Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an award-winning game designer with severe mental illness. When he's tasked by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) to help reboot his most celebrated game, 'The Matrix', he begins to see characters from his game appear in real-life. But is the world he's living in actually real-life, or is there something else beyond the field of his vision?
Reboots and legacy sequels are, by their very nature, nothing new. We've come to accept them as part of the cinematic landscape because studios have become so risk-averse that there's more logic to remaking something audiences know than trying to get them to see something new. 'The Matrix' came from a time when this logic didn't hold necessarily hold true. Granted, the two sequels that followed didn't quite live up to the thrill of the first, but nevertheless, 'The Matrix' has occupied a place in Western action cinema since it blasted onto screens all of nearly 22 years ago. The argument that stalks 'The Matrix Resurrections' is whether or not it has a reason to exist. After all, the ending in 'The Matrix Revolutions' was tightly closed, so why would reopening it up make sense? How do you grapple with that?
This is where 'The Matrix Resurrections', in its first half, gets a perfect score. This is likely the first blockbuster sequel that actively tries to examine its own legacy and does so in a completely metatextual way. Without giving it away, the way in which writer-director Lana Wachowski and co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon try to pull apart the very concept of a legacy sequel is nothing short of astounding. Throughout the movie, the way in which it consistently blasts right through the fourth wall makes it one of the most thought-provoking blockbusters in quite some time. More than that, it's a movie about going back to something that has been done and trying to make sense of going back. That, of course, is just one interpretation out of many potential readings of this. 'The Matrix' has always lent itself to multiple interpretations, and 'The Matrix Resurrections' is no different.
Yet, in comparing it to the original trilogy, the changes in tone and direction feel more pronounced. The action doesn't quite have the same sharp, cleanly focused sequencing and is more splashy and uneven. The romance is put to the forefront instead. The philosophical leanings and questioning are there, but more concerned with addressing the past "choices" in 'The Matrix' with the benefit of hindsight. It knows it can't hide from the past, and the way in which scenes, characters, lines of dialogue, even the very idea of how they're all back in the Matrix - it's all done so skillfully and artfully that the second half of the movie feels almost like a let down. As you might expect, there are far too many minutes devoted to tedious, saggy exposition that wears desperately on the pacing. Jada Pinkett-Smith, sadly, is dumped with this role and is barely able to make it decipherable.
For everyone else, however, there's much more to be said. Keanu Reeves smartly eschews the calm Buddha-like movements of before, and instead plays his character much closer to what you'd expect a middle-aged game developer to look and talk like. Carrie-Anne Moss is still as commanding a presence on screen as ever, and really is the heart of 'The Matrix Resurrections'. 'Mindhunter' alum Jonathan Groff, taking over the role of Smith, makes the role his own by dropping the scenery-chewing fascism of Hugo Weaving and opts to play him like a smart-ass studio executive-type. Yahya-Abdul Mateen II plays it closer to Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus, keeping the baritone solemnity but almost playing up the fact that he - Yahya-Abdul Mateen II - is excited to be Morpheus. Again, this weird fourth-wall-breaking stuff can be a lot to handle and is liable to fry your brain if you try to wrap your head around it.
'The Matrix Resurrections' is firing everything and anything it can at the screen, blasting away until there's debris everywhere and it's calmly walked into an elevator. Lana Wachowski's penchant for leaving nothing on the table and firing subtlety out of a cannon is completely evident throughout the hefty two-and-half-hour runtime. In times of great turmoil, nostalgia can be a comfort. For a generation of movie lovers, 'The Matrix' was a formative text. 'The Matrix Resurrections' understands this, and tries to examine what it's like to have to live up to that expectation. It knows it can't make the same movie again, but it can create something familiar yet original from it.