Lilly and Lana Wachowski thrive on being complicated. As directors, their calling cards are mixing disparate genres and styles—American action, Chinese martial arts, Dicksian sci-fi, Hollywood romance, German experimental thriller; you name it, they do it. And they create these mash-ups sometimes coherently (at best), other times unintelligible (at worst), like they ripped what they enjoyed from each category and squashed it altogether willy-nilly.
Take The Matrix franchise, undoubtedly the Wachowskis’ best work: They’re high-concept sci-fi movies, punctuated by bullets and kung-fu. The pair added a sheen of cyberpunk fiction over a first-year philosophy class conundrum, but they also personified hard rock music as men in slick duster coats and women in vinyl catsuits who shoot faceless goons in slo-mo as they strut. Implausible though it may sound, these movies somehow work, because the concepts always mattered more than the characters, who were glorified placeholders for either fighting or world-building exposition. The first film in particular, 1999’s The Matrix, had clever camera-work, fluid editing, and unbelievably cool action sequences that were, to quote noted film critic Mark Kermode, cinematic “game changer[s]”—not just for sci-fi, but all of the genres mashed up therein.
What were, in 1999, original and fresh ideas have now been sublimated into so much other media, whether it’s action movies borrowing the “bullet time” camera techniques, high-energy action sequences, or even the outfits. The Matrix has been, to put it another way, memed to death. It is impossible to have engaged in any form of modern pop culture since The Matrix arrived with a bang more than 20 years ago and not felt the reverberations of the Wachowskis’ film and its two initial sequels somewhere.
Having such a universal impact, regardless of whether you even enjoy their creative abilities, is not something to sniff at. This is especially so when you remember that the original The Matrix was only the siblings’ second film. (The first, Bound, was notable for centering a couple in a same-sex relationship without having homosexuality being the focus of the noir heist caper. It also established the Wachowskis’ long relationship with Joe Pantoliano, who would go on to act in The Matrix and Sense8.) But in the years since completing the initial Matrix saga, the Wachowskis have had a more speckled filmography. Together, they went on to make a number of middling films, such as Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, and at least one cult classic (Speed Racer). None has been the game-changer that The Matrix laid claim to be.
This may suggest that the Wachowskis were flukes, having one good idea within them or being unable to sustain their dense aesthetic style under its own weight. But they also made one superb TV show: Netflix’s Sense8. Over two seasons and one stand-alone, running between 2015 and 2018, the series showed that Lana and (for its first season) Lilly Wachowski had found more mature voices for their unbridled talent. The show follows eight telepathically linked individuals, who can see, embody, and feel each other’s presences around the world. Each had their own unique, supernatural problems to tackle, but the show was about how these complete strangers could—and wanted to—help each other in a world trying to harm them. It prioritized optimism, faith, and friendship in the face of its utter darkness, granting it a sense of levity that made it so special. And, as is very much of the Wachowskis’ wont, its sci-fi presentation was inclusive and progressive, confronting issues of gender, race, and sexuality. Unfortunately, due to budget and not meeting certain targets, the show was cancelled—before Netflix commissioned a finale, by virtue of fan outcry. It
Fueled heavily by the sisters’ own personal journeys, especially with coming out as trans women, Sense8’s powerful sense of self-confidence and righteous anger at an oppressive society felt novel upon its premiere. It’s core combination was one that always felt missing from the Matrix franchise: Whereas Neo was pre-destined to be The One, all the characters in Sense8 were destined to fail, yet they eventually succeeded because of their support and love for one another. In a way, it’s the strongest and most successful articulation of what the Wachowskis do best—in the same way that The Matrix Resurrections, the belated fourth film in that franchise that premiered on HBO Max over Christmas, reaffirmed it by doing the opposite.
Directed by Lana alone, The Matrix Resurrections is a film that’s dispassionate and unconcerned with its own lore. We are told about fascinating developments since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions but almost never shown them. The action sequences feature none of the over-the-top but beautifully choreographed balletic performances of the trilogy. The new crew members supporting Neo are indistinguishable in personality, all being glorified guns. The new city in which all people outside of the Matrix live, Io, is barely explored. Instead of a film that showcased the same confidence of storytelling and craft found in Lana’s most recent work, we got a shell of a Matrix film: a fanfic for the series composed of trailer-ready moments and little else to highlight the franchise’s inherent uniqueness or fascination.
In Resurrections, that ingenuity is whittled down to metatextual self-awareness, constructed in a way that winks at the viewer and undermines itself in the process.
Where Resurrections further lets down Wachowski fans is its lack of pure intentions—the sense that it exists because its creators want it to exist, wholeheartedly and in all of its outrageousness. The Wachowskis pursued all their previous films together with an earnest sense of credulity in their stories, barely bothering with subtext or metaphors; these could be found, for sure, but it was also easy to appreciate their high-concept works on their own terms without needing to pick apart each singular aspect But in Resurrections, that ingenuity is whittled down to metatextual self-awareness, constructed in a way that winks at the viewer and undermines itself in the process. The film blatantly discusses Warner Bros. bringing back a (video game) franchise called The Matrix that had both been designed by Neo and wrapped up nearly 20 years ago; Neo’s “therapist” wears blue glasses and prescribes him blue pills to continue mentally sedating him; a character called Bugs says, very seriously, “What’s up, Doc?” While there is some fun to be had in picking up on a reference (it’s hard not to chuckle when the film explicitly mocks the impetus for its own creation), when they make up the meat of the work—as is the case here—that fun dissipates quickly.
Indeed, a lack of fun is another reversal of a Wachowski hallmark: The initial three Matrix movies and Sense8, among others, are as fun as they are heady or romantic or probing. Even their most intense action sequences convey both a sense of giddiness and storytelling that defines the Wachowskis at their best: In Sense8’s memorable late-Season One escape scene, characters help another one break free from their confines, each using their strengths and knowledge, thus introducing themselves and us to their combined powers. In the original The Matrix, when Neo decides to confront Smith for the first time, instead of running away, the audience — via Morpheus — realizes something is about to change for Neo as a hero; and in Reloaded’s highway sequence, Morpheus and Trinity fight without Neo, demonstrating both their own courage and their unyielding faith in the man they continue to tell themselves is their savior. These scenes are memorable for their choreography and blistering action, but what makes them truly stand out is how they meaningfully progressed the story and told us more about the characters.
Unlike every previous Matrix film, Resurrections has no notable action scenes I can think of—and, as such, few means by which to develop its characters into anything more than archetypes. There’s no car chase, no corridor fighting, no ghost punching, no Neo dramatically fighting a Smith in a world taken over by Smiths. The quick-paced and ostentatiously stylish fighting of the first three films is gone; whereas every fight used to have the weight of the world, in Resurrections, any time Neo has to fight, it’s an inconvenience to him. Our middle-aged Neo just kind of shoves people away, not once even touching a gun.
It’s not hard to distill what makes the Wachowskis’ work so special: innovative, memorable fighting scenes, developing clever concepts to tell a heartfelt and earnest story, memorable characters and being slick as hell the whole time. The one benefit to Resurrections’ absence of these hallmarks is that it works as a re-appreciation for what it takes for Wachowskis to get it right—by seeing upfront what it looks like when it all goes wrong.