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THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS Is One of the Greatest Blockbusters of the 21st Century
There's a good chance you disagree with me, but a deeper look at the metatextual work and the uncomfortable things it has to say about Hollywood, audiences and our culture today might change your mind
At the close of 2021, one of the year’s most personal and ambitious art films was released, a multi-layered, largely symbolic treatise on Hollywood’s intellectual property (IP) obsession and the audiences that lap up this new kind of blockbuster. Unfortunately, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS was roundly rejected by ticket-buyers who felt attacked by it and its writer-director Lana Wachwoski - an outcome that only confirms the film’s arguments.
In reconsidering the fourth MATRIX film here, in taking the time to understand what Wachowski was attempting when she decided to return to the world she co-created with her sister Lilly Wachowski, we might better understand how our collective expectations of feature films — specifically, films produced within the Hollywood system — wound up so diminished over the past decade.
You might not agree with every point I make here, sure, but I think it’s a mistake to dismiss THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS as a commercial and artistic failure rather than a bold, intentionally provocative metatextual work utterly indifferent to the box office and, frankly, you. It has a lot to teach us about cinema, art, and ourselves, I promise you.
A SEQUEL / SPIN-OFF / REBOOT / REQUEL NO ONE WANTED
As near as anyone can tell, no one wanted a new installment of THE MATRIX except Warner Brothers. Not even the Wachowskis, who objected to the idea for years. Lilly even called it a "particularly repelling idea in these times" back in 2015, which her sister agreed with. This resulted in WB pursuing the sequel or spin-off or possible reboot or maybe a requel — whatever you want to call this attempt to milk the cash cow some more — with other filmmakers. To the surprise of many, Lana eventually agreed to return to co-write and direct by herself for the first time. Her sister Lilly had declined to join her in this endeavor, which Lilly explained on a TCA (Television Critics Association) panel in 2021 a few months before the release of THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS:
"There was something about the idea of going backwards and being a part of something that I had done before that was expressly unappealing. Like, I didn't want to have gone through my transition and gone through this massive upheaval in my life…to want to go back to something that I had done before and sort of walk over old paths that I had walked in, felt emotionally unfulfilling and really the opposite."
Lana Wachowski’s solution to how to return to THE MATRIX franchise is both her motivation for doing so and the source of the backlash against the fourquel, or so I will argue here. Here’s the set-up of the latest film:
When we last saw Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), he had transcended his physical existence as the messianic Neo at the end of the last film THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS. One day, we were told, he might even return. Which is exactly what he does in RESURRECTIONS, seventy years after the events of the original trilogy. Except he’s an amnesiac when we meet him again – meaning his true identity as Neo has been stripped from him. Instead of a hacker, he’s now the creator and game designer of an iconic video game series about, you might’ve guessed it, the events of the original film trilogy he doesn’t remember participating in.
Questions abound, of course. Is Anderson haunted by real memories of his true self or, as we’re told by his blue pill-prescribing analyst, mentally ill? Is he the puppet master behind those films we love so much? Will he give in to WB’s (literal) demands that he reboot the popular games he created, to give the studio new IP to exploit, or they’ll do it without him?
In other words, Wachowski appears to use Anderson as her avatar in the story. She makes him the victim of corporate and, ultimately, machine intelligences that would use him to keep their lights on. This is a brilliant move, as you’ll find, because she conflates WB with the fabled machines that have again enslaved a significant chunk of humankind.
Anderson ultimately chooses to rebel by retransitioning back to Neo and reuniting with his lost love Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who has similarly been resurrected and is trying to figure out what is the real her and what is her “upbringing”. In doing so, they regain agency over their lives and napalm the Matrix franchise that has, in the real world — you know, our world — seen its trans allegory misappropriated by the Far Right. More on this bit later.
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While I normally try to avoid anecdotal evidence, I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone I know in the film/TV industry loathed THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS, which doesn’t shock me for reasons I’ll get around to. There were exceptions to this rule, yeah, but not many.
Critics were more divided, though significantly less so than they were over the much-maligned THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS back in 2003. Here’s Joe Morgenstern, offering up some fun word salad I compare to a cranky old man opining about how stupid TikTok is:
The Matrix Resurrections is a recycling dump of murky effects, indifferent action and a crazily cluttered, relentlessly repetitive narrative. It's Groundhog Day in cyberpunk.
