Tuesday, January 4, 2022

They want us up in their gray space pushing their WTF buttons


THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

2021
Directed by Lana Wachowski
Written by David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon, and Lana Wachowski

Spoilers: severe


Has there ever been a movie more openly-resentful of itself, at least at this kind of budgetary level, than The Matrix Resurrections?  I cannot name it, if there is one, and I frankly I don't know what it would look like for any movie to be less happy about its own existence: The Matrix Resurrections hates being here and is probably relieved that it was mostly ignored (at least in theaters, anyway, though it seems to have driven its fair share of HBOMax traffic).  Movies don't actually have feelings, of course, so what I mean is that Lana Wachowski hates it.  She probably isn't actually relieved that it bombed, but she does want you to understand, on a deep visceral level, that she hates that The Matrix Resurrections is where her career has landed after almost two decades of high-level filmmaking that never managed to recapture the zeitgeist-defining popularity and commercial success of her 1999 superhit The Matrix (including its other two sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions), not even when her movies were spectacularly good (Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), and certainly not when they were embarrassingly bad (Jupiter Ascending).  (Is Resurrections therefore worse than Jupiter Ascending?  It's mostly less objectionable on a scene-to-scene level, but it is, at a minimum, less fired by the joy of creation, so it could easily recalibrate one's outsized disdain for the space opera.  Jupiter Ascending is less a creature of malign indifference, let's say.)  You would get all this, incidentally, even if you weren't aware of the extrinsic narrative around this film, or even who Lana Wachowski is; if you do know (and you probably do), then you probably became aware ages back that this is Lana's first film project without her sister and co-director Lilly, which is the sort of thing that would be worrisome in any circumstances, but doubly so in the form of a legacy sequel to the iconic cyperpunk trilogy they finished together in 2003, which itself could be characterized as a labor of franchise-servicing in the first place, and not, in the aggregate, especially good.  But at least it felt like it was made by people who liked making it.

In any case, if you were following the production, then you were already aware that Lilly Wachowski begged off entirely, citing post-transition stress and the like, and that's, you know, plausible, though not quite credible, and one only hopes that the contempt Lilly seems to have had for the whole endeavor has not been transferred to her sister.  You would also have already been aware that Lana Wachowski, whenever asked, has been at a loss to provide a particularly compelling or even coherent rationale as to why she "chose" in 2021 to return to the Matrix, as "my last three and arguably five feature films were unsuccessful, and I want to continue to be seen as someone worthy of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment" is an answer that we can safely assume was contractually precluded by her arrangement with Warner Bros.  But you need not have followed the production and media around Resurrections to get the vibe.  The film says most of this out loud.  It's basically its plot.

And for almost fifty or so minutes (the movie runs 148, but in its defense not numbingly-so; but maybe that's only because I saw it at home) this actually works.  So: as we all presumably recall, years ago in the post-apocalyptic future, Neo (Keanu Reeves) sacrificed himself to free the Matrix, and thus we have a mystery before us when it seems that Neo, once again under his slumbering Matrix designation of "Thomas Anderson," has been recaptured by the Machines' computer-generated reality simulation of our present day, and given a new life to live.  In this new Matrix, Neo isn't just a coder, but a famed video game designer who, some decades ago, had his one big hit.  It was a game that resonated across the culture and spawned two sequels that were themselves big hits: this game was The Matrix.  (One of the smaller misses of this movie, then, is its insistence that the Matrix trilogy is actually beloved, not just the first film.)  In the years since, Neo hasn't had anything nearly so successful, and so the diktat comes down from on high, that Thomas Anderson will be making a new Matrix, and if he doesn't want to, he can pound sand and someone else will.  That order, incidentally, comes directly from his video game design firm's owners, Warner Bros.  Dig it?  This is bad for Neo, and not just as an artist, for the original Matrix had broken him, and while he's gotten better, back in the day the act of creating The Matrix had plunged him into a psychotic breakdown where he became convinced his game was real and this world was the simulation.  Burdened with the task of returning to his fantasy, inevitably his world dissolves again, though it doesn't help when Morpheus, or at least a version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), seems to have escaped from his game to offer him the old red pill alternative to the daily regimen of blue pills he's been taking forever.  He asks his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) if he's going crazy.  He's offered the standard platitudes, but the answer sure seems to be "yes."

