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The Matrix Never Gets Old

The latest movie in the series, “Resurrections,” explores the indignities and triumphs of middle age.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Middle age! There is no phase of life that carries as many cursed connotations. For men, anyway, it is a time of comb-overs, fast cars, and ill-advised affairs. The spirit feels as young as ever, but the body (cruel betrayer) starts to go papery at the knuckles, achy in the knees, webbed around the eyes. Middle age is when the tremendous will required to keep a life together begins to flag, when a person loses his coherence and things get messy, but not in a way that’s noble or tragic; it’s just sad. The very words “midlife crisis” come wreathed in scorn.

But is there, perhaps, a counternarrative here? Could the midlife crisis in fact be the site of rebirth and renewal? Is it a moment when one’s life, despite outward appearances of appalling confusion and pitiable self-destruction, actually snaps into focus? I realize this is an extremely middle-aged question to even contemplate. But it also happens to be the great theme of The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment of the now-canonical science fiction series.

Admittedly, the dice are loaded in favor of the “middle age is good, actually” proposition. The movie stars Keanu Reeves (age 57) and Carrie-Anne Moss (age 54), was written by the acclaimed novelists David Mitchell (age 52) and Aleksandar Hemon (age 57), and has been eagerly anticipated by people like me (age redacted) who saw the first Matrix movie, released in 1999, when we were still young and gleaming. So, full disclosure: There are blatant biases at work here. Now, shall we at least consider the evidence?

Resurrections begins back in the Matrix, the digital simulation of reality that functions as a mental prison for humans who have been enslaved by artificially intelligent machines. Which is odd because the previous movie in the series, The Matrix Revolutions, ends with the hero Neo dying like Christ for the sins of both man and machine and bringing an end to the war between them. Nevertheless the Matrix is still here, and so is Neo, played by Reeves in all his mid-career glory, a craggy, bearded monument to a face that was once as smooth as marble, framed by enviously abundant amounts of good hair.

Neo (known for the time being by his slave name Thomas Anderson) is a video game designer famous for having created a trilogy of games called The Matrix. The games are based on visions that haunt him: a leather-clad hacker named Trinity, metallic squid monsters that hunt down rebel humans, cityscapes that transform into green symbols streaming against the black backdrop of a computer monitor. These visions are Thomas’s inspiration, but also the source of intense anguish, for they seem more real to him than his own gray life, so much so that he has tried to commit suicide. “Am I crazy?” Thomas asks in therapy. “We don’t use that word in here,” replies the analyst (played with villainous condescension by Neil Patrick Harris).

The video game company is forcing Thomas to make a sequel to the original trilogy (Director Lana Wachowski’s meta-critique of the entertainment industry and its penchant for flogging creativity to death) and he reluctantly plays along while undergoing a full-blown crisis. Many shots commence of Keanu staring off into the middle distance, miserable. Watching the sun rise, miserable. Taking a bath with a rubber duckie on his head, miserable. Eating blue pills prescribed by his therapist, miserable. The sole light of his life is a married mother of two he shyly spies on at the local coffee shop. One day they finally introduce themselves, and when their hands clasp it seems to spark a long-forgotten memory. “Have we met?” she asks. This person is, of course, Trinity (though her slave name is, cruelly and hilariously, Tiffany), and she is played by a Carrie-Anne Moss who is still regal, still a bit alien with her luminous blue eyes and face full of angles, still cool as hell.

As in the original Matrix, Thomas is eventually liberated by a group of humans in the real world, and he assumes his true identity: Neo, the One. The reason it has taken them decades to find him, we learn, is that the machines have thrown a digital veil over him, such that when Thomas looks in the mirror he sees Keanu Reeves, while the rest of the world sees an anonymous old man. (If there is a better metaphor for the warped self-perception of the middle-aged, I haven’t encountered it.) Neo’s crew has joined forces with a character from Thomas’s video game—the new Morpheus, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen—who has become self-aware and escaped his creator’s confines. How this all happens exactly is difficult to explain, and to be honest I’m not sure I quite understand it myself. (Resurrections is full of incomprehensible lines like: “Are you the one who hacked my modal?”) No matter, the gang is back together again, though instead of playing Morpheus as a mystical holy man dropping Zen koans, like Laurence Fishburne, Abdul-Mateen has turned him into a dandy in garish suits who swills martinis.

