Watching The Matrix Resurrections

“The Matrix Resurrections” was released just over a month after Facebook rebranded itself to Meta. Understandably, the word “Metaverse” has been in the news quite a bit lately since the rebranding, as that is now the focus of the company - developing applications that will help bring about a persistent virtual world that will exist in parallel with this one. The conversations around how realistic, interesting, secure, “real” the Metaverse (or just lowercase metaverse) will be, are versions of conversations we’ve been having for a long time, and the first Matrix movie encapsulated them in a stunning cultural product. With this first movie as part of our cultural endowment, The Matrix Resurrections just seems like a complete waste of time.

The first Matrix movie plays a lot with the word “real”, almost to the point of the word losing its meaning. Does the word refer to the contents of human experience or to what exists independently outside of that experience? If all we have is our experience, how can we ever have knowledge of anything outside of it? And, of course, if technology advances to the point that it can make a brain in a vat believe it’s a human being “interacting with the world”, then how do we know that this hasn’t happened already? In the first movie, Cypher expresses the point of view that there is no difference between brains in vats brains in the world, saying that “the Matrix can be more real than this world.”

The Matrix gave us a concise shorthand to refer to these ideas without having to have studied philosophy. And as a result, these ideas have followed us for the last 20 years and informed conversations about the Internet, virtual reality, online communities, artificial intelligence, and other similar topics.

In those of us who grew up with the movie, it inspired a profound anticipation for the new world that seemed just around the corner. It made us believe that with the Internet anything was possible, that we would find others like us somewhere in that wilderness. My fondness for that movie and the way that it made me feel probably has a lot to do with how old I was when I first watched it. At that time, having no experience, every experience was meaningful to my hormone-addled brain. Now, I have to work a little harder to find meaning and excitement in things.

And yet, I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that The Matrix Resurrections didn’t ask any new questions. Frankly, it seemed to me like a ball of Matrix trilogy references like so many bones thrown to the fanbase, all wrapped in a love story with some heist elements thrown in. Not that important.

What questions could this movie have asked that would guide us into the next 20 years, the way The Matrix has guided us until now? It’s not clear to me. Development of the metaverse ultimately leads us to the Matrix anyway, so the most essential questions are, as always, about the meaning and significance of what is real. And these are the focus of the first movie. So setting aside the financial consideration (which may be the most important one), I wonder if there is any reason at all to make a fourth. In terms of cultural contributions, The Matrix Resurrections adds nothing other than a reminder that no art is safe from the capitalist meat grinder.

None of this is to say that making films about the future is easy. As I mentioned a while ago, there exists a viewpoint that the COVID-19 pandemic just accelerated the future that we would arrive at anyway. Ubiquitous Internet, drone delivery, advances in AI, gene therapy, perhaps some version of the metaverse, are already redefining how people live and work and will continue to do so. With such abundant innovation as we have today, it’s getting harder and harder to predict the future. As Hubertus Bigend says in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition:

We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration…For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile…we have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

With a “now” that is changing so rapidly, science fiction can become untethered from the present. Instead of a tool that forces us to confront the future we’re creating, it becomes “merely” a good story. It’s too bad that The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t even give us that.

© 2024. Ilya Meerovich