Why we needed Matrix Resurrections, philosophically

by Chris James Newlove on 12 May 2022
Why we needed Matrix Resurrections, philosophically
Is it better to fight and to fail or not to fight at all?

Matrix Resurrections is the latest release in the long list of resurrected films some decry as “ruining childhoods”. It is the fourth in the Matrix filmverse. To say its production was a safe bet and a corporate cash-in is really to state the obvious; so obvious that Matrix Resurrections felt compelled to admit this in one of its many “meta” moments.

Yet there are positives to the film. “Men’s rights activists” (otherwise known as Incels and women haters) have bizarrely appropriated the language of the “blue pill/red pill” from the first film. Now, these fans have to put up with a film that includes a trans director, a non-binary lead (Bugs), heroine Trinity’s new flying powers and a plot in which Neo has to abandon a project that’s called… “Binary”. As with the original series, there are nods to the Matrix’s philosophical inspiration, the book the cast were asked to read, Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. In the first Matrix film, the book can be seen on Neo’s shelf and in Matrix Resurrections, his favourite café is named Simulatte (and yes, I was the only one who guffawed at this in the cinema).

The cinema of nostalgia

In a happy, if somewhat unsettling coincidence, Simulacra and Simulation actually discusses the genre of retro and nostalgic cinema. For Baudrillard (writing in 1981), audiences’ propensity for nostalgic cinema stems from a desire to engage with great historical events: to relive what it feels like to be involved in wars and the fight for revolution. Baudrillard’s audiences in 1981 suffered from a sort of boredom and inertia due to society moving more slowly than it had done in decades past. For the audience of today, nostalgic cinema seems to play precisely the opposite role. In an apocalyptic world of climate change, wars, global viruses and declining living standards, film-goers yearn to be reminded of a more stable time in our lives. When we watched the original Matrix films, we were younger, things were a bit more predictable, and we weren’t on the brink of a third world war.

There is another reason behind our appetite for Matrix Resurrections. For a section of people in North America and Western Europe, the original Matrix series captured exactly how they felt in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was full of contemporary references that reflected the milieu of the time: the industrial and Nu-metal music, the cyberpunk-meets-BDSM fashion, the technological advances of the internet and flip phones, but also the smooth and oppressive running of a system. Baudrillard’s philosophy became popular in the 1990s because it summed up a Western political and cultural malaise: social change was impossible. “The system” rules everything from your commute to your innermost thoughts. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard describes his philosophy as “melancholic”. In this respect, the Matrix trilogy is actually faithful to its philosophical inspiration despite Baudrillard himself claiming the films were too optimistic!

The second film was Matrix Reloaded (released in 2003). In it, a famously convoluted speech by the Architect (aka Colonel Sanders twin) states, “we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation”. The third film, Matrix Revolutions (weirdly, this was released the same year as its prequel) misunderstood the “happy ending” that involves Neo returning to the Source, making an alliance with the Machines to stop Agent Smith, dying in order to save Zion only for the Matrix to be rebooted. The new Matrix may even be more efficient at exploiting humans than the prior model.

In Matrix Resurrections, humans disconnected from the system now live in a place called Lo rather than Zion, an alliance with mutinous machines has meant that humans can now enjoy improved living standards (including nicer meals rather than grey mush). This can be interpreted in one of two ways: either humans have been given material incentives by the machines so that they stop fighting and accept the system; or, the material gains and relative peace were won through the events of the first three films.

Baudrillard once described France’s May 68 uprising as a “forerunner of nothing”. Although the May 68 uprising did not overthrow capitalism, it did push forward women’s and sexual liberation, raised the minimum and average wage of workers and left leaving behind a layer of militants that would fight in future struggles for migrant rights and prison abolition throughout the 1970s. It did achieve some things.

So, is it better to fight and to fail than to not fight at all? Matrix Resurrections ends on an ambiguous note. After beating their latest nemesis, Trinity and Neo fly into the air with the goal to remodel the Matrix to how they want it to be. The question is: do they want to decorate and perfect the exploitation of humans? Or do they want to reignite the fight for total liberation? Matrix Resurrections is needed because it raises the key question of our troubled times: should we accept, or must we resist?