He's not, of course.  He's back in the Matrix, and so's Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss), who shares this simulated world with him under the name "Tiffany," and the difficulties posed by their deaths at the end of Revolutions are overcome with exposition via this film's new villain, and it shall not take you long to guess that this function is fulfilled by the unnamed "Analyst" who keeps Neo trapped with medication and therapy.  Yet it's a fairly long first act, and if you can forget the implications of the prologue that already gave the game away, revolving around a new generation of hackers headlined by Bugs (Jessica Henwick), you could even begin to convince yourself that this Matrix legacy sequel actually does have something to add to its legacy, turning towards psychological thrills that The Matrix '99 didn't really have the time or temperament to pursue, and convoluting the whole Matrix mythology of "the One" and the Machine Wars with something that actually did, for the first time, start to genuinely question the foundations of its reality.  Because I hate to break it to you, but the Matrix trilogy never did that, not past The Matrix '99's own first act.  I retain a significant fondness for the philosophical noises it and the sequels made, mostly thanks to the gussied-up beat-poetic gymnastics of their screenplays and performances (the confrontation with the Architect, for example, is only a "bad scene" if you read movies like their own encyclopedia entries and not as aesthetic objects), but they deal in some pretty basic philosophical questions while hewing to some remarkably basic world-building.

Anyway, Wachowski delivers this first act with jagged editing and tantalizing possibilities.  Not every idea is useful or good, and some are the oppositeNeo's iconic antagonist Agent Smith gets dragged into this in no fewer than two ways, first as the new Morpheus who, nominally, includes code from Smith, and then as "himself," a fellow captive of Neo's new Matrix, his business partner (Jonathan Groff), and in both incarnations any significance to Smith's presence is abandoned, so that he's just sort of a plot device, plus Groff never captures Hugo Weaving's alien charisma and doesn't even supplant it with any of his own (even though I know he could have!), whereas Abdul-Mateen seems to forget that "Smith" is part of his digital DNA the instant the idea is broached, in favor of a certain self-amusement over what Wachowski actually asks of him, a deflating impression of Laurence Fishburne's delivery style.  Some ideas have no impact on the plot or the story or the themes, and appear to be artifacts of earlier drafts where Neo wasn't required to successfully chat up an attractive 54 year old stranger at a coffee shop (I'm mainly thinking of the "semblancing" technology that has, we're told, rendered Thomas Anderson's outward appearance into an old, cadaverous man's).

But there's some "there" here nonetheless, even some fairly nervy stuff, and surprisingly the film's sole really good performance arises from Harris, who manages effortless gear-shifting between Wachowski's parody of modern mental health as insufferably and asphyxiatingly supportive and unconfrontational and the new master of the Matrix as a smarmy techbro dipshit, both modes presented with enjoyable hamminess.  (Actually, there's one other noteworthy performance: Christina Ricci pops in for a cameo as a robotic Warner Bros. executive and is so blazingly good for thirty seconds, and so seemingly-important, that you wind up disappointed that she never returns in any capacity.)  Reeves, anyway, does fine as an exhausted geek, but gets lost the instant the first act's over and he stops having anything to do.  Moss somehow has even less.  She's barely in the movieshe gets one conversation scene that you could rightfully call her "the subject" of, and the rest revolves around Trinity/Tiffany as a literal sleeping beauty type requiring Neo's rescue, which only isn't a problem yet.

But that first act ain't too bad.  Even the meta element adds something, with its bracing anger and self-lacerating, sometimes blood-curdling observations about the deadening process of making the movie we're watching: it's probably not an accident, anyway, that Neo's breakdown is driven predominantly by story development meetings.  Wachowski and her co-screenwriters even get slightly pointed about the cottage industry of commentary that the original Matrix spawned.  At least it's hard not to perceive her rolling her eyes when lines on the subject of what The Matrix was "really about" all along get shoved into the mouths of the film's avowed stupidest characters, the dull nerds that Thomas Anderson has for some reason decided to surround himself with.  (Which does seem to be a miss, too, though.  I can only imagine the in-film Matrix is a video game because the Matrix makes more sense as a simulation than a film.  That doesn't stop them from using 35mm film footage from The Matrices, which is a mistake in more ways than one, but what I want to dwell on presently is how it forces you to assume that Neo's game must've been released on the Sega CD alongside Sewer Shark.  Anyway, considering how tightly the film's emotional throughline is tethered to deadnamingit's, like, the only interesting thing about it by the end, and even then only in pretty airless waysand given the Wachowskis' willingness to dare things no other filmmakers wouldCloud Atlas is still pretty bad-ass, and if you think it's just like a Fu Manchu movie then you're being intellectually dishonest with yourselfwell, I'm almost surprised Reeves isn't just playing "Larry Wachowski."  As it does sort of become a highly-garbled gender explorationNeo's working on his own game called Binary! Trinity is more special than she appears!maybe it would've stood a chance of being fascinating if this director's fourth Matrix had at least confronted her franchise's long-standing fetishism for hardware-over-software and "the real.")


