“The Matrix Resurrections,” which opens in theaters and starts streaming on HBO Max Dec. 22, has a lot of resurrecting to do. In the 18 years since “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” — well, where to begin?
Lana and Lilly Wachowski wrote and directed both, as well as the original movie, “The Matrix” (1999). Now it’s just Lana. Keanu Reeves, who plays the series’ blandly messianic hero, Neo, went from being a big thing to not being a big thing and now is sort of a big thing again. Most important, the culture’s ideas about virtual reality, let alone the technology surrounding it, have come a long way from the days when these movies had audiences ooh’ing and aah’ing over the sight of computer code the color of toxic limeade streaming down a movie screen.
The series drew on everything from “Stars Wars” to World War II movies to Asian martial arts. But it never felt derivative. However wacky, however ponderously solemn, the franchise really was its own thing. It believed in itself, which is a lot rarer in big-budget action movies than one might like to think. In fact, it really believed in itself. That, and the Wachowskis’ considerable technical chops, made the whole thing work.
These movies threw together philosophical mumbo-jumbo (free will! fate! reality! simulation!), digital mumbo-jumbo, sunglasses as character development, a fetishization of gunplay so lavish as to verge on pornography, and a hushed, even reverential acting style whose goofiness was somehow oddly affecting.
All those elements are back in “Resurrections.” What’s new is a jokey self-awareness. Sometimes it’s clever. The Warner Bros. shield in the opening credits is that toxic-limeade green. A coffee shop is named Simulatte. More often it’s just maddening. Neo now works for a gaming company called Deus Machina. It’s owned by Warner Bros. and wants him to design a new “Matrix” video game — like the three previous ones he’s designed. At such moments, “Resurrections” becomes a hall of mirrors that’s all mirrors and no hall.
The basic “Matrix” premise remains. “Reality” is a simulation inflicted on humanity by artificial intelligence. This simulation of an attractive, bustling everyday world conceals a grim, ravaged reality. Only a few thousand humans are on to this truth. Jada Pinkett Smith, unrecognizable beneath a ton of old-person makeup, is back as Niobe, one of their leaders. The freedom fighters live underground and go aboveground to do battle with the machines, who have the appearance of humans.
The head machine is Agent Smith. Hugo Weaving played him with a marvelously elastic malevolence in the first three movies. Now he’s played by a nondescript Jonathan Groff (King George in “Hamilton” — is this despot typecasting?). The revolutionary leader Morpheus, so righteously implacable as played by Laurence Fishburne, is now Morpheus II (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Candyman”), who’s kind of an aspirational Morpheus. That’s a bit hard to follow, but then so is much of “Resurrections.”
Bearded and beleaguered, Neo is now a troubled man. Clearly, a lot has happened to him, in a bad way, over these 18 years, and a lot hasn’t, in a worse way. He’s in therapy — wouldn’t you be? — and Neil Patrick Harris plays The Analyst. Useful rule of moviegoing thumb: Beware of characters with Archetypal Names. “Did you know ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ are nearly identical in source code?” Harris asks. One wonders what Neo’s deductible is on these therapy sessions.
Spiritually dead, Neo needs resurrecting. Note that the title of the movie is plural. His beloved, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), died at the end of “Revolutions.” So she really needs resurrecting. This is good, because she was the best thing in the first three movies: an inscrutable avenging angel in form-fitting leather. If anything can bring Neo out of his funk it’s rescuing Trinity. Forget all the pretentious nonsense about reality and simulation. Even forget all the action sequences — which, admittedly, are pretty amazing. At their heart, the “Matrix” movies are a love story.
Here’s where that jokiness becomes a bigger problem. Granted, Neo and Trinity aren’t exactly Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Yet in the inside-out world that is the “Matrix” films, the mutual humorlessness of Reeves and Moss is what makes Neo and Trinity such a great couple. Any pair of movie stars can sleep together and make it exciting to watch. How many can do that by sleepwalking together? That’s not a putdown. Anywhere else such shared inexpressivity would be disastrous. Here it’s the emotional glue holding these movies together.
Anyone much over the age of 15 who saw the earlier movies knew they were silly. That didn’t matter. What mattered is that they didn’t feel silly. “Resurrections” does. A movie doesn’t need to make much sense, so long as it has enough velocity. Velocity, remember, is direction and speed. This one lacks the one and has little of the other, even if Trinity does get to ride her Ducati again.
A sequel is never about either the old movie or the new one. It’s about the audience. What one is “Resurrections” meant for? Viewers who know and love the previous “Matrix” movies are likely to be put off by the eye-winking in this one. Viewers who don’t know the movies aren’t going to get the references — despite numerous flashbacks throughout — and that’s assuming they would be going in the first place. It’s not as if there’s been a vast demand building up over the past 18 years for a new “Matrix” movie. The problem isn’t if a movie is confusing. Momentum can make that irrelevant. The problem is if it’s confused, and the confusion that is “Resurrections” starts with the most basic question of all: why?
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS
Directed by Lana Wachowski. Written by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandr Hemon; based on characters created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith. At Boston theaters, suburbs, and streaming on HBO Max. 148 minutes. R (violence and some language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.