I don’t even know where to begin. The Matrix Resurrections feels like such a poorly conceived project, approached with such utter cynicism and flimsy execution, that the more I think about it, the less I like it. Any ideas about these characters and the lives they lead once the credits roll, any insight into the creative process, even a window into the very notion of identity seem paved over with dismissive platitudes and exposition that goes nowhere surrounding action set pieces that do nothing. I want to refrain from calling it a pile of shit because shit can have beneficial properties as fertilizer. I have no idea who will benefit from this.

Well, Warner Bros., I guess. Judging by some of the effects, it doesn’t look like they gave director Lana Wachowski—working from a script she co-authored with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon—much money to work with. So maybe a strong weekend at the box office and a few hundred more subscribers to HBO Max will do the trick, but come on.

There’s a hint early on in Resurrections that all of this might not be a genuine expression but a crass grasp at commercialism. This moment comes about 20 minutes in with Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) propositioned by his boss, Tech Bro Smith (Jonathan Groff), about a new Matrix game. You see, those three Matrix movies you saw back at the turn of the century were video games created by Mr. Anderson and released by Warner Bros. They became the most popular video games ever produced, and now Warner wants another bite at the apple, a fourth Matrix, and they’ll make it with or without Mr. Anderson’s assistance.

In case you’re wondering, they’re all in The Matrix. Twenty years have passed—or was it 60?—and Neo forgot he was The One. He turned his memories of The Matrix and Agent Smith into The Matrix video game and went back to living his life in simulated San Francisco. He’s still in love with Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), but she’s Tiffany now, married with a couple of kids. Not that she knows she’s Trinity any more than Mr. Anderson knows he’s Neo. For starters, Mr. Anderson doesn’t look like Neo anymore: He looks like an old white guy. But we still see Keanu: glorious long hair, stylish beard and all. Mr. Anderson sees Keanu too, I think, though he catches glimpses of his true self—or is it his false self?—occasionally in mirrors. It’s an interesting idea, but one that remains woefully underdeveloped.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix Resurrections. Photo by Murray Close. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

I’ll stop there. To recount the plot of Resurrections would both read ridiculous and take about as long as watching the movie. But did you catch that part where Warner Bros. will make a fourth Matrix with or without Mr. Anderson’s participation? Is that why Lana is back in the director’s seat and sister Lilly isn’t? The Wachowskis have worked together on every movie they’ve made since Bound in 1996, but not here. Beyond the credit “characters created by,” Lilly’s name is nowhere to be found. Curious.

Curiouser still, those other filmmaking siblings, the Coens, are also going their separate ways. And as luck would have it, Joel’s first movie without brother Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth, a highly stylized and theatrical take on The Bard’s classic, is also in theaters this week. What’s Ethan doing? Apparently, he’s going to direct theater. Curiouser and curiouser. If Lilly helms a remake of Speed Racer in the next couple of years without Lana’s help, things are going to feel pretty spooky.

It’s hard to describe the shock of watching The Matrix when it opened in 1999: A hero’s journey clad in shiny Hot Topic S&M leather, filtered through the lens of digital paranoia and social detachment. It felt like a revolution, one that pulled you down the rabbit hole so quickly the plot raced to keep up. Resurrections opens similarly to The Matrix, only less so. The image is a little crisper, less noirish, and the actors reciting familiar lines don’t look familiar. They’re all playing a part. If The Matrix was a way of recycling past conventions through a modern lens, then Resurrections aims to do the same by recycling itself—another interesting idea. Resurrections has plenty of ’em. So many it gags.

It also doesn’t help that the special effects are lifeless and the fighting wooden. In the ’99 Matrix, characters move with speed and grace, leaping effortlessly and dodging bullets. Even flying. But in Resurrections, everything looks sluggish and slow, and the fights feel wooden and heavy. Speaking of fights, one takes place on a bullet train in Japan. The passengers on the train are all wearing pandemic-era facial coverings. I guess COVID was programmed into the Matrix. But that’s just in Japan; the rest of the story takes place in San Francisco, where nary an American is seen with a mask. So, I guess anti-maskers were programmed into The Matrix as well.

Is it unfair to keep comparing Resurrections to The Matrix? Maybe, if Resurrections wasn’t trying ape The Matrix. Even the transformative qualities of Resurrections feel derivative. Did the collateral damage and casual disregard for human life outside our central cadre of heroes from the first three installments bother you? Well, what Resurrections has in store makes those gun battles look like child’s play.

There’s a question at the heart of Resurrections about what society wants: Facts and figures or fictions and feelings? In a more developed story, this could have been something meaningful, but to have a character toss it off as a line of disposable dialogue reduces it and everything around it to a cliché. The whole movie feels like a joke an executive told on the way to the bank. There’s so much here that could have been something. That there isn’t makes Resurrections all the more infuriating.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
Directed by Lana Wachowski
Written by Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon
Based on characters created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Produced by Grant Hill, James McTeigue, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 148 minutes, Opens March 22, 2021, in theaters and on HBO Max.