Big question first: Is The Matrix Resurrections the first sequel to The Matrix that is actually essential to the story of this universe?
The answer to this is: one, there was already an essential Matrix sequel and it’s called The Animatrix, thank you very much; two, from a cinematic point of view this film was absolutely not necessary in any way whatsoever. But! It is kind of fun if you like meta on top of your meta, stuffed into a cavity of more meta and then served up on a lacy bed of even more meta, and also, it’s clear that Lana Wachowski, who directed and co-wrote this installment without her sister Lily, with whom she co-directed the previous three live-action installments, is working through some stuff here, with regard to where she last left these characters and this setting. So, good for her that she did that and managed to get Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow to pay for it all.
What’s this about meta? you ask. It’s this: The film knows you’ve seen the previous films (even the ones you sarcastically say don’t exist) and also, the film knows you know that it knows you know this. It knows that (spoilers for a two-decade-old film trilogy) you know both Trinity and Neo are dead, of impalement and christly electrocution, respectively, it knows you know that Morpheus has been recast, it knows you watched both the trailers and the various interminable YouTube dissections of the trailers by beardy monotone nerds sitting in front a green screen, and it knows you know that Lana Wachowski, brilliant as her work has been (and here I stan Speed Racer, forever and ever, amen) could probably use with a hit at this point in her career.
So, fine: The film loads all that into the first hour of the film in a way that is absolutely designed to make this movie’s TV Tropes page an impenetrable wall of text. Which, by the way, I think is pretty damn great; really, at this point, the only way the movie could have dealt with all of this was to haul out the largest possible lampshade and hang it on film and tell you to just fucking deal with it. As someone who plays with meta all the time, and will again, just you wait, I’m happy to see Lana Wachowski and the other screenwriters run toward this problem rather than away from it. Full points! Well done!
Once the meta is done and dealt with, mind you, it becomes Just Another Matrix Movie, which, well, fine: action sequences, very pretty people dressed like bougie goths in expensive sunglasses scorpion-kicking interchangeable enemies (literally, they call them “bots” in this one), some philosophical pancake-flipping that grinds scenes to a halt (again, literally in this film) and which would cause eyerolling from the adjunct professor who taught you (or, if you saw the original in the theater, your kids) Philosophy 101, and, of course, the occasionally doomed love between Neo and Trinity, now with the added psychological weight of both actors being 20 years older, which — more points! — the film leans into rather than trying to pretend these two aren’t in their fifties at this point. The nuance of what their relationship means, to themselves and to the Matrix universe, is nice to see.
All of this is stuff you’ll like if this is the sort of the thing you like, and not if you don’t. At this point the question of whether the Matrix sequels need to exist is moot, since they do and we just have to accept that fact (I will allow that The Matrix itself neither required nor necessarily invited sequels; it was delightfully self-contained. But success breeds sequels, necessary or not, and if nothing else, I bow to the Wachowskis for getting Warner Bros et al to cough up $300 million for what are basically two live-action anime films, as well as an actual anime collection with the spare change). The question at this point is how well this sequel exists in the context of everything else.
This one has its ups and downs. On one hand, this one does all right tying up loose ends and getting everyone up to speed and explaining why, after Revolutions, which promised enduring peace, we have to go through all this Matrix shit yet again (and how Neo and Trinity are, you know, not worm food). On the other hand the recasting of a couple of roles (Morpheus most obviously) gives this film the feel of a national touring company version of a successful Broadway show, in which the two leads from the years-ago original run come back for a limited engagement in Chicago with the rest of the cast filled with kids who were in elementary school when the show made its debut. The cast is fine! It’s not quite the same, however.
(There are a couple of actors from the previous films showing up here. One of them looks like how Robin Williams looked when he escaped from Jumanji. The other has been slathered in makeup which tries to suggest they do not have a pair of the most impressive cheekbones in Hollywood, and doesn’t succeed particularly well.)
There’s another thing about Resurrections that is another layer of meta, which is that this is the first film in the series made after the Wachowskis transitioned, and the whole series began to be looked at through the lens of the trans experience, which in itself has an additional layer of irony given how “redpill” was been used as a metaphor by awful cis bigots to make their shittiness seem hip and in-crowd. First, of course, fuck those people, they’re awful, and second, while I strongly suspect this film will go a long way to punt their shittiness out of the conversation around these films, which in itself is an absolute good, I’m also aware I’m not otherwise qualified to go that deep into the dynamic of transness and the Matrix films, and will leave it to others to better essay. I will say I’m happy it’s out there openly now.
Again, The Matrix Resurrections isn’t essential, but it doesn’t hurt the series and ultimately may give its overall storytelling slightly more coherence. Moreover, from a storytelling point of view, and like the original film, it seems to neither need nor invite a further sequel. Will it get one? It depends on how much it makes and how well it does on HBO Max, and, I suppose, on the cartilage elasticity of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. On the latter score, CGI and virtual universes can only do so much.