In spring 1999, the world stared down a new century. It prepped for a Y2K computer meltdown, grappled with millennial paranoia, witnessed widening class and wealth gaps, and wrestled with culture rapidly moving online. Into this din came the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, its sexy leather-clad cyberpunk heroes kung-fu fighting and bullet dodging the Men in Black avatars of an evil empire in a quest to awaken humanity to their enslavement by machines in an invisible pen called the Matrix. It blew our minds — it’s still blowing our minds — fundamentally altering science fiction and action cinema and providing a vocabulary for our burgeoning digital experience: jack in, unplug, rabbit holes, take the red pill.
The Matrix became a trilogy, which seemed to end pretty definitively with The Matrix Revolutions (2003): Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) were dead, and after watching it many viewers wished they were too. The series, which also includes The Matrix Reloaded (2003), was never short on ideas, in fact they balloon with each entry, but the ability to do anything with them seemed to decrease in direct proportion. So many story threads. So many hackneyed resolutions. (A group of killer machines coming together to form, Voltron style, something called Deus Ex Machina? Seriously?) And all the philosophical double talk. By the time the credits rolled on Revolutions, we all seemed cool with leaving The Matrix behind.
And why not? Look at the world since the first film rocked multiplexes. We’re inundated by Big Tech corporate messaging about entering the metaverse. We’ve willingly ceded all manner of decision making to AI-powered devices. If you believe Elon Musk, there’s a 99.99 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation. And let’s not forget the authoritarianism, genocide, and general civilizational breakdown fomented by social media. We might not be living in pods of pink goo, but we’re just as complacently jacked into machines that seem the dominant force on humanity rather than the inverse. The Matrix’s dystopia — a future Earth dominated by machines who have turned humans into comatose batteries by enslaving them in an elaborate sim of late-20th century civilization — seems quaint in comparison to our real-world digital nightmare.
After all that, how does someone reenter The Matrix? Why even try?
For a studio like Warner Brothers, it’s all about the intellectual property. And in December it released The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in a series no one seemed to want resurrected, including co-creator Lilly Wachowski. Her sister, Lana, was more amenable. When the studio said it was making another Matrix with or without her, she got on board and wrote and directed a film that’s as thrilling and bizarre as it is unexpected. Because, as it happens, Silicon Valley has created new, fertile ground for The Matrix universe to expand and confront the Orwellian, dystopia-normalizing platforms, businesses, and technologies predicting, modeling, and altering our behaviors.
In terms of plot: Thomas Anderson/Neo is very much alive, now a rockstar designer who made his fortune designing The Matrix trilogy of video games. He feels off, like the world isn’t what it seems. He has nightmares and flashes of memories from another life, but everyone around him — his co-workers, his boss (Jonathan Groff), his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) — assure him he’s just working through his trauma as a suicide survivor and he needs to take more of his blue pills. He goes along with it until an app he’s running glitches. This modal, a recreation of the Matrix we see in the first film, is hacked by Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a resistance captain in the real world, who extracts a program from the modal who’s on the same quest she is: to find Neo and undermine the Matrix, which has been recreated since Revolutions. (We learn in Reloaded that events take place in the sixth iteration of the Matrix, so this new one is at least the seventh.) Things go sideways when the freed modal program — its version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — tries to red-pill Anderson. Anderson’s boss turns out to be a reborn Agent Smith, Trinity has been recast as motorcycle enthusiast mother of two Tiffany who has no memories of any previous life, and Anderson’s analyst is the Matrix’s new architect. Once Anderson is resurrected as Neo, the mission is to extract Trinity, too, and disrupt Matrix 7.0.
Of course it’s all convoluted, it’s a Matrix movie. But it’s also kind of a red herring. The plot is a vehicle for assailing the perversion of the digital promise.
The original film was released in the waning days of Web 1.0, when the internet was still a bit DIY and scrappy (think GeoCities websites and UseNet groups). It died when the dot-com bubble burst, replaced by Web 2.0, which was all about sharing and connectivity — but really commerce and consumption. Corporations and advertisers reconstituted online life around free blogs, free social networks, free search engines, and cheap stuff to mine our data and get fabulously wealthy. While we weren’t looking, the internet was bulldozed and consolidated into fiefdoms; its ragged democracy replaced by plutocratic surveillance capitalism; passions flattened into content. And now that returns on investing in 2.0 are plateauing, the oligarchs are pushing us into the metaverse. (A Matrix by any other name…)
Reckoning with these shifts is the backbone of Resurrections. This is evident in how the world of the Matrix has evolved, such as characters navigating in, around, and out of the Matrix using doors, mirrors, and other portals — the way we engage hyperlinks and tabs to get around today’s internet — rather than old phones and dial-up modems. It’s also all over the dialogue. The Matrix “weaponizes every idea, every dream, everything that matters to us,” Bugs says. “If we don’t know what’s real, we can’t resist.” (Facebook, that you?) Or, “It’s so easy to forget how much noise the Matrix pumps into your head until you unplug,” General Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) says. (Hi, Twitter!) Or “What validates and makes your fictions real? Feelings,” the analyst tells Neo at one point. “Ever wonder why you have nightmares? It’s actually us, maximizing your output.” He’s talking about energy to feed the machines, but it could just as easily apply to data feeding Jeff Bezos’ wealth. (For good measure, the analyst talks a lot about “the suits” and making money, which, to paraphrase Captain Kirk, what does a robot need with a bank account?)
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