The new “Matrix” film released this holiday season is a bit of a disaster, but while it falls down on action, characters, pacing, visuals and most other measures, it succeeds on a surprising one: having something cogent to say about our relationship with technology.
(“The Matrix: Resurrection” spoilers ahead, but really … it kind of came out spoiled.)
The original “Matrix”‘s premise that the world we live in is not real was not quite original, but its deep sci-fi spin on it — a “Terminator”-esque robocalypse using a simulation to pacify the masses — was compelling and well executed. At the time, people had not yet developed the healthy fear of tech we now see daily: smartphones didn’t exist (and therefore neither could our unhealthy reliance on them), robots were rudimentary, AI was still sci-fi, and social media meant ICQ and chat rooms. Oh, blessed ignorance!
This meant that the fears and threats were only superficially technological: It happened to be machines that had yoked the human race into being living batteries, but ultimately the paranoia concerned an illuminati hiding the truth of the world from you, an idea that goes back centuries.
“Resurrections” is different. In the two decades since “The Matrix” came out, smartphones, AI and social media (among other things) have emerged not merely as influential technologies but the defining characteristics of this era, both in terms of what they enable and new terrors they inflict.
The fundamental threat described by “Resurrections” is not one of total deception but of targeted disinformation — perhaps the clearest and most present danger of our time. The solution proposed is not to simply pierce the veil, which as shown by the previous movies is only a partial one, but to live genuinely and humanely, in harmony and dialogue with others.
The situations we find the main characters — such as they are — in at the beginning of the movie represent different traps that we can fall into. The initially compelling and meta recasting of the original trilogy as a series of games is the half-truth more convincing than a lie; Neo, acclaimed but stalled professionally and creatively, is in therapy to treat his unhealthy perception of the games as reality. Trinity has had a comfortable routine as the path of least resistance. And (new) Morpheus lives in an inescapable echo chamber.
It’s not hard at all to connect these ideas with the direst threats inherent to social media: self-delusion, doomscrolling and radicalization. The machines are machines of influence, making their ideas seem like one’s own.
It’s not so much any more that “this is not the real world,” though it isn’t, but rather that “my thoughts are not my real thoughts.” Well, if not yours, then whose? Answer that question, and you find your oppressor.
Elsewhere we find failed approaches to thinking for oneself. Outside in the real world humanity has stalled. The revolutionary original Morpheus is gone and the new leadership hobbled by risk aversion in the face of apocalyptic threat. Here one sees echoes of ineffectual government, unable to take the bold action required to move forward.
In the warehouse we have — however clumsily rendered — a sort of neophobic (pun intended, and purposeful) Boomer mentality of total rejection in the wild man Merv: “We had grace, we had style, we had conversation, not this … beep-beep-beep-beep! Art, films, books were all better! Originality mattered!” He wants to return to a bygone era of perceived greatness: a whiny, befouled barbarian blaming tech for his own inability to adapt.
And last there is the presence of a civil war among the machines: shades of tech, unsustainable but unable to stop, beginning to eat itself.
What “Resurrections” puts forth as a way forward is in some ways a hackneyed “let’s all work together!” But the subtext enriches it with a purposeful message: The common enemy is technological in nature, but not technology itself. And escape is an illusion if you are trapped in the prison of your own mind.
What’s important in the film is the rejection of the programming we’ve adopted as our own, whether it has been maliciously and deliberately engineered by a high-tech adversary or arrived at more naturally through a lack of self-reflection.
Coexistence is the path we should take, and to accomplish that we must question our own preconceptions about the other. That humans and the hated machines even can work together is shocking to Neo. Let us not read too far into this on the politics side — I don’t think this is an allegory for bipartisanship — but rather consider the new terminology introduced. They’re not robots but “synthients” — a pleasing portmanteau, offered in a gentle correction that mirrors the issue of pronouns and labels. Gender is a spectrum — why not consciousness?
In “Resurrections,” it is coexistence with the other that is the only realistic path, both in the “real world” where robots and humans must share the planet, and in the Matrix, where even AIs chafe under the overbearing management of their roles and agency.
Ultimately, after the requisite amor vincit omnia moment and subsequent overblown action scenes, the final showdown is one of perspectives. The “Analyst,” who has given humanity the rope with which it has bound itself, says that people are happier that way. Neo and Trinity propose that the technological treadmill on which people purportedly choose to walk only works because the system has been designed to prevent real connections and real joy.
Far from the solipsistic barbarians or the comfortably passive leadership, “Resurrections” endorses an inclusive and collaborative world where people are free to learn and grow — because the tools and entities that kept them ignorant and divided are the same that provide illumination and connection.
As an action flick, Lana Wachowski’s film barely holds together — it’s a mess (I watched “Commando” as a palette cleanser). But beyond its dubious execution, the mess it depicts is the message. We can see ourselves and our modern dilemma painted with unsettling accuracy in the movie, and the director’s belief that we are capable of more if we question not the world but our own self-imposed limitations is the “red pill” she suggests we take.
Originally published at techcrunch.com