Some critics are praising this film for how fresh it feels rather than what it actually accomplishes on a storytelling level. I can understand how someone who feels there is very little new to see in theaters among the sea of nostalgic retreads might find a light in the form of Resurrections.
There is merit to the idea behind this film. More franchises should take new approaches like this. But I cannot join my fellow critics in praising this alone in hopes of manifesting more blockbusters like it in the future. David Ehrlich compare this film to The Last Jedi, which similarly deconstructed the franchise in which it is placed. Yet that film remains brilliant in it’s ability to have both a simple coherent vision for a Star Wars story that worked on a technical and structural level and a critical eye towards its own existence that presents a complex viewpoint worthy of it’s importance. The Matrix Resurrections fails not in this ability to assess its own existence, but in it’s basic execution and lack of much to say.
Regrettably, this film is directed without nuance or craft beyond beauty, and suffers from an underwritten script full of repetitive confusion. Variations on the lines “just like old times” and “we have no time” are recited stoically over superfluous shots of people sitting around and dumping exposition on one another. Very little feels intentional, besides the movies attempts to self criticize in hopes of appealing to a fan’s love of meta-commentary. It is fine, even admirable, to have a self reflection on what the film you’re making is within that film. But it doesn’t stand on it’s own.
This lack of care towards story exists on a structural level as well. Obstacles are set between the heroes and their goals only for an off-screen movement or callback to clear them easily. In one scene, our hero seems trapped by someone he thought that he could trust, only for that trap to prove easily escapable, and that friend not caring, and in fact being glad, that he left.
In cinematography, one must admit that Wachowski direction still has an iconic flare that sticks in the mind. The look of the new Matrix is beautiful, but does little to advance the story. In fact, the action sequences that the other films are so well known for in their brilliant blocking are reduced here to close ups and shaky cameras. In one scene, a cameo is so obviously shot at a different moment, and cuts from the nonsensical action to his rantings a few feet away are disjointed and make it feel as if he’s literally standing in front of the action scene like a tall guest in a theater. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, unless two people are sitting there discussing it.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, that is what most of the film consists of. Again, the first film surpasses its mirror sequel by giving us visuals to go with its exposition, disguising it in brilliant moving shots that pass madly through the hellscape of real-world Earth, look up at the sinister near-invincible agents, or follow Neo’s gaze to a girl in a red dress. Here instead the characters will explain and reiterate what just happened or what will happen next in a medium shot with the same self-aware half smiling expression as each other.
There are outliers to the acting in this movie. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss only truly fail in the obnoxiously blunt, disengenuously triumphant last scene of the movie, where they suddenly adopt Marvelesque smugness inconsistent with the rest of the film. It is a jarring sight to behold. Otherwise they serve the same eggshell performances their characters have always benefitted from. Neil Patrick Harris does quite well in his role as he crafts a distinctly original kind of antagonist for the franchise that still doesn’t seem too radical for the series. Jada Pinkett Smith performs her awful sidetracking scenes with as much heartfelt sincerity as she can muster. But these gems are buried in explanations of how different this film is, and statements about theme that don’t ring true to the story’s core.
The first Matrix film is literally analyzed out loud in this movie, with fans praising it’s many interpretations as trans allegory, anti-capitalist rally cry, and philosophical quandary. This film does not paint with such shades of grey. Rather than the profound thoughts about free will, religion, reality, politics, and individuality that drove The Matrix to its initial success, I suspect the filmmakers fueled this sequel with the hatred of their Herculean task. By this emotion, we are given two quickly evident ideas to chew over; that creating binaries removes true agency, and, in that twist of self criticizing, that nostalgic sequels are another bit of evidence that humans prefer docility over innovation.
Perhaps the one bit of brilliance in this movie is that the latter truth is fed by the former, which makes it hard to find fault in the film without seeming like you are giving into docility. In the binary of praising the movie or tearing it down, we must give in to the film or else seem to lose agency like the sheep who prefer the safety of nostalgia to the fear of the new. Let me again assure you I do not fall in either camp. Instead, I have the agency to say that simply doing something new in film is not worthy of praise alone, even if you’re surrounded by the old. You still have a movie to make.