The Matrix Resurrections: Familiar Visuals Redirect Focus to the Story

by Stef WatsonDecember 26, 2021 | ,

The Matrix Resurrections is now in theaters and available for streaming on HBO Max. I saw it opening day at a local IMAX theater, and I had to share my first impressions.

I'll start by setting some context. 

As many of my fellow Gen-Xers can attest to, seeing The Matrix (1999) for the first time on the big screen was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Wachowskis' vision brought something altogether new in cinema. The combination of visual style, choreography, and special effects became iconic. (I mean, who doesn't know what bullet time is these days?) As we approached our 30s, The Matrix made us feel like we were living in special times! 

For a quick refresher, check out this 4-minute The Matrix Resurrections: Legacy video on YouTube. Resurrections cast members recall memories from their first time watching the original trilogy:

At that same time, though, you'll hear strong opinions from the faction who loved the first film and downright hated its two 2003 sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. While I loved those films, I admit they seem more like portfolios for 2003-era special effects artists, diminishing the new, more complex story. The first film, with its "man vs. machine" theme, left its ending neat and tidy while keeping possibilities open to revisit the Matrix universe. In Reloaded and Revolutions, though, the Wachowskis treated the first film like the setup to subvert our expectations in the rest of the trilogy. The trilogy story as a whole has a more abstract theme of "choice vs. control."

So how does The Matrix Resurrections feel after that history? 

Great! Amazing, even! But perhaps not for the reasons you'd think. Here are my highlights without going into spoiler territory.

Special effects are updated to modern standards: In 1999-2003, the visual effects of the original Matrix trilogy were mind-blowing. When I rewatch those films today, though, I find them distracting. I think that's because I've seen what filmmakers are producing today with better technology and techniques. Fortunately, Resurrections brings the Wachowskis' familiar visual effects up to modern standards.

Neo blocks more than just bullets in The Matrix Resurrections.

Special effects became the backdrop instead of the focus: We have plenty of opportunities in Resurrections to appreciate the new-and-improved special effects. However, the film mostly uses effects we're already familiar with, like bullet time, the liquid metal assimilation, slow-motion explosions, and the iconic Matrix console visuals. (In fact, it's possible bullet time was a bit overused in this one.) But I think Lana made the right choice to stick to these familiar visual effects rather than introducing new ones. In doing so, she redirected us to focus on the new characters and story, and the visual effects just blend into the natural flow of the film.

Beautifully framed shots and stunning set lighting: Lana continues the trend she and Lilly started in the original trilogy of creating a complex set of emotions simply in how the shots are lit and framed. When I grabbed screenshots for this article, it was hard to choose which ones to feature here because every frame was a work of art.

Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) helps Neo (Keanu Reeves) rediscover himself.

Flipping the "choice vs. control" theme on its head: This new film returns to this theme from the original trilogy. However, Resurrections takes place some years after the events of Revolutions, and a lot has happened since then. We see more emphasis on the cost of choices and the simplicity of allowing the powerful to stay in power. We see machines making more choices while humans see control as offering a sense of stability. One character, knowing what's at stake if they leave the Matrix, must choose whether to pay that cost or surrender to a lifetime of control.

Elevating the Neo and Trinity relationship: If you've watched the trailers for Resurrections, you know that Neo and Trinity are finding each other again in this film after some time apart. In the original trilogy, I loved the Neo and Trinity love story, but it was always secondary to Neo's main story. This film establishes that Neo's trilogy story is over and centers the story on the Trinity and Neo connection.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) tries to reconnect with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) at a local coffee house.

Heavy fan service at the beginning: As you may have guessed from the trailer, this film spends some time in "Matrix self-reflection." We're bombarded with this in the first third of the film. It's almost like Lana was thinking, "Let's get two decades of nostalgia out of their system before I settle in to tell the story I want to tell." That said, much of it is the film taking jabs at its own franchise, and I found that incredibly satisfying to watch.

Can't get enough of Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Groff! Without divulging details about their characters, I'll say that the modern legend NPH and the delightfully versatile Jonathan Groff both delivered great performances in Resurrections. I admit that while I'm skeptical of having any further Neo/Trinity films after this one, I would appreciate seeing more of Harris and Groff in those roles.

Jonathan Groff plays more than just a game company executive.

A solo triumph for Lana Wachowski: This new Matrix film represents an interesting milestone for Lana. For over three decades, including before they each came out as trans women, Lana and her sister, Lilly, have been highly esteemed for their collaborative writing and directing work in film, TV, and even video games and comics. The Wachowskis have been synonymous with collaboration, with filmmaking colleague relationships that span multiple productions. Their Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta are not only great films but are pop culture icons.

However, in this new era of Wachowski filmmaking, Lana alone took us back to the Matrix in Resurrections. I suspect this is in part because Lilly has had her hands full. Lilly is a writer and producer for the Showtime series Work in Progress alongside series co-creators Tim Mason and Abby McEnany. Based on things I've read, like this Vox article from 2019, Work in Progress is a passion project for Lilly. I applaud Lilly for focusing her energy on something that means so much to her.

Lana Wachowski (center) with Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves (photo by Kelly Sullivan via Getty Images)

I thought I would be melancholy not seeing both sisters' names splashed across the screen as directors at the end of the film. However, I instead found myself incredibly proud of both Lana and Lilly for taking their careers to the next level!

In short, I loved the film for its story and performances, and I felt fulfilled seeing the updated versions of familiar visual effects. It would take multiple articles into spoiler territory to get into everything I enjoyed. However, I think I need a few viewings to process the blast of nostalgia and fan service. It's time for a second viewing here at home on HBO Max!

Have you seen the film yet? What did you love? What did you hate? Let's break it down in the comments (spoilers welcome)!

Bugs (Jessica Henwick, second from left) and some of her crew on the Mnemosyne

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5 comments on “The Matrix Resurrections: Familiar Visuals Redirect Focus to the Story”

  1. I am a bit late to the Matrix franchise as I only have seen the original. From what I have seen and heard about Resurrections, I may have to binge the rest. Also a side note, anything with NPH in it is a must watch for me!

  2. If you love, NPH, Jake, you definitely won't be disappointed! This is my second favorite of his roles (still hard to beat Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, but this came really close).

  3. I saw it at the first showing on the day it was released. While it's not the best Matrix film, I did enjoy it. The fan service made me happy, and I'm excited to see it again. I love Carrie-Anne and Keanu in these roles and it was nice to have some new characters. Wondering if Lana will make another after this.

  4. I hope this is a revival for Lana and not just a one-off film. Even if Carrie-Anne and/or Keanu don't continue, the Matrix universe is such an interesting place for future stories!

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