I recently went to see The Eternals (twice), which offered me a chance to see several trailers for other films. Trailers are often one of my favorite parts of seeing a film in theaters, but there was one trailer that really caught my attention, and I’d like to discuss it.
That trailer was Matrix: Resurrections.
When I say it “caught my attention,” I don’t mean in a good way.
The first Matrix movie dropped in 1999 and was an instant classic, like Inception and Minority Report. It was a film that bent people’s minds like they were Neo’s spine as he dodged bullets, and for plenty, it was life-changing. The sequels weren’t quite as beloved but I know at least one person who considered Matrix 2 to be the height of cinematic achievement.
So what’s up with Matrix: Resurrections, aka Matrix 4?
In Matrix: Resurrections, we have Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss returning as aged-up versions of Neo and Trinity. Matrix: Revolutions (the third Matrix film, and the second sequel) revealed that Neo’s awakening was always pre-determined, suggesting that it’s necessary for the Matrix to be “restarted” occasionally, like a glitchy old computer.
Now Neo is back in the Matrix and ready to reawaken once more, making this film both a reboot and a sequel. The trailer features scenes of Neo’s unawakened, Matrix-bound life, including going to a psychiatrist and questioning reality.
Personally, I have nothing against reboots, or revisits of old works. Sometimes, directors discover another story to be told, and that’s just fine. But is Matrix telling a new story or just rehashing some old ideas?
The Matrix has always been a curious examination of a high-minded concept (virtual reality) but since then, many of its motifs have been appropriated by subcultures that director Lana Wachowski might prefer not to be associated with. For at least ten years, “red pill” has been a term used by misogynistic “incels,” alt-right conspiracy theorists, and potentially dangerous radicalized groups. There are already some concerns that Matrix 4 is going to offer another source of conspiracy fodder for those searching for it.
In the trailer, we’re treated to Neo asking a psychiatrist if he’s crazy and the psychiatrist saying, gently, “We don’t use that term in here.” We’re then treated to a montage of his awakening: throwing his blue pills down the drain, a suggestion that his paranoia was right all along and the world is in conspiracy against him.
I don’t know about you, but the message “Don’t trust your psychiatrist, throw away your pills, and follow your d̶r̶e̶a̶m̶s̶ delusions” just doesn’t sit well with me, particularly in a day and age when mental health concerns have such huge sociopolitical impacts. (Untreated mental health issues, in particular men’s, are a major factor for alt-right radicalization.)
In 1999, The Matrix was a mind-bending flashpoint for Hollywood cinema. Over two decades later, its message has been co-opted and, like Joker or V for Vendetta, some of its imagery is used by the alt-right radicalization pipeline.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the Wachowski sisters are not fans of what their work has become. Like Hugo Weaving, they have condemned the film’s use by the alt-right as a metaphor that justifies misogyny and violence. In fact, one of the film’s major motifs was as an allegory for the experience of transgendered individuals.
The question is, does Matrix: Resurrections engage with its own long shadow, or is it merely derivative and capitalizing on nostalgia?
The original 1999 Matrix dropped alongside Web 2.0 and, in an era when digital social networks were only just entering the zeitgeist, it was truly a fresh new idea to explore. Now, digital social networks are the norm, and the concept of being locked into an artificial reality seems far less subversive. This puts Matrix: Resurrections in a bit of a jam; if it wants to be as culturally relevant as its predecessor, it will have to dig up something new to say, and it will have to do so with the awareness that it is currently a very charged and divisive franchise, with fans eager to pull it apart to further their agendas.
This is the problem faced by all counter-cultural films, of course, not just The Matrix. Any counter-cultural movement can adopt the symbolism of a parable, and because The Matrix was so highly metaphorical, it was able to be broadly interpreted (or misinterpreted) by many different subcultural groups.
In 1999, the Wachowski sisters could not have imagined that the Matrix franchise and its symbolism would be appropriated by alt-right political groups, but now they do (with Lilly Wachowski even responding to it on Twitter), so I’m curious how Matrix 4 will do us the courtesy engaging with this problem… if at all.
On one hand it could deliver a very powerful message condemning those against the conspiracies in which they find themselves. As a reboot that’s retelling a familiar story, it’s uniquely poised to do this. On the other, it could serve as yet another springboard for radicals to delve deeper into their fringe beliefs. We won’t know until Matrix: Resurrections hits theaters on December 22, 2021.