And here’s Richard Roeper with a take that feels lazily obtuse given the fact that “tribute to the past” would be something someone who checked his phone through the film would’ve thought of it:
Ultimately this feels more like a warmed-over tribute to the past than a bold and fresh new chapter.
Meanwhile, David Sims at THE ATLANTIC had this to say, hitting the nail on the head:
The film critiques Hollywood’s reboot culture while also serving as a surprisingly sweet work of nostalgia.
I like this bit that Peter Travers wrote about the film for ABC NEWS:
In her fourth flight into alt-reality, Wachowski again skewers a narcotized sphere where humans dull our senses on a loop of numbing diversions. In Matrix terms that means they’re swallowing the blue pill of contented ignorance instead of the red pill of unsettling truth.
What do we make of this panoply of contradictory opinions, so many of which border on or drip with gooey, bitter vitriol?
I suspect the division between how Hollywood types felt about RESURRECTIONS and how critics felt about it can be attributed to how the film lambasts the product those Hollywood types are producing and how critics spend much of their energy similarly doing the same in a vain attempt to steer American cinema back toward the zenith of its artistic achievement in the late 20th century.
As for the general audience’s disinterest?
Let’s blame that on the fact that no one likes being blamed for anything. In this case, being told they’re partly to blame for why the Hollywood moviegoing experience has been increasingly miserable for more than a generation at this point. These audiences are not wrong, I should point out. They bought tickets to see a $190 million blow-em-up franchise reboot and found themselves trapped for 2 hours and 28 minutes in an art film entirely preoccupied with blowing up the value of its own IP instead.
JEAN BAUDRILLARD DREAMED A REALLY BAD DREAM
Here is another possible explanation of THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS, which is the one I subscribe to:
In this film, Lana Wachowski shows you how the Hollywood sausage is made, tells you how terrible that sausage is, then flips the finger at you as she makes you eat it.
There’s a delicious irony to watching the WB and video game executives in RESURRECTIONS bombard Thomas Anderson with all the reasons why he should return to his masterpiece, just as the Wachowskis must have been over the years. We then watch them pitch all the things audiences would want from that experience, all of which demonstrate their complete misunderstanding of why Anderson made his game — aptly named BINARY — in the first place. The game is the story of THE MATRIX films, as I’ve explained. The bullet-time, the trench coats, everything in it have been reduced to symbolism to be regurgitated with no relationship to the Anderson’s (the Wachowskis’) original intent.
“They took your game — something meant so much to people like me — and turned it into something trivial,” Anderson is even told in RESURRECTIONS.
Then this question is posed outright — “Why use old code to mirror something new?” — seemingly criticizing the RESURRECTIONS itself for even existing. In fact, the first third of the film goes to excessive lengths to echo the original MATRIX, a seductive kind of nostalgia meant to comment on the unoriginality of making this film to begin with.
But I think one of the most damning exchanges features the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), who snarls in English and French at Anderson-cum-Neo: “You ruined everything! Art, films, books were all better – originality mattered!”
This is the end result of the philosophy the Wachowskis borrowed from Jean Baudrillard’s SIMULACRA AND SIMULATION (1981) for the original film — simulation run amok — a self-consuming madness until all meaning is replaced and nothing means anything.
In other words, the world of endless sequels, perpetual reboots, of spin-offs, of spin-offs of spin-offs, of intellectual property for the sake of intellectual property.
Consider what the CW president of entertainment Brad Schwartz recently said about an adaptation of the New Testament if you want to understand how IP-drunk the film/TV industry has become:
“The Chosen is based on the biggest IP of all time.”
He really said that about the Gospels.
The thing is, Wachowski and her THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksander Hemon might have written that exact dialogue for any of the execs and game designers in their film whose only interest is getting audiences to spend more money on their studio’s products. “IP” now means something completely disassociated from objective reality, a label with no intrinsic value except what we give it, a construct Hollywood made up to justify its own actions (all of which I point out because it informs this entire essay). RESURRECTIONS understands this better than anything I’ve ever read on the subject.
WHAT FEW UNDERSTOOD ABOUT THE MATRIX WHEN IT WAS RELEASED
So, you might ask yourself why these films were so personal to the Wachwoskis to begin with. Why did Lana, in particular, feel so defensive of a trilogy that made her and her sister unbelievably rich? After all, isn’t this the metric for everything in commercial filmmaking?
