It’s hard to overstate the seismic cultural impact of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s masterful cyberpunk action mindscrew The Matrix (1999), and not just on a generation of gamer geeks and nascent cinephiles who saw the film at exactly the right age to be spellbound by its sheer, impeccable coolness. Seemingly overnight, The Matrix became a part of American pop culture’s lingua franca. If Star Wars (1977) represents the birth of modern blockbuster cinema, then The Matrix was its coming of age. It was the moment when big, loud Hollywood movies stopped looking backward to the reference points of boomer nostalgia – the space operas, adventure serials, and Golden Age superheroes – and started thinking for themselves. The Matrix was cyberpunk, but it was also anime, kung fu movies, grimdark comics, and violent video games. It was electronic, hip-hop, and industrial music. It was everything that was cool, and everything parents reflexively disliked. The Matrix changed everything.

Except … it didn’t. From the vantage point of 2021, The Matrix looks less like the trenchcoated herald of a new era of filmmaking and more like a lightning-in-a-bottle miracle. The very notion almost sounds laughable now. Here is a completely original science-fiction film with a $100 million budget, written and directed by a pair of filmmakers whose highest-profile credit was a queer indie neo-noir. Oh, and there’s lots of pop philosophy. Where is the built-in audience? Where is the corporate synergy? No, the true standard-bearer for the multiplex’s spandex-clad, IP-centric future arrived just a year later, in the form of X-Men (2000). If anything, blockbuster cinema has drifted further and further from The Matrix with each passing year. The clarity and exhilaration of the Wachowskis’ cinematic language feels all too rare now, and the film’s determination to approach its multifarious themes with utmost earnestness seems almost … square.

When The Matrix’s box-office success demanded that the Wachowskis turn their extraordinary one-off into a full-fledged franchise, the results – The Matrix Reloaded (2002) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) – were generally regarded as confused and indulgent misfires. The new films were bigger and louder, but they lacked the novelty and polished precision of the original. And they were weird: Full of unwieldy exposition, woolly metaphysics, convoluted plotting, awkward eroticism, and action scenes that seemed to go on and on and on. It was Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes all over again. That said, the inevitable emergence of contemporary re-evaluations and “Actually, Reloaded Is Good” think pieces have underscored that the second and third Matrix films, although flawed, bear little resemblance to the joylessly extruded content now being passed off as blockbuster cinema. At least The Matrix sequels had some personality, dammit. At least the Wachowkis took some risks. (Also, that Reloaded freeway chase is an all-time stunner.)

All this is to say that The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski’s 18-years-later follow-up to Revolutions, has been birthed into a very different moviegoing reality than that of its antecedents. (Lilly has elected to sit this sequel out, for what it's worth.) To its credit, Resurrections tackles its legacy head-on, grappling with all the ways that The Matrix changed the world, for better or worse, and all the ways that it was misunderstood, by studio executives and misanthropic teenagers alike. Like its predecessors, this is a sequel that swings for the fences, albeit in a madly ambitious, meta-textual way that Reloaded and Revolutions never really dared. Resurrections is a sequel about sequels, one that begs the viewer to remember how unbelievably cool The Matrix was, while also warning them about the insidious weaponization of nostalgia. It’s a cautionary tale about how capitalism devours and absorbs everything of value in this world, but also a reminder that someone, somewhere will inevitably derive life-altering personal meaning from even the crassest morsel of corporate content. It feels like a direct riposte to the hideously cynical IP exploitation of Space Jam: A New Legacy, which is kind of astonishing when one realizes that the same studio released both films in the same year. Resurrections is Wachowski’s Scream 3 and her The Last Jedi and her The Souvenir: Part II, all at once. At bottom, it’s a love story. A lot of people are going to hate it.

It’s challenging to talk about even the first 10 minutes of Resurrections without spoiling the surprises that Wachowski has in store. Indeed, most of the film’s twists, turns, and “whoa”-inducing paradigmatic shifts occur in its first half, after which the feature settles into a more familiar sci-fi-action mode. Here is what can be comfortably revealed: Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a fifty-something creator of award-winning video games. He and his business partner (Jonathan Groff) run a successful San Francisco-based studio that develops a popular online virtual-reality game. Lately, Anderson finds that he is too distracted by his past to focus on the present. He struggles with depressive and dissociative episodes, and his psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) is concerned that he may experience a relapse of his previous suicidal behavior. Despite Anderson’s wealth and success, something feels distinctly but indescribably off about his existence. Among the rare bright spots in his routine are the glimpses he catches of a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) who frequents the local coffee shop. He cannot explain, however, why he feels so drawn to this attractive but seemingly ordinary middle-age mother of three.

The spoiler-wary critic’s ability to provide a simple plot summary starts to break down at this point. The film introduces other characters whose relationships to Anderson and the world he inhabits are initially ambiguous. The most prominent of these is Bugs (Jessica Henrick), a wily, blue-haired hacker who is depicted evading police and Agents in a setting that seems like some strange iteration of the Matrix. At one point, she encounters a man (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain true-believing mentor figure, although he is relaxed and playful where his namesake was unfailingly sincere. Scenes echo those from the earlier films that are burned into our collective subconscious, but with subtle variations and from different perspectives. Frequently, Anderson mentally flashes back to literal highlight clips from the original trilogy – not as if he had experienced them, but as if he had seen the Matrix movies. Wait — do the Matrix movies exist in this world? What the hell is going on here?