But I digress.  That first act provides a lot of potential jumping off points for a genuinely novel take on the concepts, from the possibility of Neo having taken over for the Machines as the caretaker of the Matrix, and subsequently running into the same problems they had in keeping humanity happy, to the legitimately trippy prospect of Wachowski finally just damning her torpedoes and revealing that the "real world" was always just another layer of simulation (it would honestly have always made more sense if it were), and getting weirder from there.  Instead it is... The Matrix.  But bad.

Almost the instant Bugs rescues Neo, the film gets lazy, and bland, and boring.  Other than Harris's Analyst smugly explaining his methods to a helpless Neo in step-printed bullet-time (the last even-remotely-good scene in the film), it's uniformly boring, and as this is also the overwhelming majority of its runtime, that's bad indeed.  The meta element somehow turns on a dime from perversely captivating to aggravatingly stupid, probably when our old pal the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) shows up as a dispossessed hobo program during an extremely mediocre action sequence, and Wachowski puts an unhinged, incoherent rant in his mouth about the ruination of art by social media and streaming.  (The final blow is a post-credits sceneyeah, it has a post-credits scene, like a Marvel moviethat brings us back to Neo's video game brain-trust, and one of them bluntly says "Movies are dead, video games are dead," and after more than an hour and a half of watching her explicate this thesis, Wachowski's annoyance over our modern times was deeply unwelcome.  As minor as it is, it's what tipped Resurrections from "I don't like this" to "I despise this.")  Fourth verse same as the first three: let's go fight the Machines.  In utmost charity, I suppose, there's some stuff that could be modestly worthwhile for the rare Matrix fan whose investment in the franchise mythos extended to the "real" world of Zion and the blighted Earth, and who's wondered how human-machine politics went after the war.  Even this runs afoul of what feel like studio notes as the human-allied Machine entities in this freaking Matrix movie are somehow rendered cute.  (A small Machine friend fist-bumps one of Bugs's crew.  My soul flew out of my body.)

The short version of the remaining plot, anyway, is it's a caper film led by Neo and Bugs and some ciphers (not Cypher, nobody here's that dynamic) to save Trinity, which ultimately results in the awakening of Trinity's own One-ness in a "the future is female, and therefore required to be incredibly shrill" denouement that even ruins Harris's otherwise-great performance when it reduces him from a genderless computer superintelligence from the future to a sexist loudmouth from the end of your local bar.  It makes one sad: in loudly proclaiming Trinity's co-equal greatness, it only actually emphasizes that this is a movie that's been "about" Trinity's awakening that has never even considered that maybe she would be an interesting person to spend time with, rather than a largely-offscreened figure who's referenced in dialogue at least three times as often as she has lines of dialogue of her own.  It's a shame, and broken in ways that the film is too depressed to acknowledge: after all, unlike the original film's shut-in nerd, "Tiffany" has a husband (a slightly less-loutish sexist loudmouth named Chad, which means this Matrix is somehow more indelibly stamped with the date of its manufacture than the 1999 film, which is one of the most time-capsule movies ever made, and it helps that it is in fact Matrix stunt-dude and John Wick co-director Chad Stahleski, but it's still a nasty miscalculation); Trinity also has children, and if any of this has any claim on "Tiffany," the film is absolutely indifferent to exploring it.  It even winds up raising the question of how children even get conceived in the Matrix (what, like, a turkey baster?), let alone gestated, but I guess the actual implication is that they're NPC programs like a lot of the inhabitants of this new Matrix, which is Wachowski's lame downplay for how Neo and company just massacred all sorts of fellow humans in the name of freedom in the old movies.

