The following, written a month or two ago, is excerpted from a manuscript in progress. –w.
The Matrix / Reloaded / Revolutions / Resurrections
The release of Lana Wachowski’s Matrix Resurrections will muddy the critical legacy of the original trilogy++. Not to say it isn’t time for a reevaluation: it’s long been fashionable to backhandedly compliment The Matrix as a ‘perfect’ yet pretentious and intellectually slapdash film, complain about Reloaded as a bloated indulgence with impressive setpieces and a ludicrous ending, and dismiss Revolutions as an overlong and ultimately mundane messiah-tale. All three of these judgments are incorrect. But today’s American film audience — raised on secondhand Star Wars and Marvel’s sub-cinema of expensive reassurance, in a discursive context that prefers video ‘explainers’ and ship-fics to meaningful ambivalence — isn’t capable of meeting the original films on their own terms, and Lana Wachowski’s reinterpretation of the trilogy serves, I think, to narrow and reduce it, even while seeking new things to say about sentimental nostalgia. The Matrix trilogy is more ambitious, with more on its mind, than any ‘blockbuster’ entertainment since, and much morseo than the surprisingly modest Resurrections. It continues, even now, to transform.
The center of the Matrix story is the widely mocked and parodied conversation between Skywalker (Neo) and Emperor (The Architect), which serves as anti/climax to the astonishing second film, Reloaded. I suspect, as I did then, that the Architect scene caused titters partly because its dialogue is a little complicated, but mostly because it explicitly undermines the seemingly familiar narrative which the The Matrix had established.
The first film is the straightforward hero-story of a soul’s liberation: a young Hero fulfills his Destiny as The (Chosen) One, guided by allies from the Hidden World, only when he learns to Sacrifice his illusory Self for Love. The superbly expressive kung fu, snappy dialogue, and wondrous vfx make the Wachowskis’ tale of modern-day gnosis look like sf, but as with its key forerunner-texts Star Wars and The Invisibles, The Matrix is basically old school mythic fantasy (i.e. allegory of self-actualization and restoration to authentic existence) told using familiar, indeed universal, magical terms: Neo/Anderson (tr. ‘Son of Man’) comes to know himself and gains the powers of flight, martial mastery, truesight, transcendence of death, etc. It’s fast and funny, and has a killer ending. No wonder audiences loved it.
But Reloaded all but chucks the surface story of the first film out the window, and after a lot of baroque plotstuff it ends up with Neo confronting the Architect behind, as it were, the curtain. The villain tells the hero that the first film, ostensibly about seeing the hidden truth behind the world of illusion, is itself a long lie: the prophesied messiah, ‘The One,’ is an emergent phenomenon which the evil robots have accounted for in the design of the Matrix; the machines wrote the prophecy. The One exists to keep dissident humans in line, who otherwise might attain critical mass and actually endanger the entire system. The human city of Zion isn’t a paradise, it’s a safety valve (remember what William Empson said about those); the war between humans and machines is a line-item in the machines’ energy budget, and the ‘imaginative freedom’ peddled by The One — i.e. the regularly recurring ‘messiah’ function which our hero/avatar/figure of identification happens to be fulfilling this time around — is another system of control. It’s Plato’s caves all the way down.
On top of that explicitly political rug-pull, there’s the central philosophical proposition of the second film: ‘free will’ being an illusion, the real action is not in choice but in understanding (i.e. a combination of thinking and feeling our way into) the nature of our choosing. The mark of the awakened human isn’t ‘free’ choice, there’s no such thing; it’s insight, self-knowledge, which enables authentic living, and The Matrix‘s iconic ‘red pill’ scene will be recast in Resurrections as a fakeout, a trick — pseudo-agency, a choice undertaken in ignorance of the system which gives rise to it. The weakness of the perfectly logical computer-villain, the Architect, is that he/it can’t conceive of truly free choice. The eminent British sf novelist/critic Adam Roberts cites this as the series’s most interesting idea; I agree and am reminded of the fifth Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones. (Stay with me.) That otherwise risible film revolves on Anakin Skywalker’s private interpretation of compassion as ‘unconditional love,’ which he takes not only as ‘encouragement to love’ but as exhortation toward selfish, destructive passion — which the monkish code (to his mind hypocritically) rejects. The secret marriage that closes Clones is presented to the film’s audience as a consummation devoutly to be wished, but of course the Star Wars prequels are antiheroic tragedy, and Anakin’s willful blindness to the cost of his selfishness destroys the/his world, obligating his (and other people’s) kids to fix things, and sometimes die trying, a generation later. This is the attractive paradox at the heart of the messy but unbelievably ambitious Star Wars films, the motivating misreading which makes Empire possible. The Wachowskis make a similar move in the parodically wooden Neo/Architect scene, sabotaging the trilogy’s pleasure-system, tearing up the contract.
