It’s 2019, and the question “What is the Matrix?” was answered long ago. Nevertheless, as we recently learned, The Matrix 4 is officially happening–whether or not it’s needed.
I love the Matrix as much as anybody–more than most people, in fact. When I first watched the cyberpunk thriller at the impressionable age of 11, it pretty much blew my mind–I had to watch it at least a half dozen times before I was able to understand the concept that our reality is a computer simulation. But my friends and I, to this day, maintain a running joke that the sequels don’t exist. If someone brings up The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions, we look quizzically at one another as if we’ve never heard of them. “What sequels?” “It’s too bad that movie never got any sequels.” Etc.
It maybe isn’t a great joke, but it serves as more than that. It’s a defense mechanism. I’d rather live in a world in which The Matrix 2 and 3 don’t exist. Like the original movie’s duplicitous but kinda-has-a-point betrayer Cypher, I believe that in this case, “ignorance is bliss.” Cue the harp.
The Matrix sequels are bad. You may have enjoyed them at the time, and you may even still enjoy them. They had their moments–the million-Smiths fight was conceptually cool, despite being marred by bad CGI, and Reloaded’s freeway chase is an action highlight. But as far as the cultural zeitgeist is concerned, The Matrix 2 and 3 failed to live up to the original on almost every level. Regardless of your personal feelings about them, they’ve gone down in history as massive disappointments, despite the fact that they made a ton of money (which is why, decades later, we’re in this current pickle).
The Matrix doesn’t need another sequel, because The Matrix didn’t benefit from the sequels we already got. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions added little of value to the series, and in fact, they arguably made the original worse by association–the fact that a story with that much setup and promise wound up concluding with a hackneyed Christ metaphor and mediocre CGI might temper your enjoyment of the original, even if, like me, you like to pretend it’s a standalone film. Whenever I watch the first Matrix–which is frequently–I have to continuously shush the grating voice in the back of my head whispering “Remember how bad these sequels were?”
Lana Wachowski’s involvement isn’t reassuring. Normally, when a new sequel to a beloved movie is announced, it’s taken as a good sign if the original creators are still at the helm. The Matrix is an exception to that rule. The Matrix wasn’t quite a fluke; The Wachowskis have been responsible for a couple of other bangers, including the 2005 V For Vendetta adaptation (they wrote and produced, but didn’t direct), and 2008’s Speed Racer (Wachowskis-written, produced, and directed), which some people liked. But the duo was also responsible for colossal turds like Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, and, of course, the Matrix sequels.
I think it’s fair to compare the Wachowskis’ work to M. Night Shyamalan’s: They’ve made some classics, and they might have more in them, but they’re not exactly a safe bet, especially considering that most of their successes occurred early in their careers. George Lucas is another fair comparison: Yes, they created something amazing, a franchise with a life of its own that’s far bigger than a single movie. But they also failed considerably when trying to expand on the world they had created.
The fact that Lana Wachowski is set to return to writing and directing duties for The Matrix 4 makes me less hopeful, not more, for this movie. As a diehard fan of the original Matrix and an equally diehard hater of the sequels, I wish the movie that started it all could simply stand on its own. Contrary to popular belief, the most interesting thing about the original Matrix wasn’t the “bullet time” action or the leather trenchcoats, but the restrained worldbuilding and the subtext-filled writing–writing for which the Wachowskis deserve full credit, but which they failed to live up to in subsequent attempts. If the franchise, such as it is, needs to have a future, the best way to do it would be to drop the known characters and world, and go in a totally different direction–but it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s in store.
And that’s not even getting into the fact that the original film’s red pill/blue pill binary has become a twisted touchstone for various nasty subsets of extremist internet culture. Is this really the right time to return to “Wonderland” and travel back down this particular rabbit hole?
I’ll remain open to whatever The Matrix 4 turns out to be–partially because it’s my job, and partially because I love the original so much. Even I have to admit that it’s a little bit exciting that Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are also coming back, and I’m not really too concerned about how these two very dead characters might get written back in–it’s science fiction, they’ll figure something out. But right now, it’s hard to get past the feeling that whatever happens with this movie, we simply don’t need another Matrix sequel.
It’s been 20 years since the original Matrix changed action movies and sci-fi forever. I’m not saying we should never get to revisit its fictional world. But it should be done in a spin-off or reboot–a brand new story with new characters–not with yet another sequel featuring Neo, Trinity, and all the baggage of a movie trilogy that’s 20 years old and two thirds terrible. It’s hard to imagine this turning out good.