(Spoilers, spoilers, and so many spoilers…)
In 1999, I sat in a movie theatre and watched Laurence Fishburne tell Keanu Reeves that a machine race had enslaved human beings to turn them “into this.” He held up a Duracell battery, the audience gasped, and I probably rolled my eyes.
By then, the movie had completely lost me. I don’t know when I got to the point of no return, but I suspect it was at the interrogation scene, when Thomas Anderson loses his “ability to speak,” shall we say, and is “bugged” literally and figuratively using an uncommon orifice.
Jessica Henwick, who plays Bugs in Matrix Resurrections, recalled that the scene scarred her as a child. I imagine it would have done so for me as well, even at age 24, if I was not already not on board with the film, whose melodrama and overdone cool I took literally at the time.
So for over 20 years, I had shelved The Matrix in my mind.
But then a couple of weeks ago that pleasantly humorous scene from Resurrections began circulating — Thomas Anderson again presented with the red pill, and responding, “oh no, no, no. No, no, no, no…” — and I did what you couldn’t do in 1999, which was pull up The Matrix on demand and find myself transformed.
Or, as a child in the film might say, “it is not [the movie] that bends, it is only yourself.”
It was, a little over two weeks ago now, that I was re-watching The Matrix, with a kind of gleeful enjoyment, and a little over a week ago that I was first watching Resurrections and experiencing the head trip. Not the head trip of asking who are we or what is reality — for that discussion, here’s a little Ram Dass — but instead, how does time transform us and finesse our understanding of love.
Resurrections asks us in subtle ways to think about time, and aging, and what ultimately makes it all worth it. But I’ll get there. Give me a few hundred more words, or scroll down.
If the first time around The Matrix lost me at face-stitching, the second time around it had me at mescaline — a casual joke made by customers at Neo’s door, the kind of joke that would never appear in a mainstream film in 2021 without layers of explanatory cushioning and context. Immediately, the film felt refreshingly edgy and, as it went on, extraordinarily creative and brilliant.
That creativity — who would conceive of rotary phone booths as doorways in and out of a virtual world? — was the dopamine booster for me. Right now, I envy and admire few things more than creativity, because I don’t have it. Making up stories has never been my strength, although I have given it a shot.
(I write for a living, but I write heavily researched, non-fiction online content. It’s a great job, on the whole — it pays well and allows me to sleep for unbroken spans of time. It lets me follow healthy bouts of depression to places of personal insight that, for fleeting moments at least, give my life meaning.)
I should say my Matrix reawakening comes during one of those periods of healthy depression, when I am, to sort-of quote another famous film, prime to be unnerved. As a friend said to me, when I tried to explain what I meant by “healthy depression” — you mean it’s a couch, not a brick wall.
My brain needed The Matrix to dislodge some cycles of thought, to disrupt routines of planning and marking of milestones. And the four-pack of films (in my mind, still a trilogy because the middle two kind of meld together) did the job. They also made me believe again in love — and it’s the deceptively simple plot of Resurrections that one has to thank for that.
There are no sideways — or direct — references to mescaline in The Matrix Resurrections. There’s little that would hint at the franchise’s edgy past, save what some might say is a bold/risky/nervousness-inducing opening thread about mental illness, trauma, and therapy.
(On that point, I invite anyone who’s reading this to also read the brilliant and insightful piece by Emily VanDerWerff in Vox on the movie’s exploration of those issues).
But The Matrix movies are about a lot of things, and Resurrections is no exception. It’s perhaps not what most people expected when they walked in. The film’s meta opening sequences about reboots, that include a faux-brainstorming session of what made the original Matrix so great, lists the obvious: a metaphor for capitalist exploitation, a mind fuck, guns, bullet time.
But even those ready to bring back The Matrix — as a game, in the script; as a movie, in the not-so-subtle commentary — miss the one core theme in The Matrix that Resurrections decides will be the focus: love. Love, connection — it’s a continuing thread in all the movies, and while it was subtle in the first three (two) installments, in Resurrections it’s front and centre.
As it should be. Because the way love is explored in this movie could only be achieved with time. It could only hold its driving emotional impact with the weight of actors in their 50s and characters whose headspace and bodies had been co-opted, enslaved, exploited, and damaged over decades of covert messaging and manipulation, not to mention icky goo and thick wires that sucked their energy without them even knowing.
It’s easy, at first glance, to write off Neo and Trinity’s love story in the first three films as a side hustle to the action and the social commentary. But it becomes harder to isolate their relationship once the films start to ask more complicated questions, like what happens when humans start to work with machines in order to make a better life, even if that means (implicitly) letting some humans stay in the Matrix while others grow fruit in a dark underground city.
In Matrix Revolutions (in my mind, Reloaded and Revolutions are one big long film cut into two parts, so in essence, the Matrix is still a trilogy with the release of Resurrections), Neo has a critical conversation with Rama Kandra, a program who has made a deal with the Frenchman (the Merovingian) to save his daughter Sati from deletion.
