Science fiction, in its most perfect form, operates like a Möbius strip. It critiques the present by speculating about the future. Then, years later, early adherents look back and analyze its predictions, knowing full well that sci-fi set the blueprint for the world they’re living in. Utopic or dystopic, the future always folds back on itself. Rarely, though, do the creators of sci-fi get to revisit the worlds they built after the events they anticipated are set in motion. In this, Lana and Lilly Wachowski are all but singular.
When The Matrix came out in 1999, it was a beautifully realized cyberpunk fable. It took the hopeful energy of the early internet years and envisioned what might happen if humanity’s reliance on connectivity and thinking machines led to its near-demise. It was a grim prediction, but one in a long line of sci-fi stories that foretold the near-future. Brave New World presaged antidepressants. Philip K. Dick warned readers about androids, and now fears of AI revolts creep up when we dream of electric sheep (or at least watch a Boston Dynamics robot dance). Everyone who makes surveillance tech surely knows the year 1984. Would virtual and augmented realities even exist if it weren’t for William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the USS Enterprise’s holodecks?
What the Wachowskis predicted in The Matrix—a world where artificial intelligence turns people into batteries and runs a simulation to keep them docile—hasn’t entirely come to pass, but hints of it are everywhere. No one lives in a simulation, but Silicon Valley can’t get enough of the metaverse, which often feels just a few clicks West. Scientists are working on brain-computer interfaces that could, many years from now, send virtual experiences to our brains. AI doesn’t generate our reality (probably), but it does live in our cars and TVs and toothbrushes. You don’t need a red pill to experience the real world, but the conspiracy-laden, right-wing internet has co-opted “red-pilling” to mean waking up to the many ways liberalism is poisoning America. (Or something.)
Tech geniuses who currently run the world grew up with The Matrix, and now they’re gunning to make the simulation real. Only many seem to have forgotten the dangers that came with it, missing the point the Wachowskis were trying to make. “Readers often assume that authors are happy when they ‘predict’ future events ‘correctly,’” writer Madeline Ashby noted in WIRED’s Future of Reality issue, “but rarely are we asked about the queasy feeling of watching one's worst vision come to pass.”
(Spoiler alert: Plot points for The Matrix Resurrections follow.)
It’s this queasy feeling that permeates The Matrix Resurrections. It’s almost as if Lana Wachowski has seen the worst of her own ideas start to take form and wants to ring the alarm. Set in San Francisco, the movie takes place some 60 years after the events in The Matrix Revolutions, the final in the original trilogy. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have been reinserted into the Matrix, duped into forgetting their days as saviors. Thomas Anderson is now a successful video game designer at a studio called Deus Ex Machina (LOL). He’s responsible for a trilogy of games known as The Matrix, which eerily resemble the events of the Wachowskis’ first three films. He’s now working on a new game called Binary—presumably a reference to coding language, but also a not subtle nod to red pill vs. blue pill, real vs. fake, free will vs. destiny, and, perhaps, the fact that gender is not either/or.
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Or at least that’s what he’s working until he gets called into the office of his boss (played by Jonathan Groff) and told that Warner Bros., his studio’s parent company, wants to make a sequel to the trilogy “no matter what.” (This is especially funny given that the Wachowskis spent years saying “no” to the real-life Warner Bros. about revisiting the franchise.)
What follows is a metanarrative about both the impact of the Matrix games in the Matrix and the Matrix movies in the world of the viewer. Wachowski devotes an entire montage to the message of the original trilogy—it was about cryptofascism! and trans identity! and capitalism!—and how audiences want a sequel that feels “fresh.” Game designers utter phrases like “reboots sell,” and “we need a new bullet time,” while Thomas Anderson struggles to separate fiction from reality.
All of this could be mind-numbing if it wasn’t so self-aware, if it didn’t seem like Wachowski and her cowriters David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon weren’t engaged in the smartest bit of trolling in cinema, shrugging off every critique that has been, or could be, leveled at the franchise. Think it’s too soon to go back to a series of films that only ended 18 years ago? There’s someone ready to remind you that “nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” (Has Wachowski been reading my work?!) Can it often feel too cute or self-aware? Yes, but for the fans it’s winking at, the result is flattering.
That’s also just the first third. The remainder gets into the meat of the original trilogy’s stoned-philosopher ideas. There is a lot of talk of choice, and how often in life options aren’t options at all. The idea of fiction vs. reality comes up a lot, as do the facts vs. feelings debates that have permeated America’s political discourse.
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Truth (heh) be told, all of this would be downright corny in any other movie; it might even be corny in this one. But set against the backdrop of what the Matrix franchise is, and what it’s come to mean, it’s tolerable. The Matrix Resurrections was made for those who have spent the last 22 years immersed in the franchise. New characters and new obstacles emerge, but there’s also no doubt Resurrections is about getting the band back together for one more show—even if Reeves and Moss spend most of their time with a new cast of characters and Morpheus is now New Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a different iteration of the character played by Laurence Fishburne in the original movies. The motifs—cascading green code, simulation theory, white rabbits—remain the same, a recursive loop that, while not new, plays a familiar melody. That’s the point; they’re still relevant because the lessons of The Matrix remain unlearned.
In different circumstances, this repetitiveness would be a problem, a spell cast to repel the unfamiliar, the newcomers. But in a time when “red-pilling” is a political buzzword and you can say “we’re living in the Matrix” to just about anyone and they’ll understand the gist, how many uninitiated ones are left?
Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s original vision feels so real today largely because they gave it language. No, AI overlords haven’t built a giant simulation. But we do spend a lot of time living as avatars, allowing social media companies to build livelihoods off of our creative and intellectual output. The 20-plus years after the release of the first Matrix have so upended reality that the phrase “alternative facts” means something. This is likely why Resurrections fixates on the impact its previous installments had on the world. It doesn’t apologize for what it wrought; it just lives in the zeitgeist it created.
Midway through The Matrix Resurrections, the new Morpheus attempts to convince Neo that the Matrix, the thing he’s been trying to forget, is just a virtual reality. This has always been the head-trip of the Matrix movies too. They’re where viewers go to escape, but two decades later, their concepts have moved from the screen to meatspace. With Resurrections, the years of discourse about the franchise have found their way into its next chapter. Is there anything new here? Hmm, dunno. But it’s nice to go back down the rabbit hole. Science fiction, in its most perfect form, operates like a Möbius strip.
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