Movie review

The first “Matrix” movie is the best one by far. In 1999, it redefined sci-fi filmmaking. With its bullet time, its pinwheeling wire-work fight scenes and its incredibly dense multilayered plotting, it was like nothing moviegoers had seen before in a big-screen Hollywood picture.

The two sequels, both released in 2003, “The Matrix Reloaded’ and “The Matrix Revolutions,” didn’t really measure up. They amplified the original but broke no new ground.

Enter “The Matrix Resurrections.” It harks back directly to the original, with several characters explicitly acknowledging the connection: “After all these years, to be going back to where it all started. Back to the ‘The Matrix,’ ” one intones.

Its opening scene is a reprise of the start of the original, with a squad of cops, soon to be dead, busting in on the character Trinity. Off to the side an observer watches and remarks, “We know this is how it all began.” And then promptly realizes something, somehow, is different.

And away we go. Through the looking glass (literally) into a “Matrix” world both very familiar and oddly strange. Mimicking the original, and then bending it.

Writer-director Lana Wachowski, flying solo this time without sibling Lilly, her collaborator on the previous three pictures, operates from the premise that the original has become so deeply embedded in popular culture that we the audience are living in a world shaped by “The Matrix.”

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Neo. Trinity. Morpheus. Red Pill. Blue Pill. All are instantly recognizable pop cultural touchstones. Fans of the series know them. Or think we do. Wachowski cleverly plays with that.

Keanu Reeves, bearded and these days answering to the name Thomas Anderson, his moniker before he took the red pill, is a renowned video game designer. His game? “The Matrix.” His fame? Universal. People around the world love that game. They revere him. Fans go gaga in his presence. He’s the star of a big corporation. His games have inspired three movies. Warner Brothers, he’s told in a board meeting, wants a fourth.

He’s abashed by this fame and also disturbed. He doesn’t know the source of his inspiration for the game. He has no memory of being Neo. Well, that’s not quite true. He has nightmares. Flash-cut visions of scenes from “The Matrix” series bedevil his brain. He’s in therapy. “Am I crazy?” he asks his therapist, played by Neil Patrick Harris. “We don’t use that word in here,” Harris replies. There’s something about him, as he says it. Something indefinably off.

Eventually Anderson encounters a mom named Tiffany (Carrie-Ann Moss) in a coffee shop. They both seem familiar to each other. “Have we met?’ she asks. Not as far as he knows.

“The Matrix,” at heart, is a grand love story between Neo and Trinity/Tiffany, and the story as it develops is of two people trying with agonizing slowness first to recall and then rekindle the great love they had.

Other well-known characters enter. Here’s Morpheus. But he’s not played by Laurence Fishburne. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, a very authoritative presence, now has the role. Agent Smith is here, but Hugo Weaving is not. Jonathan Groff has the part, mimicking Weaving’s distinctive vocal inflections. And the character is Anderson’s boss at the video game company.

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Unlike other franchises where actors are swapped in and out of iconic roles and the change is unacknowledged — think James Bond — Wachowski makes the changes a crucial part of the story. Abdul-Mateen explains to Anderson/Neo that he is indeed not the Morpheus Neo knows and that’s why Neo doesn’t recognize him. Reality in “The Matrix” is plastic, fungible. “What is reality?” is the key question in “The Matrix.” The machines that control the humans in the Matrix use carefully constructed fantasy to conceal the real nature of the world of the Matrix, where human beings are used as unconscious fuel for the machines.

Greatest-hits set pieces from “The Matrix” — the dojo bout between Neo and Morpheus, the bruising gravity-defying fights with Smith — are re-created but with subtle changes. Thus is ”The Matrix,” reimagined. Wachowski has taken the familiar and modified it in such a way to make it seem new. It’s a brilliant act of transformation.

“The Matrix Resurrections” ★★★★ (out of four)

With Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jada Pinkett Smith, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Lana Wachowski, from a screenplay by Wachowski, David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon. 136 minutes. Rated R for violence and some language. Opens at multiple theaters, and streams on HBO Max, starting Dec. 22.

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