The Matrix Resurrections: Self-Awareness and Romance in the Digital Age

Article ID: JAR2201CB | By: Cole Burgett

The Matrix Resurrections

Directed by Lana Wachowski

(Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021)

Rated R

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections.**


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​In 1999, the world was in a different place. Y2K loomed, personal computerized technology was still coming into its own, and September 11 was just another day. And into this world the Wachowskis came running and gunning with their runaway Academy Award-winning hit, The Matrix, changing the landscape of what brainy, science-fiction, action-adventure movies could be, seemingly overnight. Now, more than two decades later, that original film still holds up as one of cinema’s most innovative and breathtakingly imaginative achievements.

The premise of The Matrix looks something like this: in a distant future, intelligent machines have created a simulated reality (the titular Matrix) to keep humanity enslaved while harvesting their bodies as a source of energy. To the humans “plugged in” to the Matrix, their mundane world looks very much like our own and they go about their daily lives with jobs and families. However, other humans have found a way out of the Matrix, and in doing so have learned to manipulate the rules of the program to “bend reality” to their will. Computer hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), known by his hacker alias “Neo,” is drawn out of the Matrix and into a war of rebellion against the machines, a war fought both inside and outside of the Matrix, to free the minds of the humans still enslaved.

When The Matrix released, it brought with it no small amount of philosophical debate. The film’s mythic undertones (Neo potentially being “the One,” a long-prophesied figure said to be capable of bringing about the war’s end), blended with a skeptical view of reality, made the film a popular postmodern philosophical and religious studies hit. “The Matrix,” wrote Brian Godawa in 2004, “has reshaped the sci-fi genre for our postmodern era.”1 Two decidedly less-popular sequels in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, wrapped up the primary story. Neo sacrificed himself to end the war and usher in an era of peace between humans and machines. Now, with The Matrix Resurrections, we have the next chapter in the story.

A New Iteration. Neo, it turns out, was brought back to life by the machines along with his lover, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), after the events of the last film. Under a new architect dubbed the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), both Neo and Trinity have been kept alive, their bodies used as conduits to keep a new iteration of the Matrix up and running. The story plays out quite intentionally like a mirror-universe parallel to the original film, with noticeable twists in the storyline. This cyclical approach to the narrative is one of the key mythic ideas that the original trilogy explored — the nature of the same story being told again but with slight differences in every iteration.

The forbidden romance between a newly re-awakened Neo and Trinity — still trapped in the new Matrix as a woman named Tiffany, complete with a fabricated husband and children — is the hinge upon which Resurrections turns. And while some reviewers and fans have found this more intimate approach bizarre and uncharacteristic of a film series built upon intense and sweeping action, others have responded to it. “It’s about love as an action,” writes Rosie Knight. “Love as a motivator. This is a film about romantic love that can save yourself and the world.”2

Knight’s analysis echoes the words of the film’s director, Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, who credited grief in the wake of her parents’ death as the catalyst for this story.3 Both romance and grief play significant roles in a tale tinged with heartache and regret, as familiar faces make new appearances. Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), for example, the tough-as-nails former captain, now leads the city of IO, where humans and machines live in peaceful coexistence after the destruction of Zion, the last bastion of humanity in the previous films. She is much older now, embittered, and skeptical of Neo’s return. Her mistrust of former allies, stemming from remorse, provides much of the narrative conflict in the latter portion of the film. Within the Matrix, a haunted and traumatized Anderson also struggles with his memories from the previous films. This angle is explored through therapy sessions with the villainous Analyst.

Self-Aware Storytelling. One of the highlights of Resurrections is its overt self-awareness (what the kids call “meta” these days — an adjective to describe something self-referential). In the age of Marvel and the quippy, breezy, ironic, self-referential blockbuster — which I have grown immensely tired of — Resurrections takes the self-awareness to a whole new level, and then kicks it up a few more notches to make a point. The early part of the film revolves around Neo, now back in the Matrix again as Thomas Anderson, having packaged the events of the former films as a successful video game (a matrix within the Matrix), to which the company that owns the game in the Matrix (Warner Brothers) now wants to develop sequels. It’s all very wheels-within-wheels, and the rabbit hole goes very deep.

Reviewer David Grossman writes, “While this may seem desperately meta to some, it can also be seen as an earnest storyteller trying to regain their narrative in a world where narrative has become cheap.”4 And herein lies the problem with the current blockbuster age: viewers often sabotage their own viewing experiences through cynicism fed by the insincere corporate packaging and re-selling of narrative tropes. I strongly resonate with Jake Coyle’s words in the Associated Press review of Resurrections: “This is a kind of personal blockbuster-making seldom made and that, flaws and all, I would take over many more slickly composed, more blatantly corporate products.”5

In other words, all the pop philosophy that rattled the cage in the original has been exchanged for irony and self-aware storytelling — which itself is ironic considering the age of the blockbuster in which we currently live. Whether or not Resurrections scratches your mind-bending sci-fi itch, there is a certain brazen boldness to making a modern sequel in a way that calls attention to (and critiques) how modern sequels are made using the same techniques modern filmmakers use in the making of said sequels.

