I think it is important to note that the Wachowskis do not owe their audience a thing. That simply is not how the screen arts – indeed, any arts – are supposed to work.
Technology has, over time, stretched out pop culture. In the first five decades or so of popular cinema, you could see a film in a movie theatre and that was it. While revival or repeat screenings existed, they required you to be in the right place and at the right time to take advantage. Films, once out of theatres, generally faded away quite quickly. The situation improved once television kicked in, with older films becoming increasingly available – again you had to be watching the right channel at the right time, but at least there was a better chance of films maintaining their profile. Onward this expansion goes, boosted by home video in the 1970s and 1980s, then by DVD in the 1990s – which was deliberately marketed and packaged on the premise that you needed a movie collection like you had a CD collection. Today, with the advent of online streaming, most major studio releases from the past 40 years are readily available on demand for subscribers or rental. None of these films have had the chance to fade into obscurity: they simply never went away.
The studio thinking now is that you can make sequels and reboots of any or all of these films. It doesn’t matter that there is a 32-year gap between Ghostbusters II and Ghostbusters Afterlife, or 35 years between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Next year Michael Keaton returns to play Batman in The Flash, 30 years after Batman Returns. As far as Hollywood is concerned, it is all commercially viable; kept alive via technology, fuelled by nostalgia, and super-charged by a market that increasingly wants to know what it’s paying for before buying a ticket.
It doesn’t just affect the big studios either – it affects the fans. It is no surprise that, if they can own the films at home, and own the musical soundtracks, and own the spin-off novels, the comic books, action figures, statues, videogames, posters, t-shirts, and limited edition vinyl records, the fans feel an unprecedented proprietary mania over their favourite films and franchises. Of course fans feel a sense of ownership over these texts – after all, at the end of the day we pay for them.
It was absolutely inevitable that Warner Bros, seeing an estimated three billion dollars in gross revenue from their Matrix trilogy of 1999 and 2003, would revisit the material. This was never in question. Since 2005 the studio has bankrolled multiple new films by the Wachowskis, Lilly and Lana, despite growing financial losses in the vain hope that their next project would be a Matrix sequel. The Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta (2005) was profitable enough, but Speed Racer (2008) lost more than $100m, as did Jupiter Ascending (2015). When it became clear that no amount of speculative projects would get them another Matrix sequel, Warner Bros almost went their own way: hiring Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk) to write a treatment for a new film to be made without the Wachowskis’ participation or blessing. Instead Lana Wachowski returned with a pitch: I as good as guarantee it was not the Matrix 4 that Warner Bros was planning to make, but it gave them a much-desired brand revival and an authenticity that ignoring the Wachowskis would have denied them.
I honestly wonder if The Matrix Resurrections is anywhere near the film that Warner Bros wants. It has already become abundantly clear that it is not the film many long-term Matrix fans want, given the divided reaction to it online. There is, however, an argument to be made that it is the sequel audiences most need to see.
The Matrix Resurrection follows tired videogame designer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves). Years ago he was the award-winning designer of The Matrix, a trilogy of games that almost broke his resolve, led to an attempted suicide, and has left him in ongoing therapy. Now the studio he co-founded has been purchased by media studio Warner Bros, who are insisting he create a sequel to his master work. The only problem is that Thomas is losing his grip on reality again, and may not know what is real any more.
It is a bold movie that openly tells its audience that, hell or high water, Warner Bros was making another sequel anyway. It is a bold movie that presents itself in such a self-referential manner. There is a typical formula to Hollywood’s sequels, in which a new film largely duplicates the old with just enough differences to feel updated. That formula does not usually begin with duplicating entire scenes from the old film, nor does it incorporate actual footage of the original film – actually presented side-by-side to ensure the audience cannot avoid comparing the two. Lana Wachowski has revealed the mechanics behind the screen with this film: it demonstrates the nuts and bolts of this kind of studio-mandated sequel, and it does not hold back in making it clear Wachowski thinks it is a bad thing.
That’s the bold part; here is the clever part. Wachowski makes a brilliant sequel to the Matrix trilogy anyway. Between the self-referential riffs and in-jokes, and the laudable biting of the hand that’s feeding it, there is also an entire straight-forward follow-up going on. It reveals what happened after the end of The Matrix Revolutions. It brings back a few more characters than fans might expect. It furthers the story, and it develops the old characters in interesting ways. It even critiques the entire set-up of the Matrix saga. In terms of narrative, this is the best of the Matrix sequels.
In terms of visuals, it does not match the visual excess of Reloaded and Revolutions, simply because it does not need to. There is nowhere near as much slow motion as the older films. There is much more colour. While there are some excellently staged action sequences, they never quite go as far as the earlier films did. There simply isn’t a need for them.
Wachowski has been very open in explaining her motivations for making The Matrix Resurrections: the sudden death of both of her parents led her to revive once-dead fictional characters essentially as therapy. You can sense that in the film, too. This feels a rather wilfully upbeat return to the Matrix. It is certainly the funniest film of the four. This is not an ordinary sequel. It is the sequel you make when you have an idea for one, not the sequel you make because there is more money to be grossed. Yes it is divisive, and yes it may not be the Matrix that many viewers want, but in the constant back-and-forth between art and commerce it is a bold and unapologetic home run for the artist. It even seems bleakly fitting, given its commentary on sequels, that it appears to be under-performing. Most audiences are flocking to the ninth Spider-Man movie instead.
Thanks to Sonia Marcon for her assistance in developing this review.