The Matrix Resurrections has roughly the same structure as the original feature: It spends its first half throwing one enigmatic scene after another at the viewer, only rarely stopping to explain itself. New names and terms are delivered at spitfire velocity, and it’s on the viewer to keep up with this deluge of information, which tends to be delivered organically alongside the action – at first. Most of the mysteries are then cleared up around the film’s midpoint with a couple of old-fashioned Matrix exposition dumps, at which point the rest of the film shifts gears into a sort of sci-fi heist film, albeit one with a pleasingly high-concept premise.

The film's action, unfortunately, is not as remotely innovative as it was at the series' inception. How could it be? For this outing, Wachowski embraces a contemporary action-filmmaking style: quicker cuts, more handheld setups, more naturalistic choreography. Although Resurrections is still far more coherent and visceral than most action features, there are no instantly iconic sequences. It all starts to blend together into a blur undistinguished fist- and firefights. The parts that linger tend to be isolated imagery rather than entire set pieces: Bugs springing off a building's cornice like a sprinter's starting block; lemming-like waves of suicide jumpers pouring through shattered windows; bullet-time dilating until the nanoseconds crawl by like molasses. The film's violence and spectacle certainly feel more Cloud Atlas than The Matrix, which one could argue is the whole point. This is a story, after all, about how anything can be exhumed and even reanimated, given enough electricity – and yet nothing can ever be perfectly replicated.

Like the first Matrix feature, the new film’s stakes are relatively straightforward, and its events seem to take place over the course of only a few days. In comparison to the self-consciously epic, expansive scale of Reloaded and Revolutions, Resurrections almost feels downright modest, at least at the plot level. This is fortunate, as the new film is stuffed with a stoner’s ransom of world-building, meta-commentary, and thematic noodling. Workaday Matrix geeks can rest assured that the new film does indeed address everything that has occurred in the Wachowskis’ universe since the events of Revolutions. What happened to the truce between humankind and the Machines? Why does the world inside the Matrix look so different now? And what’s the deal with these characters who look exactly like Neo and Trinity but remember nothing of their previous lives? All is revealed. Meanwhile, truly obsessive franchise fans will be pleased to know that the events presented in Resurrections generally jibe with the semi-canonical (and long defunct) massively multiplayer game The Matrix Online.

However, while Resurrections takes the internal coherence of the series seriously, it is not remotely “one for the fans.” Indeed, it often positions itself as a work of outright fan provocation: undermining expectations, overturning the sacrosanct, and offhandedly recontextualizing with the abandon of a drunken sailor. At times, the film feels like Wachowski’s direct response to the obnoxious lionization of fandom in contemporary geek culture, epitomized by lifeless nostalgia exercises such as Ghostbusters: Afterlife. (This is what one might term the “Hey, Here’s a Thing You Remember!” school of filmmaking.) Resurrections echoes the past, but its callbacks are like ghosts: translucent images from a previous life, projected onto a screen that has grown shabby and tattered. They don’t delight us, but haunt us, much as they haunt their creator.

Despite its insistent use of original trilogy footage, Resurrections isn’t particularly interested in flattering the viewer’s vanity or delivering the same old thing in a glossy new package. One senses that Wachowski is simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted to return to this world. It’s no coincidence that Anderson likewise feels ensnared and burdened by his creations, perpetually wearied by the oblivious gushing of every fanboy and enervated by the vacuous nitpicking of every corporate hack. Rather than allowing her frustration to fatally poison a more dutiful, soulless retread, the director integrates her conflicted feelings directly into the film’s subtext (and even its text). The result is a work that feels darkly energized, but also weirdly bitter about its own existence.

And yet … Resurrections concedes that everyone is entitled to draw their own conclusions about this franchise, to find their own meaning between the streaming lines of code. It’s at once a jealous assertion of Wachowski’s ownership and a gracious admission of her authorial death. In one of the film’s standout sequences, the director crafts a dizzying montage of conversations, inter-layering the dialogue with glimpses of Anderson’s increasingly fractured and unmoored reality, all scored to the slow crescendo of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Characters repeat themselves, frantically circling a meta-textual version of the question that Morpheus once posed. Not, "What is the Matrix?" but, rather, "What is The Matrix?" Guns? Fashion? Bullet-time? Mind-blowing twists? Philosophical speechifying? Existential terror? Anti-capitalist iconoclasm? Transgender metaphor? Who’s to say that The Matrix must be one thing to all people?

Ultimately, The Matrix's existence as the spine of a multimedia consumer franchise – the marquee attraction in a shrieking bazaar of games, toys, collectibles, apparel, hype, and hype about hype – is not mutually exclusive with its importance as an inspirational work of pop art. Wachowski underlines this in her typically earnest style in a scene where Bugs and her cohort of young resistance fighters excitedly explain how Neo's legendary exploits changed their lives for the better. Here one can feel the filmmaker's heart melting a little, her caustic anger at these all-consuming systems of control fading a bit. Here is the Schrödinger-like paradox of the thing: a cynical corporate product that also means something profound to countless people.

Rating: B

The Matrix Resurrections opens in theaters everywhere and will be available to stream from HBO Max on Dec. 22.