The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Keanu Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Warner Bros. Pictures
Stories & Ideas

Mon 24 Jan 2022

How Lana Wachowski changed the style of ‘The Matrix’ franchise to break free from a patriarchal legacy

Film Pop culture Retrospective
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Jacinta Puglielli


Opting for empathy over action, the latest film in the Matrix universe reappraises the franchise's themes and reclaims the red pill.

“I still think and I still stand by this: The Matrix is a stand-alone film,” proclaims Mark Kermode, resident film critic at BBC Radio 5, in his disenchanted assessment of Lana Wachowski’s latest film, The Matrix: Resurrections.

He’s not alone. A quick perusal of any review aggregating site will reveal that, for many, the film’s fatal flaw is that it’s not The Matrix. But critics who proudly flaunt the 1999 original film’s unimpeachable status as a blockbuster masterpiece as a reason to lambast its recent incarnation fail to consider how their pedestalling contributes to the very nostalgia machine they are attempting to chastise. Those who hold this suffocating view that art should serve as a monument to the many frontiers it has previously conquered reinforce a patriarchal standard that gets them no closer to reigniting a golden age of original cinema than the medium’s artists who find themselves facing the prospect of resurrecting intellectual property or the purgatorial state of development hell. And yet, in spite of having to embrace that framework, there are some filmmakers, like Lana Wachowski, who still manage to make mainstream movies that respond to the current cultural moment. She achieves this through modernising her style in order to free herself from a legacy she refuses to be caged by.

Lana Wachowski and DP John Toll behind the scenes of The Matrix Resurrections - Picture- RED Digital Cinema

DP John Toll and Lana Wachowski behind the scenes of The Matrix Resurrections (2021) RED Digital Cinema

The Wachowskis (Lana worked in tandem with sister Lilly on all their previous works up until 2016) once made a lot of original, or at least uniquely visionary, sci-fi and action films: from the frenetically fauvist Speed Racer (2008), to the Cinderella space opera Jupiter Ascending (2015), to their experiments in transmedia storytelling with The Animatrix (2003) and The Matrix videogames. Being able to stick ‘From the minds behind The Matrix’ on a trailer naturally afforded the sisters a lot of creative freedom for a long time, but eventually the souring box office returns of their grand visions would see them dismissed as once-great ‘flukes’ whose sense of earnestness no longer gelled with an irony-obsessed popular culture.

But that earnestness had always been at the core of The Matrix too, albeit hidden behind sunglasses, trench coats and groundbreaking action sequences that convinced many young males that the franchise had been marked as their territory. However, it seemed as though the Wachowskis’ beating heart sensibilities were not widely understood by the masses until a return to favour which came with the Netflix show Sense8 (2015–18), an original sci-fi concept about eight psychically-linked strangers living in eight different cities around the world who must discover how and why they are connected in order to save themselves and each other from being hunted down for their unique abilities. The use of editing was a key element as a means of linking these disparate scenarios, meaning that the premise naturally lent itself to being a show dedicated to the art of the match cut: an edit that uses elements of one scene in transition to the next scene.

2001: A Space Odyssey - bone-spaceship match cut

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Psycho - drain-eye match cut

Psycho (1960)

But where a match cut is usually a hallmark of a filmmaker working through a clearly calculated design to present a visual replica, Wachowski reimagined it by showing audiences how visual similarities can be achieved in a less premeditated way, revealing surprising combinations of situations and characters existing in the same frame. She replaced the popular filmic mantra of ‘show don’t tell’ with the more empathetic ‘feel don’t show’.

This stylistic breakthrough of empathy over formulaic precision underpins the stylistic genome of Resurrections. Criticisms of the film frequently cite its more fluidly staged action scenes as a flaw rather than an intentional evolution of style, in spite of the fact that the Matrix films are often celebrated for having more on their minds than a typical action vehicle. It leaves one to wonder whether it is really the lack of a certain type of scene that is the issue here, or rather, the way in which those scenes signified a certain idea of artistic merit– namely, the need to judge artistry by how difficult it is to achieve and the way that Resurrections consciously resists this metric. One scene in Resurrections features characters standing around a wishing well as they deliberate over diplomacy, hope and communal resistance. By placing this scene in a climactic moment, the film offers a very different kind of spectacle than the ones from the original trilogy. According to Wachowski, “There’s something very mathematical in the [original] Matrix movies and it’s beautiful… and there’s something [now] that is just miraculous and accidental and gorgeous that you could never make it with an exacto knife.” That sense of the miraculous and accidental can be found in the way the wishing well scene foregrounds the unpredictability of human subjects and the natural sunlight dappling over the canvas of the human face in close-up as a way of pulling the viewer in to the emotion of the scene – in stark contrast to the predecessors’ showboating of a mastery of screen geography which serves to continually re-emphasise its own construction.