Not that there's much cool massacring in Resurrections.  In accordance with its laziness, blandness, and boringness, it can't even do the old action well.  The choreography in this is stiff and dull and fake and cut-together with a profound lack of impact; likewise, the superpowered aspects devolve into Reeves doing a "Force push" gesture about forty times.  It offers very little new action, in several cases just straight-up repeating sequences from The Matrix with groaning irony.  For all it's easy to detail the sins of the screenplay, this is the most galling thing here, as the Wachowskis have historically been some of our wildest stylists, and Reloaded and Revolutions were full of terrific visual invention.  It wasn't always good invention (hey, let's spend an hour fighting squids in Zion), but the freeway chase in Reloaded or the Superman climax of Revolutions remain some of the greatest action scenes of the 21st century.  The closest Resurrections comes is a suicide dive-bombing scene as masses of flocking NPCs use their own bodies as kinetic weapons against Neo and Trinity; fun idea, but Resurrections never elaborates on this to any climax.  It also reminds you that the entire reason the Machines don't just, like, set off a nuclear bomb to kill Neo in the original trilogy is because they were bound by rules.  And this is on top of this film's whole craptastic aesthetic, which uses "this is a new Matrix" as an excuse to abandon Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope's phenomenal green-tinted computer-reality without actually replacing it with anything.  This is just any old fucking movie from 2021.  And is it too much to ask for a different costume genre than "industrial music scene" for the new hackers, who explicitly come from a different culture, decades down the line?  Oh, probably.

It's a drag.  It is not unwatchable, so I give it some credit for that; despite getting boring, and despite going down half a dozen blind alleys, the screenplay isn't a dysfunctional construct.  But it's so devoid of spark.  It's clear that when Lana Wachowski was put between a rock and a hard place by Warners, she felt too attached to this career-making franchise to leave it to someone elsebut, hell, maybe she should've.  Lilly did.

Score: 3/10

3 comments:

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  2. Sounds like a drag indeed. Despite its gratifyingly witty writing and acting, the trailer had me worried with its very...up-to-date cinematography. Also: Keanu's evident reliance on bio-digital jazz-hands. The clincher was the absence of Don Davis as composer. Somehow I never bothered to watch the third installment, but I remember the first two very fondly as maybe the closest our generation got to the kind of thrillingly bizarre golden age musicals you review here. That opening overture cribbed from Hitchcock's "Vertigo"...Mr. Smith loathing the smell of Yoda in the modem...Trinity Joel-Silver-9/11-ing that spermatic gunship into the capitalist ovum before Tarzan-sex-swinging to safety...Mr. Smith's burly brawl a la Busby Berkeley...those Wachowskis were smoking some serious red pills.

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    1. I liked "bio-digital jazz hands." That's very good, and I will never not appreciate a well-deployed TRON: Legacy reference.

      I don't want to say Revolutions isn't worth watching, but you may have dodged the bullet (insert joke), because the only bad things I have to say about Reloaded is that Revolutions completely ruins it. (After all, it's one of those simultaneously-produced sequel dyads that's hard to separate into two different films, like Siegfried/Krimhilde's Revenge or Empire/Jedi. The former has the decency to end the first film with Siegfried's cool death so I can sever the boring-ass endlessness of Krimhilde's and Attila the Hun's war on Burgundy from it; the latter has the decency to be The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. But Revolutions is maybe the most "this is a straight-up continuation of unresolved events in a five hour block of cinema" ever besides The Return of the King.)

      Without Revolutions, it's a fantastic film, though, basically nothing wrong with it. Even the parts people dislike I like--the Architect, the Zion rave (the rejection of which by nerds is possibly one factor in why e-ticket movies are so aggressively sexless now, amongst others), the burly brawl (it's got seams, but it's about as successful as ambitious 2003 CGI gets).

      Then Revolutions disappoints by 1)unsatisfactorily explaining why Neo has wi-fi now (the obvious implication is that Zion ain't real either, and that's an unfortunate thing to imply if you're only going to snatch it away) and 2)spending perhaps upwards of 50% of its runtime in Zion, with its politics and squid-war story.

      Matrix Resurrections is therefore maybe not the worst in the series, in that Revolutions is more stultifying and less watchable, but it still has, like, more gusto.

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