The second and most recent sequel to the game-changing 1999 blockbuster “The Matrix” happened 18 years ago. That’s a long time to hang tough for a third follow-up. And yet “The Matrix Resurrections,” the last Warner Bros. movie to debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max (we’ll have to wait 45 days for streaming in the future), is counting on our loyalty.
Good luck with that. Audiences can be fickle what with Marvel and DC Comics-inspired epics distracting us with Avengers, Lego Batmen and multiple webslingers from the Spider-Verse. To most millennials, Keanu Reeves isn’t Neo, the chosen One to save humanity from rogue machines. He’s John Wick, a fresher, fiercer man in black.
And yet “The Matrix Resurrections,” directed by a wowza Lana Wachowski for the first time without her sister Lilly, still holds us in its tantalizing grip. If you’ve never seen a “Matrix” movie you may have to resort to a syllabus and a highlighter to get hip to this one. Or you could just jump down the rabbit hole and go with the flow. This movie is a stone-cold trip.
Among the new characters is a dynamite Jessica Henwick as Bugs, as in Bunny, a purple-haired cyber-anarchist from the real world (or is it?) who wonders why someone is using the old Matrix code to mess with the new one.
That would be Reeves as Thomas Anderson, the creator of three “Matrix” video games that are so hot another sequel is demanded. A resistant Anderson, still in recovery from a suicide attempt, mopes around San Francisco with no memory of his past as Neo. His therapist (a cheeky Neil Patrick Harris), ominously stroking a black cat, steers him through the mental muck.
Wachowski inserts clips from “The Matrix” trilogy to ease us into Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus morphing into uber-cool Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith into a saucy and sinister Jonathan Groff as a corporate honcho who knows reboots sell even if no one can figure out whether the games are about capitalist exploitation or gender transition.
Count nothing out, even in a movie where the fight scenes seem secondhand—nothing can match the OG Neo bending his body to the trajectory of a bullet—and the philosophical mumbo-jumbo ties itself in knots of tangled self reflection. There are mirrors everywhere.
What saves “The Matrix Resurrections” from its own meta traps is the love connection between Neo and Trinity. I know, they both died in the second sequel, 2003’s “The Matrix Revolutions,” which no one liked, but sellable product never dies, not in Hollywood.
It works out great this time. Plus, it’s a kick to see scrappy beauty Carrie-Anne Moss back as Trinity. OK, when we first see her she’s Tiffany, a wife and mother with a thing for motorbikes. Still, something is triggered when Tiff and Mr. Anderson run into each other at a coffee shop.
And you know what? Reeves and Moss, both in their 50s, are funny, touching and swooningly romantic icons of cool. Their ferocity and feeling carries over to the inevitable moments when Neo and Trinity are reunited in battle in the simulated world of the Matrix.
In her fourth flight into alt-reality, Wachowski again skewers a narcotized sphere where humans dull our senses on a loop of numbing diversions. In Matrix terms that means they’re swallowing the blue pill of contented ignorance instead of the red pill of unsettling truth.
The protracted climax of vroom, vroom, vroom numbs us as well. But behind the action chaos is a powerful plea for love on a planet that’s forgotten how to nurture it. If Wachowski is “painting the sky with rainbows,” as one character puts it, she’s not doing so to deny real-world violence but to defy it. That gust of hope makes “The Matrix Resurrections” worth cheering.