Sati shows up late in Resurrections with a plan to save Trinity — a plan actually hatched based on schematic plans from Rama Kandra. He downloaded them to her once he discovered The Analyst’s plan to bring back Neo and Trinity and imprison them to increase the productivity of the new Matrix. Sati’s role in the film brings full circle the idea that love, in all of its forms, is the purest of motivations for what free agents — human or machine — do.
And in the Matrix, love and agency go hand in hand. Love is not reduced to passion or obligation. It may on some level include those things, but at its core, it’s about connection, the kind of connection that can only be forged and maintained when both are willing to let go.
To write about love and connection in The Matrix, I decided to include two clips from Reloaded in this blog post. One is Neo and Trinity’s copulation in Zion, the other the Merovingian’s presentation of a cake to a woman across a restaurant. And I discovered something interesting. While I was able to paste in the Merovingian clip with no problem, the other video comes with a black box warning: that it is age-restricted according to community guidelines, and available only on YouTube.
Which says something. Because while Neo and Trinity, by then deep in a committed relationship, engage in consensual sex followed immediately by intimate conversation, the Merovingian uses the woman in the restaurant to demonstrate how he can essentially create a few lines of code and give her an orgasm, in the process manipulating and objectifying her in a voyeuristic way.
It says something about “community guidelines” that permit one to be viewed by people of all ages and not the other, although I have to admit Neo and Trinity do appear to be pretty damn naked in that scene.
(But I digress).
One thing that I think is often missed about the Matrix structure itself — granted, I’ve only been enveloped in these films for a few weeks — is that, when humans are enslaved, they not only lose agency over their minds, but control of their bodies. Soon after Neo first awakens in the original film, he asks why his eyes hurt. “You’ve never used them before,” Morpheus tells him.
In this way, humans are a little like domesticated silkworms — entirely dependent on another race for reproduction and survival, and bred for a commercial purpose. Or, as the original film puts it more accurately, humans in this future are not bred, or do not breed, but are “grown.”
And inside the Matrix, they grow tired. The Thomas Anderson and Tiffany of Resurrections are mere shadows of Neo and Trinity, so much so that the coffee shop scenes between the two of them before they are reawakened to the reality of their existence are both moving and jarring.
There’s Thomas Anderson, who has become broken with time. He’s been convinced he’s “crazy” — although The Analyst would say “we don’t use that word” — and has fallen into a kind of numbing fog, the familiar signs of deep depression for anyone who’s been there.
There’s Tiffany, who’s been convinced she has a role to play as a wife and mother, and builder of motorcycles. She, too, is tired. She’s also unhappy, but resigned to live this average existence because she doesn’t quite believe there’s anything better for her — although she knows she should believe it.
In Tiffany, who we as moviegoers know to be the extraordinarily powerful Trinity, we see a woman who accepts her role but is angry at herself for not knowing herself to be capable of something different. She’s trapped between two socializing forces of this Matrix — one that counts on her to be compliant but also makes her feel guilty for doing so. Like many women, she is cursed with hopeless self-awareness.
Tiffany agrees to sit and have coffee with Thomas. They have an immediate emotional intimacy, one that gives her permission to talk. She tells him about suggesting to her husband that the woman in Thomas’ video game looks like her.
“You know what he did?” Tiffany says. “He laughed.” She laughed too. “It’s crazy, right?” And she felt so angry — at herself — for laughing at the idea that Trinity, whom Tiffany believes to be a fiction, could possibly have been based on her.
(The audience soon gets a brief look at Tiffany’s reflection in the table and we know that she, like Thomas, has had her digital self-image altered, so indeed her husband would see no resemblance between her and the Trinity in the video game. But by the time we see that, the point has already been made.)
In the audience, watching, I cried. Just a little — but enough to know this was a very different Matrix film. This isn’t like any of the others, because, in many fundamental ways, it places us in the real world — the one we, as the viewers, know — and for most of the time, it’s not the escapist fantasy we may have entered the theatre looking for.
In Matrix Revolutions, Rama Kandra tells Neo he sees he is in love. “Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?” he asks. “Anything,” Neo answers. Anything, Resurrections tells us, including returning voluntarily to the Matrix so as to avoid seeing Trinity die again. Anything, except interfering with her agency — because that agency is fundamental to the connection itself.
In preparing Neo to come back into the world, where his body is older, his mind is twisted and exhausted and, according to New Morpheus, hooked on what the Matrix has been pumping into him for years, the new band of freedom fighters has to give him a reason to fight. For Neo this time, the choice of red pill or blue pill is framed as truth or keeping on this treadmill, day after day, forever. Neo, compared to Trinity, has little to lose, and it seems like an easy choice.
Soon, he’s given powerful emotional ammunition — seeing Trinity, in her pod of icky goo, and knowing he has a faint hope of saving her. For broken Neo, it’s his reason to fight.
For Trinity, the choice is more complicated. She has to not just decide she believes Thomas that this world is not the real one, but also that she really is the powerful woman in his video game, the woman the Matrix has socialized her to disconnect from and disbelieve. She has to weigh the bonds she has in the Matrix world against the risk of trusting her visceral memory, which tells her that her life is a fiction and, perhaps, just a mechanism of control.
