The Matrix: Resurrections was one of the worst films I saw in 2021. I wanted to walk out several times, and probably would have had my partner asked to go. It was difficult to sit through. The best thing I could say about it after was that it made me hate parts 2 and 3 a lot less by comparison.
A day later, I’m now convinced that The Matrix: Resurrections is one of the finest works of art that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
How I got from there to here is complicated. But let me try to explain.
In 1999, The Matrix hit cinemas and changed film forever. No fight sequence has been filmed the same way since. It was the ultimate kung-fu film for the modern age. I saw it in the theaters several times and felt empowered by the visuals, the action sequences, even the message. The message was to wake up. Don’t be subservient. Don’t fall into a routine. Life should be more than what the world is currently offering.
This was the message we saw, but it wasn’t the message Lana and Lilly intended. It’s easy to pretend that the transgender Wachowskis underwent their transformation after the success of The Matrix. It’s certainly more comforting to many of the film’s fans to assume the film was made by masculine men for their masculine tastes. This was true for me.
When I first heard Lana was transitioning, I felt discomforted. It was nearly twenty years ago, and trans issues and trans rights weren’t on my radar. I knew these things existed, but I hadn’t wrestled with the subject. Suddenly (to me), one of my cultural heroes was not what I thought they were. Not what I wanted them to be. I was the Matrix. I just couldn’t see that yet.
I woke up yesterday morning at 5:00 am to work through the final proof of my upcoming book, ACROSS THE SAND. After I got to the last page and sent off notes and corrections to my editor, I sat there for a while and realized that I’d just read the best work I’ve written to date. Immediately following this realization, I wondered if anyone else would even like the book. It’s possible they won’t. The two things are completely unrelated.
ACROSS THE SAND is a book about my father, who passed away eighteen months ago. My father was a great man and also a colossal disappointment. He was a misogynist, a racist, an addict, an abuser. He was also incredibly generous to those he loved, a fantastic storyteller, an entertainer, someone who lived for doing good deeds. He was also a con man, a tax cheat, a home wrecker, and a liar.
I spent most of my life seeing only the good in my father. I put him on a pedestal. It took me a very long time to realize how badly I failed him as a son to do this. It left no room for him to work on himself, and no room for him to learn from me. By the time I realized who he was and made any attempt to help him, it was too late. I had empowered and enabled him into a state of rigid inflexibility. This has been my greatest failure, among many that deserve mentioning. It was also unfair to my mother, who had to endure my misplaced adulation at a time I should have been more supportive of her.
A dozen years ago, I wrote a short story called WOOL that would change my life. It was a story about the loss of my dog, the disillusionment of our newly connected world, and the frustrations I felt about the need to see the world with my own eyes and not through a screen of biases and bad news. When the story took off, I wrote a serialized novel in which I expanded on these ideas. But as the success grew, I became terrified of writing for an audience. The last thing I wanted was to fall into a trap of telling the same story over and over, the same character cracking the same cases, the same couple falling in and out of love, being chained to a typewriter and pecking away like some trained monkey.
The sequel to WOOL, my novel SHIFT, was an act of rebellion. It was right there in the title. A shift away from the character people wanted more of. A shift in the time, place, and tone of the novel that launched my professional career. By the time I wrote part 5 of the novel WOOL, I was already weary of no longer writing for myself. I had to learn how to write as a fuck-you to my audience. Which is the kind of writing they fell in love with in the first place.
The above vignettes are meant to highlight how primed I should’ve been to love The Matrix: Resurrections . I know what it’s like for art to be hijacked by popularity, what it feels like for audience expectation to drown out creative freedoms. I know what it’s like to create works of fiction that are meant for ourselves, not caring until much later whether it’s enjoyed by others. I know these things deeply and profoundly, and yet I still missed the point. I went into the latest Matrix film expecting to be wowed by the Kung fu. Lana knew this. She blew up the goddamn dojo because she knew this. And I still missed it.
Before we dig deep into the message of the film, please know that the symbolism of Lana’s transgender experience was not lost on me while watching the movie. I got that the film was about her feeling trapped by society, by cultural norms, by the success of the first film, by her body, by our notions of therapy. I got that. What I didn’t get until a day later is that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy the film. If I had enjoyed it, it would’ve been a failure. I would’ve been so blinded by my enjoyment that I would’ve missed the deeper message. Which is what happened to me and most of the audience back in 1999.
