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Red Pill, Blue Pill: How Will Hollywood Reinvent ‘The Matrix’?

Original stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss will return for a fourth film, due to be released in 2020

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The Matrix is coming back to theaters. And not some pale facsimile, either: This is the genuine article, with stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss set to return as Neo and Trinity, and original cowriter and codirector Lana Wachowski at the helm. Production is scheduled to begin early next year. Soon the viewing public will get another glimpse at the world—and fantasy-world-within-a-world—that made a generation of moviegoers examine their surroundings more skeptically and critically, all while lapping up gorgeous fight choreography, mind-bending visual effects, and the enveloping coolness of a film awash in sunglasses and tailored leather.

It was only a matter of time before The Matrix got restarted, just like, well, the Matrix itself, which has to be rebooted periodically. Hollywood loves nothing more than a film based on existing IP: Of the 10 highest-grossing movies of 2019 so far, nine are sequels, reboots, or part of an extended universe. It’s possible, even likely, that the inventive, original story that made The Matrix such a special and penetrating pop culture phenomenon when it was released in 1999 would damn the film from ever being made today. Without the underpinning familiarity of a book, comic, or previous film—of which The Matrix had none—would a studio give a pair of relatively unknown directors $63 million (almost $100 million in today’s money) to make an R-rated sci-fi movie today? Probably not.

It’s easy to mock this latest Matrix sequel because the last two—The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both released in 2003—were such critical failures, dropping with a clatter on a pile of similarly regrettable sci-fi follow-up acts like Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Few revived franchises, if any, have suffered such painful lessons in the wisdom of leaving well enough alone.

But that hasn’t stopped the sequel craze from dominating major studio filmmaking, which is an enterprise driven by commercial considerations more than artistic ones. The second-highest-grossing film of the year is The Lion King, an uncanny and unnecessary photorealistic facsimile of the beloved Disney film that was released this summer to thunderous peals of ambivalence. But it made half a billion dollars at the box office domestically and almost a billion more worldwide. Even the two Matrix sequels came together to gross more than $1 billion.

Not all sequels and extended IP projects are necessarily bad—Avengers: Endgame is not only the highest-grossing movie of 2019 but the highest-grossing worldwide release of all time. It was not only the fourth film in the Avengers series but the 22nd(!) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose financial success inspired the current spiral into a monoculture of remakes. And despite that, it was overwhelmingly popular with both critics and audiences.

But the parade of sequels and reboots isn’t frustrating because the movies are all bad. It’s frustrating because each new installment or retelling of a familiar story brings the bittersweet flavor of missed opportunity. All of these well-trod paths were new once, and in many cases, it was their very novelty that made them so attractive and compelling in the first place. The Matrix, with its vast and fascinating world, its thrilling direction, and distinctive style, is among the foremost examples. It changed not only movies but the culture at large.

Maybe it’s not impossible to do that by repackaging people’s childhood memories and selling them back for $13 a ticket, plus popcorn and soda, but it’s rare. Every new MCU film or Star Wars offshoot ties up money and talent that might otherwise have been put to work creating the next great cultural juggernaut: exploring strange new worlds and going boldly where no one’s gone before, in the parlance of one heavily rebooted bit of IP. The warm glow of nostalgia and familiarity are nice, but they’re a poor substitute for the white-hot intensity of falling in love with a brand-new story for the first time.

It’s tempting but perhaps misguided to feel that frustration at the revival of The Matrix, because few filmmakers have tried as hard as the Wachowskis have to satisfy audiences’ need to find the next big thing. Ever since the original Matrix trilogy ended, they’ve taken one big swing after another. Some of their subsequent films were adapted from other media, but post-Matrix, the Wachowskis have spent all their industry capital trying to innovate and break new storytelling ground with earnest maximalism that’s nothing less than courageous in this day and age. The same can be said of Reeves, who is the face of the John Wick franchise, by far the most successful and creative new action franchise of the decade.

The Wachowskis’ past two feature films, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, each cost more than $100 million to make. Both featured stunning special effects, stylish production design, all-star casts, and complex story lines that invited audiences to think about Big Issues—the same raw material that made The Matrix such a revolutionary cultural force to begin with.

Both films flopped commercially and to a large extent critically, illustrating how difficult it is to make the next The Matrix, even for the same writing and directing team. We might be better off as a society with more weird, ambitious, and messy films than safe, technically precise blockbusters, but even the Wachowskis can get only so many nine-figure spins of the wheel.

With so much energy and capital devoted to retelling old stories or playing with old toys, new action and sci-fi stories have been relegated largely to television and indie films. The proliferation of so many viewing options is both a blessing—at least these new stories are being told at all—and a curse.

If whatever 2019’s equivalent of The Matrix or Star Wars or Alien is came out now, how would we even know? Would a YouTube Premium series or a direct-to-streaming film on Hulu be able to draw the kind of eyeballs The Matrix did 20 years ago? Certainly not. Even people with the money and time to fish for their TV entertainment with a wide net often get overwhelmed by choice, and rather than risk sinking hours into a disappointing new story, they more often as not just rewatch Friends again. Occasionally a John Wick or a Jordan Peele horror movie breaks through, but these are the exceptions.

But Lana Wachowski, Reeves, and Moss have joined forces to take a new crack at their greatest success. Even amid the disappointment over the failure of Wachowski’s more recent films, and frustration over this return to familiar ground, there’s reason for optimism. Say what you will about the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix films, nothing about them has ever been boring or half-baked. And while Wachowski is returning to The Matrix without her sister and longtime creative partner, Lilly, she is writing the screenplay with a pair of novelists, Aleksandar Hemon and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, who could breathe new life into the franchise while maintaining the identity of the original.

It will be genuinely fascinating to see Wachowski and her collaborators revisit the world of the Matrix after having seen the profound ways in which The Matrix changed the world we actually live in. (Or think we live in.) The two decades since the original film have seen new technologies, philosophies, and language—including, and, perhaps, especially the unfortunate modern meaning of the term “red pill”—that beg for serious sociological study as much as a return to the original story line.

In other words, the reborn Matrix, with new voices on the screenplay and 16 years’ worth of perspective on the original trilogy, could end up being innovative and novel in its own way. And if Wachowski’s non-Matrix projects are any indication, even if it fails—and after Reloaded and Revolutions, the bar is quite low—it will be fascinating to watch.