Not for nothing does most of the third film, Revolutions, take place in the real world — we even see the sun for the first time, my favourite moment in the trilogy. Having undercut their own apparent ‘truth will set you free’ message, the Wachowskis finished up with another conceptual backflip: Neo ends up fighting to preserve the Matrix against Agent Smith (The Zero), and ironically fulfills the messianic prophecy by ending the Machine War from the other side. There’s a soporofic mechs vs robots battle scene beneath the earth, and a glorious climactic fistfight in the (virtual) sky; the climax sees Neo deliberately lose his fight with Smith, allowing the code which created ‘The One’ to disseminate into all people plugged into the system (of control). Which is to say, Neo returns to the mundane world after his journey of self-questioning, bearing the magical gift of self-knowledge, and dies in order to share it; it’s one of the cleverest, most elegantly structured hero-journey payoffs in pop-art history. Audiences hated it. Here I’m reminded of the disturbing transhumanist finale of James Cameron’s Avatar, in which our human hero rejects his species (after mowing a bunch of American soldiers down) to become part of an alien world-tree — another weird, subversive image/message laughed out of the Overton window by the usual taste-enforcers. It’s telling that the Wachowskis took the risky path of shooting both sequels at once, embodying the gotcha at the heart of their story from the beginning: if The Matrix was about self-knowledge and the ironic irrelevance of prophecies, why were we so eager to misread it as Neuromancer-plus-Superman?
That’s the real affront of Matrix Reloaded — the Wachowski’s insistence that The One, the messiah-fairytale, wasn’t their ‘mislead’…it was our misread.
Lana Wachowski’s Resurrections doesn’t expand on the in-world mythology of the trilogy in any way, disappointing the nerds; it features hardly any fisticuffs, disappointing action fans, and (worse) what’s there is artless and weightless; it loses two of its best performers, Hugo Weaving (whose unhinged performance as Smith is one of Hollywood’s great villain turns) and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, letting down the pure nostalgists, then ironically recasts those parts with young actors whose characters are explicitly acknowledged in-world as doing a nostalgic bit — even watching clips of the first movie to ‘train up’ on their mythic destinies. Wachowski’s broadside against capitalist necrophilia (per Roberts, ‘The Reboot…our contemporary fascination with reshooting (as it might be) the same Star Wars film every few years’) feels too explicitly/narrowly contemporary to resonate in the mythic register as did the original film. The best thing about Resurrections is how weirdly personal it is: Lana Wachowski, Hollywood’s best known transsexual filmmaker, moves the action from ‘The City’ to San Francisco and shifts the allegorical focus of the original trilogy toward the comparatively mundane present-political, reducing ‘transhuman’ to ‘trans’ and losing most of what’s interesting about the trilogy but enabling a liberated explicitness of theme and message. Resurrections functions as a kind of fan-essay about the original films rather than a continuation of the original story. In the end, Trinity gains the powers of The One (the 1+1?), and she and Neo beat up the evil psychotherapist(!) who entrapped them before flying off into a rainbow sky (yes, really) with actual smiles on their faces. They’re still in the Matrix, mind you, but they’ve relieved the tension of their tantalizing artificial separation. They refuse to be rebooted as they were; one suspects they’ll now allow themselves to both live and die on their own terms, in a story no longer obligated to be heroic.
It’s lovely at times, particularly its final shot, and parts of the movie are fun, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lana needs Lily — indeed, I left the theater wondering whether the whole thing wasn’t at some level a regretful love letter to their own perhaps broken collaborative relationship, as much as to their parents whose death drove Lana Wachowski’s to revisit the story after years of refusing.
