In 1999, I watched the original Matrix in the best way possible. I was a sophomore in college, double-majoring with an overload of classes and barely keeping my head above water. One Saturday, friends dragged me out of engineering lab where I was going slowly mad and hardly knew what day it was, and pulled me along to fast food and a movie. I hadn’t even seen a trailer for The Matrix, and all any of us knew was that it was supposed to be a sci-fi movie. If there was ever a movie that benefited from going in with a blank slate, it was The Matrix.
It was gorgeous and mind-bending and daring and broke my mind. It’s not hyperbolic to say it was seminal for me, hitting one after another that year with Fight Club and Office Space to knock loose some tumblers in my mind. This world and its rules could not possibly be real, could not possibly be more than arbitrary constructs forming cages for our minds.
It sounds so cringeworthy doesn’t it? The epiphanies of our youth are hard to look back on without a wince. There’s a deadly seriousness in the earnestness, that we layer over with irony as the crows feet deepen.
I went into Resurrections in as close to a similar blank slate as possible. I’d seen the trailer — it was all but unavoidable — but knew nothing else, hadn’t engaged with the speculation, the rumor-mongering, the theorizing. And for a while, it worked.
For the first half of the movie, we genuinely don’t know where exactly it’s going. It drops us into a world that’s like ours, but with the absurdity heightened. The abrasive noise turned up to ten. There’s some brilliant direction here, in which the annoyances of the modern world glitch like a scratched CD, or mirrors show subtly unexpected things that the characters don’t notice but we catch out of the corner of our eye. Scenery and backgrounds are so intricately, gorgeously shot that they look like photoshopped wallpapers. The world is so beautiful that it can’t possibly be real, even as the cacophony of irritating mundanity mounts. It’s a beautiful hell, directed perfectly by Lana Wachowski, and acted with crumbling desperation by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.
It has meta-commentary and references by the shovel full, breaking the fourth wall so thoroughly there aren’t atoms of it left behind. And that part of the movie works incredibly well, recapturing and updating what worked so well in the first movie all those years ago: a world plastered unconvincingly over rabbit holes, that we can follow down like Alice.
And then, I am sorry to say, it gradually unravels, and it does so in exactly the same sorts of ways that Reloaded and Revolutions did before. The “real” world is tossed at us, exposition takes over, walls of detail cascade that add superficial complexity to a world without actually feeling like real depth. Villains exposit, paper-thin side characters techno babble or wax poetically with dime-store philosophy about dreams and love and freeing minds. The action descends into the same meaningless CGI of the sequels, all incoherent smashing and throwing bodies through walls without any stakes.
What all of the sequels have missed on some level, is that what made the action of the first one sing was that it traced along with the development of character. Sure, it was really cool looking, but what made it have dramatic heft was that Neo’s fighting reflected his growing understanding of the world: emerging from “guns, lots of guns,” to fighting Smith hand to hand (“he’s beginning to believe” still echoes in my mind two decades later), to the epiphany of simply willing the bullets to stop and absent-mindedly swatting Smith aside. The subsequent movies have responded to the revelation that there is no spoon, by saying, OK but what if we throw A MILLION spoons at Neo.
Don’t get me wrong: if you loved The Matrix, you should absolutely see this. But ultimately the movie ends in no different a place than the first movie did 20 years ago. It starts off incredibly well, pulling us in sideways back into this universe in an unexpected ways that recapture the old mystery and sense of wonder, but then falls apart the way the second and third movies did, a tired retread of what already failed once.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.