After she chases the White Rabbit down a very long tunnel, Alice enters a low, shadowy hall. There are doors up and down the tunnel, but they’re all locked. As she travels into the hall, Alice wonders how she’s ever going to get out. You may find yourself asking much the same question while seeing the fourth movie in “The Matrix” trilogy, as it alternately amuses and irritates you with its fanciful world.
The series originally recalled Lewis Carroll’s elusive bunny in the first movie, the 1999 genre game changer that was jointly directed by the Wachowski twins and rapidly set audiences’ minds on fire. “Follow the white rabbit” Neo, a.k.a. the One (Keanu Reeves, cinema’s ideal savior), reads on his desktop computer, moments before doing precisely that. The chase continued and at times seemed never-ending as it endured through two sequels, comics and video games.
It also offered food for reams of essays, dissertations and scholarly books (“The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real”), taking its place as one of contemporary pop culture’s finest interpretive chew toys.
The story resumes in “The Matrix Resurrections,” which nudges the cycle onward even while it circles back to swallow its own tail. Once again, Reeves plays both Thomas Anderson and Neo, who dwell in different yet connected realities. Anderson’s world resembles our own (though airlessly art directed) but is a software program called the Matrix that’s managed by artificially intelligent machines.
Here, human avatars go about their business believing themselves free. In the series’ wittily wicked take on the circle of life, these robots hold human bodies — Anderson’s included — imprisoned in goo-filled vats, using the energy from these meat puppets to fuel the Matrix.
Directed alone by Lana Wachowski, “Resurrections” announces its ambitions after the opening titles, with their streams of cascading green code. Somewhere in the illusory world, a lady with short hair fights unsmiling men in suits and shades, a scenario that matches the violent preparations in the original film and makes you cry for Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity, Neo’s comrade in arms.
Don’t worry, she’s onboard, too, just wait. Now, though, two people are also watching the action together with us, one a guy wearing a headset (Toby Onwumere) who analyzes the action like a sports commentator right before Bugs (Jessica Henwick) dives into a very familiar conflict.
What follows plays like a passionate, narratively congested homage video to the “Matrix” cycle itself complete with numerous bullets and almost as many flashbacks to the youthful Neo. (You don’t need to relive what happened earlier in the cycle, the movie does it for you.) Once again, Anderson is in dreamland programming code, this time for his role as a video game creator working on a project named Binary.
Speaking of which: As previously, he too has an apparent choice to remain uninformed of his existential state or confront its unpleasant truth. He also meets a mystery individual dubbed both Agent Smith and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, whose silky, sepulchral voice adds shivers of menace) (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, whose velvety, sepulchral voice adds shivers of danger).
There have been several big cast changes since the third movie. Alas, missing in action are both Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne, who contributed gravitas and much-needed wit. Instead, a silky Jonathan Groff now prowls around menacingly, his boyishness having been properly weaponized for his part as a clever trickster.
A less welcome addition is Neil Patrick Harris, who delivers an unhelpful, one-dimensional performance as the Analyst. Still, not much here is different other than some of Reeve’s facial creases and salt-and-pepper hair. Characters still wear fetish attire or nubby threads, and still keep waging the fight as they brawl and yammer through the labyrinth.
Some of that yammering is entertaining simply because “The Matrix” (and its predecessors) are exemplars of what’s been dubbed mind-game movies, “a ‘certain tendency’ in contemporary cinema,” as the film theorist Thomas Elsaesser phrased it. Like others of this type, “The Matrix” plays with the perception of reality held by both the protagonist and the spectator, presents concerns about the limits of knowledge and addresses doubts about other minds and universes.
What makes mind-game movies especially fascinating — and helps explain their cultish appeal — is how they entice spectators into the game, partially by showing them worlds that they recognize. Or, as Morpheus put it once upon a time: “You’ve sensed it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.”
So, certainly, “You have many questions,” as a character called the Architect informs Neo in the first “Matrix.” No joking! That movie presented some persuasive, or at least tantalizing, answers: The world is an illusion, a simulation, an ideological prison, but it’s possible to escape with loads of firearms and cool kids in black, that is until the sequel.
The original movie provided spectators doors that they — unlike Alice — could open, allowing them to enter deeper rabbit holes. Once there, one of the more relevant readings, as the critic Andrea Long Chu has argued, is that “The Matrix” has been embraced by trans women as an allegory for gender transition. In this take, the world of illusions is the gender binary.
Whatever the bounds of allegory, this view is both intriguing and poignant. (Lana’s sister Lilly Wachowski has indicated “that was the initial intention.”) It adds emotional resonance to “Resurrection,” which gets a great lot of mileage from its — and our — wistful desire, appreciatively fuelled by Reeves and Moss’s reunion.
The actors’ honesty and perfectly matched performances have always been this series’ finest special effects, and witnessing them slip back into their old roles is a pleasure. The movie they’re in is still as beholden to the same old guns and stances as the earlier ones, the same dubious ideas about what defines coolness, the same box-office-friendly annihilating violence. But it’s nevertheless lovely to dream about an escape with them.
The Matrix Resurrections
Rated R for excessive gun and other violence. Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.