Well, aside from the obvious — we are precious as artists about the things we create, even when we create them for an employer — the Wachwoskis have made clear in recent years that THE MATRIX trilogy is and always has been a trans allegory. It’s about coming out, especially for trans women, and transitioning into the real you. The films, released between 1999 and 2003, preceded Lana’s transition in the aughts and Lilly’s in the teens – meaning, they were all profoundly personal stories for them, even if they weren’t able to admit this out loud yet. THE MATRIX’s enduring success does not negate this primal truth.
Tilly Bridges, screenwriter and author of the new book BEGIN TRANSMISSION: THE TRANS ALLEGORIES OF THE MATRIX, broke it down for me.
The original film, in terms of its trans allegory, is about accepting your own transness and choosing to transition. And in a broader sense, that's something almost all cis people can identify with on a surface level. Not in terms of transness, certainly, but in terms of realizing you need to do X to live your truth (whatever that may be...quitting your job, following the love of your life when they move, etc), even if it means it's going to change so much of what your life has been. It's a fundamental part of human existence (trans stories are human stories, I keep telling people).
But RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS are different. Their allegories go much deeper into the trans experience, in ways cis people can't as easily subconsciously see or identify with. If THE MATRIX is Trans 101, RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS are Trans 303.
What does this mean on the big screen?
In Bridges’ words, THE MATRIX RELOADED explored “how once we're out as trans, the entirety of society seems to be coming for us, attacking us, making it impossible for us to live. And if we'd known how hard it would be, would we still have done it? The answer's yes, but why? Why would we still do it?”
As for THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, it’s about “how if we don't confront and root out the internalized transphobia that society places in us all, we can never truly become the person we want to be (and truly are inside). And given all we learned in RELOADED, where do we go from here? How do we find a way forward with a society that hates us for the simple fact of our existence? What would society have to become to make it better for all of us, trans and cis alike?”
So, here's where things get fucked up.
Really fucked up.
Since the original MATRIX TRILOGY’s release, a whole subculture has arisen that has misappropriated the red pill symbolism found in the film, the pill that wakes people from their digital dream, to the truth, to the real. It’s become the language of a toxic (predominately white) male culture that lurks primarily online and believes all attempts to convince them they’re not the center of the universe as they were for hundreds of years — especially when it comes to gender — is a trick, a hoodwink, a false reality imposed upon them. To be awakened from this, to be “red-pilled”, is a point of pride.
(We’ll ignore the irony that these Far Right Neanderthals have inadvertently identified as “woke”.)
“There's a long history of trans voices being co-opted and/or erased by cis people and society, and that very specifically happened to the Wachowskis,” Bridges added. “This a thing that happens to trans people all…the…time. The Wachowskis are just the most visible example of it.”
In case you don’t understand how deep this trans symbolism went for the Wachwoskis, consider this fun fact: in 1999, the year of the original MATRIX’s release, the most widely prescribed estrogen for trans women in the US was Premarin – a red pill that revealed the truth of trans women.
THE LAST STAND OF LANA WACHOWSKI
Now, put yourself in Lana Wachowski’s shoes. You created something many people called revolutionary, that spoke to millions and millions of people – including trans women such as yourself. But in the years since that happened, hatemongers turned your work into a metaphor for their misogynistic uprising. Then, your old employers come a-knockin’. Give us more of that sweet Matrix gold, Lana, give it to us now. You decline, but they won’t shut up about it. We needs it! Fuck off, I’m not interested. So, they hire some other people to do the gods know what to your beautiful, precious baby. They're going to take your work and do to it exactly what the original warned about – each new iteration stripping more and more meaning from the original and, in the process, rewriting how we all perceive the original, too. Maybe even turn it into a more abominable misrepresentation of your work than those online douchebags in their QAnon chatrooms have until no one even remembers the original story anymore…until your work only means something ugly and vile.
So, you’re Lana in this scenario, right? This is what’s happening to you, whether you like it or not. What do you do next?
1) Let them ruin the reboot and, by extension, the original in the grossest, most parasitic way possible? Or…
2) Blow it all up, making a point of why everything about this scenario is artistically horrific, and walk away from it in slow motion as the flames continue to rage behind you?
From my perspective, it’s pretty obvious she chose Option 2.
BANKSY KNOWS WHAT’S UP
Do you remember when Banksy destroyed his own work of art live as a commentary on the ludicrous monetization of his work?
