I’ve been trying to write an essay on The Matrix for the past few years because it’s my favourite movie of all time. Like a lot of art, it came to me precisely when I needed it – it hit cable television when I was nine years old, and I got the chance to see it with absolutely no context or priming beyond my mother saying it was probably something I’d like. The fact that it blew my tiny mind was as much down to me as it was the movie; I’ve read that boys learn how to process a story holistically (as opposed to a series of discrete scenes) at around the age of nine or ten, with girls gaining the same ability at the age of eight or nine. If I had been born fifteen years earlier, it would have been The Terminator; fifteen years later and it would have been Mad Max: Fury Road. The Matrix was a simple, straightforward story utilising scifi iconography and ownage to show someone changing, step-by-step, from one thing to another. It unlocked something in my mind that I’ve been following my whole life, and every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve seen a little more that wasn’t obvious before (or was obvious but I wasn’t old enough to notice). I want to write something in tribute to a movie that set me in motion, and I want to summarise everything I see in it, and most of all I want to exorcise this nagging feeling in my head that’s never really gone away; like a splinter in my mind, you might say.
You could imagine how delighted I was when The Matrix Resurrections scratched those itches for me.
While I had avoided spoilers, I knew going in that it was a meta-commentary on the Matrix franchise as a whole. What I wasn’t expecting was that it would be the 2021 equivalent to Metal Gear Solid 2. It actually has pretty much the same structure as the first Matrix film – the first third is based around a spooky sense of mystery and unmoored reality, the second third explicates the mystery, and the final third is a gripping thriller based around rescuing someone. Like MGS2, this is partly a matter of updating the work with a refreshing sensibility. A lot of the ideas this plays with are actually fairly generic; Star Wars fans would be deeply familiar with the whole ‘the original films are actually an in-universe work of Rebel propaganda’ theory, and the idea of genre works actually displaying a psychotic break is as old as our knowledge of psychotic breaks. In this case, Wachowski dives into both ideas with enough intimacy that, even if it’s obvious that Thomas Anderson will realise he’s Neo and start kicking ass again, it’s at least plausible that he’d take his time figuring it out, and there are enough details to obscure the true explanation for and motivations behind Neo and Trinity’s resurrections.
Meanwhile, the second third manages to make everything that didn’t work about the Zion sections in Reloaded and Revolutions into something powerful and joyful. Part of the reason people reacted so poorly to the sequels when originally released is because they are badly, badly plotted, especially after the tight engine of the original; I believe the Zion sections get some of the worst of this if only because the characters can only go to the Matrix when they have a reason to. The Wachowskis have vivid imaginations, and without the structure of a plot they were free to waffle on about whatever idea came into their head; the characters take twenty goddamned minutes of the movie just walking home, for fuck’s sake. Much of the sequels is spent explaining things I don’t personally care about and which don’t affect the story. In Resurrections, the description of Zion is both a broad explanation of what happened to characters we cared about (in brief, they lived and then they died) and a thematic resolution of the conflict of the original story (machines and humans have found a way to live together in peace) and, in turn, a setup of the next conflict. This is not all-out war between humans and machines, but a more philosophical distinction between one group of humans and machines and another group of machines. One recurring theme in film and TV criticism teh past two decades has been storytellers being much more interested in explaining every single mystery over telling a story – or as beloved Soluter scb0212 put it, ‘no story, only lore’. The Matrix Resurrections shows someone telling a story using lore.
(A side effect of this is one of the few franchise works where the references to itself came off as having developed its own language. I was practically cheering when my favourite image, the Back Doors, came back up, and the way Wachowski brought back the Merovingian had me cackling. These are not references for the sake of references; they are plot and rhetorical devices.)
It’s also a matter of using this replication of the old structure to philosophise about the nature of the original story and its meaning and influence (this reaches peak subtext-becoming-text comedy when a character mentions Warner Brothers demanding a sequel to the original trilogy). Beloved Soluter The Narrator correctly wrote about how this movie is really Lana Wachowski putting her foot down and declaring The Matrix to be her story; the rest of us are lucky that we get to appreciate it, but it belongs to her. The first two acts of the movie actually double as essays reflecting on the original trilogy from many different angles, with characters bringing up many different perspectives. Some of them are obviously wrong, some of them have some truth, some of them are definitely right. There’s a common cliche that artists do their best work when placed under a restriction; I found myself wondering if Wachowski is one of those artists who thrives under restriction and if that’s because it forces her to really consider what she’s trying to achieve as opposed to simply noodling into infinity. In the sequels, she was given total freedom to do exactly what she wanted and she ended up completely blowing most of the goodwill the first movie gave her; here, she was made to make something she didn’t really want to do and ended up churning out a masterpiece that retroactively fixed the original trilogy for me.
But the funny thing is, taking WB’s money and defiantly fashioning her own space has ended up creating something that feels like it was made just for me. I almost immediately found the tone locking into one that I hadn’t felt for a very long time: the feeling that they used to call ‘mind fuck’. This is a phrase that was applied to The Matrix and a smaller wave of films around the time – offhand, it was also applied to Fight Club and Donnie Darko, as well Metal Gear Solid 2. It was essentially a way of describing the feeling of having reality pulled out from under you – I would also identify it as an important undercurrent to my beloved Cowboy Bebop, which never makes you fall back into the abyss but does constantly trip up your sense of how reality is supposed to work, and the last time I ever really felt mind fuck in fiction* was in the first season of Rick & Morty. It was almost a relief to have fiction where I cared about what was happening but had no grasp on how the world worked or the meaning of what I was looking at.
(*Where I’ve mostly felt it in the last decade has been either real people doing something I didn’t expect or, oddly, fiction I wrote myself.)
Above all, I found the essays spoke to things I care about and feel. The fascinating thing about Neo as a character is that he’s simultaneously defined by his lack of definition and a full character who makes decisions that affect his world. What amuses me about Neo is that he spends much of the runtime of his movies being lectured about what he wants or should want by other characters; one thing Keanu Reeves really brings to the role is that he’s clearly listening without judgement or expectation, and the questions he responds with come off as genuine curiosity rather than waiting for his turn to talk. Beloved Soluter wallflower has identified how Reeves brings a lack of will to Neo; this works especially well in a movie where he’s a symbol to everyone he meets and a receptacle for their hopes and expectations. At the start of the movie, he’s feeling unmoored and like he’s simply been floating through life doing what is expected of him; it’s been a long time since he’s felt any sincere passion for anything. The lectures he gets articulate hopes and fears about himself and potential motivations he could have for doing anything he does.
It ends up being Bugs – endearingly, the representation of the queer anarchist fans of The Matrix – who gives him the same point of view the Oracle did all the way back in The Matrix. Ultimately, these movies are as much about finding your way to the creative space as The Prisoner was about finding Degree Absolute. Degree Absolute is a place you find through reason; looking at all the possibilities and shaving off the untruths until nothing but truth remains. It takes a long time and a complex process to get there. The Creative Space is a much more difficult space to get to because the process is a much simpler binary – much like escaping the Matrix, all you have to do is give yourself permission, and you either get that instantly or you don’t; I find myself thinking of when I had insomnia as a kid – in retrospect, because of the mile-a-minute thought process that comes with autism or ADHD – and being advised in all seriousness that you simply close your eyes. Any of the great creatives – Bob Dylan, Michelangelo, Cliff Bleszinksi – will tell you the art was already there and they were just the one to bring it onto our plane of reality. When Bugs says the choice to escape the Matrix is an illusion because you already know the answer, what she’s saying is the choice to create is to grab something you already see and bring it into the light.