This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Anna Swanson explores our choice for Movie of the Year — The Matrix Resurrections.
Ask anyone who’s even so much as walked past a movie theater lately and they can tell you that reboots are the topic du jour. Reboots, remakes, sequels, and spinoffs are everywhere. This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing. But it does loan itself to a certain brand of cynicism. Indeed, it’s tempting to feel as though originality has been lost in favor of recognizable and nostalgic rehashes of other beloved movies.
But this is not the whole story, and it’s not totally fair to bury our heads in the sand and bemoan the current state of cinemagoing. At least not without considering that originality can be found inside worlds we already know. Revisiting stories we’re familiar with can be an opportunity to deepen narratives and deconstruct mythologies. It can open up storytelling and offer creators a reclamation of their own work. And in this regard, The Matrix Resurrections reigns supreme.
The movie is at once a reboot and a sequel, coming 18 years after directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski wrapped up the original Matrix trilogy. With Lana Wachowski returning to spearhead The Matrix Resurrections, anticipation and speculation ran wild in the months leading up to its release. But to truly understand the impact of the movie in 2021, we have to go back much further than when the first trailer dropped.
Since The Matrix was released in 1999, the movie and the concepts within it have become a lightning rod of critical theory, pop culture ubiquity, and metaphorical pontifications. This is mostly unsurprising. After all, a film series about people breaking free of a life lived inside a simulation certainly speaks to our relationship with the internet. From the concept of the “Red Pill” being appropriated by those with the media literacy skills of infants to the thoughtful and robust assessments of the franchise’s trans allegories, The Matrix has taken on a life of its own.
The latter of those examples is, of course, the more fruitful one. And the one that will be most beneficial in understanding The Matrix Resurrections. The new movie picks up years after the events of the third Matrix feature and finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) once again living as Thomas Anderson in the matrix simulation. This time, he’s a video game developer who subconsciously utilized memories of the events of the trilogy to build the video game that made him famous. His co-developer and the company have called on him to make another sequel to the game (you can see how this is getting pretty meta) and this coincides with Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a human from the real world, tracking Neo down in an attempt to free him once again.
As Neo discovers, the events of the trilogy occurred 60 years prior. After he and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) sacrificed themselves, they were rebuilt by The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who wanted to monitor them and who manifests in the matrix as Neo’s therapist to keep him compliant. With Neo freed, the focus turns to whether Trinity — who believes that she is a woman named Tiffany with a husband and children — will be willing to recognize the truth and join the fight.
The answer leads to some of the most triumphant and touching moments in any movie this year, but the journey we take to get there is one that is inevitably divisive and unendingly brilliant. The trick here is that many of the ideas in The Matrix Resurrections are not original, at least in so far as they have been present since the original Matrix. But they are vitally reclaimed and often doubled-down on, pulling some of the franchise’s most integral ideas to the forefront.
The choice to make “The Matrix” a video game within the matrix is both a vehicle for some on-the-nose meta-jokes (the game development company’s parent company, Warner Brothers, have insisted that the original creators return for a fourth iteration — haha). But it also offers the idea that audience consumption of The Matrix (the movies) has been an active process, with viewers perhaps being more involved, or at least feeling more involved, than with the average movie.
Indeed, much has been written about The Matrix as a trans allegory and some of the best writing on the movie comes from trans writers who found that the films articulated their own feelings. It goes without saying that the importance of The Matrix to trans people and the value of the Wachowskis working in the film industry as trans women is immeasurable. But the franchise’s perspective on self-discovery that transcends the divisions of the world, particularly as it’s expressed in The Matrix Resurrections, goes far beyond any individual.
The core idea here is about breaking down boundaries and binaries, with a multitude of examples that illustrate this idea. The simulation is a world of divisions: zeroes and ones; Neo and Smith (first played by Hugo Weaving and now by Jonathan Groff). In The Matrix Resurrections, Smith the agent has become Smith, Thomas Anderson’s co-developer, but his role is still to keep everything in order. When Neo and Trinity are rebuilt by The Analyst, he keeps them divided enough to be separate, but close enough to instinctually recognize their separation. Each is defined as being distinct from the other. Even the idea of The One — the hero who will bring salvation and freedom, whom the original trilogy posits as being Neo — is a concept built on division. There is The One and then there are the others, those who help him in his quest.
While there are many interpretations of the movie that could all hold water even when they conflict with each other, one of the more successful arguments to be made is that The Matrix Resurrections takes apart the concept of The One. Rather than an individual offering salvation, The One is the power forged by Neo and Trinity together. Their love, the driving force that brings them together when they’ve been wiped of memory, is what offers true freedom. When Trinity makes her choice and she and Neo ascend to the roof of a skyscraper, they assume that Neo’s power has returned and he’s capable of flight once more. Instead, it’s her that carries him through the sky.
Atop the building, Trinity begins to see the code of the simulation, just as Neo did in the original film, but she does it while also taking in the beauty of the sunset around them. In the end, it’s Trinity who awakens to the terror and wonder that exist simultaneously in the matrix and it’s her who wields the ability to master the conflicting binaries of the system and to transcend them. The power in the movie comes from Trinity and Neo uniting and doing away with their separations to become something more than either of them are as individuals.
What has been interesting to watch unfold since the film’s release is pushback against supposed “changes” in The Matrix Resurrections that are, actually, aspects that have always been there. The Matrix has always been a trans text and it has always been unapologetically earnest.
After years of seeing concepts from the movie be taken in bad faith and appropriated, Wachowski returning to the franchise with a message of love and unification is as much of a reclamation as it is a continuation. The Matrix Resurrections affirms what The Matrix has always been about and where its true power has always been. It is an unabashed movie about transness, both as it relates to gender and identity and as it relates to a broader, universal freedom from an imposed system.
The revelation that Neo and Trinity’s love is a force more powerful than the codes that dictate their lives and the systems that rule everything around them has always been a vital part of this story. It has saved both of them before, in the original Matrix and in The Matrix Reloaded — is it any wonder that love is the thing that will bring them back after all this time?
It’s cliche to say that affirming and positive narratives are what we need after enduring a rather grim and unpredictable year, so I won’t say that The Matrix Resurrections is the movie we need. But perhaps it’s a movie that Wachowski deserved to make. It’s a movie that will offer a deeply resonant allegory to viewers, and it’s a movie that captures a beautiful story of salvation and selfhood that is invaluable. We don’t need it, but we can still be grateful for it.