The following is taken from ARTLAND MAGAZINE, describing the event:
Girl with Balloon depicts a girl reaching up towards a red, heart-shaped balloon. Originally stenciled on an East-London wall, this now-iconic figure and has been reproduced in many different places, making it one of Banksy’s best-known artworks. In 2018, a 2006 framed copy of the artwork was sold at auction at Sotheby’s.
In what can be called a quintessential Banksy moment, the moment the hammer slammed down selling Girl with Balloon for $1.4 million, the work of art started to lower itself through a shredder built into the bottom of the frame. The bottom half of the painting was cut into strips, but it stopped shredding in time for the heart-shaped balloon to remain visible. As stunned auction-goers looked on and could barely believe what was happening, the moment became “instant art world history”. The whole contemporary art world was astonished. As stated by Sotheby’s after the fact, this was “the first work in history ever created during a live auction.”
And here’s a video of it:
The best part of this story is that after the painting was shredded before the gasping crowd at Sotheby’s, it went on to auction again in October 2021 – where it fetched the incredible sale price of £18,582,000, much more than its estimated value of £4m-£6m. Banksy’s artwork is a long-form reaction against capitalism and the military-industrial complex, but despite how “Girl with a Balloon” is just more of that, intended to ridicule those who would spend millions on his art as people suffer, someone was still unironically willing to fork over enough dough for it to permanently lift thousands of people out of poverty.
What if THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS was Lana Wachowski’s “Girl with a Balloon”?
What if this is the first time in history that a filmmaker has tried to blow up their own IP as a commentary on not just the decision to further exploit THE MATRIX world?
What if she was also commenting on Hollywood’s contemporary aversion to original ideas and the audience so worn out by reality that they’d rather the warm embrace of nostalgia?
WHY SHOULDN’T WE BE IN THE ARTIST’S CROSSHAIRS?
As I mentioned, audiences did not respond especially well to Lana Wachowski turning THE MATRIX into a full-throated attack on their willingness to buy tickets to Hollywood’s increasingly unoriginal, derivative films. Yes, there are other things going on in the film that Wachowski clearly cares deeply about — for example, the danger of regressive nostalgia, the mind/society-warping dominion of screens today, and the forced detransitioning of Neo (which incites the film’s story and makes the film timely) — but it’s impossible to ignore the central meta-conversation the film is having with the audiences who gleefully showed up for what was an apparent cash-grab by one of the trilogy’s original creators.
Which begs the question: why shouldn’t these audiences be held partly to account for their unwillingness to show up today for original films instead?
Now, I’m not one of those people who argues, say, Marvel should go away. I love Marvel films and TV series, in fact. I saw ENDGAME in the theater three times and bawled like a baby every one of them.
But there needs to be more than just branded films and TV being made by Hollywood.
While these films are enjoyable — again, I’m often there opening week buying tickets myself — they primarily provide us escapism from reality with what I would call a profoundly soft touch. They arguably blue pill us to sleep, with few exceptions making no demands of us except complacency, not even asking us to think about what we’re experiencing besides how much fun we’re having doing it. If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself how often blockbusters shock you in any real way? What opinions do they have that might divide you and your friends and force you to reconsider your view about anything? Where are their sharp edges, their potential to hurt, their potential to draw blood?
Meanwhile, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is the complete opposite.
It’s an utter rejection of that approach to filmmaking. It confronts and provokes and demands the participation of audiences, regardless of how uncomfortable that makes them.
(Something I’ve tried to take to heart while penning this essay, I should add.)
We should remember that one of art’s most critical roles is to hold a mirror up to the viewer, to ask them to look at themselves, to demand they reflect on who they’ve been, who they are, where they’re going. This can be a difficult, painful, even horrifying experience. Maybe it’s why mirrors are such an ever-present theme in RESURRECTIONS.
Sure, you can argue that spending $190 million of a studio’s money to make an art film about the state of American cinema and the country’s wider, increasingly toxic culture meant there were commercial interests to slavishly satisfy, that such ideas are great and all but should be done with less-ambitious budgets, but, come on, would it have worked the same, would’ve it have hurt as much as Lana Wachowski doing this instead?
Sometimes, Banksy has to shred his own work to make a point about how terrible his rich fans are.
Sometimes, a filmmaker such as Lana Wachowski has to walk into a major studio and suicide bomb her own art’s legacy.
And sometimes audiences need to be shocked and provoked and even condemned. Because on the other side of that reaction, if they’re willing to puzzle out the film’s deeper meaning, they might discover that THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS is one of the greatest Hollywood films of the 21st century.
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