straining to save Trinity from being hit by an incredibly slow-moving bullet.