While Scream is rightfully regarded as Wes Craven’s definitive meta-slasher movie, it wasn’t the late filmmaker’s first stab (sorry) at self-referential horror. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the seventh installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, exists outside of the series’ continuity and in a world in which Freddy Krueger is known for being … an iconic movie villain. Most of the cast, including Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund, are literally playing themselves. In New Nightmare’s meta-narrative, New Line Cinema resurrects Freddy, despite the character being killed off in the previous entry, and is compelled to bring back the franchise’s original Final Girl. “The fans, god bless ’em, they’re clamoring for more,” New Line’s IRL founder Bob Shaye tells Langenkamp. “I guess evil never dies, right?”
With New Nightmare, Craven appeared content to end the horror franchise he started back in the ’80s on his own terms. But New Line Cinema had other ideas: Freddy has since been revived with the Friday the 13th crossover event Freddy vs. Jason, as well as a critically reviled remake. Evil never dies—and neither does commercially viable IP.
New Nightmare may seem like a strange point of reference for a new Matrix movie, but the first half hour of The Matrix Resurrections delivers perhaps the most head-spinning meta-commentary born out of an established franchise since Craven’s underappreciated masterwork. Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is reintroduced as an accomplished video game designer who created a highly celebrated trilogy: The Matrix. [Keanu voice] Whoa. At the start of Resurrections, Thomas is summoned by his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff) because of a new corporate mandate to make a fourth Matrix game. As if there were any lingering doubts about what entity the film is referring to, Thomas and Smith’s parent company is revealed to be none other than Warner Bros., and it’s made clear that the company will make the game with or without them. Make no mistake, it’s art imitating life.
Considering Space Jam: A New Legacy was a glorified advertisement for the studio’s treasure trove of IP, Warners can’t be too peeved with the jabs from Lana Wachowski—working on a Matrix film for the first time without her sister Lilly—because at the end of the day, the studio is still getting what it wants. But what makes The Matrix so appealing, and what is the franchise really about? In another winking sequence, Thomas and his creative team brainstorm what drove fans to their video games to begin with: Was it the explosive action, the philosophical pondering, the shocking twists, or the themes of, say, capitalist exploitation? Whatever the group agrees on as being The Matrix’s secret sauce—if they can agree on anything—one of Thomas’s colleagues lays down her biggest stipulation: the latest game shouldn’t be a shameless retread of what came before. “Why not?” another member of the team snipes. “Reboots sell.”
If there’s connective tissue between some of the year’s buzziest blockbusters, including the recent releases of Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Spider-Man: No Way Home, it’s the reliance on the same everything-old-is-new-again approach that Resurrections treats with disdain. Beyond interrogating the legacy of the original Matrix trilogy—and the ways in which it’s been warped with bad-faith arguments like the idea of red pilling—Resurrections is a sequel-cum-reboot that seems to loathe the conditions responsible for its very existence. By regurgitating the nostalgic comforts of the past instead of producing original stories—something The Matrix was before its own collection of sequels and spinoffs emerged from its immense popularity—the film argues that pop culture is stuck in the same kind of feedback loop that keeps much of humanity trapped in a virtual world controlled by machines.
That Resurrections’ meta framework for The Matrix is a video game franchise only adds to that idea: after all, the medium is predicated on the illusion of choice. Even the most sophisticated video games have a finite number of endings and areas to explore by design. It’s only fitting, then, that Thomas’s solution in Resurrections is a familiar one: Instead of following the path laid out for him, he leaves the virtual world entirely to be reborn—again—as Neo. (It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Thomas was again trapped in the Matrix, rather than the franchise retconning its entire premise as one person’s concept for a series of video games.)
Of course, there’s the larger dilemma facing Resurrections: as much as it’s a film that questions the nature of IP-driven entertainment, it’s still a product of it. In fact, Resurrections actively invites comparisons to the original movie, both by rehashing old scenes—like Trinity’s standoff with a group of Agents—and repurposing actual clips from it over key moments like Neo re-taking the red pill from an alternate version of Morpheus (now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). But once Lana Wachowski peels away the meta layers of Resurrections to continue Neo’s journey from the original trilogy, she stakes her claim for what The Matrix is really about, which may end up polarizing audiences for the same reason Thomas’s coworkers struggled to come up with a unifying idea for their video game sequel.
In addition to being a trans allegory—both Wachowski siblings have transitioned since the Matrix trilogy first came out—Resurrections pushes all its chips in on the franchise ultimately being a love story. It’s the unshakable bond between Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity, and the anguish of keeping them separated yet always within touching distance in the virtual world, that powers the new and improved version of the in-universe Matrix. It’s an earnest resolution that may prove controversial—a “love is the strongest power in the universe” type of climax in the vein of Interstellar—but one that’s certainly on-brand in relation to the Wachowskis’ recent films, like Jupiter Ascending and Sense8, that were also predicated on love conquering all.
The mixed critical reception to Resurrections serves as early proof that the film’s direction is a pill that might be hard for some fans to swallow. But in the same way that Wes Craven used New Nightmare’s meta-narrative to reclaim and interrogate the legacy of a franchise he founded—one that went off the rails with underwhelming sequels that he was largely uninvolved with—Lana Wachowski has more than earned the right to put a final stamp on The Matrix. There’s certainly value in what an audience takes away from the franchise, but no voice is more important than that of an original Architect.
That Resurrections arrives at the same time No Way Home continues its unprecedented run at the box office underlines the appeal of familiar stories, especially in unfamiliar times. As the new Morpheus says: “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” Resurrections might be a product born out of that nostalgic impulse—evil never dies; reboots do sell—but the film dares the audience to follow its protagonists’ lead. The only way to break the cycle of monotony is by taking a leap of faith.