Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Matrix Resurrections’

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

It doesn’t matter if you took the red pill or the blue pill. One thing is inarguable. When The Wachowskis introduced us to the concept and world of The Matrix, they made a revolutionary film. But, over two decades later, I wonder, was it for better or worse? To find the answer to this question, I’ll follow the white rabbit down the hole and onto its new path with The Matrix Resurrections (2021)!

Love or hate it, we live in the age of the “lega-sequel.” It’s the latest Hollywood trend in which studios squeeze every last drop of blood from the proverbial stones of their franchises. Still, when Warner Bros. Pictures first announced that they would be bringing The Matrix back online, as it were, I was a bit befuddled. After all,The Matrix trilogy as a whole, while ultimately flawed, was distinct because it was made by the work of The Wachowskis. Heck, even when the duo didn’t write and direct a Matrix-related project, they still oversaw and approved them.

But that wasn’t for lack of trying on the studio’s part. Rumor has it that studio repeatedly, albeit politely, approached The Wachowskis on an annual basis about another Matrix movie since 2005. Each time would result in an equally polite decline. Following the billion-dollar grossing trilogy, Warners continued to fund the duo’s subsequent films, all to lessening degrees of financial success. After the 2015 box-office bomb, Jupiter Ascending, Warner Bros and the Wachowskis briefly parted ways when the siblings chose to pursue television by working with Netflix on Sense8 (2015-2018).

In their absence, Warner Bros. began to explore other possibilities for rebooting The Matrix franchise. As a result, screenwriter Zak Penn (Marvel’s The Avengers, Free Guy) was brought in to pitch his ideas on exploring other areas of The Matrix universe. In doing so, Penn was clear on one thing: his iteration of The Matrix would follow the trilogy, not ignore it. Penn also stated in a recent interview that he was keen on exploring other areas of the world created by the Wachowskis. Around this same time, Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, Without Remorse, What If…?) was reportedly in discussions to headline this fourth Matrix film. But, none of this development ultimately made it to the starting line.

Out of a show of professional respect (or perhaps contractual obligation), Warner Bros. sought permission of The Matrix creators, who promptly exercised their rights to refuse a sequel project that would not include their participation. Thus, as a counter, the studio yet again asked if they had any ideas for a fourth installment. While Lilly Wachowski (Work in Progress) immediately declined participation, feeling she had simply exited The Matrix for good, Lana Wachowski surprisingly felt differently. See, shortly before this meeting with Warners, the siblings’ parents had passed away … a mere five weeks apart from one another. In her grief, Lana found herself thinking a lot about the relationship between Neo and Trinity and their enduring love. Such got Lana to thinking about telling another story set within The Matrix. But, this time, it would essentially be a love story.

To iron out this love story of resurrection, Lana recruited Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell and Sense8 screenwriter Aleksandar Hemon to assist in crafting the self-aware narrative. Of course, Lana also had to get Keanu Reeves (DC League of Super-Pets, John Wick: Chapter 4) and Carrie-Anne Moss (Iron Fist, Jessica Jones) plugged back in for this iteration as they were both key to the story. Notably absent, though, was none other than Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne (Black-ish, Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur). Seeing as Morpheus was part of theThe Matrix trilogy’s key trio, his exclusion was a bit confusing and off-putting both to me and other fans. Such feelings were increased (and spritzed with a glimmer of hope) when the actor would not comment on the matter aside from saying, “You’ll have to ask Lana Wachowski about that.” Around this same time, we learned a different and younger version of the character would be played by rising star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen (2019), Candyman (2021)). All of this made audiences wonder what this film will be about, when it takes place, etc.…

The Matrix Resurrections finds us in a very different version of The Matrix. Gone is the dreary rain-drenched illusionary world to which audiences had become accustomed. It is now a world bathed in sunshine and an even larger sense of artificiality than before. In The Real World, Neo and Trinity have become legends. 

Inside The Matrix, though, Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is plugged back in as a highly successful programmer and video game creator. Yet, Mr. Anderson just can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong and that he might have had a previous life elsewhere. That sense only deepens when he makes a connection with a woman named Tiffany (Moss), who also can’t shake the feeling that the life she’s experiencing is not her real one. Before long, Thomas/Neo must face these feelings head on when he’s approached by a different version of Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen II) and a young lady named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), both of whom want to bring our hero back to consciousness in The Real World.

In the brief time since its simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max, the movie in review has become divisive among the franchise’s fanbase (understandably so). For me, the very idea of a fourth trip into The Matrix seemed unnecessary-yet-curious. My curiosity not only persisted, but grew during the first act of The Matrix Resurrections. Surprisingly, despite the chaos of a holiday season and learning the ropes at a new day job, Resurrections grabbed my attention and kept it for the first third of its run time. Unlike its predecessors, though, this “lega-sequel” quickly goes from intriguing to unnecessarily convoluted and overly self-aware.

Following the movie’s first act, The Matrix Resurrections rapidly descends into being an intentionally confusing movie as it overloads you with that exposition. All the while, the story unfolds at a snail’s pace as not even the action sequences can energize this thing. On the contrary, the action feels like nothing more than a begrudging obligation or afterthought. Where the action set-pieces in the previous Matrix installments were innovative — even revolutionary — Resurrections delivers action that feels dull and artificial. But I suppose that makes sense as Neo no longer has an interest in fighting the battle.

At a certain point, one thing becomes evident: Lana was not interested in genuinely returning to The Matrix. Instead, I think she was interested in producing a love story that shifts the focus and deconstructs the concepts even more so than she and Lilly had with The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Not only does Resurrections not feel like a Matrix movie in the way you would expect, it wasn’t even made in the same style or with the same crew. It is a well-made with performances that are worth watching despite having many unnecessary new iterations of characters. As a result, The Matrix Resurrections is the ultimate piece of deconstructionism that feels more like a more recent Wachowski film than a true sequel. The Matrix Resurrections is a Franchise Implosion that, if anything, made me hold Reloaded in and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) in higher esteem.

Despite my dislike of The Matrix Resurrections, I can respect one thing about it. Love it or hate it, Lana Wachowski was given total control over this film. I’d rather see filmmakers assert the freedom to make a film I dislike than a studio overly managing them into a movie I would like. I can respect Resurrections as a piece of art therapy, and I can appreciate that Lana Wachowski was given the freedom to engage in and present it to an audience. However, if you’re looking for a true sequel, I do not feel The Matrix Resurrections will feed you the pill you need. But perhaps the video game demo, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience (2021), will deliver that.

The Matrix Resurrections is currently playing in theaters & will be available to stream on HBO Max until January 21.

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