Lana and Lilly Wachowski are among the most transgressive filmmakers working in Hollywood. Despite their ambition and high concepts, the works the writer/director siblings have made since the seminal The Matrix have often been dismissed because of their unabashed stylization, sentimentality, and sincerity. That they’ve evolved as storytellers seems to affront those who crave if not fetishize consistency. The sisters have gone their separate creative ways in recent years, with only Lana returning to the series that made them famous with The Matrix Resurrections (directing solo and writing the script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon). The themes of the Wachowskis’ films have historically come across as more important than their pioneering aesthetics (often unsubtly and sometimes with questionable implementation), but here Lana seems to have found the perfect balance. Whether regarding the value of the past or present, prioritizing action or storytelling, or highlighting characters over visuals, Resurrections is about existing within binaries and embracing multiple facets of life.
Since both Wachowskis have come out as transgender subsequent to the release of the original Matrix trilogy, much has been made of the trans subtext in those films. But Resurrections isn’t just another “trans film,” but specifically a nonbinary one. Imprisoned within a new version of the Matrix, erstwhile chosen one Neo (Keanu Reeves) is again living as “Thomas Anderson,” now a famous video game developer working on a game literally called Binary. His memories of the original film are sublimated as the story of a hugely successful game trilogy he made called The Matrix, one of many nakedly metatextual aspects of the plot. Despite his wealth and esteem, all he can think about is his lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), also living in this new Matrix as “Tiffany.” Their lives, and the Matrix as a whole, are now managed by the Analyst, a program who poses as Thomas’s therapist. (Appropriately, he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris, our ultimate cultural symbol of nonthreatening white cis male queerness.) But there’s also a new generation of folks outside the Matrix, primarily Bugs (played by Jessica Henwick and named after a true trans femme icon), who are committed to freeing and reuniting Neo and Trinity.
Wachowski directs pointed barbs at anyone who questions the need for this film to exist. It opens with Bugs and her compatriots saying things like “We know this story” and “Why use old code to make something new?” while observing a reenactment of the opening scene of the original Matrix … which ends up going drastically “off-script.” Similarly, workers at Neo’s company, cajoled to reboot the in-universe Matrix games, toss out buzzwords about the supposed essence of the story that could have come from our own reality’s social media. (“Trans politics!”) Such metafictional elements have been much-discussed, but there’s more to the film than self-reflexiveness.
Every refrain of a familiar scene or reintroduction of an old character comes with some kind of metamorphosis (a transition, if you will). Morpheus is no longer the man we knew, but a program who can transcend the boundaries of the Matrix and exist in the physical world thanks to new technology (and now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II instead of Laurence Fishburne). The real-world refuge of Zion is gone, replaced by Io, a city where humans coexist with sentients (not to be confused with “the machines,” another example of something between a binary, this one of human and not). Bullet time, everyone’s favorite special effect in the early 2000s, has been updated as a gorgeous technique in which figures move at different speeds within the same shot. Characters’ bodies and presentations inside and outside the Matrix now look more alike; there’s less emphasis on code-switching and idealized images, and more interest in showing how people can be their true selves in a realm where their lives are not consistently in danger.
This feels like a natural extension of what Wachowski and Mitchell have explored in their work. Cloud Atlas (2012, based on Mitchell’s novel) posits that love can transcend space and time. The TV series Sense8 allows its characters to exist beyond their genders and bodies and fluidly love with their minds. The Matrix Resurrections brings those concepts together. Relatively stripped of the virtual green tint familiar from the trilogy, the Matrix feels more real than ever before. We see this when watching Neo dissociate during long work meetings, in his conversations with his therapist that feel more stifling than liberating, in the horrifying use of a mass suicide “bot swarm” that demonstrates how far the system will go to stop conformity from being broken. The Matrix traps people in binary options. It draws power from keeping Neo and Trinity apart, the symbolic dividing of male from female — separation enforces the supremacy of the system. In the climax, their coming together (fusing the binary) breaks this system.
The Matrix Resurrections is in theaters and available to stream via HBO Max.
The close, careful, and subtle observation I found this year is representative of precisely why I continue to gravitate to this fair.
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BRIC’s multidisciplinary program in Brooklyn has cohorts in Contemporary Art, Film & TV, Performing Arts, and Video Art. Applications are due March 10.
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