Wednesday, December 29, 2021

In 'Resurrections,' the toxic legacy of 'The Matrix' is the new villain to defeat

The Matrix Resurrections knows you came for the cool kung fu, but the big reveal of this sequel is that The Matrix was never about the cool kung fu

Lana Wachowski is very much aware of how dangerous it was to ask for another Matrix movie.

In the first scene of The Matrix Resurrections, a self-professed fan of Neo watches a deliberately inaccurate remake of The Matrix, one where the female lead loses. Then this fan intrudes into the narrative, rescues one of her heroes, and exits a movie theater, running for her life.

The title of the movie she's desperately fleeing? The Root of All Evil.

What, pray tell, is the root of all evil? The love of money.

That's the horror Resurrections is trying to avoid, and despite its corporately mandated existence, it manages to not lose itself.

The movie keeps a close eye on this danger. One level upward, the original creator of The Matrix detects this invasion of the narrative. One of his characters is missing, but before he can deal with that, he's summoned by his boss, who tells him he's going to have to produce another entry in his videogame franchise. The boss drops a few commonplace lines about the nature of storytelling and authorship, but as soon as he mentions marketing, the scene turns surreal and monstrous. His lips dissolve and blend together, recalling the interrogation scene in The Matrix. In the original movie, this represents that Neo doesn't really have a voice of his own as long as he remains within the system. It happens just after he says he's going to call for help. This time, it happens just after the boss mentions the company's marketing department. Wachowski is making a very conscious choice by reusing this visual marker for the loss of voice right at the moment in the scene where the moneymaking potential of the new Matrix sequel is being discussed. It is unsubtle, because it needs to be, so unsubtle that the Analyst spells it out in the next scene: if Wachowski cared about the marketing, she'd lose her storyteller voice.

One shot in that scene with the Analyst shows us a window in his office with a bonsai positioned between him and Neo. The bonsai is an appropriate symbol for what he's done to Neo: a creature who could be much bigger, deliberately warped and mutilated and limited to an unnaturally small container. The purpose of growing a bonsai is to imitate the shape of the real tree, but within a controlled space. As the boss casually remarked a moment earlier, "We're still telling the same stories we've always told, just with different names, different faces."

The cheapened approach to storytelling involved in WB's demand for a new Matrix is reproduced with gleeful spite in the movie itself. Neo's coworkers hold a strategic meeting to plan the new videogame sequel, dropping "originality" and "fresh" as keywords, failing to grasp that turning them into keywords negates their meaning. The montage that follows has supposed creatives repeating the same trite explanations of the charm of the original Matrix, having the exact same conversations day after day. Neo, the story's creator, is clearly sick of hearing it. But the best part is the contrarian fan who says, "I didn't love the first one, like some of you. And, frankly, I've got zero tolerance for anything that requires a syllabus and a highlighter. I like my games big, loud, and dumb." Another developer continues that thought with "We need guns. Lots of guns." That's a very popular quote from the original Matrix, and the fact that it became a very popular quote is an example of how fans chose the wrong bits to fixate on. Naturally, it's a woman who counters this testosterone-poisoned brainstorming with "Mindless action is not on brand," but as soon as she says that, her point is cynically twisted into "Ideas are the new sexy." It's a disturbing montage to watch, because the notion itself is disturbing. You can't focus group your way to art, and it's futile to try to make The Matrix great again. The result would be a grotesque deformation of the real thing, like the bonsai in the Analyst's office.

