The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions came out in 2003 to mixed results from audiences and critics alike. Flash forward eighteen years and the groundbreaking franchise has released a fourth installment, The Matrix Resurrections, and we’re right back where we were after Revolutions — deeply underwhelmed and grasping at any positives we can find.

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As an admirer of the franchise, I really wanted to love Resurrections. While I didn’t hate the film, my reaction was definitively mixed. On the one hand, some of the action sequences are pretty great, notably, the last third in which Neo and Trinity hop on a motorcycle and tear as through a legion of robot-controlled humans; and a particularly engaging fight sequence between Neo and a reimagined Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff) that evokes memories of the duo’s previous matches. I dug the newer cast members, including Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Groff, but wanted to see them do a little more; and found the focus on Neo and Trinity’s doomed love story quite engaging.

On the other hand, much like the previous entries, anytime the film strays from the titular Matrix, it sucks. The extended middle section features the return of an original character who does little more than rekindling the bad vibes felt the last time the Wachowski’s smothered actors with bad old-age makeup, and the lengthy exposition drops recall the poorly handled passages of both Reloaded and Revolutions in which characters dramatically ask each other “what” and “why” so that other characters can drop a bold proclamation or two.

Really, though, the entire premise of Resurrections evokes a mixed reaction in its meta examination of the franchise as a whole. It’s a mostly clever conceit that at once enhances and cheapens the film.

Resurrections opens some 60 years after Revolutions and finds Thomas Anderson/Neo working as an award-winning video game designer. The kick is that he no longer remembers the events of the previous films, but believes the original trilogy to be nothing but a series of popular games he helped create. A shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) has convinced Neo that his dreams/nightmares are the workings of his delusional mind, while characters like Trinity pop in and out of his life like ghostly reflections from a previous life.

This idea might have been more interesting if the film had leaned into the mystery a little more. Like, imagine a completely original film in which a programmer named Thomas Anderson struggles to discern delusion from reality.

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Instead, the opening scene of Resurrections makes it quite clear that Neo is once again enslaved by the machines and even working for his archenemy, Agent Smith. It’s only a matter of time before he is reawakened in the real world to continue his role as the One. As such, the early scenes don’t have quite the same intrigue as they probably should.

For her part, writer/director Lana Wachowski chooses to lean on metacommentary in the film’s early goings to drum up intrigue and examine the very notion of sequels. In that regard, Resurrections feels like a direct descendant of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream franchise, and recent films like 22 Jump Street and Jurassic World that acknowledge their cynical existence (to make money) whilst essentially serving as a cynical, unnecessary cash grab.

Early in Resurrections, Neo is instructed by Warner Bros. to create a fourth Matrix game for monetary purposes. There’s a nifty montage in which side characters discuss and debate what made the original game/film such a classic and why it’s foolhardy to attempt additional sequels. Most arrive at the conclusion that the only way to do a proper sequel is to lean on the action, make it bigger, better … but ultimately, nothing they do will compare with the novelty of the original film.

Later, the newly constructed Morpheus assembles the same furniture he used during his first meeting with Neo back in 1999 and essentially admits they could never top that awesome moment and could only strive to replicate it. We also see a replay of the original’s opening sequence with a Trinity-like character evading agents over the city rooftops. Characters repeatedly mention how a specific moment is similar but not as good as moments we’ve seen before, etc.

This is all clever and quite fun as Lana pokes fun at the audience’s desire for more of the same — a message that feels timely considering Spider-Man: No Way Home’s nostalgia-fueled design — but this conceit also diminishes our enjoyment of Resurrections.

If you don’t believe you can make a better film than The Matrix, why bother? Just because you make acknowledge that your film isn’t very good doesn’t hide the fact that it’s not very good, right?

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In many respects, the metacommentary feels like a cop-out, or a fail-safe to fall back on should audiences reject newer ideas introduced in a poorly crafted sequel. Did you like The Matrix Resurrections? Great! We’ll make more. Are you disappointed with The Matrix Resurrections? Well, it’s okay because, as the film explains, it’s A) your fault for demanding more movies, B) impossible to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and C) not a very good movie anyway.

Get it?

This kind of approach is more frustrating than innovative. Sure, I like the self-referential jabs, but, honestly, if a filmmaker doesn’t believe in a story or concept, why make the film at all? Did Lana Wachowski wake up with this novel idea about how to reinvigorate a long-dormant franchise? Or (as the film actually suggests) did WB threaten to hand the Wachowski’s beloved series over to another filmmaker in the event they opted to walk away?

Personally, I would rather see someone with a little more passion and creativity for the franchise step in and guide the series in an all-new direction. There are so many interesting paths The Matrix could go it’s a shame to see so many creative minds stuck regurgitating past ideas. But it’s okay because the film knows it’s an unoriginal, cynical piece of pop culture fluff designed to create sequels and make greedy executives more money.

In many respects, this approach is quite brilliant and renders films like The Matrix Resurrections critic-proof. After all, it’s hard to criticize something that spends so much time criticizing itself, right?

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