Over the last year I’ve noticed an increase in advertisements for so-called “immersive experiences,” or exhibits that use 360-degree projections and virtual reality headsets to display famous paintings in convention centers and galleries. In Toronto alone you can pay 50 to 100 dollars for a ticket to Immersive Klimt, Immersive Van Gogh, Beyond Monet, or Frida: Immersive Dream. Such spectacles profit from the idea that enlargement yields a more enriching, more generative experience of painting than an encounter with the true size of a canvas. Meanwhile, at the Art Gallery of Ontario and for less than half the price, I was surprised to find that Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room is only 50 by 60 centimeters. Despite the need to squint I understood that I was the smaller subject. Less is not always more, but more is so often less.
In essence a Matrix-themed immersive experience, Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections contains an overcompensatory metanarrative of stretched-out proportions. To borrow a line from Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker, another science fiction sequel that treats revivification as its skeleton key, somehow Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has returned. Morpheus—an alternate iteration of the character previously played by Lawrence Fishburne—must locate and awaken Neo (Keanu Reeves), the chosen One presumed to have died after saving humanity at the end of the Machine War in The Matrix Revolutions (2003). 60 years after the war, the rebooted Matrix is a neoliberal corporate hell where the balmy colors of a Corporate Memphis graphic have taken the place of monochromatic greens and the sky-rises are populated by hipster-techies who debate whether “ideas are the new sexy.” Here Neo is Thomas Anderson (Reeves), a Hideo Kojima-esque video game auteur—and a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Wachowski—pressured by Warner Bros. and his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) to make a sequel for his game series The Matrix. Thomas is too beleaguered by visions about flying above the fabric of reality to care for the project. His Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him a prescription for blue pills and urges him to press on. More work, more sequels. Fortunately for our hero this is not the real world. The machines have manipulated Neo’s digital self-image (DSI) so that no one in the Matrix sees him as he sees himself. His actual body awaits outside in that familiar pod.
Lilly Wachowski described the idea of a fourth Matrix film as “expressly unappealing” and “emotionally unfulfilling.” As if in rebuttal to those who share that sentiment, Resurrections incorporates cut-backs, Easter eggs, and addendums to prove how and why it has great purpose, deep meaning, and heart. A tacky mix of reds and blues dominate every scene as treats for the clue-obsessed. The film’s veneer of reflexivity fails to conceal that the plot is a simple rescue. Though Neo eventually escapes the Matrix, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is still stuck there as Tiffany, a mother of three married to a man very aptly named Chad. Because humans can only leave the simulation voluntarily, Neo sets out to help Trinity cast her mind back and make her own decision to join him. Back into the rabbit hole he goes. He’s followed by Morpheus and a new character named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who bring with them a racially diverse group of rebels—many of them former cast members of Sense8—who’ve ennobled Neo and Trinity as legendary martyrs of the cause. (Though the films don’t exactly fit the template of a white savior narrative, I share Armond White’s skeptical view that the Wachowskis’ screenplays treat “race and ethnicity as dramatic ballast.” Resurrections continues the lopsided postracial fantasy of The Matrix films, in which racialized people exhibit little else but the exotic virtues of robotic resilience and helpfulness to white people.) Copious amounts of footage from the trilogy are intercut with identically-framed shots and repeated lines of dialogue from Resurrections. Identifying compositional parallels between multiple films is cinephilic muscle memory, even more so for the screenshotting generation. Thus Wachowski’s supplementary materials, which drag the eye from the past to the mismatched present, immediately become redundant and unwelcome reminders of bygone innovations. With few aesthetic distinctions but its referential devices, Resurrections regresses to being a feature-length explainer video about itself.
Like updated software, the high key lighting and steadicam close-ups of Resurrections distinguish it from the trilogy’s chiaroscuro and symmetrical wide shots. The argument that the look accomplishes an “intentional ugliness” undermines the labor that the Wachowskis have put into evolving their palette with a consistency seen across Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8. However, it is apparent that as the Wachowskis have shifted from analog to digital and towards a preference for fully lit subjects, their images have lost visual depth in the same way an absence of brushstrokes and shadows makes even the most expensive of Bouguereau’s photorealist paintings appear flat. The dullness of Resurrections is contagious. Within the frame it contaminates the costumes and the choreographed action and the visual effects. Members of Thomas Anderson’s team (a gaggle of nerds and fans) describe the need for a “new bullet time” in the latest Matrix sequel to keep consumers interested, unaware that bullet time was an ability that once allowed Neo to be free. In lieu of validating these expectations, Wachowski executes an oblique inversion of the concept: an effect that utilizes multiple cameras and frame rates—and the aid of artificial intelligence—to show Neo and the Analyst (who now possesses Neo’s powers) moving at different speeds. The Analyst slows down time to quash Neo’s attack, rendering Neo a passive audience to a protracted monologue about humans and their primitive feelings, which the Analyst says are “so much easier to control than facts.” Busy but unproductive cutting—and the monologue itself, which relies on callow Tweet-length maxims to convey the Analyst’s depravity—gives the scene a starkly pedestrian quality, in spite of its many meticulously crafted computer-generated details.