So that's what Wachowski proceeds to give us. "Yet here we are" is something of a motif in Resurrections, uttered twice by characters intrigued by their incongruous presence in the story. You wanted one more Matrix movie, with the same heroes you loved as a kid? You realize that would mean dragging Neo and Trinity back from their corpses and enslaving them again? Come and see what that actually entails. You want a callback to Morpheus pausing dramatically to say "At last!"? That would be ridiculous. If you must have it, there, have it. But it can never hope to be more than off-color mockery, so it's a mockery that openly accepts it's a mockery. You want a repeat of Agent Smith ominously screaming "Mr. Anderson!"? That would be ridiculous. If you must have it, there, have it. But it can't be more than a half-remembered nightmare, so it's a nightmare that openly accepts it's a nightmare. It's not that Wachowski is trying and failing to remake a Matrix movie; she's still a master-level director. But she knows that The Matrix is unique and that WB's insistence upon its recreation must produce a confusing parody, a chaos of bullets and gore. So she embraces the parody. This is the opposite of what we saw in Space Jam: A New Legacy. If this first act of Resurrections feels like bad fanfiction of The Matrix, it's entirely intentional. After Neo and Trinity earned their victory at the end of Revolutions, it would be a vile desecration of these characters to make another Matrix, and to make another Matrix. That's exactly the point. The scene where Morpheus and Smith start destroying Neo's workplace is so outlandish that the Analyst has to step in and undo it. Scratch that. It doesn't work.

Wachowski's brilliance is to then proceed to show us what kind of story does work, given this mandatory ridiculous premise. You wanted exquisitely choreographed gunfights? Too bad, you're not getting that. You wanted a fearless hacker dude with a great haircut and a wicked trenchcoat? Nope, not that either. You wanted the stylized dance of dead bodies dropping? Nah. That was never the point of The Matrix anyway. And we've already seen what happens when people mistake aesthetic for substance, when the meaning is so coated in layers that it can be smuggled into serving the enemy. Wachowski is determined to not let anyone distort her creation this time. Yes, Resurrections is woke as hell. That's the whole point; The Matrix was always woke. But people were too distracted by the shiny sunglasses and vinyl jackets to get it. Even the Analyst is recruited to deliver the message: "it becomes a problem when fantasies endanger us or other people."

Wachowski has been taking notes on the colossal effect her creation has had on mass culture. In the simulated world, coworker Jude proclaims his love for The Matrix, but Neo couldn't care less. It's this annoying fan, coded as a lowkey predatory gamer bro, who literally drags him to reunite with Trinity. In a later scene, once Neo has escaped back into the real world, he meets another fervent fan in Berg, coded and written as unmistakably queer, and this time the encounter feels genuine. Wachowski is telling us exactly which fans she's talking to. She has no time to lose with red pill charlatans.

The conflict between the machines and the humans appears to have been translated in Resurrections into a conflict between neofascists who parasitize the message of The Matrix and the rest of us. The surviving humans in Resurrections have developed a sort of fan culture around the epic story of Zion's salvation. Crew member Lexy joined the rebellion because she felt inspired by Trinity. Captain Bugs was set on the path to freedom when she glimpsed Neo's true self.

It's worthwhile to discuss Bugs, because what she perhaps represents is more significant than the Alice in Wonderland reference. Bugs Bunny is the visible incarnation of WB, or at least the benevolent face of it. If we read the character of Bugs as the good side of WB, we get a more complete sense of what Wachowski is trying to say about her relationship to this media megacorporation. By writing a story where Neo is oppressed by WB marketing, but rescued by Bugs Bunny, she's choosing to focus on however much joy she can get out of an impossible situation. If Matrix 4 was going to happen regardless of her input, the choice still open to her was to have fun and be true to herself while doing it.

The next time Bugs reenters the original film, it's through a tear in the image, as if to say: Clearly reenactment didn't work, so let's try ripping a hole in The Matrix and see if something new can fit. Once again she's in a movie theater, but this time she's not running from a mediocre copy, but breaking her own path back into the true thing. The scenes of The Matrix projected onto a broken canvas are matched to playful dialogue by the new Morpheus, who doesn't bother trying to replicate the majesty of the original scene. You already know this scene. You don't need to watch it done the same way again. You don't need a remake of The Matrix. You've been here before.

