24 Lies a Second: Better Off Defunct

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Better Off Defunct

What a terrible testament it is to the passage of time and the ravages of age – that once trim and athletic figure now looking a touch flabby and creaky, that face, its formerly Adonis-like beauty now seamed and masked by a straggly beard and greying hair. Someone who once epitomised cutting-edge cool, now struggling to make sense of the modern world.

But that's enough about me, though I can't deny that twenty years of online film criticism have taken their toll. We are here to discuss (amongst other things) Keanu Reeves and his new movie The Matrix Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski. I'll be honest and admit that my heart sank a bit at the prospect of a reappearance by this particular franchise – the original film remains a stunning classic, surely one of the best movies never to win any major awards, but the trajectory of the sequels is a classic example of how even the most exciting and innovative concept can dissolve into overblown nonsense. Like Robocop and The Terminator before it, people tend to forget just how good The Matrix is, simply because the sequels fall so far short of the same standard.

Nevertheless, here we are – and it's telling that a lot of the initial buzz around this film discussed the possibility that this was either a remake or a semi-reboot, discarding the original sequels and continuing the story along a different path. It seems that everyone wishes the sequels had never happened, or at least been much better.

It initially seems that something odd and tricksy is in progress, as Resurrections opens with a close recreation of the opening sequence from the 1999 film, albeit with different actors. Watching this in some bemusement is a mysterious young woman named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who seems aware that something is not quite right. It's a breathless and intriguing sequence, though also quite challenging to keep up with; it also signals the extent to which this film assumes the viewer is familiar with the original.

Soon enough we find ourselves somewhere subtly different, where award-winning games designer Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is leading an outwardly happy life – his work on a title called The Matrix and its sequels having brought him wealth and celebrity. Still, he seems haunted by a vague sense of connection with a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) he occasionally sees at the coffee shop, and he is having therapy after an episode in his past when he briefly seemed to lose the ability to distinguish between real life and the fantasy of the game.

Then his business partner (Jonathan Groff) breaks the news to him – their corporate overseers at Warner Brothers have decreed the time has come for a fourth episode of The Matrix, and if the original creators refuse to participate, the property will be handed over to hip young replacements, regardless of anyone's feelings in the matter.

Apparently this is basically what happened with this entire movie, and so I suppose Warners deserve some credit for being game enough to let Wachowski include this rather astringent in-joke. Regardless, it elevates the film to a level of witty self-referentiality which I found immensely interesting and promising. Various blackly comic scenes ensue as vapid focus-groupers sit around uselessly brainstorming exactly what it is that a new young audience might want from a Matrix sequel. Meanwhile Thomas starts to get text messages, apparently from fictional characters he created decades before…

This sequence is, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant – or at least it holds the promise of brilliance, if the rest of the film can follow through on the potential of the conceit. Even while watching it I found myself worrying that they couldn't possibly sustain this level of invention and cleverness.

Sadly, and not unexpectedly given this series' track record, they can't. The really dispiriting thing about The Matrix Resurrections isn't just that it turns out to be the most pedestrian, uninspired, this-feels-like-a-contractual-obligation kind of sequel imaginable, but that it does so after showing a brief moment of real promise near the start. Not only is the new story predicated on the situation at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, but it laboriously revisits many of the story beats and situations from the original trilogy, never really adding much to them.

And yet, at the same time, it feels like there's been a conscious effort to distance this film from the others, aesthetically at least – some of the original iconography is still present, but much has been abandoned. The absence of Lawrence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving is keenly felt – the actors cast to replace them do their best (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is one of them, to say more would involve spoilers), but they just don't have the chops to replace two charismatic performers who were so integral to the original film.

Elsewhere there just seems to be a profound lack of ambition and new ideas, as the plot devolves into a series of overlong fight and chase sequences punctuated by more of those scenes where people gravely discuss quite elementary questions about choice and determinism. There's nothing here as visually revolutionary as the first film's use of bullet time; the action sequences aren't even as impressive or grandiose as the ones in the sequels. The climax, and really the film as a whole, is a bit of a damp squib.

Nevertheless, it's all still recognisable as part of the Matrix brand, which was probably a key part of the brief. I would like to think that Lana Wachowski had it in her to make a film as bold and intelligent and impressive as the best of her previous work, and the reason The Matrix Resurrections is so cautious and uninspired is simply down to Warner Brothers wanting a new piece of not-too-challenging product for this holiday season. Wachowski herself seems to have been rather ambivalent about the whole enterprise – when the production was shut down temporarily as a result of the pandemic, she apparently seriously contemplated abandoning the project. I am almost tempted to say it might have been better if she had.

The villain of The Matrix Resurrections is contemptuous of sentimentality and nostalgia, which is telling, given that these seem to have been the key drivers behind the film being made at all. I am sure that fans of the series will turn out for this one, because there are fleeting moments here which are interesting and effective – and Keanu Reeves is as enjoyable to watch as ever. But if you take those two drivers away, what remains is simply a massive disappointment.

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