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► The Matrix: Resurrections is in UK cinemas now. 

Death is a prerequisite for resurrection, and the thesis of Lana Wachowski’s fourth Matrix movie seems to be that the franchise expired due to a peculiar form of over-exposure, a victim of its own paradigm-shifting commercial success. That Resurrections not so subtly implies that the culprit was its own parent company Warner Bros – who, in Wachowski’s wryly torqued version of reality, released her and her sibling Lily’s 1999 hit as a first-person simulation video-game – heralds a uniquely ambivalent exercise in brand extension, undertaken by a director with simultaneously a chip on her shoulder and her heart on her sleeve.

In plot terms, The Matrix: Resurrections is structured – self-consciously, and at first very effectively – as a replay of its source material, with Keanu Reeves’s Thomas Anderson again coming to terms with his entrapment in an immersive virtual world.

The self-actualisation is complicated this time by the fact that our erstwhile Neo also believes himself to be the engineer of the aforementioned – and fictional – Matrix series, a detail spun by Anderson’s analyst (a coy Neil Patrick Harris) as the blurring of a line between creative genius and paranoid delusions, a technocratic form of gaslighting. (Harris’s dry line-readings as the Machines’ resident mind-fucker are funny, although he’s outshone by a suave Jonathan Groff as the latest iteration of Hugo Weaving’s villainous Agent Smith).

It’s not until he is liberated from the seductive notion that the Matrix and all its slick tropes – leather jackets, sunglasses, automatic weaponry – have been spun from his subconscious that Anderson can perceive the terms of his enslavement and potential emancipation. But his sense of purpose, and the movie’s sense of passion, don’t become properly inflamed until he realises that to fix things he must extricate Tiffany – the memory-wiped alter ego of his lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) – from her deadening suburban-mom programming.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss in The Matrix Resurrections
Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss in The Matrix Resurrections
© Courtesy of Warner Bros

Sadly, the action isn’t a patch on its predecessors, even when it mimics their choreography; the only indelible images this time involve plugged-in civilians repurposed by the Matrix as suicide dive-bombers, a conceit that almost exceeds its sci-fi pulpiness to become truly disturbing.

What made The Matrix such a revelation twenty-plus years ago wasn’t just its wire-fu-meets-Xbox aesthetics but the spaciousness of its cultural and technological allegory. In imagining a sinister MMORPG as vast and complex as the world itself, the Wachowskis gave academics and fandoms alike plenty of room to pick and choose their own interpretative rubrics: satire, cautionary tale, prophecy, style book, whatever.

The true twist of Resurrections isn’t the gag of a sequel set in a world where The Matrix already exists as valuable intellectual property, or a nicely layered revelation about Neo’s divinity, but rather Wachowski’s urgent attempt to reclaim her work’s imperilled ideological meanings. The online terminology of ‘redpilling’, a term eagerly adopted by certain reactionary, conspiratorially minded Internet factions to describe a break with woke orthodoxy or ‘fake news’, is duly deconstructed here, while Wachowski’s increasing interest and insistence on transgender politics (and poetics) is placed front and centre, especially in a late sequence that doubles as the film’s most crowd-pleasing moment.

In truth, not everything in The Matrix: Resurrections is so stirring or effective: the solidity of the bookending sections means the movie holds together, but it sags in the middle beneath the weight of its own elaborate mythology, as well as a Hollywood gigantism that Wachowski critiques without necessarily fully subverting. It’s also telling that Reeves, who was genuinely great in the original as a character awakening to a new and unfathomable knowledge of the world, is a bit draggy and uninspired this time out; even as the character feels inflected by extra-textual business like the ‘sad Keanu’ memes, the actor is cut off from the sloe-eyed beguilement that marks his best performances.

The standout in the supporting cast is Jessica Henwick’s blue-eyed, steely-cool Resistance hacker Bugs (the Looney Tunes reference is intentional), whose ardent, near-religious faith in Neo – and idolisation of Trinity – marks her as an empathetic stand-in for the core, adoring fanbase Resurrections means to honour.

It may be that by selectively narrowing her material’s appeal and address without reducing its scale, Wachowski is fighting a knowingly losing battle against an industry that ultimately values the bottom line (and the assembly line); but in a moment when most blockbusters are designed to be swallowed whole (and with habit-forming side effects), her jagged (not so) little pill is a welcome antidote.