You see, I went into the theater expecting cinema. When what I got instead was art. And the best kinds of art are not meant to be enjoyed. They are created to challenge us. To discomfort us. To make us wrestle with our preconceived notions, our normal perspectives, to make our skin feel as though it doesn’t quite fit anymore.
Picasso’s Guernica isn’t meant to please us. Warhol’s pop art isn’t meant to make us want soup. Pollock didn’t care if his works went with the decor. We don’t stand in front of those pieces today, feeling like our neurons are twisted in a knot, and wishing they instead made us feel whole. We relish their complexity and the discomfort they engender. That’s what we are signing up for. It’s why I go to galleries. My problem yesterday is that I thought I was going to the cinema.
Here’s where I dive into Lana’s head for a moment and get everything wrong, but fuckit: Lana Wachowski made a film for herself, about herself. She didn’t think about the audience, except perhaps to hope it would piss many of us off. And likely that it would cause a very small minority who got it immediately to pump their fists in celebration. I was one of the former. I’m now one of the latter. And not as a woke pro-trans liberal (though I admit to these virtues and signal them happily), but as a fuck-you artist who writes what I goddamn well please, which is usually my own inner tragedies and travails, and so what if some of you dig the action sequences.
When we meet Neo, we find him doing what we wished Lana and Lilly would’ve done: stop being themselves, remain trapped in their masculine bodies, churn out masculine films, be miserable so that we can be entertained. Be uncomfortable so we can be comfortable.
The enemy in the film is her therapist, which is all of us. Be normal. Take the blue pill. All the blue pills. Keep your insane visions of your actual identity to yourself, because that identity makes us squirm. Be who we want you to be. Give us what we want to see.
One of the things that upset me while watching The Matrix: Resurrections was all the bits of the original films spliced in along the way. It felt lazy and derivative. As did the same shots and sequences that we got the last time (the bullets raining down below the helicopter, the blurred fists flying into the belly, running along the walls).
What seemed lazy was really Lana laughing at me for wanting the same old shit, knowing that I’d hate it if I got the same old shit. If all I wanted was to watch The Matrix again, then what was I doing there in the theater twenty-two years later? Go home and pop in the DVD. I’m not here to be your monkey. And I’m mocking you for expecting that. That was Lana laughing at me. And she nailed it.
In the end, The Matrix: Resurrections is a love story not between two people but between two halves of a person. It’s a love story from Lana to Lana. It’s the bravest film I’ve ever seen, to put self-love, self-flagellation, and self-forgiveness on such overt display. Lana was forgiving her masculine self for being the matrix for so many years. She was forgiving herself for making a film that appealed to toxic masculinity. It’s a film not about destroying the masculine to make room for the feminine, but rather a film about letting the feminine self fly and carry the rest. Neo and Trinity’s pods aren’t arranged across from each other in a Romeo and Juliette way, but in a brain’s hemispheric manner. It is two halves of a whole. Lana spent most of her life trying to kill the woman inside her, then the last two decades resenting the man who ruled her, and now she is free, both halves, with the woman she always was in charge of the whole show.
We wanted an action film. I did, at least. Instead I got a confession. I got a work of redemptive art. I got a love letter to a creator who made an accidental prison out of her success until she learned how to destroy that prison by first destroying our expectations. And then … finally … eventually … learning to not even consider our expectations.
Looking back, the 2nd and 3rd Matrix films were attempts to tell this story while appealing to fans of the original. They were transitory works of art, still trapped in the past, longing to break free. It took Lana years more to stop caring about what we thought. I applaud her for that. I hope to get there one day myself.
Until then, I think Banksy said it best when he said:
Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
Goddamn right. I was comfortable yesterday, and Lana made me feel disturbed. She made me want to get up and walk out. She made a film not for me but for her and anyone who got what she was after. A day later, I’m envious of those who enjoyed the film on a first viewing. Next time I’ll try less hard to be happy. I’ll sit and endure this singular work of art as art is meant to be enjoyed, which is hardly at all.