But it would be a grave mistake to characterize Resurrections singularly as a “meta” movie. The film does interact with the current cultural climate in the way the original film interacted with the culture surrounding emerging technologies. Take the trauma therapy sessions, for example. Trauma studies has undergone a resurgence in recent years with “cognitive processing therapy,” which looks a lot like the techniques employed by the Analyst to keep Neo conditioned to the false reality of the Matrix. “We are living through a gold rush of movies and TV shows that proclaim they are really ‘about’ trauma,” comments Emily VanDerWerff, taking aim specifically at Marvel films. “The Matrix Resurrections’ use of trauma as a seemingly trendy buzzword is similarly in conversation with modern blockbuster culture….It’s a strike against trauma as a cheap storytelling device.”6

Neo the Messiah. Beyond the critique of modern blockbusters, Resurrections takes the messianic overtones the previous trilogy employed and brings Neo’s character arc more closely in line with the Christ narrative of Scripture. Make no mistake, Resurrections is a sequel, not a reboot — the story continues with Neo’s resurrection. In this film, as with the original trilogy, you will find traces of familiar images drawn from myths around the world, including the narrative presented in the pages of Scripture. It’s a fool’s errand to try and draw one-to-one parallels with the Christ story in Resurrections, just as it was with the original trilogy’s messianic bend. Christian thinkers too quick to jump to those corollaries will undoubtedly find themselves disappointed; nevertheless, there is sure to be a lot of ink spilled in the next year by Christian philosophers who feel the need to explain that Neo is not Jesus, as if that is not painfully obvious. What Godawa wrote about the originals holds true here: “any similarities between themes or characters in The Matrix trilogy and orthodox Christianity are merely superficial.”7

Yet there is something to be said for earnest storytelling, and that is what Resurrections presents without pretense. When the window dressings of mythic conventions are stripped away and you get down to the nuts and bolts of the narrative, what you find is a story that, if nothing else, gives you something to think about. If the 1999 original is notable for capturing the zeitgeist, then 2021’s Resurrections has done the same, showing us how far we have come in a relatively short span of time. “Its modern incarnation is a cry of protest against…society’s willingness to trade individual agency for the neurological reward pellets of the Online,” observes Politico’s Derek Robertson.8

The Matrix came about as the Internet was on the precipice of the global commercial network — a world before Facebook, before Twitter. A slower world, it seems, and an older one. The Matrix Resurrections returns to a world firmly in the grip of the network, where thoughts must break at 280 characters, and the greatest fear is being “cancelled” on social media. We have actually given power to something that exists in an artificial construct. If anything, it seems, we live our lives all but plugged into the Matrix — and not unwillingly so. Perhaps the Analyst’s words ring true, “The sheeple aren’t going anywhere. They like my world. They don’t like this sentimentality. They don’t want freedom or empowerment. They want to be controlled.”9

In 1999, everyone paused for just a moment leaving the theater and wondered if, perhaps, we were all in the Matrix. In 2021, in the digital age, it seems most have decided that’s exactly where they would rather be. —Cole Burgett

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.

NOTES

  1. Brian Godawa, “The Matrix: Unloaded Revelations,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004), https://www.equip.org/article/the-matrix-unloaded-revelations/.
  2. Rosie Knight, “The Matrix Resurrections Real Super Power Is Romance,” Nerdist, December 22, 2021, https://nerdist.com/article/matrix-resurrections-real-superpower-is-romance/.
  3. Nick Romano, “Lana Wachowski Says Bringing Back Neo and Trinity for The Matrix 4 Helped Her Grieve,” Entertainment Weekly, September 14, 2021, https://ew.com/movies/lana-wachowski-neo-trinity-return-matrix-4-helped-her-grieve/.
  4.  David Grossman, “The Matrix Resurrections’ Meta Streak Sets It Apart from the Jurassic Worlds of the World,” Polygon, December 28, 2021, https://www.polygon.com/22852993/the-matrix-resurrections-meta-story.
  5. Jake Coyle, “Review: ‘Matrix Resurrections’ Rewrites Its Programming,” Associated Press, December 21, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/matrix-resurrections-film-review-8e13046a5a0268f482b1c20e272a0c02.
  6. Emily VanDerWerff, “Too Many Movies Right Now Are ‘about Trauma.’ The Matrix Resurrections Actually Does the Work,” Vox.com, December 24, 2021, https://www.vox.com/culture/22847558/the-matrix-resurrections-4-spoilers-review-neo-therapy-mental-health-trauma.
  7. Godawa, “The Matrix: Unloaded Revelations.”
  8. Derek Robertson, “‘The Matrix Resurrections’ Tries to Un-Redpill America,” Politico, December 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/12/23/matrix-resurrections-review-red-pill-america-526038.
  9. The Matrix Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski, written by Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021).
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