Editor’s note: This review contains some extremely spicy spoilers for “The Matrix: Resurrections.”
For goddess’ sake, take the blue pill! Okay, the lighting in the Matrix isn’t great, and everything has an eerie green tint––because that’s how old timey computers were presumed to look in the late nineties. But it’s so much worse underground. When Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) emerges downstairs, jellyfaced and crestfallen, like a lubed-up Dave Bautista making his way out of a birthing canal for douchebags, he surely must realize what a stupid, pointless mistake he’s made. Choose the nice gay therapist! Choose the sycophants and the milf in the coffee shop!
But no, alas. Down the rabbit hole goes Keanu and so, therefore, must we. At the opening of The Matrix: Resurrections, the execrable latest submission to the all-too-explicably popular franchise, we encounter the once and forever Ted “Theodore” Logan, forced to endure a group of sycophants telling him how great The Matrix was. In the new Matrix in which he is unknowingly imprisoned, Mr. Anderson is a video-game developer who made three successful games about a virtual reality system used to placate people while their bodies are kept bolted to tanks and used as a fuel source. (We’ll get back to the first law of thermodynamics in due course.)
Suddenly, a new idea: Why don’t we make a fourth installment of the Matrix series? And Thomas Anderson must endure a montage of sycophants tell him how radiant, timely, and far-sighted the original was; how beautiful the bullet sequences; what a “head fuck” (in the good sense); how it predicted “trans politics” and “capitalist exploitation.” A lone dissenting voice registers that The Matrix wasn’t his cup of tea because, if anything, it was a bit too brilliantly incisive, and he doesn’t like anything that “comes with a syllabus.”
At which point I was like, excuse me. Far be it from me—a pretentious transsexual who has never come without a syllabus—to take exception to a fun techno-thriller franchise, especially one which has been (manifestly) valuable to a lot of queer and trans people. But come the fuck on. I was genuinely shocked to learn that The Matrix thinks that the problem with The Matrix is that it is too cerebral. It is hard to think of any franchise of the last few decades that has invested more lavishly in willed, militant stupidity. It is one long rhetorical question—what if reality was just a simulation designed to keep our minds placated for nefarious purposes—that brooks no clarifying follow-ups, let alone answers. One needn’t ask, “Have you read even the first of Descartes’ Méditations?” because the answer is obvious, but one can’t but ask: How have human bodies been transformed into net producers of energy? Why must the “agents” interact with the Matrix at all, when they could simply switch off the life-glug?
Or—let’s try this one on for size—why can the faces of the various Matrix characters be altered, but not their presentations of racialized animatedness? The wise old Black lady played by Gloria Foster in the first two movies was replaced by Mary Alice in the third, but while the character’s face changed, the breadth of the stereotype was reproduced in every offensive particular. Meanwhile, the excellent Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has the distinction of being the only person to have delivered an engaging performance in any of the four movies, wisely declines to imitate Laurence Fishburne’s sepulchral drone, and dresses in snappy, colorful suits, as if he were a postcard from another Matrix, where someone—anyone—possesses the slightest glimmer of taste. But it’s difficult to enjoy Abdul-Mateen’s performance, even so, because it glows so much brighter than the rest of the movie, and one wonders why the only Black man in a major role has been charged with animating a universe otherwise nightmarishly bourgeois above, and grimly proletarian below. I did rather enjoy Jonathan Groff’s turn as Agent Smith, too—he seems to be pitching himself as a milkier Michael Sheen, and I’m here for it—but that may have been relief at being spared Hugo Weaving’s eyebrow waggles, his Smith being a serious contender for the single worst performance delivered in a major studio picture of all time.
To be clear, I like all of these people—Reeves is obviously great; Weaving’s capable of having fun (as he does in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas), Carrie-Anne Moss is weirdly frumpy in a way one can’t but applaud. The awfulness of the Matrix series is a problem: It wasn’t self-evident that something so joyless, turgid, and self-impressed would emerge from this particular set of tools. The Wachowski sisters aren’t likely future Oscar winners, but they’re capable of better than this; the actors are all fine, and Abdul-Mateem is positively good (honestly I’m not sure I’ve seen a more Oscar-worthy performance this year than his turn in Candyman). And there’s clearly money swimming around: a sequence on a Japanese train looks pretty and must have been tricky to shoot (and, in any case, it stands to reason that anything with as broad and defensive an audience as these movies won’t find it hard to raise the dough).
I think I’ve figured this metaphor out. It’s not trans politics. It’s not capitalist exploitation. This is an exultation of thoughtless mediocrity.
So where’s the problem? What’s on the “syllabus,” Prof. Wachowski? (Only Lana this time; Lilly wisely having bolted.) We have Lewis Carroll represented by a tattoo on the arm of Jessica Henwick’s Bugs, an exposition-emitter with a gun, and also by Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which reveals by negative impression its novelty: in the entire soundtrack to the first movie, one hears only the voices of angry white men. A little Columbine-chic fashion: I realized, rewatching the old movies yesterday, that the elegantly distressed and ever-so-‘umble fashions of the 250,000 denizens of Zion looked a bit like Rick Owens circa 2010, though the fact is not to Rick’s credit. Eighties/nineties tech thrillers—Lawnmower Man, The Net, Tron—fixed the visual style as a neon-textured light-emitting diode on black (like a sexy little calculator), nodding to the perilous abstraction of mediated life. There’s the Hong Kong martial arts movies that the fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping adapted for the first two Matrix movies, as he did for Kill Bill a couple of years later, producing a suite of arresting and beautiful sequences, none of which are equalled in Resurrections—presumably because Yuen himself didn’t return. And 1990s Vertigo comics: the name “Morpheus” surely comes from Neil Gaiman; the magic mirror is from Grant Morrison, as is the awkward and envious relation to queerness personified here in Neil Patrick Harris’s therapist-cum-demiurge; Alan Moore, who wrote V for Vendetta, which the Wachowskis adapted, supplies the ambient grievance.
I think I’ve figured this metaphor out. It’s not trans politics. It’s not capitalist exploitation. This is an exultation of thoughtless mediocrity: imagine if you, peon that you are, at your computer console in your disenchanted world, were in fact the exiled prince of a distant, doomed land, to which you must return in glory. In this special land, you can fly! You can dodge bullets; you are the messiah. Some other peon who, in other respects, resembles you, scrambles up to you and tells you he’s “such a fanboy.” You will rise again in glory, and you will show everyone, especially your gay therapist, who wants to castrate you. But no. Please. Listen to your gay therapist. Take the blue pill.