The Matrix was set at the end of history. Released in 1999, the Wachowskis’ sci-fi film painted a quotidian picture of the late 20th century: The protagonist, Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves), lived in a bland-looking megacity where he worked a dull cubicle job and pondered the hopeless future that many feared at the end of the millennium. The twist, of course, was that this seemingly familiar life wasn’t real, and that Thomas, like almost all of humanity, was stuck inside a computer program created by a machine race. In The Matrix Resurrections—a new entry in a movie franchise that’s been dormant since 2003—Thomas, whom audiences knew as the heroic Neo, is once again trapped in a simulation. But in this film, the turn of the century’s crushing inertia has evolved into the unending din of the social-media age.
The Matrix Resurrections is hardly the first “legacy sequel” to hit cinemas recently—Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Space Jam: A New Legacy are among the many long-delayed follow-ups to big hits of yesteryear. But in updating a seminal text about generational alienation from more than two decades ago, Lana Wachowski (who directed solo this time, without her sister Lilly) has made a film that addresses the discombobulations of contemporary life, critiques Hollywood’s general reboot culture, and serves as a surprisingly sweet work of nostalgia.
Exhaustion with our ultra-connected world pervades the first act of The Matrix Resurrections, which finds Thomas living in the present day. (Reeves also sports his John Wick look—longer hair and a patchy beard.) Thomas is a video-game designer coasting off the success of The Matrix, a deeply immersive, best-selling game that appears indistinguishable from the original film arc. Though the world around him has changed—he’s now surrounded by chattering Millennials tapping away on their cellphones—he’s as existentially tormented as he was before, sure that there’s more to life beyond what he can see.
While working on a new video game, Thomas is told by his smarmy business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) that their parent company, Warner Bros., is forcing Thomas to create a sequel to The Matrix—news that further emphasizes the sense that his life is an unending treadmill of the same experiences. Wachowski, who had long seemed content to leave the Matrix universe dormant after the back-to-back sequels Reloaded and Revolutions in 2003, is poking fun at the pervading corporate desire to make everything old new again. Does the world really need more Matrix? Wachowski ponders the question both through Thomas’s weariness and the strange creative debates that play out on-screen, as eager young game programmers bat around notions of what made The Matrix so appealing in the first place. Was it the action? The twisty plotting? The punky, late-’90s leather aesthetic?
To Wachowski, what clearly mattered most to the original film trilogy was the love story of Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), which forms the central arc of Resurrections as well. Both characters died by the end of Revolutions, but just as Neo has returned in this new Matrix as an older, more jaded Thomas, Trinity also reappears, first introduced as Tiffany and apparently unaware of their past. Much of Resurrections’ narrative revolves around reviving Neo and Trinity’s prior connection, and it’s shot through with the sentimental streak that’s always powered the Wachowskis’ work but felt particularly predominant in their recent and ambitious Netflix series Sense8.
Still, Resurrections is not without action. The expected gravity-defying gunplay abounds, much of it involving new characters such as Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a hacker seeking to liberate Neo from the Matrix, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an … updated version of Laurence Fishburne’s character from the original trilogy (I won’t spoil the details of his origins). The film has plenty of other lore to untangle as well, such as why Neo’s old enemy Smith (previously played by Hugo Weaving but now inhabited by Groff) is around, how Neo and Trinity were revived, and whether the intentions of a slick psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) in the Matrix are malevolent. However, the gun battles and kung fu duels, while competent, lack the innovative edge of the prior films—no “bullet time” moment that significantly raises the visual stakes.
To my surprise, Wachowski nonetheless holds on to quite a lot of backstory from the often-derided Matrix sequels; as a defender of those giddy epics, I was thrilled to see Resurrections not wipe the plot slate clean and just launch a brand-new Matrix. The evolution of the simulation is laced with some heady in-universe logic, but Wachowski (along with co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon) also ties it to how the internet has changed since the first Matrix. The 1999 film reflected an online world made up of a series of databases, in which the enemies were emotionless machines intent on keeping humanity under control. In Resurrections, the Matrix has shifted to something more wildly emotional and provocative: a universe of constant distraction and intense energy, embodying the all-out sensory assault that comes with being logged on in 2021.
That clever tweak helps justify The Matrix Resurrections’ existence—the film evokes new metaphors rather than repeating the old ones, even with all its metatextual jokes about the futility of rebooting. Wachowski’s gamble is that viewers will enjoy a film that’s heavy on philosophizing and introspection as long as it retains the emotional, romantic hook that powered the first movie. Reeves and Moss sell their reunion as Neo and Trinity persuasively, glowing with the overwhelming chemistry and affection that Wachowski needed to push the film beyond cynicism.