Indeed, the new Matrix doesn't look like The Matrix. Faces are still lit with just the right intensity of shadow and contrast that you recognize as Wachowski house style, but the use of camera motions, color correction, and scene cuts has a warmer, gentler air to them. When operators talk to the human rebels, or when Neo talks to the Analyst through a mirror, Wachowski employs the same visual language of telepresence she perfected in Sense8. The emphasis is no longer on cool poses and slow motion acrobatics; instead, she casts a more intimate, more affectionate eye on these characters. There are fights, sure, but they're meticulously designed to not give you what you learned to expect from a Matrix fight. The new combat scenes look messy, ugly, disorienting, because violence is messy, ugly, disorienting. Resurrections isn't here to feed your inner kid's power fantasy of looking awesome shooting guns, because there really isn't anything awesome about shooting guns. You're supposed to get uncomfortable with violence.

And yet, here we are. The numerous comparisons to The Last Jedi are fully earned: our hero has grown weary of war and learned the folly of viewing the conflict that defined his life as a rigid binary opposition. The meaning of "our side" has become more fluid. This was, in a clever way, foreshadowed all the way back in Neo's first visit to the Oracle, when Morpheus advised him, "Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong." And even when Neo is forced back into combat, his style of martial arts has become far less aggressive, not meant to fight what he hates, but to save what he loves. He's become a protector. Niobe even compares the dulling effect of war to the illusion of the Matrix: it distracts you from what matters. Wachowski did not revive Neo to have him fight a war; she brought him back to explore his vulnerability and his tenderness. If this is not the Neo you used to root for, too bad. This is the part of Neo that matters. And Wachowski does a fascinating dissection of what it is that makes the character of Neo special.

In the simulation, Trinity's fictional husband is a walking joke. He's not only called Chad, but played by the original stunt double for Keanu Reeves in the original Matrix. So this Chad is literally the part of Neo that kicked ass, the stoic macho, the action movie star. But now he exists separated from the core essence of Neo, which is not his kung fu moves, but his humanity. To incel radicals, this ought to be the ideal state: all of Neo's awesomeness, none of his feelings. And that's precisely what Wachowski treats as horrific. For who knows how many years, Trinity has been stuck with the Chad, and she can't wait to run away from him and what he represents. At one point she complains about the role the system has given her: "I remember wanting family, but was that because that's what women are supposed to want?" This is the equivalent of screaming the message in the viewer's face, because people evidently didn't get it twenty years ago: No, the oppressive system you need to wake up from is not feminism. The oppresive system you need to wake up from is patriarchy. Memo to the manosphere: Chad, the quintessential incarnation of toxic masculinity, is the enemy here. Get it? Trinity's moment of liberation is to kick the crap out of Chad. Get it? Are we being clear and unambiguous enough now? Or are you going to search for some way to pervert this franchise's message to justify rubbish incel theories again?

Wachowski knows all the complaints the manosphere will throw at this new Matrix. And she puts them in the mouth of the blabbering buffoon: the Merovingian, who sputters nonsensical protestations like "We had grace! We had style!" about the previous state of the Matrix. The movie's response: Go home, old man. No one cares about your nostalgia. At the end, the Analyst points out, speaking about the general public, "They don't want this sentimentality." The movie's response: Two lovers, hand in hand, flying in the sunshine.

Love is the perennial theme across all of Lana Wachowski's art. The Sense8 finale was appropriately titled Amor Vincit Omnia. As the Analyst properly explains, recapturing the magic of Neo is impossible without Trinity, not because of them as themselves, but because of what is created between them. And that's the secret at the core of the entire Matrix franchise: the power of the One was never about a fearless hacker dude with a great haircut and a wicked trenchcoat. The One was never an individual. The One is made from the link between human beings. It came into existence in the original Matrix when Trinity's love saved Neo's life; then it saved her life at the end of Reloaded; and it kept them going until the end of Revolutions. The answer was always love.

