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The Matrix Resurrections review – an ambitious meditation on the nature of sequels

Lana Wachowski returns with a deliriously self-aware fourth entry in the groundbreaking series that both fascinates and frustrates

When it comes to sequels, it's hard to know how much to repeat one's self. Fans want more of the same, but they also expect to be dazzled in new and interesting ways. Stray too far from the familiar, though, and there's a risk of inciting a backlash. Getting the balance right is notoriously difficult, a feat achieved by very few follows-up made within the Hollywood studio system.

This fourth, very self-aware Matrix movie, Resurrections, is in no mood to pander to anyone – fans or newcomers alike. It unravels as an overt exercise in the exploitive nature of IPs – a belated sequel that actively announces itself as a “sequel with lots of expectation” and makes a thinly-veiled suggestion that it has only been created in response to a reboot threat by Warner Bros. (who are name-checked). At points, Resurrections even flashes up scenes from the previous movies, which began with 1999's groundbreaking The Matrix and culminated with the poorly received Matrix Revolutions in 2003.

Its approach, to engage with the notion of making a sequel in this modern age, makes for a clever but not entirely satisfying experience – one that's perhaps too knowing for its own good, happy to constantly break our immersion. Remember in the original, when Morpheus tells Neo: “You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world.” It's that sensation that follows us through this experience – a feeling that the movie isn't taking itself seriously. Then again: is that the point?

Resurrections is quick to play the familiar beats right off the bat, reprising the iconic opening from the 1999 original, only with new actors cast in the roles – and a couple of new spectators watching from the sidelines. Bugs (Jessica Henwick) observes “Trinity” as she goes up against a squad of police officers in trademark bullet time, before being introduced to a man calling himself Morpheus – though this time he's played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – who's (you guessed it) searching for “The One.”

But what of Neo (Keanu Reeves), whose death united the human world and the machine world at the end of the last film? He mostly goes by “Tom” now, working as a successful but once suicidal game designer in a reality much like our own. Then a bizarre revelation: the first three Matrix films are actually video games of his creation. Yet this incarnation of Thomas Anderson can't escape the feeling that his work is inspired by more than just imagination. An analyst, played by Neil Patrick Harris, attempts to dissuade Tom's notions of a hidden reality. But why does he feel a rapport with the woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) in the coffee shop whose name is… Tiffany? Of course, this is a Matrix movie, and so things are about to get very heavy.

The first, strange half of Resurrections essentially functions as an exercise in “be careful what you wish for” for those simply craving “more Matrix” – Lana Wachowski, directing here without her usual collaborator and sister Lilly, based on a script she wrote alongside novelist David Mitchell and Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, gives us “the old stuff” to such an extent that eventually the reprises began to grate and we're desperate for something new, something we haven't seen before.

Wachowski wields her movie as a grappling with the impossible demand that comes in attempting to make a quality product as one battles studio interference and an insatiable fanbase. And this movie does deliver, in many ways, the core appeal of The Matrix, if only that it again reveals that one reality – the original Matrix trilogy – is another falsehood, a world-within-a-world. The film is also packed with the trademark, hard-to-follow philosophising that fans will be sure to ponder and dissect in the years that follow – the only difference is that while these complex explanations once seemed thuddingly sincere, they now seem like purposeful, playful parody.

But we also remember the original Matrix not merely for its mind-bending discourse, but its innovative, genre-defying action sequences – arguably the most influential of their kind. Resurrections has nothing much in the way of awe-inspiring action, save for an impressive final sequence that takes place first as a motorbike chase and then atop the same skyscraper where the original film reached its climax: most of the action is functional rather than memorable, not at all like the groundbreaking showdowns of the original (or, in fact, its controversial sequels).

Though this is at times a jarringly self-aware piece of work, the movie still somehow thrives is in its depiction of Neo and Trinity's romantic rekindling – the chemistry between the two actors is palpable after eighteen years away, and there is something gentle and sweet about their unexpected reunion in Reeves and Moss' quiet, understated performances. Of course, the film misses the gravitas of Laurence Fishburne, who once made magic out of the series' dense exposition.

This is absolutely a film that grows more interesting the more you think about it – something not easily categorised, its ambitions vague, intentions just out of reach. Yet Resurrections, in spite of not feeling entirely at one with the series it spawned from (again, is this the point?), does offer a far more satisfying, emotionally resonant conclusion than the one offered by Revolutions. Or is this only the beginning?

The Matrix Resurrections is now in UK cinemas.

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