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'The Matrix Resurrections' review: Time to log off from this franchise

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return, but the things that made this series once so revolutionary are long gone.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There's more just than a glitch in the Matrix. The entire server is down. 

"The Matrix Resurrections," the fourth chapter in the reality-bending sci-fi action series and the first in 18 long years, is a major malfunction, a confusing, muddled, painful meta-commentary on "The Matrix" wrapped up in a visually sluggish, directionless misfire. Say what you will about the "Matrix" movies — our collective memory has all but wiped the second and third chapters in the series from our mainframe, and rightfully so — but their action has never looked or moved so flatly.  

Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix Resurrections."

Writer-director Lana Wachowski, working for the first time without her sibling Lilly Wachowski, spends half of the movie wink-winking at "The Matrix's" place in pop-culture lore and the other half delving into a love story, with a whole lot of head-spinning blabbity-babble tying the two parts together.

Along the way, all the things expected out of a "Matrix" movie that once made the series a marvel of cyberpunk and techno-cool — the glitchy computer graphics, the kung-fu fight choreography, the gravity-defying and boundary-pushing action sequences, the black leather fetishism — feel dashed off or incomplete, like someone picked up the phone line while the dial-up internet was still connecting. Red pill or blue? Take whichever one gets this debacle over quicker. 

The immortal Keanu Reeves returns as Neo, but first off he's back to being Thomas Anderson, living in a staid reality where he's the creator of a wildly popular trilogy of groundbreaking video games called, you guessed it, "The Matrix." This series of films, er, video games shaped the way we looked at reality in the late '90s and early '00s, and now Warner Bros. (checked by name!) is looking to reboot the series to cash in on its popularity, with or without its lead designer. Basically, it's a whole lot of talking about the influence and radicalness of "The Matrix," inside the realm of a "Matrix" movie. (Think of it as Lana Wachowski's version of "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," the 1994 "Nightmare on Elm Street" entry where reality folded in on itself.) 

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in a scene from "The Matrix Resurrections."

This alternate universe allows for exactly one good inside joke: a "Matrix"-inspired franchise of coffee shops named Simulatte, complete with trickling black and green characters logo. (That's good — credit where credit's due.) It's at Simulatte where Thomas spots Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), a mom with a couple of kids and a husband named Chad, to whom he has a connection he can't quite place his finger on. Before you can say, "it's Trinity, bro!" we're plucked back into the Matrix, the grungy world that's designed to look like the cold metal of a gun chamber that's ruled by machines who use humans as batteries, and the world as we know it is all a grand simulation.

Except things inside this Matrix aren't quite the same as they once were. Morpheus is now played by "Candyman's" Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and it's not really explained why he's no longer in the form of Laurence Fishburne, who can currently be seen in Peacock's "MacGruber" series. (That's not to say Fishburne chose one project over the other, it's just to state plain facts of where Fishburne can and can't be seen.) And Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith is nowhere to be found, here Smith is played by "Mindhunter's" Jonathan Groff, and he's Thomas' boss at the video game company, cracking the whip on him to get going on that fourth installment.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from "The Matrix Resurrections."

A smarmy Neil Patrick Harris is on board as Thomas' therapist, known as the Analyst, and Christina Ricci — who starred in the Wachowski's "Speed Racer" — shows up for one scene and then never again. 

Bouncing around inside and outside of the Matrix, Wachowski liberally sprinkles footage from the previous films into the mix like a "Rocky" montage. (The old footage is sometimes meant to represent clips from the video games, which makes no sense.) 

The engine driving "Resurrections" is the reunion of Neo and Trinity, and the path to getting there involves at least one very long monologue by Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), which might explain things if it wasn't so impossible to follow. 

Having navigated "The Matrix" through three previous installments, audiences know better now than to expect clear, concise plot lines from a "Matrix" film. (I'm still not even sure I have a firm grip on the first film, but I've got about 75-80% of it down.) But where earlier installments could be leaned on for cutting-edge action sequences — even the second chapter had that bananas freeway chase — the action here is mostly ho-hum, been-there-done-that recreations of earlier stunts. Even when characters run up and across walls and come back down to fell an opponent, which happens a lot here, it's nothing special, and it's never shot in a way that makes it a wow moment. It's mostly an "oh, OK" moment. (The wow moments never truly arrive, though the climax comes closest.)

It's not surprising that "The Matrix Resurrections" doesn't rewrite history or blow minds; the Wachowskis struggled even in 2003 to bring coherence to its follow-ups, and the team's most recent films — 2012's overblown "Cloud Atlas" and 2015's abysmal "Jupiter Ascending" — were large-scale disappointments. 

"Resurrections," though, is the first movie that finds Wachowski overtly looking back, and she reflects a potentially fraught relationship with the series and its success. It's as if she's writing off "The Matrix," and she makes it all too easy to join her. "Resurrections" is a hard crash back into reality. 

'The Matrix Resurrections'

GRADE: D

Rated R: for violence and some language

Running time: 148 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max