The usual hijinks ensue: People scamper across walls, bullets are halted in midair, and fists turn concrete pillars into dust, though nothing really blows your mind the way the fight scenes in the original Matrix did, as if the movie universe still hasn’t progressed beyond the quantum leap the Wachowskis made in the late 1990s. As the gang goes about freeing “Tiffany” from her “happy” marriage, the questions they are chasing are these: Why does the Matrix still exist? And how were Neo and Trinity plugged back in? It is in this explanatory effort that Resurrections falls into the trap that hampered the other sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, both of which, in their plodding attempts to fill out the world that was outlined in the original, dispelled the suggestive mysteries that made it so intriguing in the first place. The sequels abound with chattering characters—the Merovingian, the Last Exile, the Analyst—who pile up a Jenga tower of explanations for what’s going on, but whose relationship to the story feels both overdetermined and maddeningly elusive. They’re what again, precisely? Computer programs? Software glitches? Machine consciousness? Do the screenwriters even care?

The significance of the Matrix franchise lies in concerns beyond the arcane plot. These days, the idea that our minds are all jacked into a matrix is rather obvious. We are as much in its thrall as the poor fetus-humans in their pods of pink goo, though like one of the first movie’s bad guys, the turncoat Cypher, we choose to live under this cloak that has been cast over reality—that now is reality. But the original allegory from 1999, coming when the internet was still in its infancy, is a little harder to parse. The Matrix referred to the sense, widespread in popular culture at the time, that we were held in the grip of the complacent consumerism that characterized the pre-9/11, pre-financial crisis, pre-Trump America. We were entertaining ourselves to death, filling our empty lives with even emptier goods, and turning a blind eye to historical injustices, sentiments evidenced in movies like Fight Club (“You are not your fucking khakis,” in the words of renegade antihero Tyler Durden), music by bands like Rage Against the Machine (whose stomping track “Wake Up” closes the original movie as Neo soars through the air like Superman), and novels like Infinite Jest (featuring a video that literally kills its viewers).

The Matrix, to my mind, was the purest expression of that bedrock dissatisfaction with the world. I remember it capturing exactly how I felt—how I still feel—in a way that these other artifacts from the turn of the millennium did not. The Matrix was an extravagant fiction—jiu jitsu! designer trench coats! guns! lots of guns!—but its enduring appeal was rooted in its depiction of melancholic longing. Neo alone in his apartment. Neo at the periphery of the club. Neo staring down the long, dark perspective of a city street. His search for Morpheus has religious overtones, and his emancipation is cast in the language of both revolutionary politics (“You are a slave, Neo”) and philosophical enlightenment  (“Free your mind”), but it often feels that what he is really searching for is less a savior who will fill him with higher purpose than a fellow creature who shares his nagging feeling that something is just not right—that there must be more to life than this.

May I suggest that this desperate yearning is central to what we might humbly call the middle-aged condition? The existential question that Resurrections presents to Neo, trapped in a world that believes he’s insane, is whether his visions of another world are real or not. “Real,” Neo scoffs with exasperation. “There’s that word again.” The answer that cuts through all the ambiguity of subjective experience is quite simple, bound up in the renewal of his relationship with Trinity. Middle age is when patterns become clear, when the long cycles of life swing into view, when love feels less like mere recognition than a return, a visitation from the past—the glow of memory when hands touch. As Mr. Emerson says in A Room With a View, “When love comes, that is reality.”

Of course, nothing is that simple, and Resurrections doesn’t skimp on the indignities and anxieties of middle age. “What if I can’t be what I once was?” Neo muses. At another point, looking back on his life, he says, “It feels like everything I did, everything we did, like none of it mattered.” There is a sense, too, that the cynics of this world might have a point. “You people believe the craziest shit,” says the film’s main antagonist, a machine contemptuous of human frailty. “What validates and makes your fictions real? Feelings!” A poor basis for any claim to reality, it’s true. The worldview of The Matrix franchise feels so perceptive, so right, that it’s possible to forget that this is a realm of high romantic fantasy, where people stay beautiful as they age, the past is recovered, and love—true, transformative love—lasts forever.