One thing comes to mind when attempting to describe the on-set atmosphere of director Lana Wachowski’s latest feature effort: Déjà vu.
Or maybe not. I watch in blissful ignorance as Thomas Anderson’s (Keanu Reeves) fingers fly across a sleek keyboard while light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows, highlighting his beaming eyes as they shift back and forth across a bank of computer monitors. I can’t help but think back to the time a little red pill jutted him out of his cubicle life into a reality plagued by apocalypse, so to be here, now… It’s a bit dizzying.
This is not the dark, brooding hacker who first graced the silver screen at the dawn of the millennium. Instead, we find ourselves face-to-face with a Mr. Anderson dressed in today’s de rigueur office-casual: hoodie, sneakers, wispy long locks of black hair. It forces us to question, calibrate, then re-calibrate. Is this the present, or is it the future? Is this the real world, or is it the Matrix? Is this Thomas Anderson, or is it a posthumous version of the cyber-savior, Neo?
Now you understand what I mean by maybe. Or maybe you don’t, and that is entirely the point. The poet Emerson once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So, what about a mind so creative it can come up with worlds within worlds within worlds, that is also open enough to revisit and redefine what it’s created before?
“There is a virtue in this idea of consistency,” Wachowski ruminates. “Maybe it’s parental or leadership-based, and I appreciate that. I think many people can make great art that way. I’ve made great art that way. But, there came a time where I couldn’t make art like that anymore.”
This rejection of familiarity is not a gimmick, but rather a means of discovery. Finding something new. For her newest film, in place of consistency, the director appears to be embracing improvisation, an ingredient seldom added to the pot of major Hollywood blockbuster franchises: “I wanted to bring something that felt exciting again and allowed me to be with all my friends.”
Working with friends like longtime collaborators and producers James McTeigue and Grant Hill, for example, the director adds that they approached “The Matrix Resurrections” differently from the outset. “We just said, ‘We won’t do it like we used to. We won’t do pre-vis,’” recalls Wachowski. “The freeway chase in Reloaded was so methodically planned. It’s an amazing, incredible scene, and I couldn’t have done it any other way when I was that young. But now, I know so much more about every single aspect of filmmaking, I can improvise in a way that allows us to shoot this wild, crazy chase with a thousand extras, and we shot it in six nights.”
It took time for Wachowski to evolve into the kind of multi-faceted filmmaker she is today, a metamorphosis that franchise star Keanu Reeves has reveled in observing. “I can talk about Lana Wachowski the filmmaker, and then I can talk about the filmmaker I worked with in 2001, and they’re very different,” says Reeves. “First of all, she’s worked with John Toll, who taught her about natural light, which was not a big factor in the original trilogy. Also, traditionally my relationship with the Wachowskis has been behind a monitor, and now working with Lana, she’s in front of the monitor. So, what we have now is an artist who’s interested in natural light, who wants to be next to the camera, who literally connects herself to the camera and becomes this other thing which I’ve not witnessed before. It’s cool to see.”
Reeves also reflects on the appeal of this new film, asking playfully, “So, what the heck is going on here? Isn’t Neo dead? Wasn’t there peace? I mean, in Revolutions, the Machines stood down. They were gonna live and let live. They were gonna let people out of the Matrix. In Zion, people were dancing and cheering; everything seemed great… Well, what we’ll come to learn is that things didn’t quite go the way we thought. That was really intriguing.”
Speaking of intriguing differences, Resurrections also comes with a cast of new faces. Jonathan Groff, a longtime Matrix fan, was eager to step into the digital world of Wachowski’s making: “To do work that doesn’t feel like work but feels really creative, with someone like Lana, like Keanu… It’s the stuff dreams are made of. To be so physically alive in a way that I never have been before, that was so fun…”
Additionally and for reasons we’ll have to see the film to fully understand, to portray the character of Morpheus—Neo’s unyielding mentor in the original films—Wachowski turned to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Another longtime fan, he found his own inspiration in the complexities a film like Resurrections embraces.
“You’ll leave this movie inspired to think in a different way about humanity,” Abdul-Mateen says. “If it inspires you to have conversations about what’s real and what’s not, then I think that you’ve gotten part of what The Matrix is all about, and it’s a significant part. Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell you what the journey’s about. Maybe I won’t. But I’m sure we could come up with enough theories to strike up a good conversation about it. That’s what’s great about these films.”
Another face fans of the films are no doubt eager to see return is that of Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity. Similarly to Abdul-Mateen, Moss feels a certain shift in reality with regards to the project, feelings that make her question her own placement in this world, real or simulated.
“People would always ask me ‘Is there going to be another Matrix?’” Moss recalls. “And I would think ‘No, absolutely not.’ Never in a million years did I ever think we would be doing this again. Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually in the Matrix doing The Matrix. Maybe this is my dream world, because it’s such an incredible experience.”
Moss continues, “I think that the story is going to blow people’s minds. It’s interesting because there’s a whole group of people who have already seen the first films and another group that will get to discover the world of the Matrix for the first time, the younger generation. And it’s going to be very surprising.”
Part of Wachowski’s approach meant anticipating and reacting to the expectations of that first group, the one that grew up with The Matrix, that saw it grow from a blockbuster film into a staple of pop culture. For some of them, the anticipation of Neo and Trinity together again is everything. Catching up with editor Joseph Jett Sally about it, specifically on crafting the on-screen relationship between Moss and Reeves, he says the trick is, “You try to build moments between the two of them because, when they first meet, they don’t really know each other. And in our memory, this is one of the greatest love affairs on screen. It’s Neo and Trinity. But now, the audience is going to be made to question that. Throughout the film, you’re trying to build little moments where she starts to sense there’s something there, and it’s magic. When they first touch, their first handshake…it’s an escalation of emotion. You’re trying to get them together, and Neo’s got to figure out how to make that happen. But, she may not want to, and that’s what we all go through in life. ‘Does he love me? Does she love me? Is what I think is real, real?’”
Sally’s question perfectly encapsulates the entire spirit of Resurrections and, really, the Matrix itself: Is what I think is real, real? It lies at the heart of the film’s core, its concept, its soul. One question that at first glance is so simple, yet is fractal in its complexity, its nature. The Matrix Resurrections is a film about an unreal world based on a real world (or is it about a real world based on an unreal world?), which is based on a film made in the real world. Like I said, maybe…maybe not.
Perhaps that’s the point. Unknowability may be the governing feature of the algorithm. Maybe the simulation breaks down if we know that it exists. Maybe mystery is the only source code standing between us and true, ultimate understanding. Maybe it’s not meant to be understood but experienced instead.
As set wraps for the day, I probe Moss about this exact intellectual thought experiment, all the questions I have, and the answers that seem to evade me in the fractal forest of Wachowski’s own design. She stops me, pauses, and adds, simply: “Not knowing what’s happening, I love that feeling, because it’s rare that I see a movie where I feel that. I’m so comfortable not intellectualizing things anymore, just feeling them… I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.”