Let's go back to the Architect's speech in Reloaded: "Your five predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication, a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One." For the machines, love is incomprehensible, but nonetheless exploitable. The weaponization of our empathy in order to wield its power against ourselves reaches its perverse culmination in the new Matrix, which mirrors the way neofascists have weaponized the liberation symbolized by the red pill in order to promote more oppression. As Bugs reveals, "They took your story, something that meant so much to people like me, and turned it into something trivial." Or, as the Analyst gloats, "Kind of ironic, using the power that defined you to control you."

And still, the solution, again, is love. The correct choice, every time, is love. The Oracle herself said it at the end of the previous saga: "the real test for any choice is having to make the same choice again." And she said it at the beginning: "Being the One is just like being in love." She wasn't speaking in metaphors. The power of the One is literally the power of heartfelt human connection, the only thing that can truly destroy fascism.

Now keep in mind that, in the videogame The Matrix Online, the Kid forms a faction called E Pluribus Neo. It's the same idea: the One is created by the ties between us. The Analyst's evil consists in intentionally frustrating that connection, splitting their unity into a binary he can feed off of. That's what keeps preventing a better future, the one the Oracle referred to in Reloaded when she said, "the only way to get there is together." Since the original Matrix, there were strong hints that even those in charge of enforcing the tyrannical system felt oppressed by it. Resurrections brings that theme to completion, with former oppressors working together with the rebels to bring the tyranny down.

The new backstory we learn about in Resurrections, meant to have occurred after Revolutions, is in line with several pieces of official canon established years ago in the videogame The Matrix Online: the failure of Zion, Niobe's rise through the ranks of leadership, the loss of the Oracle, and the emergence of rival factions within the machines. Although we're meeting a completely new enemy, Resurrections doesn't fall into the common late sequel trap of erasing the original sequels (see: Terminator Dark Fate), but also avoids the equally clumsy trap of having the new enemy make the original heroes' fight seem pointless in retrospect (see: Terminator Dark Fate). The reinvention of Smith is in concordance with the times: the face of fascism is no longer the angry law enforcement agent, but the approachable tech bro in business casual. This is a much more insidious version of Smith, because Jonathan Groff's image, even when crumpled in a grimace of pure hatred, is undeniably seductive. Where Hugo Weaving filled the screen with loud, incontrollable rage, Groff delivers the alluring kiss of death.

This Smith is more consciously in tune with his deep connection to Neo. There's an obvious erotic current to his pursuit of him. We're no longer at the point in Resurrections where we were surprised to hear a machine speak of love, but let's remember what was said at that time: love is just a word, and "what matters is the connection the word implies." If you lose yourself, you find your way back by means of love. Even after the Oracle had to adopt a new face, the way she could tell she was still herself was by her love of candy. That you know yourself by what you love is the key to the "know thyself" motto she kept on her kitchen.

There's a curious focus on domestic spaces in Resurrections. Many scenes are set in bathrooms, the battleground of this era's culture wars. Wachowski is answering to a popular consciousness partly shaped by her own work, and it's interesting that The Matrix is transformed from a movie into a videogame in the fictional world of Resurrections. On one level, this calls back to The Matrix Online, which had a vibrant fanbase. But on another, it refers to the nature of the Matrix itself as a digital simulation of reality. Every time Neo plugs into the Matrix, it must feel like entering a videogame with administrator privileges. So it makes complete sense that that's how Neo remembers his earlier life. To him, it wasn't a movie.

This gives Wachowski a prime opportunity to comment on the degradation of digital culture. There's no need to recruit Agents when anonymous masses can be deputized as bots. The final chase scene, where Neo pushes wave after wave of bots away from Trinity's motorcycle until they miraculously survive a series of explosions, almost reads like a Twitter user desperately hitting the block button against the bots and barely making it past the ensuing flame war. It's like Wachowski knew her work of love was going to be review-bombed, so she cast the bombs as literal suicide bots dropping onto our heroes.

In the end, she doesn't have to care about them. She can be fearlessly sentimental. She can be as woke as she wants. She can tell her stories in her own voice, from her unique artistic vision. She can be open about the message of love present in all her creations. She has come into full mastery of her craft. She's ready to paint the sky with rainbows.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.