What Resurrections isn’t, makes no attempt to be, is strange — which in retrospect seems inevitable and probably healthy, but dull. The original trilogy is enveloped in mystery from its classic opening sequence (Trinity’s narrow escape from the hotel) to the Superman finale that tees up the ‘real’ story, but insofar as Resurrections is about making peace with sundered selves and being earnestly explicit about love (which literally conquers all this time around), it makes sense that its dramatic arc is one of demystification and dissipating tension. Indeed, its dramatic inertness stems partly from the fact that it seems to want to put its own world behind it; since it’s a big-budget Hollywood film rather than an experimental French or Russian one, there’s just no way in the world it’s not going to function ultimately as an affirmation. Lana Wachowski’s desire to attain and celebrate integration is purely admirable, but there’s no tension in the film, no threat — its antagonisms come off as pedantic and deflationary. (Fun fact: Resurrections premiered not in Los Angeles but at the Castro Theater, the nation’s temple of gay bourgeoisie.) It doesn’t have to explain its ideas because it doesn’t have any, just feelings; that’s beautiful in its way, but in today’s idiotic political climate there’s something weird and worrisome about the association of ‘transcending (gender) binaries’ and ‘not wrestling with ideas.’ (This isn’t to say Lana Wachowski doesn’t have ideas aplenty — only that this movie doesn’t much.) Matrix Resurrections is less a Matrix movie than a movie about the creation- and reception-history of the original trilogy, set in a parallel world. It could as easily, and more succinctly, have been an interview with its stars and director.
Which is to say that the technobody horror and erotic-philosophical charge of the original films might’ve been a side effect of whatever demons of disintegration plagued the Wachowskis from within, or maybe just natural storytelling modes for two writers who got their start scripting Clive Barker comics for Marvel…but their aesthetic upside was to ground the trilogy’s tragic transhuman transcendence in a world both as heady as the Baudrillard it namechecked and as achingly bodily (though not fleshy) as the PVC domme-wear that inspired its look. It’s enough, maybe, to note that in Resurrections Neo never changes out of his work clothes — he spends the movie dressed up, let’s face it, as middle-aged Keanu Reeves. From one angle that’s just lovely, but even if (part of) Wachowski’s point is that maturation and integration involve letting go of a suffocating attachment to thwarted longing (they do! you should!), movies still need to work. The first three, the ones the Wachowskis made together — they worked.
Indeed, the closest the movie comes to having an idea is Lana’s sly decision to replace Reloaded‘s Architect, the archetypal inhuman(e) central planner, with Neil Patrick Harris’s Analyst, whose job is to keep Neo/Thomas taking pills and trading on his reputation and allowing his memory to be ‘weaponized’ instead of doing whatever it is that movie protagonists do. The Analyst is the only interesting figure in the film, embodying the old-fashioned idea that emotional control is the trustiest means of political subjugation. This is how Lana kicks back at ‘redpill’ fetishism: the villains of Resurrections generously offer their subjects plentiful false choice, including those stupid (symbolically overloaded, wonderful) pills, but the trilogy’s story of becoming-One was about insight, inner plenty — and the Analyst knows how to manage that shouldabeen-sacred innerworld directly, cutting out the materialist middleman and speaking directly to/of desire. Harris himself remains a sympathetic figure in his own middle age, and sympathy in place of action is one pseudopolitical trap that Neo ends up having to escape. ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘We don’t use that word in here.’ Of course not: pronouncing capitalist subjects crazy is the sole domain of the state, the machine. Integrated selves might make integrated communities, and unlicensed community runs the risk (from the machine-state’s perspective) of illegibility. Better to keep Mr Anderson fixated on the problems of middle age, to keep his eyes off the possibility of a new one.
What you changed that nobody believed could ever be changed: the meaning of ‘our side.’
In a movie not exactly overflowing with strong dialogue, this — one of the new kids reminding Neo what he was once capable of — is a good line. It’s a lovely expression of solidarity, but in the context of a movie where the villain works in the ‘helping professions’ in order to monitor the inner lives of his prisoner-subjects, the line is also awfully bleak: Neo/’Tom’ pays handsomely for the Analyst to redirect him inward, chasing an atomized and isolated and terminally static ‘wellness’ instead of the (re)union which might make him fully human…at the risk of making him unrecognizable. His sense of himself as self-contained and sick is capitulation to the machine.
