In many ways, the entire Matrix franchise has seen directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski grappling with the legacy of the original film. The two sequels were a deliberate deconstruction of the original’s archetypal “chosen one” narrative. So it makes sense that when Lana Wachowski returned to the franchise to direct a belated sequel, it would also grapple with some of the thornier legacies of that original film.
Wachowski has been quite candid about what she feels are misinterpretations of The Matrix. She has noted the irony of certain interpretations of The Matrix becoming as doctrinal and as adversarial as the system being criticized in the films. “For some it is a very rigid almost ideological interpretation; they do not see the humor in the fact that their perspective is a more controlled system than the Matrix itself,” she reflected in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview.
The Matrix is built on binaries. It is a story of humans against machines. It is a story of characters fighting for freedom and escaping from slavery. It is “us” or “them.” It is Neo as “the One,” in contrast to everybody else. It is the red pill or the blue pill, awake or asleep, reality or illusion. Of course, these rigid binaries are largely storytelling constructs that help keep the stories and stakes clear, but it is easy for them to become ingrained and accepted.
“I’ve been thinking about us, Tom,” Smith (Jonathan Groff) muses in The Matrix Resurrections. “Look how binary is the form, the nature of things. Ones and zeros. Light and dark. Choice and its absence. Anderson and Smith.” It’s a simple premise. It is as easy to swallow as the proverbial red pill. However, it is also a worldview that can easily lend itself to factionalization and polarization. Wachowski has to know this, given how even the term “red pill” has been appropriated as part of a larger culture war.
The Matrix Resurrections rejects these simple binaries. In the opening sequence, Bugs (Jessica Henwick) offers Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) the classic red and blue pills. “You call this a choice?” he protests. “Oh, honestly, when somebody offered me these things, I went off on binary conceptions of the world and said there was no way I was swallowing some symbolic reduction of my life,” Bugs replies. “And the woman with the pills laughed ‘cause I was missing the point.”
When the audience is reintroduced to Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) as a game designer working at Deus Machina, he is working on a game titled Binaries that just isn’t coming together. In order to break out of that, he begins playing with old code from his Matrix video game. He creates a simulation of his old mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), but hybridizes that code with data from his old enemy Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
This is a choice that rejects easy distinctions between good and evil, instead understanding that this new Morpheus needs to be “an algorithmic reflection of two forces” that defined and shaped Neo. Smith is just as much a part of this as Morpheus. The two cannot exist independently. More than that, Anderson’s coding of the new version of Morpheus suggests that perhaps the only way to move forward is to reject the idea of rigid boundaries.
To be fair, this was baked into the two earlier sequels. In the opening sequence of The Matrix Revolutions, Neo finds himself stuck in a station between worlds. There, he encounters computer programs Rama-Kandra (Bernard White) and Kamala (Tharini Mudaliar), hoping to smuggle their daughter Sati (Tanveer K. Atwal) to safety. Neo is shocked to discover that programs can reproduce and to hear “a program speak of love.” Maybe humans and machines aren’t so different.
The Matrix Resurrections is acutely aware of the challenges that face many of these nostalgic sequels that seek to revisit familiar ground. Most obviously, falling back into familiar patterns can erase any sense of progress from the earlier films. Watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it’s easy to wonder what the heroes actually accomplished, as they inevitably end up fighting the same battles all over again.
Neo acknowledges as much when he wakes up, discovering that humanity is once again at odds with the machines and that the Matrix is once again trapping and ensnaring humans. “I’m back where I started,” he complains to Bugs. “It feels like everything I did — everything we did — like none of it mattered.” However, Bugs very quickly makes it clear that Neo did make a difference and that things have changed, even if the situation is dire.
Bugs works on a ship with both machines (They prefer the term “synthients.”) and programs. The boundaries between the real world and the Matrix are porous. Just like Neo and Bugs are organic lifeforms that can hook into virtual reality, now program Morpheus can manifest in the real world through “an exomorphic-particle codex.” When Neo arrives in the city of Io, he discovers humans and artificial lifeforms living in harmony together for the common good.
“What you changed (is what) nobody believed could ever be changed,” Bugs tells Neo. “The meaning of ‘our side.’” Indeed, when Neo reunites with his old friend Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), she acknowledges that humanity needed to move past this limited way of thinking and that rigid binaries were as much a trap as the simulation itself. “Zion was stuck in the past. Stuck in war. Stuck in a Matrix of its own. They believed that it had to be us or them. This city was built by us and them.”
The Matrix Resurrections is full of choices that aren’t choices. When Niobe imprisons Neo, Morpheus suggests that Neo faces “the choice to remain meekly incarcerated or bust the hell out of here and go and find Trinity,” but he admits “that ain’t a choice.” When Bugs and her crew are given the option to “stay here and die, or come back and face a court-martial,” Morpheus muses, “And you call that a choice?” Sometimes choices are more than a simple either/or. Sometimes they aren’t choices at all.
This rejection of binaries is obvious even in the film’s visual language. The earlier Matrix films tended towards a monochromatic color palette, with a few brief exceptions. The world of the earlier Matrix films tended to be desaturated. In contrast, The Matrix Resurrections rejects this green-tinted black-and-white dichotomy, its color scheme hewing more to Speed Racer or Cloud Atlas. Black leather gives way to blue jeans and yellow suede. The sky is bright blue and orange, not cloudy and gray.
The Matrix Resurrections repeatedly stresses the importance of existing in harmony rather than opposition. Even the climax of the movie features an “unexpected alliance” between Neo and Smith. The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) discovers that Neo isn’t really that special. “Alone, neither of you is of any particular value,” he muses. “Like acids and bases, you’re dangerous when mixed together.” Even Smith acknowledges that Neo isn’t unique. “Anyone could be you.”
The Matrix Resurrections is very obviously the work of a filmmaker who has grown in the years since working on the original trilogy. It is a film that feels as much a cousin to Cloud Atlas as a sequel to The Matrix, which isn’t surprising considering that Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell co-wrote the screenplay. Central to Cloud Atlas is the idea that “our lives are not our own” and “we are bound to others.” Everything is connected. People have an obligation to help each other.
As such, Resurrections gently recontextualizes the “chosen one” narrative of the original film. In The Matrix, both Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are essential to helping Neo become the hero that he needs to be. Because that film is his story, it is possible to watch it and assume that his is the only story that matters. Given his status as “the One,” it makes sense that everything in The Matrix seems secondary to Neo’s arc and development.
However, Resurrections asks Neo to pay it forward. He creates a version of Morpheus that can escape his coding, as if repaying his debt to his mentor. That Morpheus then helps Neo escape. Then Neo helps Trinity escape, because it’s her turn now. “She believed in me,” Neo tells Bugs. “It’s my turn to believe in her.” Crucially, at the climax of the movie, when Neo and Trinity take their leap of faith, it is Trinity who flies. The movie ends with both Neo and Trinity empowered. She doesn’t even need to take the red pill.
The Matrix Resurrections is a movie that understands that real freedom comes from rejecting the easy binaries and false choices. It’s an “and,” not an “or.”