Trinity and The Analyst - bullet time - The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Warner Bros. Pictures

No discussion of The Matrix’s style would be complete without mentioning bullet time – easily the most recognisable stylistic hallmark of the franchise which changed what audiences thought was possible in digital filmmaking. In the beginning of the film, Resurrections employs a meta-style joke at bullet time’s expense, boasting that the film will feature ‘a new bullet time’ in order to parody a system which attempts to use the idea of being revolutionary as a marketing tool. But in a fantastic moment of having your cake and eating it too, Wachowski genuinely succeeds in updating bullet time for a new context.

In the original film, bullet time signified breaking free of an imposed, existing order, represented through time and space – its 360 degree view symbolising a complete paradigm shift into a state of omniscience brought about by a discovery of one’s own individual power. This kind of simplistic thinking around paradigm shifts in the original film was what unintentionally inspired the infamous redpilling culture of so-called ‘men’s rights activists’, as it could be broadly applied to any paradigm shift, regardless of politics. But in the more advanced system of the Matrix that Resurrections takes place in, this omniscient eye is no longer the domain of ‘The One’ and ‘seeing’ has instead been co-opted by the system itself, through the Matrix’s new creator known as ‘The Analyst’. To show this, Wachowski’s crew created the new omniscient eye by building a custom stereo rig of two RED cameras joined together in a fashion which mimics a pair of human eyes. By shooting with the two cameras simultaneously, she combines two different frame rates, one in slow motion and one in regular twenty four frames per second, allowing actions to play out at different speeds within a single frame. Within this duality, The Analyst taunts Neo with the paradigm shift that allows him to ‘see’ the Matrix for what it is, yet still renders him futile against the power of a system he has no control over. No longer enough to simply ‘see’ and be set free by the truth that seeing reveals, the only way to defeat this new Matrix is to believe even when you cannot see.

Believing when you cannot see speaks exactly to how and why this film was made. As Wachowski explains, “My dad died, then this friend died, then my mom died. I didn’t really know how to process that kind of grief.” She continues, “And I couldn’t have my mom and dad, yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity, arguably the two most important characters in my life. It was immediately comforting to have these two characters alive again, and it’s super simple. You can look at it and say: ‘OK, these two people die and OK, bring these two people back to life and oh, doesn’t that feel good.’ Yeah, it did! It’s simple, and this is what art does, and that’s what stories do; they comfort us.” Through resurrecting Neo and Trinity to comfort her in her grief, she loosened her grip on the lore yet stayed true to the essence of what The Matrix is – by allowing love and imagination to open herself up to possibilities beyond that which she thought was possible.

Digital cityscape at night - The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) Warner Bros. Pictures

In the film’s climax, Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as Neo and Trinity perform a stunt in which they jump from a San Francisco skyscraper together hand in hand. Through its simple construction, Wachowski lets the film’s biggest set piece rely on the gestalt of the human body, and on the real feeling of humans in jeopardy who are willing to risk it all for what they believe in. In an interview for Jupiter Ascending, she explained, “We shot with real live humans because we think there’s just something that you react to as an audience when you see a live human in jeopardy… that you will never, ever achieve with CG.” The live action ‘leap of faith’ occupying the same space as ‘bullet time’ did in the original film is essential to how Wachowski offers a reappraisal of the franchise’s themes – that more important than knowing and seeing as an individual act of resistance is believing in the collective power of human beings beyond any kind of certainty.

In Resurrections, Lana Wachowski has breathed life into a film that many expected to be dead on arrival, turning a cynical nostalgia machine on its head to make a film that through an earnest faith in the human spirit celebrates art as a living phenomenon that exists in the 'here and now' of a collective practice – not as a perfectly executed formula that simply exists as a monument to itself. Where previously she sought control, she now has made it her mission to lead with tenderness, and she's certainly no less of a filmmaker because of that.

– Jacinta Puglielli

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