The first time Neo and Trinity get coffee, she’s impressed by his work on the in-world videogame, The Matrix, and pushes him to acknowledge his achievements. (This is the during the long, charming stretch of the movie that’s a kind of ‘real-person fic’ about the cast and crew of The Matrix — much the best thing in the film, but it desperately wants another dialogue pass.) Keanu/Neo/Tom misses the point, just like he’s been trained to: ‘We kept some kids entertained.’ Not just false humility, this is a failure to see art as a bridge between souls: Anderson (Wachowski, in one meaning-frame) dismisses the original story as something other than an exhortation to engage and transform, even while the cast of young would-be heroes whose lives he and Trinity made possible are begging him to support their own ongoing struggles. He mistakes ‘keeping it together’ for being whole, which requires points of interpersonal contact that a well-managed Citizen no longer possesses. The Analyst helps his patients maintain an acquiescent longing that mistakes busyness for action, spectatorship and nostalgia for meaningful engagement — helps them become Matrix fans, rather than protagonists.
Of course, the trilogy has already been here. Remember, this is how the first film ends, with Neo speaking to the machines:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. (my emph. –w.)
This is an odd moment: a movie ostensibly about choosing freedom over enslavement ends, triumphantly, with the hero explicitly announcing that the real story is what happens after the supposed hero-journey, and then offering the bad guys a role in deciding what happens next. But of course, the direct address in that scene is also aimed at the audience: I remember seeing the film in theaters nearly a quarter-century ago and understanding myself to be both one of ‘these people’ and the ‘you’ that Neo goads to action. The man even looks at the camera before flying off to begin his work, after all. He may as well say ‘Give me your hands if we be friends.’
And of course, the rest of the trilogy reveals much of Neo’s closing monologue to be merely incorrect: The One is himself an artifact of the system of control, the machines have nothing to fear from humans, and the two tribes’ fates are forever bound together. But beneath the plotstuff, the message (we might more gently say, the perspective) is consistent: emancipation, gnosis, transcendence, is ongoing work rather than a permanent achievement. Neo is just one guy, albeit a superpowered one; he is the hero but the story isn’t ‘about him,’ it’s about the magical boon he brings back to the mundane world, which is a work assignment. Even the choice to liberate oneself from the Matrix (or stay behind and pretend to eat steak) is, at a certain level, predetermined; what’s left is meaning, self-knowledge, resting transparently in that choice.
In English-language versions of Buddhist texts, the term nibbana (nirvana) often goes untranslated — it is understood, at times vaguely, as an exalted state of awakened consciousness, and the ‘exotic’ label subtly reinforces a sense of magical otherness, along with a certain unattainability. In a community which venerates the Buddha (the first truly awakened being) as a self-made semi-divine figure, this choice carries extra weight and some annoying metaphysical connotations. The American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his translations of the Pāli Canon, chooses to translate nibbana as ‘Unbinding,’ close to the literal sense of the extinguishing of a fire. The American Buddhist scholar Glen Wallis, following TB’s lead, in his own translations knocks the capital letter off the front: it’s just unbinding, an ongoing process of relinquishing our death-grip on unease/stress (dukkha, conventionally translated as ‘suffering’) as a fundamental premise of our existence. Further along the path to awakening, but still on it: awakening as skill, not reward.
This right here is a good idea.
Neo/Lana spends all of Resurrections trying to awaken from a bad dream to a better one, and then to awaken Trinity/Lana — it works, they win, and the Wachowskis remain smarter than the movies’ fans. But if Resurrections is critical of those who see the trilogy’s call to self-knowledge and ongoing action as mere entertainment (while ruefully acknowleding how easy and tempting it is to see it that way), it doesn’t join in the original work. In the end Love Conquers All, which is a fine message for those living in this world but, as Paul McCartney might’ve told John Lennon, not much of a plan for changing it. Our young sequel-Morpheus tells Neo…
You gotta fight for your goddamn life if you want to see Trinity again.
…which is, lemme tell you, the actual best line in the movie by a long leap, stirring in context — but the movie can’t live up to it. It ends with Neo/Keanu and Trinity/Carrie-Ann thanking the villain for giving them ‘a second chance.’ Irony and self-reference, sure, but not only. The trilogy had the good guys fighting for peace; this adjunct-art sees them settling into love, if not for it. The Matrix movies have gotten old. That’s OK.