When we first meet Tiffany, she’s accompanied by two young sons. Thomas is at a table with a co-worker — who’s also a handler of the new-and-improved Matrix — who crudely calls her a “MILF” before walking up and making introductions. Tiffany’s husband bursts in, takes a muffin right out of her hand, grabs a bite, and tells her they have to leave.
Tiffany’s son looks at Neo and says, “Hey, are you trying to blow my mom?”
In the space of a few minutes, Tiffany is 1) sexually objectified by an observer who is also a stranger; 2) dismissed and ordered around by her husband; and 3) implied as an item of possession by her son, who seems to blanket her with a kind of ownership. In 10 years, that boy may be talking about other women as MILFs, since his father set the example that it is perfectly acceptable to take food from a woman’s hand and tell her when to leave a room.
In the midst of it all, Thomas and Tiffany shake hands. She has a flash of recognition and asks, “Have we met?” And we in the audience know that they have indeed, when they had agency over their minds and control of their bodies. At that moment when they look at each other, one sees the only moment Tiffany has where she is seen for who she is, as an individual and not an object or role.
The film’s climax, of course, asks her to discard that objectification. But she doesn’t do so at first. It’s not just to delay the cinematic payoff; it’s because this isn’t a typical movie version of love, or of heroes, or of rescuing the one in distress. And it’s here that the Matrix shows us how a hero-rescue-story should go.
In Trinity’s moment of hesitation, when Neo has put everything on the line for her, betting that she would choose to leave, he does not insult her with manipulation. He does not engage in a patronizing exposition, trying to convince her to come with him. Her agency, in that conversation with Neo, is never in question — and neither is his respect for her.
When she tells him it’s too late, he responds with an act of pure love.
“I understand,” he says.
Of course, to me, this all feels personal, as anyone who might have read all the way through to this point in the blog post might have suspected. Like the central characters in Matrix Resurrections, I am also pushing my way through mid-life. Over the past few years, I have made decisions in relationships that, in retrospect, had a lot to do with finally refusing to give my energy over to people I felt obligated to be with, who repeatedly and systematically tried to strip me of any powerful sense of myself. At the same time, almost as if the universe had been on standby, waiting, I had new people wander into my life who gave me the assumption of agency and power — and one of those who made my heart swell with deep affection and, yes, love.
When Trinity turns around, after Neo has lovingly let her go, her face shifts. Her husband had grabbed her arm and repeatedly ordered her to come with him, using the name Tiffany.
She says, “I fucking hate that name. Don’t call me that. My name is Trinity, and you’d better get your hand off of me.” In a critical moment, she reclaims her mind — and her body.
In the first Matrix movie, Morpheus tells Neo The One is someone who will remake the Matrix, free those inside, and end the war. After meeting with the Architect in Reloaded/Revolutions, Neo tells Morpheus the prophecy was a lie, in the process hiding from him the choice he’d made not to accept the Architect’s deal to ostensibly save Zion.
At the end of Resurrections, the newly re-empowered Trinity tells The Analyst she and Neo are off to remake his world — to remake the Matrix. In other words, to fulfill the prophecy. The One, as it turns out, is not an individual, but a pair. It’s a pair that is no longer trapped by the Matrix’s manipulation of keeping them just close enough so that unfulfilled desire will simultaneously torment them and serve the machine race’s purposes.
(It’s also a bit of a throwaway scene, obligatory, where Neo stands behind her while Trinity hits The Analyst a few times, at one point saying, “that’s for using children.” Because of course we have to tell the audience that her decision to leave was not a knock on motherhood. In any other film, as a side point, this template encounter would be satisfactory to tick off the feminist/female empowerment boxes, but the Matrix thankfully does not insult its audience by leaving it at that. In Resurrections, it’s merely tacked on for good measure.)
Back when I was an undergrad — I’m old enough to say that was even before I saw The Matrix the first time — I recall learning that Virginia Woolf believed what was important was neither male nor female, but the pair. (Something I can’t verify right now at this moment, but it’s an idea I like, so I’m leaving it here.) Another undercurrent of Resurrections is the idea of the binary as, at a minimum, problematic. “Binary” is the name of an over-budget game the fragile Thomas Anderson is working on and the topic of a monologue Smith espouses while fighting Neo. There’s tremendous appeal in the idea of The One not only being a pair grounded in a love based on freedom and agency, but a One that is in essence genderless or, to put it more succinctly, non-binary.
To put love, whether it’s Rama Kandra’s selfless love for his daughter, Sati’s love for her parents, or Neo and Trinity’s love for one another, at the centre of a franchise that ultimately asks us what it means not only to be human, but to live the ultimate version of a human existence, is profound. Emily VanDerWerff in Vox makes the point that superhero movies cheapen trauma, while Matrix Resurrections actually does the work.
So it is with love. The films, Resurrections in particular, do not cheapen love. They ask us to search deeply about what love actually is, beyond desire. They seem to suggest love without agency is not love at all, but perhaps just another form of control. Love with agency is transcendent, all-powerful, and a source of beauty that is only visible to those who share our truth.
(And for the last word on love and death, here’s Keanu Reeves.)