Ingmar Bergman understood that new technology must capture the vulnerability of new terrain. His film Saraband (2003), the sequel to Scenes from A Marriage (1973), uses an HDTV camera to produce the raw texture of growing old together: a mixture of wrinkles and spots, waxy gray hair, and creased photographs. In the pods where they’ve been revived and held captive for over six decades, Neo and Trinity have aged only twenty years. Their prophetically-fated love affair is hazy in detail, as they've been deprived of any mundane comforts. It is through the mythic obscurity of Neo and Trinity’s relationship that Lana Wachowski contends with the efficacy of queer subtext in the blockbuster. The Wachowskis’ original screenplay for The Matrix (1999) describes the character of Switch (Belinda McClory) as a man in the real world and a woman in the Matrix. Warner Bros. rejected the idea, purportedly concerned that it would be too complicated for the audience. Too dangerous, rather, because it asserts the social construct of cisheteronormativity as a fundamental means of oppression within the Matrix and the existence of an exit from that construct. Wachowski reassigns the ideological function of the role to Neo and Trinity, whose return to the Matrix as Thomas and Tiffany signifies the nonlinear trajectory of transition. Against media portrayals of one definitive traumatic moment as the starting point of or break in a trans person's life, scholar Alexandra Juhasz states that "it would be interesting to see the fifth traumatic rupture. What does that look like, the fifth time the family or the person goes through it?" Neo and Trinity's choice of a true self must be made again and again, against recurring challenges that are not only corporeal but psychical: the ebb and flow of dysphoria, the constraints of a traditional family structure, psychiatric and medical maltreatment, the pressure to detransition, the incessant deadnaming, the search for someone who sees and loves you as you. All of these are to be somehow managed within the little time available outside of the hours spent at a stultifying job.
In an interview with Cáel M. Keegan, Lana Wachowski (who came out as a trans woman to family and friends during the production of The Matrix Reloaded and Resurrections in 2002, then publicly in 2012) describes entering the Tate Britain and moving between the “classical room” and the “queer room” downstairs, seeing the disparity between the two and “[wanting] those queer paintings to be in Gallery 57.” The subtexting throughout Resurrections—which depicts two presumably cisgendered actors filling the soft mold of a queer romance whether they’re aware of it or not—demonstrates an attempt to infiltrate the main floor. But although Resurrections lays out the hows and whys of queer subtext, the film does not interrogate its central paradox, the richness of its slippery risk. When seamlessly integrated, queer subtext does not alienate. It simultaneously affirms the knowing spectator and accommodates the unknowing spectator, just as it lures in the teetering curious ones. And at once queer subtext can contain subversive messaging and meet corporate demand for broad palatability.
The maelstrom of multitudinous interpretations has been both a boon to the Matrix franchise and the thorn in its side. Many queer and trans fans point to the red color of prescription estrogen (specifically the Premarin tablet) in the 1990s as one of many signs that The Matrix is a trans allegory. (Lilly Wachowski—who came out as a trans woman in 2016—has confirmed that this was the “original intent” for the film, even as she and her sister were “coming from a closeted point of view.”) Writer Andrea Long Chu offers her own contrarian take in Females: A Concern, writing that hormone therapy is more like going "back into the simulation" of gender because the prescription estrogen that she takes comes in the form of a blue pill. For the men’s rights activists, anti-semites, and white supremacists who eschew context and intent, the red pill is their coat of arms against the blue pill of liberal brainwashing. Resurrections endeavors to steer audiences away from these right-wing readings, but its subtextual cues veer towards the superficial due to a lack of exactitude. For instance, that Bugs has blue hair and the Analyst has a red office is meant to challenge the reductive conception of the red and blue pill as good versus evil and to discourage binary thinking altogether. (Binary happens to be the name of Thomas Anderson’s over-budget passion project, a game he’s forced to give up because the people want more Matrix.) But is non-binary thinking necessarily queer, or even progressive? The film’s aim to intervene in a discourse about itself distracts from a confrontation with the material circumstances—the contradictions and compromises insinuated by the brief and early mention of Warner Bros.—that produce such disparities among spectators. Resurrections ends with Neo and Trinity reunited, looming over the weakened Analyst who scoffs at their victory. The Analyst remarks that even if they were to “paint the sky with rainbows,” the “sheeple [...] don’t want freedom and empowerment. They want to be controlled.” Rebuffing his sarcasm, Neo and Trinity put on their sunglasses and fly away to the resounding horns and trumpets of a Rage Against the Machine cover by the band Brass Against. Together the lovers vow to remake the Matrix, and maybe even paint the sky with rainbows per the Analyst’s suggestion. Will it be easier there, to make genuinely great art that amounts to more than the sum of its inconclusive evidence?