Keanu Reeves is just a guy who can’t say no (to a reunion; see Bill & Ted Face the Music). His character seemed a goner at the end of The Matrix Revolutions aka The Matrix 3. But in the year that F9’s Han bounced back from the grave, it’s no huge surprise that computer hacker turned Christ-figure, Thomas Anderson/Neo, should turn out to be alive and kicking.
Well, not kicking. Thanks to the blue pills prescribed by Thomas’s therapist (Neil Patrick Harris), Thomas hasn’t kung-fued in a long time. He’s now a legendary video games designer for Warner Bros, who are busy demanding a sequel to Thomas’s most famous creation. Meanwhile, our hero is glued to the loo, racked by existential doubt, or possibly haemorrhoids.
“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” That’s a typically meta line from an ambitious sci-fi extravaganza that is itself, of course, exploiting our addiction to the past. Director/co-writer/producer Lana Wachowski, in returning to the influential and ground-breaking franchise that she and her sister kick-started in 1999, seems determined to have some fun at the expense of her “beloved parent company”. If she doesn’t exactly bite the hand of Warners, she has a fierce nibble, essentially suggesting if she hadn’t taken the job, it would have been given to someone else and that the corporation sees the series as an excuse for “bullet time.”
Compared to the famously labyrinthine plots of Matrix 2 and 3, this one is simple. Thomas, in between taking his meds (a nicely topical touch; respectable pill-popping has never been so widespread) is confronted by a fresh-faced version of his old pal, Morpheus (Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), alongside a punky, blue-haired stranger, Bugs (Game of Thrones’ Jessica Henwick).
The pair tell Thomas/Neo he needs to dump the blue chill pills and, once again, try a mind-altering red one. All Thomas wants to do, though, is stay close to careworn mother-of-two Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Neo’s one-time lover, Trinity. Will Thomas’s love for Tiffany be his undoing or set him free?
Lana’s sister, Lilly, has famously distanced herself from this project, but those who take against it simply because it’s a sequel are being unfair. Stephen Dedalus was first introduced by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only to reappear in Ulysses. No one said, “Tsk. Jim’s really going backwards with this one!” Deep characters are worth revisiting.
Wachowski could have paired Thomas/Neo with a super-young, conventionally babelicious new love interest (one who applauded while Thomas saved the world). So, yeah, that doesn’t happen. Thanks to a 2013 Reddit forum, “taking the Red pill” became short-hand for waking up to the fact that modern men are ill-used and need to assert their rights. Wachowski has now made it impossible for the Matrix films to be lumped in with such hokum.
As you’d expect, Reeves and Moss sell the frayed chemistry of Neo and Trinity with gorgeous gusto. Reeves ensures Thomas is four-dimensionally fragile (when Thomas delivers the line “I never had kids” it really stings). And Moss endows the more robust Tiffany with just the right amount of real-world fury.
I also loved the pent-up and desperate execs at “Warners”, and Berg (Brian J. Smith), the Neo groupie on Bugs’ ship, who dissects Thomas’s appearance with half-creepy, half-adorable fervour (“The beard and the long hair? That totally works for me!”)
True, the rest of the supporting cast are a bit of a disappointment, with Morpheus repeatedly eclipsed by his wardrobe. As he showed in Candyman, Abdul-Mateen II is an intelligent and witty performer, but when he climbs walls and wrecks joints, it feels like catwalk carnage.
Also on the flimsy side is the silky new Agent Smith (Jonathan Groff), the noble “exit program” Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who spends an inordinate amount of time looking down a new-fangled well), the spittle-spewing informant Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), and conflicted rebel chief Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith).
It’s a problem that nothing and no one in these landscapes is truly scary. The only time I felt dread was when a “wise” or “zany” character opened their mouth. “We need to talk,” says Niobe. Fair enough, but do we have to listen?
As for the zombies… Let’s just say, Matrix 4 needed zombies like a fish needs a gym pass. Still, why carp when so much about this blockbuster is bold?
The movie that Lana has made doesn’t feel radically different in tone from the other Matrix movies. At one point, the villain of the piece strokes a cat like a sinister, modern-day Blofeld. In the blink of an eye, it’s Neo who’s fondling the pussy. To put it another way, what’s signified by the film’s signifiers keeps shifting. Don DeLillo gave his permission for a quote to be used from his 1971 novel, Americana. It’s that kind of cinematic experience. And many of the visuals are startling. A sequence in which bodies squeeze through a tiny mirror is worthy of Cocteau and some exuberant, last-act sky diving is memorable.
Who knows if all this will connect with audiences? Spider-Man: No Way Home is a shining example of a project that gives smart fans what they want. Wachowski’s mission is altogether more complicated and, in that the finished film is both talky and sometimes generically wham-bam, may well fall foul of action junkies and art-house viewers alike.
But at least Wachowski is trying. This could have been a purely cynical attempt to part us from our cash. Or, just as bad, an exercise in self-congratulation. Wow! Watch Lana dodge those bullets.
Cert 15, 148 mins. In cinemas from December 22