Rumors of a new Matrix movie have echoed through Hollywood for years. In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter said the screenwriter Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, Ready Player One) was in talks to write a relaunch of the series for Warner Bros., and was eyeing Michael B. Jordan to star, but that the original film’s writer-director team, the Wachowskis, were “not involved.” Gossip also abounded that a secret project, possibly centered on a young Morpheus, was in the works. Instead, Variety reported yesterday that The Matrix 4—a sequel rather than a reboot—was officially a go, to be directed by Lana Wachowski and starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.
As late as 2015, the idea of reviving the Matrix franchise with Reeves might have been perceived as box-office poison. The actor hadn’t had a major hit in more than a decade. The Wachowskis had similarly struggled to replicate the success of their breakout sci-fi action series; and even the last Matrix movie, The Matrix Revolutions, had underperformed relative to prior entries, suggesting a drop-off in audience interest. When the first Matrix came out in 1999, it felt genuinely extraordinary, a mash-up of genres and heady ideas that was easier to experience than to explain. Twenty years on, perhaps the franchise can be the spark to revive a creatively stagnant Hollywood yet again.
This as-yet untitled fourth Matrix will be the first movie to be directed by only one of the Wachowski sisters, who had long worked as a team until the second season of their Netflix series Sense8. Lana’s sister, Lilly, is now writing and producing a Showtime comedy series called Work in Progress. Instead, joining Lana on the script of this Matrix sequel are the novelists David Mitchell, whose opus Cloud Atlas was adapted for film by the Wachowskis in 2012, and Aleksandar Hemon, the author of Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project. The screenplay apparently “drummed up excitement” at Warner Bros., which saw an opportunity to capitalize on Reeves’s successful summer starring in John Wick Chapter 3 and Toy Story 4.
The actor’s John Wick–spurred comeback, after years in the wilderness making flops like 47 Ronin and Henry’s Crime, is a perfect reminder that no career in Hollywood stays dead forever. When The Matrix Reloaded came out in May 2003, the hype was so deafening that the film posted the second-largest opening weekend of all time, unheard-of for an R-rated movie. But backlash to that strange and frustrating sequel made it so that The Matrix Revolutions, which debuted in November of the same year, barely managed a final U.S. gross equal to Reloaded’s opening four days.
The Matrix is a classic hero’s-journey narrative, wrapped up in a cyberpunk dressing and stuffed with sci-fi hacker talk. It follows Neo (Reeves), the prophesied savior of humanity, as he learns that our reality is merely a computer-generated simulation, and leads a band of free folk in glorious battle against an evil machine race. But the sequels upended that narrative, revealing that Neo’s Messiah-like status was just another layer of programming, a fail-safe designed by machines to give comfort to captured humans. A dry five-minute monologue explaining the situation was the climactic scene of Reloaded; given the box-office drop-off for the next film, audiences appeared turned off by it.
But the Wachowskis’ desire to eschew simple Hollywood narratives, challenge audience expectations, and build out their worlds in surprising and complex ways is part of what makes them such special filmmakers. Even if follow-ups like Jupiter Ascending and Speed Racer also underperformed financially, their influence on future blockbusters has been fascinating to consider. Years removed from the hype, the essential weirdness of the Matrix follow-ups has granted them a growing cult status, especially as the industry now trends toward Disney remakes and superhero sequels that color firmly inside the lines.
A Wachowski-free Matrix written by Penn, who specializes in superhero movies, might’ve been similarly bland, an effort to recast a fondly remembered ’90s film for a new audience (much like this year’s disappointing Men in Black International). But with the involvement of one of the Wachowskis now confirmed, it’s hard to imagine this new movie being formulaic. “Many of the ideas Lilly and I explored 20 years ago about our reality are even more relevant now,” Lana Wachowski said in a statement. Any further details—on the status of Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne in the original trilogy), or how Trinity (Moss’s character, who died in the latest movie) will be revived—remain scarce for now. But the deeper themes at work, about the growing sense that our world is fundamentally an unreal one, could click perfectly with viewers upon the film’s release.