As the millennium was about to turn, The Matrix arrived in theaters like a speeding bullet—or maybe a very slow-moving one, filmed with the then-novel extreme-slo-mo special effect that would become known as “bullet time.” Digital technology played a much smaller role in most people’s lives in 1999. The internet was still a novelty, used by most people mainly for sending and receiving email. Smartphones were nonexistent, music was still mainly listened to on CD, and Netflix was a two-year-old company primarily in the business of mailing movies on DVD to people’s houses. The idea that all of humanity was trapped in a simulation, our physical bodies parked in life-sustaining pods while our daily lives unfolded in a virtual space run by distant evil overlords, still sounded like a cool science-fiction metaphor, not a description of banal everyday reality. I remember coming out of The Matrix with two friends and talking over each other in excitement on the multiplex escalator, our synapses afire over a big-budget Hollywood action movie that looked and felt so different, so 21st century.
The second two Matrix movies, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both released in 2003 after a back-to-back, Lord of the Rings-style megashoot), went somewhere very different, but equally if not more original. Where the first film was a compact, fast-moving action thriller, the sequels reveled in exploring the inner workings of the universe the first movie had built: a place divided between underground-dwelling rebels in grungy unraveling knitwear and their super-sleek, hyper-skilled counterparts in the all-digital world. Alongside the technological dystopia the first Matrix imagines, the second two try to envision something more unusual in contemporary science fiction: utopia. The city-state of Zion, where the rebels make their home, appears to have founded its culture on the sacred act of grinding up against good-looking fellow citizens in giant raves. We don’t learn a lot about the rebels’ system of government or daily way of life, but two things the inhabitants of Zion seem to believe in fiercely are freedom and pleasure. Seen in retrospect, the Matrix sequels are among the first mainstream movies to showcase such a radical vision of queer culture, even if they have no characters explicitly coded as gay. Now that, in the 18 years since the release of the last Matrix movie, the films’ writer-directors have come out as trans women, that radicality takes on a different dimension in the fourth chapter of the franchise, Matrix Resurrections, directed for the first time ever by only one of the Wachowski sisters, Lana.
In the new movie’s opening scenes, Keanu Reeves’ Neo, still going by his pre-redpill name of Thomas Anderson, is seen drudging away at his desk working on the latest in his video game series, called Binary. The visibly depressed Thomas is a legendary game designer, known mainly for his long-ago first entry in the franchise. But the real-life memories that inspired that game, Thomas seems to have compartmentalized as delusions, symptoms of his own mental illness; when he spots his long-lost love Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in a café, now in the guise of a suburban mom named Tiffany with three children, he stares at her in longing but is unable to admit why. To tolerate his lonely life in what he thinks is the workaday world but we, the audience, know to be the Matrix, Thomas pops a daily blue pill, prescribed for him as psychiatric medication by a shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) who is obviously, from the jump, way too malevolent to be Doogie Howser, M.D.
After some welcome comedy contrasting our hero’s world-saving past to his schlumpy present (the first Matrix movie was very funny, while each one since then up till now has been less so), his world gets shaken up by the arrival of his former mentor Morpheus, played now not by a black-clad Laurence Fishburne but by a garishly costumed Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The change in casting is explained by a bit of tossed-off exposition that will become important in the movie’s plot. In the time since we visited this universe, digital technology has acquired sentience, not in a scary “look out, the machines are coming!”way, but as a positive evolution in consciousness. This new Morpheus is, if I understood correctly, a kind of 3D real-world version of the Morpheus character Thomas created in his game. When he passes through the portal from the Matrix to the “real world” of Zion, he is rendered as a vaguely Yahya Abdul Mateen-shaped bundle of shimmering, shifting pixels. Similarly, the insect-like flying machines of the earlier films, while still present (and as boring an antagonist as ever), now exist along with sentient machines of a more lovable type, hovering space pets that understand human language.
As has been the case with all the Matrix movies so far, it’s when the characters descend into this post-human underworld that the storytelling gets slower and the mythmaking more dense. The deep mythology created over the course of three Matrix movies gets aired out in exposition dumps that it would be hard for a non-superfan to make head or tail of. I stopped trying to fathom exactly what each of the rebels’ separate missions into and out of the Matrix was meant to accomplish, or for that matter why Jada Pinkett Smith’s rebel leader Niobe, who appeared to be somewhere in her 30s the last time we saw her, is now a frail crone in octogenarian-looking age makeup, while Neo and Trinity appear to have only barely aged. (Maybe that pink goo does wonders for your skin?) More than any of its predecessors, this Matrix runs on the spark generated between its still-smoking but now convincingly careworn middle-aged stars, Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. Quite literally, as is made explicit by one speech in this film, it is the love between these two that fuels the functioning of the non-Matrix world. When Neo and Trinity find each other again after many years of pod-borne isolation, even a casual fan might find herself whispering a tearful “whoa.” And when the super-couple springs into action against a horde of black-clad Matrix agents in a San Francisco-set action sequence, the bullet-time special effects, familiar as they now are from a generation of superhero copycats, still look cool as hell.
At a hefty 148 minutes of running time, Matrix Resurrections (premiering simultaneously on Wednesday both in theaters and on HBO Max) may not be the most crowd-pleasing franchise sequel to be released this season. Wachowski, co-writing the script with novelists Aleksandar Hemon and David Mitchell, burrows into the lore of a highly specific sci-fi universe that many audiences may barely recall from nearly two decades ago. But one thing this fourth chapter can’t be accused of is failing to keep up with its times. As virtual online life has taken over day-to-day existence, the man-vs.-machine struggle that characterized so much science fiction up to the turn of the 21st century has mutated into something harder to schematize: We are our machines, or they are living extensions of us, in a way that requires rethinking what exiting “the Matrix” might mean.
Matrix Resurrections is a movie interested in collapsing binaries: the ones between man and machine, between digital and “real” life, between past and present, and of course, between genders. Of the rebel leaders running the show in Zion and its new sister city, Io, all are people of color, all but one are women, and one appealing new character, Bugs (Jessica Henwick) is the most explicitly queer character in the franchise to date. One line the script does go out of its way to hold, however, is the distinction between what “taking the red pill” means within the Matrix universe (liberation, full engagement in the social and political world, “waking up”) and what the phrase has come to mean after its co-optation by rightwing trolls (handing over one’s critical-thinking skills to social-media-borne lies, fulminating against “wokeness”). Matrix Resurrections’ pointed barbs about the way the series’ mythology has been appropriated by some of the most dangerous actors in contemporary political culture demonstrate that, however familiar some of its visual iconography may have become, this is a franchise that has always kept its eyes wide awake and trained on the present day.