Last week, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Warner Bros. was gearing up for a new Matrix film. They dubbed it a “reboot,” a term that most other coverage (including ours) ran with, before screenwriter Zak Penn noted elliptically on Twitter that it was decidedly not a reboot or a remake. He suggested instead something more along the lines of the greater X-Men universe explored in Logan, Deadpool, and Legion, or the Star Wars anthology films Rogue One and the still-untitled Han Solo prequel. That was about it, as far as solidly confirmed information—the Wachowskis aren’t attached, and Keanu said he’d only be in if they were—although the idea of Michael B. Jordan as a young Morpheus has surfaced.
Still, the damage was done, and the reaction to the plan was swift and negative.
The general sentiment is that this is another example of Hollywood’s lack of imagination and one more endlessly ballooning franchise for which we are expected to dutifully line up. Whether it’s a reboot, a prequel, a sequel, something set within the greater universe, or something else entirely, the feel of a beloved property being dredged up for another lackluster go is familiar. And it’s a fair grouse: Reboots are generally stupid, and recent classic sci-fi reduxes like RoboCop and Total Recall have not been fondly received. Expanded universes similarly take audience viewership for granted. Prequels, as we all know, are even worse, running off the fumes of the works they claim to set up and also undermining many of their inspirations’ narratives (cough, midichlorians). Furthermore, as Wired points out, The Matrix is not a terribly old movie, so we don’t really have nostalgia for the saga. In fact, much of its iconography—the leather trench coats, bullet-time action, rocktronica soundtrack, and so on—has not aged well. The films that aped it most directly, like Equilbrium, have aged even worse.
But The Matrix is actually better suited for the expanded universe (or prequel, or reboot) treatment than these other sci-fi series. The Star Wars movies just continue circling like buzzards around the iconography and plot points of the original trilogy; even when entertaining, they’re trafficking in old imagery and allusions toward old plot points. The Alien movies keep returning to the basic narrative thrust of the 1979 original: crew, face-hugger, chest-burst, terror, panicked escape. But we don’t remember The Matrix for its plot—no one out there will get cold chills by a subtle nod in a prequel toward the Merovingian, or the little spoon-bending boy, or whatever. The resonance of The Matrix is in its central premise—its exposition—which the first movie aimed to do little more than explain as entertainingly as possible. The Wachowskis faltered in their sequels by trying to build interweaving lore on top of that; Neo was a cipher as much as Cypher was, and his ascendance into heaven as some sort of cyber-Jesus in the final film fell flat because the characters themselves had. We didn’t even really care about Zion. We were hooked by the premise. Neo turning into Superman at the end of the first film worked because it was a conceptual fulfillment—that bending The Matrix to one’s whims could lend them superpowers—but we weren’t happy for Neo personally. It was the literalization of the “hacker as superhero” conceit.
This is part of why, as Penn noted on Twitter, 2003’s Animatrix has aged much better than The Matrix’s proper sequels. The series of nine short films created by different animators explored wildly varying storylines from throughout The Matrix’s greater universe and timeline. It built upon the series’ sci-fi, not its action. Remember: The Matrix was revolutionary in both genres, fusing the trans-human dystopia of cyberpunk fiction like World On A Wire or Ghost In The Shell and literalizing it in the high-flying kung-fu action of Hong Kong shoot-’em-ups. While its innovations in action have been iterated upon ad infinitum, the tensile strength of its sci-fi backdrop is still robust. Just look at something like Inception, which managed to push the Wachowskis’ mechanical, game-like concept of time and space, or Westworld, which merely inverts The Matrix’s reality-simulation premise, empathizing with the side of the simulation over the real world. These are riffs upon The Matrix’s dual-layered theme that still feel fresh today. The story’s ongoing resonance is reified by its co-option by trolls throughout the internet (“Red pill” has been taken to mean seeing outside of a supposed feminist conspiracy) and the way the term “the matrix” has been abstracted to represent any invisible societal structure. It’s a concept we’re returning to constantly already; the notion of telling more stories within it officially is encouraging, especially if you like any of the stuff it has inspired. Good sci-fi ideas getting money is a good thing. From there, you just need a good director. What’s Denis Villeneuve up to?
The other arguments against the reboot/prequel/expanded universe idea don’t hold a ton of water. Keanu’s aesthetic perfection was crucial to the original film’s appeal, but the story of The One proved to be a dead end, so his absence could actually be liberating. A lack of Mel Gibson didn’t cripple Mad Max, and perhaps it’s time for a new handsome fighter to take Reeves’ place. The Wachowskis’ involvement feels decidedly inessential, as anyone who sat through The Matrix sequels, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and/or Jupiter Ascending can attest. All of those films have small groups of die-hard adherents who are extremely incorrect about the films’ general quality, and anyway, we’re not talking about divisive, overwrought flops here; the goal should be another high-minded, progressive popcorn epic, just as the original Matrix was. From within the sturdy framework the Wachowskis set up, a new director and screenwriter would indeed be hard-pressed to brew up something as conceptually satisfying and visually thrilling as the bullet-time action of the original series. We’re increasingly entranced by practical effects, like those seen in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Force Awakens, and rawer, more brutal hand-to-hand combat. The pendulum has swung from emulating The Matrix to not looking like The Matrix—although, as Inception and Doctor Strange prove, gravity-defying stuff will always kick ass.
Fortunately, all of those trends play just fine with The Matrix movies. Neo only knew kung fu, after all, because he chose to know kung fu. It’s not inherent to the mythos. As for setting and mood, the original series was a near-perfect popcorn crystallization of the cyberpunk concept, which rebutted earlier utopian sci-fi by envisioning a technologically advanced, vastly interconnected world that had nevertheless devolved into a dystopia of big businesses, environmental decay, and disaffected shit-starters living on the fringes. The explication of that concept was the narrative arc of the first film. Even if they move back in the timeline, they might move forward with their thinking, pulling instead from the post-cyberpunk concept of a less dystopian, more nuanced view of that world. The notion of the internet as some vast prison is less revolutionary today than it was in 1999. By moving back in the timeline, they might capture a world struggling with the hold the digital infosphere has on its lives, still grappling with impending environmental collapse and subtle domestic surveillance via corporations and the government. In that earlier setting, they might find room to include rawer action, less bullet-time, perhaps even more of the analog sci-fi of the Star Wars anthology films and the Alien prequels, which take a pre-internet, less metaphysical view of technology in favor of big steam-powered machines and physical data sets. Untethered from the bloviating arcana of “The One,” The Matrix might be the rare universe that becomes more relevant via a prequel.
Just, uh, let’s not do the young Morpheus thing. No one cares where he got his shiny glasses or whatever.